Keep me informed: parsing the logic of Ezra Klein’s move to Vox Media

Jan.
30
“We don’t have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers.”

I am going to make one point in this post and get out. Have you ever said to someone: “keep me informed?”

Of course you have. And what did you mean when you said that? You probably meant: let me know when something important happens.

Boss: Okay, keep me informed.

Employee: Will do. You’ll have three updates a day.

Boss: That’s not what I asked for…

Employee: Sorry, I could put it all into one report at the end of the day. Does that work?

Boss: No. When something big happens I may need ten updates that day. At other times: none. Can you do that?

Employee: I think so. Let me make sure I understand…

These are two different perspectives on information provision, which is the business that journalists claim to be in. These views are in tension. The writer of the reports finds it easier to send updates on some regular schedule because that organizes the act of production. The employee can predict when the boss wants the product (“…one report at the end of the day?”) and create a work routine for gathering and packaging information around that.

The boss defines “product” in a different way. It’s not a stream of reports arriving at regular intervals but the steady state of being kept well informed. Reasonable from the user’s point of view, this demand plays havoc with the producer’s schedule and quest for efficiency. Efficiency for the user is: don’t bother me with an update when there’s nothing new for me to know. That’s not only irregular — and disruptive — for the employee but riskier, too. Everything depends on good judgment. The “product” is essentially that.

Reader: I’m feeling overwhelmed. Help me understand this story!

Reporter: Here’s the link to my archive. It’s all in there.

Reader: That’s not really what I need…

Reporter: We have a topic page for this story. Does that work?

Nobody has that conversation, of course. And it’s true that the need for timelines and explainers (“context!”) has finally penetrated into quality newsrooms. Good journalists know they should be doing that. Meanwhile, start-ups like Circa (tag line: Save Time. Stay Informed.) try to deliver “push” updates only when there’s something important for me to know, which is smart. And I will concede the point that some of you are silently making in your head: that for some users sometimes a package of updates at regular intervals is exactly what they want.

And yet… What I don’t think we appreciate is the extent to which the news system we have is still organized around definitions of “product” and “efficiency” that assume supply side supremacy, meaning: a media universe in which we took what companies offered at the regular intervals they offered it, and a news-o-sphere in which the updates keep coming, whether or not they improve our understanding.

We don’t have a news system that keeps us informed and helps us grasp the stories we care deeply about. We have one that floods us with reports on a schedule that makes sense for the manufacturers of news. Individual journalists are aware of this problem, but they are working within a system that is not set up to address it. There’s been a power shift in media. We don’t watch TV anymore when the networks decide to put their shows on. The users are more like the boss in my “keep me informed” parable. But in news this shift has been incompletely carried through.

So why am I telling you now? Because it helps if you want to understand why Ezra Klein left the Washington Post for his new partner, Vox Media. Look at these phrases from his announcement tour. They are all signaling the same thing: a shift from supply side logic in the production of news to demand-side: Keep me informed. Help me understand this. Don’t give me updates when you have them, but when I need them to stay on top of things. Missing background often prevents me from understanding the news; solve that problem for me and I will rely on you for my information. Here’s Klein:

New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic.

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.

The product is not “news” but understanding and that steady state of feeling well informed. The news system that today’s journalists inherited is simply not organized that way. And so it’s no surprise to me that Ezra Klein had to leave the Washington Post to find backers who understood what he wanted to do.

32 Comments

  1. Ethan Gach says:

    Curious how you would fit in Klein’s roll as trend setter, not just news gatherer/explainer.

    Part of why people go to Klein obviously is to see what they aren’t paying attention to, or aren’t caring about, but should.

    It doesn’t seem like the real money (what I assume Vox is interested in) is in “keep me informed,” but rather in “what do I need to know to be smarter than the next guy,” which lends itself more to building a base of heavy users/premium clicks.

    • jayackroyd says:

      It’ll be interesting to see whether Ezra can “scale.” His policy expertise happens to be one that has been particularly news worthy for the entire length of time WonkBlog has been around. Will he be the go to guy in other policy realms?

