Journolist founder, Obama fanboi, über wonk, whiz kid and news entrepreneur Ezra Klein has some exciting new news for everyone:
Early last year, Melissa Bell, Matt Yglesias and I began wrestling with a question that had bugged all of us for a long time: why hadn’t the Internet made the news better at delivering crucial context alongside new information?
This year, we’re founding a new publication at Vox Media in order to do something about it.
New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic. The overriding focus on the new made sense when the dominant technology was newsprint: limited space forces hard choices. You can’t print a newspaper telling readers everything they need to know about the world, day after day. But you can print a newspaper telling them what they need to know about what happened on Monday. The constraint of newness was crucial.
The web has no such limits. There’s space to tell people both what happened today and what happened that led to today. But the software newsrooms have adopted in the digital age has too often reinforced a workflow built around the old medium. We’ve made the news faster, more beautiful, and more accessible. But in doing we’ve carried the constraints of an old technology over to a new one.
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.
We’ll be joined by some familiar faces in this venture, including the great Dylan Matthews — and more who’ll be announced in the coming weeks and months. But we’re also hiring. If you share our passion for fixing the news, you should send us your resume here, and tell us how you want to help us do a better job informing our readers.
They shoulda called it “Pajamaboy Media” but that would probably cause a lawsuit.
How this idea of Ezra’s is gonna work in practice I don’t know, but I kinda doubt these wunderkinder have reinvented the wheel. There are already lots of sources for in-depth information on just about any topic, and most of them are already available online. The format of the news business isn’t just based on what they want to present, it is strongly affected by market forces.
The news business is a business. There are two sources of income from the news, selling information and selling advertising. To sell information you have to sell subscriptions. So far no one has been overly successful making money selling news on the internet.
The other way to make money is to sell advertising. In order to do that you have to produce a written or visual product that will attract readers/viewers, then you sell access to those readers/viewers (in the form of advertising space) to other businesses. But marketing news involves more than just publishing it. If Ezra and his super-geeky compatriots have found a new way to package and/or market the news then I wish them well. On the other hand, if they are successful they won’t be unique for long, because imitation is inevitable and the competition is brutal.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
Isn’t explaining the news and providing context what punditry is for? As Professor Jacobson points out at Legal Insurrection, “our passion for fixing the news” is a very revealing statement. Wasn’t “fixing” the news the original goal of Journolist?
What we call “news” is already affected by the selective presentation of facts. This requires that someone filter raw data, but that can be done in a fairly impartial and objective manner. When one of our leaders makes an announcement that is news, not so much when you or I do it.
In order for someone to explain the news they have to provide us with what they think it means and why they think it is important. This is the realm of opinion, not fact. It is the interpretation of fact.
If there is a news story about an event in Syria, explaining the context is going to depend on what the author thinks of the situation in that country. Do they support intervention, or oppose it? Are they pro-Assad, pro-rebels or neutral? Regardless of their opinion, the explanation they provide will be skewed.
In the case of Ezra, Melissa, Matt and Dylan, their political beliefs are well established as being firmly to the left of center – some would say far left or even fringe. So what “context” will they be “explaining” that isn’t already available? What currently unfilled niche will they be filling? More importantly, who will be buying?
Apparently Jeff Bezos wasn’t satisfied with the answer.
Here is one of Ezra’s contextual explanations from 2008:
Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.