Jim Bankoff sounded brazen in December 2012 discussing his plan for his little digital publisher Vox Media to someday rival the magazine titan housing The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired and Vogue.
“We look at what Condé Nast did in magazine publishing, and we can do that in digital publishing, meaning scale and quality and value,” the 44-year-old CEO told Forbes, which scoffed at him to “put down that glass.” The network of three sites, the largest of which was sports-focused SB Nation, had only earned an estimated $25 million in revenues.
Less than a year later, SB Nation is busy competing with Grantland, Deadspin, Bleacher Report and ESPN – for which Condé has no equivalent. The Verge is poaching editors from Wired and expanding its editorial mandate far beyond gadget reviews. And Vox’s newly-acquired Curbed network – with its food (Eater), real estate/architecture (Curbed) and fashion (Racked) brands blossoming across North America’s major cities – nips the ankles of numerous glossy magazines that have failed to transition meaningfully to the Web.
But, aside from The Verge’s limited embrace of non-tech news, could Vox add something a little more general interest, like The New Yorker, to its stable?
Enter: Ezra Klein. Unable to secure an adequate investment from his higher-ups at The Washington Post for an full-fledged news startup, the paper’s wunderkind Wonkblog founder – a star in D.C. media circles and a frequent face on MSNBC – shopped around for another suitor. On Sunday night, he announced in a post on The Verge that he had found his match:
Reimagining the way we explain the news means reinventing newsroom technology. Vox is already home to modern media brands — SB Nation, The Verge, Eater, Curbed, Racked, and Polygon — that are loved by tens of millions of people, including us. The engine of those sites is a world-class technology platform, Chorus, that blows apart many of the old limitations. And behind Chorus is a world-class design and engineering team that is already helping us rethink the way we power newsrooms and present information.
But, putting the quality of his new bedfellows aside, Klein seems frustrated with the confines of the inverted pyramid, the news cycle’s obsession with, well, news. And he has been for some time. Nearly four years ago, he wrote in the Post:
It’s trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what’s going on. Keeping up on the news is easy, but getting a handle on an ongoing situation that you’ve not really been following is hard. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of outlets like FactCheck.org, which try and police lies that are relevant to the debate. But there’s really no one out there who is trying to give you the background to everything going in the debate. News organizations will write occasional pieces trying to sum up the legislation, but if you miss them, it’s hard to find them again, and they’re not comprehensive anyway. The fact that I still can’t direct people to one really good, really clear, really comprehensive online summary of the bill is an enduring frustration for me, and a real problem given the importance of the legislation and the number of questions there are about it.
Back then, Klein seemed to be vying for something similar to Circa, the app-based news startup that allows readers to follow threads of similar news stories, and dive into each one’s hyperlinked bibliography of additional sources. Now, he has a loftier calling.
From what Klein has described so far, the parallel between The New Yorker and his new venture – dubbed Project X, as if it were the apocalyptic plot of some mad scientist – is far from direct. (In fact, were it not for the Condé comparison, we’d say The Economist might make a better comparison.) The magazine, which turns 89 next month, is celebrated for its fiction, essays and arts coverage, well outside Klein’s scope. But weekly’s big-picture approach to news gives it the sort of authority and usefulness Klein hopes to harness with his new publication.
Rather than breathlessly updating readers on the status of Edward Snowden, The New Yorker contributes pieces with Margaret Tablot’s “Opened Files,” providing context through an important historical parallel to the whistleblower’s massive NSA leak. Jill Lepore’s look at Fox News chief Roger Ailes’ reputation provided a new lens for looking at a thread of news stories prompted by Gabriel Sherman’s new biography. Amy Davidson’s take on the indictment of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, in a shopping scandal fixates not on the latest salacious detail of the affair but on the salaciousness of the whole thing itself and why that matters. Alongside actual news, it’s that kind of information, the kind that makes the reader relate and understand, that Klein seems eager to purvey.
On Sunday, he refined that message:
Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise.
The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business — and that’s the business we aim to be in. Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.
It’s what he has envisioned since 2010, when he wrote:
If I edited a major publication — or even a medium-size one — I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyperlinked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you’d have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. Telling people what just happened is undeniably important, but given that most people aren’t following that closely, we in the media need to do a better job of telling people what’s been happening.
Well, Mr. Klein, now’s your chance.