      • Barry says:

        One thing that’s important is that knowledge is a niche which the MSM doesn’t seem to want to fill. They want to provide news.

  2. I hear you saying he’s looking for people who know (and can) how to fund or sell a service, i.e., filtering, not a product.

    Odd how the gatekeepers seem oblivious to this filtering trend.

  3. jayackroyd says:

    Jay,

    You recently remarked that you disagree with Margaret Sullivan when she asked the NYT for more news and less analysis on the front page.

    Is this the same argument here? Because it seems so to me.

    And is there a conflict? In my household, subway (weekday) reading of the NYT is on the handheld, which functions much as the front page does in that context. In that setting, we want the news.

    On the weekend, our NYT is dead tree, and there we seldom look at the news pages, having seen any news on line.

    Won’t dailies need to deliver both? Curation of capsule news summaries and context-based analysis?

    • Jay Rosen says:

      “I will concede the point that some of you are silently making in your head: that for some users sometimes a package of updates at regular intervals is exactly what they want…”

  4. David Cohn says:

    Jay

    Once again – you find a great way to explain a concept that can otherwise be difficult for folks to wrap their head around.

    At Circa we would sometimes say: The most powerful people in the world don’t read the news, they’re briefed on it. And we want to provide those briefs for everyone.

    But essential to that is not the idea that every day the president (as the important person) is briefed on EVERY topic EVERY day. No. Some days he’s briefed on Iran. Others on unemployment and still others he is briefed on other things. He trusts people to bring him the information that he should know when he needs to know it – not when anything happens on any topic (every day).

    That’s the difference between following a STORY (on circa) or a hashtag or topic. Lots of news apps are coming up with “follow” features – around hashtags. But to me this is missing the point. It’s still a flood. Following #healthcare might as well be asking for a novel to read every day (much of which is repetitive).

    I got a sense of this as well from Vox/Klein’s announcement. It will be curious to see how it plays out. How he adjusts for a LONGtail view of issues – but still manages to include the “new” information that is important and up to the minute.

  5. Jozef Imrich says:

    Even though there is nothing new under the news sun, there are lots of things I like about what I know so far concerning Ezra Klein’s new journalism venture, code-named “Project X.” Klein is correct to point out that the Internet offers unlimited space to do things that traditional print media publications have been financially ill-equipped to accomplish; in Klein’s words: ”delivering crucial context alongside new information.”

    I also find developments along these lines of real interest as it helps with fact czeching (sic) and the background to stories – “Authored by leading journalists from the BBC, Storyful, ABC, Digital First Media and other verification experts, the Verification Handbook is a groundbreaking new resource for journalists and aid providers. It provides the tools, techniques and step-by-step guidelines for how to deal with user-generated content (UGC) during emergencies.” http://www.verificationhandbook.com/

  6. AnnB says:

    I dunno. I’m struggling with this in the same way I struggled with Hyperlocal and still struggle with data journalism.

    The question it always comes back to is what exactly do you think is missing?

    I never saw the great hyperlocal news stories that weren’t getting covered. And as it turned out neither did Patch.

    Data’s handy some of the time, but certainly not all. I don’t think there’s any shortage of data journalism or any general news audience crying out for more data.

    And nor do I think there’s a great mass of newsworthy topics out there waiting to be explained. When a story blows up, the better news organizations do provide context and old, relevant information.

    I think the kind of info. that people may want that isn’t there takes investigative reporting as opposed to explaining.

    But maybe it’s just me.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      Everything’s dandy then. Just need more money to hire more investigative reporters. This is a extremely common view in journalism.

      • AnnB says:

        I don’t think everything’s dandy at all.

        But I don’t believe the crisis in journalism stems from having the wrong content or a lack of content. The problem is that the products, which we used to use to consume journalism, have become obsolete.

    • Yes it’s just you. Journalists continually overlook an enormous amount of information that can be fascinating when properly explained.

      Right now, there is a crying need for a good story on the following topic: How much money should a city put into snow remove? How best do you decide what is necessary, what is desirable, what is luxury and what is wasteful? Presumably it must involve some form of historical data, long-term weather report, risk management and finances. However what are the tradeoffs?

