Commentary Magazine


Topic: new media

What BuzzFeed’s Success Can Teach Vox

National Journal has earned the ire of progressive bloggers today with its story noting that the White House long ago figured out how to essentially incorporate liberal writers into the Obama communications shop. The article notes the access given to some of these bloggers, though it does not exclude targeting the liberal bloggers not invited to the White House, whose willingness to parrot administration talking points does not require flattery or coordination.

But there is one that stands out, and I think it’s an interesting aspect to some of the recent developments in political new media. From the story:

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Klein’s visits with Democratic politicians have always been about more than pressing a message; elected Democrats see his status as a “wonk” as an opportunity both to glean information from him and as a messenger of their own perspective who carries more credibility with the policy community than other bloggers. But that presumed credibility is a trap both sides have fallen into.

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National Journal has earned the ire of progressive bloggers today with its story noting that the White House long ago figured out how to essentially incorporate liberal writers into the Obama communications shop. The article notes the access given to some of these bloggers, though it does not exclude targeting the liberal bloggers not invited to the White House, whose willingness to parrot administration talking points does not require flattery or coordination.

But there is one that stands out, and I think it’s an interesting aspect to some of the recent developments in political new media. From the story:

Consider: A search of White House records shows Ezra Klein, then with The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, visiting more than 25 times since 2009; last week, a Post story detailed the travails of Lesley Clark, a White House reporter for McClatchy who has been to the Oval Office three times in the last three years, and has asked one question directly to Obama in all that time.

Klein’s visits with Democratic politicians have always been about more than pressing a message; elected Democrats see his status as a “wonk” as an opportunity both to glean information from him and as a messenger of their own perspective who carries more credibility with the policy community than other bloggers. But that presumed credibility is a trap both sides have fallen into.

Klein left the Washington Post to run his own “explanatory journalism” site, Vox.com. It’s off to a rough start. I explained here how uninformative its foreign-policy explainers are; Sonny Bunch detailed here how uninformative its sports reporting is; and after Klein used the site’s launch to explain how political bias infects consumers of data, it turned out Klein had misread the data himself. And this week Jim Antle demonstrated how Klein and his health-care writers have resorted to essentially cherry-picking numbers and moving the goalposts in order to spin the struggling ObamaCare as a success story.

And that gets at the problem with Vox. Despite its mission statement, the site is notably light on information and heavy on the pretense of authority. It does not prove; it proclaims. And it is, along with those mentioned in the National Journal story, a vehicle through which the White House can speak.

Vox’s struggles, then, are actually indicative of a more positive trend on consumers of political news. Vox started with high expectations and landed with a bit of a thud. The reverse is true of another new media trendsetter, and for all the right reasons. When Ben Smith left Politico to direct BuzzFeed’s expanded news coverage, more than a few were scratching their heads. BuzzFeed was known for humorous memes and pet listicles, and many wondered whether Smith could ever lead BuzzFeed’s news division to garner the credibility that would take, to some extent, undermining or at least shifting the (successful) brand BuzzFeed had already created.

Though it’s still fairly early, it seems clear at this point that Smith has largely succeeded. BuzzFeed still fights for its reputation, but the site did a very simple thing to prove itself to its doubters: it hired exceptional journalists.

Rosie Gray has led an energetic investigative news effort, scoring repeated scoops without playing ideological favorites. To do foreign-affairs reporting, BuzzFeed hired Gregory Johnsen, an experienced writer on Yemen and terrorism, and the AP’s Max Seddon. For its Washington bureau, the site hired Roll Call’s John Stanton. And while reporters get most of the attention, BuzzFeed has made exceptional editing hires as well, including Katherine Miller from the Washington Free Beacon and the superb Miriam Elder.

In other words, while Vox concentrated its energy in its brand, BuzzFeed decided the best way to prove itself was to publish undeniably good journalism. Does BuzzFeed still struggle with the sometimes awkward marriage of cat gifs and on-the-ground foreign reporting? Sure, but that’s in large part due to the fact that BuzzFeed’s initial, pre-Ben Smith branding efforts were so successful. It’s a battle BuzzFeed doesn’t always win, but it seems pretty clear they beat expectations in a rout.

Online-only new media startups are proliferating for all the obvious reasons. It would be an encouraging sign if the market for them continued to reward those who don’t act as brand-obsessed adjuncts of the White House press shop.

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Vox: Old Media’s Best Friend?

Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.

Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

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Should the hoary institutions of mainstream American print media be concerned about the rise of web-only, technology-driven “explanatory journalism”? Judging by the highly anticipated launch of Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, which added its signature features Sunday night, they might be less alarmed than they were yesterday. That’s because Vox’s launch has shown the limits of its own vision. Technology is no substitute for information, as Vox’s early projects demonstrate.

Take, for example, its backgrounder of the Ukraine crisis. Vox claims to provide “explanatory journalism,” and sets up its backgrounders as a series of flash cards with highlighted terms, which link to explanations of those terms. It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

As John Tabin noticed last night, Vox’s answer seemed to change within the hour, from “At this point it looks pretty unlikely” to “there are growing reasons to worry that Russia may also try to annex some parts of eastern Ukraine as well.” Why the sudden change? Read on, and it becomes clear. The next card is titled, accurately, “You didn’t answer my question!” Indeed Vox did not answer your question. “This is very much a work in progress,” Fisher continues. “It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.” (Vox added the 20th card to explain that previous cards had in fact changed without acknowledgement.)

So is Vox explaining the news, or explaining why it can’t explain the news? All signs point to the latter. But the 19th card–which was the final card, until the disclaimer was added as card 20–is where the reader will really feel cheated. Card 19 offers further reading about the Ukraine crisis. Thus far we have seen that Vox’s foreign-policy explainers are simply bullet-pointed versions of someone else’s reporting. But whose? Card 19 gives us an idea.

Suggestions for further reading about the Ukraine crisis include five major publications: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading these publications–indeed, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe is a great source for Russia-related material and the NYRB contributor Vox suggests is Timothy Snyder, certainly an expert on the region.

But if you’ve slogged through 19 cards for a Vox explainer, what was your reward? A suggestion that if you want your questions answered, you should really be reading actual reporters and experts. Vox, then, appears to be a collection of road signs, pointing you in the right direction. And those media institutions Vox sends you to are old, East Coast liberal establishment fixtures. Vox is not replacing the New York Times; it’s reading the New York Times to you. Old media is the essential lifeblood of publications like Vox. The latter desperately needs the former, while the former mostly considers the latter an expensive parasite.

This is not to dismiss new media challenges to old media–those are, in general, quite real, as are the weaknesses in the business model of the kinds of stodgy newspapers that writers must leave in order to innovate. It would also be more valuable if Vox were to broaden its own horizons. If you followed Vox’s reading list on Ukraine, you would have a decent start. But you would be confined the narrow worldview that produced the Vox backgrounder in the first place.

And you would be surprisingly chained to print publications–a bizarre choice for a site hoping to be an online-only trendsetter. For example, Vox’s explainer ignores the great reporting on the conflict from Eli Lake and Jamie Kirchick at the Daily Beast. And it doesn’t recommend checking out the running Ukraine live-blog at the Interpreter, Michael Weiss’s latest project. Perhaps online publications are Vox’s competitors and are therefore not endorsed with the gusto reserved for the New York Times. But that would only reinforce the impression that Vox is simply explaining the sermon to the choir.

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