Vox's Definition Problem (And Others)

Vox.com has a problem. They’re not very good at their job, for one, but that’s not the focus of this particular post. Instead, let’s look at Vox’s mission and see if they’ve come anywhere close.

“Vox is a general interest news site for the 21st century. Our mission is simple: Explain the news.” This mission is noble enough, I suppose, if you did not look at the names behind the project. There is a general lack of understanding among the readers (and the journalists!) about certain topics, and the ability to have this laid out for us is a refreshing idea. But, while we are promised this, it doesn’t appear as though we’re getting it, at least according to Dylan Byers*.

Ezra Klein sees “a problem in journalism.” News coverage, he’s said, is as appealing as “spinach.”

But the former Washington Post wunderkind had a way to fix all that: Create Vox.com. By prioritizing explanation and analysis, his site would add the needed “drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt,” as Klein described it, to make news interesting — and spinach palatable, if not tasty.

Five months into his project, however, many journalists and news executives find themselves in need of an explanation to help them understand what makes Vox different from other news websites.

For all the talk about reinventing the wheel, they say, Vox has yet to live up to the lofty expectations that were set by its proprietor. Some argue that, far from a radical reinvention of journalism, it’s closer to a redeployment of the old models: three parts Wonkblog — the blog he had at The Post, which explained current events and policy debates through charts and data — and one part Wikipedia, with “explainers” on big issues like ISIS and the Ebola outbreak.

Indeed, some say it tastes a lot like spinach.

I love olive oil and sea salt. Mr. Klein, you are no olive oil and sea salt.

To be fair, I will grant that Vox.com is in its infancy. Five months is not a whole lot of time in the grand scheme of things to achieve the kind of goal you want in a start-up, much less an Internet news one. People set goals for anywhere from one to two years, and as distant as five and ten years down the road in order to scaffold their efforts in a way to be successful. “Legacy” media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and others have taken decades to get to where they are now as among the most reputable (sorry conservative readers!). Even a site that’s exploded recently, BuzzFeed, has been around nearly eight years. Only fairly recently did they hire someone (Ben Smith) to take the serious plunge into journalism, and here in 2014, they are expanding further.

But, by granting Vox the benefit of the doubt on age, we should still be seeing some progress on something “new.” Instead, what we see is a carbon copy of the Wonkblog with more (left-leaning) wonks than ever, and there is nothing “new” to what they seem to be doing. Embarrassing situations like “explaining” a bridge connecting the West Bank and Gaza don’t help, either. I get that journalists do make mistakes (I’ve made plenty), but basing a vital bit of information on a tweet you came across in passing is not just a rookie mistake – it’s the type of mistake that rookies by and large are trained to avoid!

Definition-wise, all journalism should seek to be explanatory. The journalist’s job is to explain what a story is about, what led to the event, and whatever the aftermath might be. There shouldn’t be a need for Vox (though I do grant there is a need for something like it) because in essence, it is what journalism should be.

Given this, the incorporation of “wonks” into explaining the news is incredibly absurd. Given the nature of Klein’s past writing, plus the past writings of Matt Yglesias, Zack Beauchamp, and others, it is incredibly difficult to take seriously the idea that these people can “explain” the news in a way that is believably fair. Klein boasts of nine million unique views in a month’s span, but I would like to know how many of those come from conservative websites like Twitchy and others who redirect there from posts mocking their views. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter (traffic is traffic, and I have no doubt some of RedState’s own views come from our political opposition), but it speaks to the nature of the audience – RedState’s, for example, is an audience by and large that agrees with (the majority of) the content that appears on our Front Page and our User Diaries. I don’t in any way believe all nine million unique views at Vox are from conservatives who go for material to mock them with, nor do I think even a majority of those nine million are, but I do think that there could be a significant enough portion that it could and should cause real concern for Klein and his staff.

In any case, from a neutral standpoint, Vox should definitely reassess what it is doing. If it was to do “pure” “explanatory” journalism, then a staffing change is in order. I am not sure there is such thing as an unbiased journalist, but there are those who play it so down the middle that it’s nearly impossible to detect, and perhaps Vox can stumble across some of them. It would also help if Vox chose sources other than the incredibly untrustworthy Wikipedia for their information. There are good resources out there to help explain topics, Vox. Find them!


*You may wince at a link to anyone who writes for POLITICO, but I do enjoy Byers’ writing and style, as well as the content. And, while he does have a discernible bias, I go back to my previous statement regarding the existence of unbiased journalists. I readily admit I am not one either. Hell, I started writing here, didn’t I?