      The journalism industry is remarkable for its frequent lack of curiosity and wonder, and its lack of attention to detail, except when a story is breaking. The problem with Patch was that it treated ‘hyperlocal’ as high school sports and police blotter, which are easy to report but no one, bar the participants, cares about.

      • AnnB says:

        Thanks for that example.

        Being a Montrealer, I know a lot about snow coverage (pun intended). And believe me, the snow removal business in my hometown gets covered in a smart thorough way because it’s something people need and want to know about.

        As for once-every-two-decades snow in Atlanta, I’m sorry but I don’t think you need a whole bunch of in-depth explainers for people to understand that it makes no sense for Georgians to invest the same kind of money in snow removal as Canadians.

        • And also Bill di Blasio’s initial response to his administration’s first major snowfall in New York. And to the high aggregate snowfall in the Midwest, which has people asking the same questions.

          Your response boils down to “I think we do just dandy on stuff really that needs to be covered”, which, as Jay noted, is the “OK people, move along, nothing to to see here” response that has readers fleeing and papers dying.

          • AnnB says:

            The crisis in journalism — and believe me I’m aware it’s a crisis — is not due to content but due to a business model that is obsolete.

            Readers have more and better journalism available than ever before. So in a sense it is dandy for them.

            And, yes of course, it can always be improved. And people can always find better ways to deliver content, just like the used to come up with great new magazines and radio shows. And if Ezra Klein succeeds bravo to him.

            My point is the problem isn’t a dizzy anchorman in Atlanta asking why billions aren’t invested in snow clearance. It’s the lack of a business model that will pay for journalism be it existing quality snow coverage or Ezra Klein’s musings.

  7. This flawed model reaches its nadir during presidential campaigns, 18-month long processes during which virtually nothing happens on 450 of the 540 days.

    However it can occur in any ongoing story. When the news about Ariel Castro holding three teenage girls in his Cleveland home broke, residents of the area were deluged with an ongoing stream of swill, with zero information content.

    The other problem that journalism runs into is the steady stream of rumors and badly-sourced reports. The Cleveland Browns hired a head coach 30-odd days after firing one, and everyone save Edward Snowden was rumored to be a candidate.

    It would be desirable, in those situations, if those who are reasonably knowledgeable could smack down the linkbait. But because all claims are defined as news and anything might be true nobody wants to do that.

  8. Dean Wright says:

    Well said, Jay.

    Your comparison with the way we consume “television” now–not on the schedule of the broadcaster but on our own (with the notable exception of sports)–is particularly apt. As Ken Auletta notes in The New Yorker, it’s inconceivable to younger generations to adapt their entertainment habits to a broadcaster’s schedule.

    Similarly, “news” and users’ needs for information doesn’t conform to the news companies’ and journalists’ schedules. You’re right that good advice from users to journalists should be: “Hey, you’re there. You’re following the story. You know more than me. Keep me informed.”

  9. Abe Maslow says:

    Jay, I agree with the logic of this post, except the explicit tie to Ezra Klein.

    You say, “So why am I telling you now? Because it helps if you want to understand why Ezra Klein left the Washington Post for his new partner, Vox Media.”

    Well, that and the money. And independence. And perhaps ego. Or many other reasons.

    You say it helps explain why Klein left the Post.

    All you really can know is that your post (quite clearly and succinctly) helps explain what Klein said was his reason for leaving the Post.

  10. Stanley Krauter says:

    Reporters must start communicating like teachers instead of entertainers.
    —-
    Consider our federal tax laws. There have been many news reports since the 1986 reforms and everyone knows that the tax laws have been corrupted by lobbyists and special interest groups. But nothing has ever been done by voters to stop Congress from creating at least one new tax deduction for every lobbyist with a campaign contribution. So all of the hard work by the many reporters was an almost compete waste of time. The only positive accomplishment was the money the reporters earned for entertaining the voters and their politicians.
    —–
    This problem could be overcome if every daily newspaper would just publish an annual one week review of events and conditions. One day of the week could be used for a divide and conquer journalism so the newspapers could provide an annual comprehensive examination of a single issue like our tax laws. And it would be easy to make the annual reviews profitable.
    —–
    First, give every government employee a paid vacation day on the Monday closest to Tax Freedom Day. (Go to Wikipedia dot org) Second, force every state to schedule their primary elections and caucuses at least one week after this paid vacation day. Then the annual one week reviews would work like the report cards that teachers use for rewarding and punishing their students. And I think voters would enjoy using an annual report card on their politicians. I know my parents enjoyed using it on me.
    —–
    There are more details on how this proposal would improve the people in our government of the people, etc, etc. But I have been writing letters and emails to the news media for more than twenty years and I have come to the conclusion that reporters are not interested in communicating like teachers because they think their time is too valuable to be wasted on educating voters.

  11. elgin says:

    ” The product is not “news” but understanding…” JR

    ^

    ” Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.”

    — Clifford Stoll

  12. Rosen — I am not convinced that your analysis matches the trio of Klein quotes that conclude your post.

    Your analysis is based on the assumption that the journalist’s job, at root, is still to deliver that which is newsworthy. True, you adjust the relationship between delivery and reception (and that insight is important) yet you are still talking about an underlying function of keeping people up-to-date and informed.

    I happen to agree with you: journalism, by definition, consists of that segment of the non-fiction information-delivery system that frames events through the prism of newsworthiness: not only what is the latest, but also what is controversial, what is eye-catching, what clarifies and dramatizes underlying conflicts, what is pithy and telegramatic, what grabs headlines.

    There are plenty of other types of non-fiction that frame information differently. Consider some examples: the academic, the database statistician, the encyclopedist, the political scientist, the theologian, the philosopher, the historian, the documentary filmmaker. Each is indifferent to the newsworthiness of the insight he offers. None has the task of keeping people “up-to-date and informed.”

    Reread the three concluding quotes from Klein and you will see that his disenchantment is not just with a legacy news organization like Washington Post but with the very idea of newsworthiness itself. I don’t think he is trying to rework journalism. I think he has abandoned journalism, and will attempt, henceforth, to deliver the insights of a social scientist using non-journalistic methods.

  13. Jay’s boss-employee analogy misses the mark a bit. If the media were giving you regular updates on the same topic every day, news or no news, they’d be like that annoying employee. But a newspaper or TV news show updates you on a given topic only when necessary. So it does “keep you informed” in the sense of telling you about something only when you need to know. Obviously, reasonable people will disagree on how much you actually need to know about any given issue, but that’s a problem of the one-size-fits-all newspaper, not “supply-side supremacy.”

    In any case, if the the supply-side problem in traditional media is that they put a product out on a regular schedule and have to fill it with stuff, online media have their own supply-side problem: They have to bring in pageviews. Either way, the result is a lot of stuff people don’t actually need.

    So no, my guess is that Ezra’s main goal is not to change supply-side to demand-side. (He’ll have to bring in readers too!) He’s just trying to solve the context problem, an issue on which Jay himself has been very active.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      “Either way, the result is a lot of stuff people don’t actually need.”

      Exactly, Gideon. My post didn’t make any distinction between legacy media and online journalism, both of which suffer from the same producer-centric problem. Instead, I wrote of “the news system we have,” which includes traditional newsrooms and born-digital operations.

      I’m curious how you interpret these lines from Ezra: “New information is not always — and perhaps not even usually — the most important information for understanding a topic…. The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business.”

      I’ve said what sense I’ve made of them. You think I am incorrect. What sense do you make of them?

      • I interpret Ezra as saying that newsrooms traditionally spend most of their effort finding and disseminating new information on the goings-on, where they should instead spend a larger share of effort fitting that information into a contextual framework. I think you and I agree on that.

        Where we seem to differ—though really it’s just a quibble—is that when the boss says to the employee “keep me informed”, she means “keep me updated, but only as necessary.” But when when Ezra says the media should be “informing our audience,” I don’t think he’s saying “keep the audience updated, but only as necessary.” I read “informing” as educating/explaining, rather than merely updating. In other words, he’s saying the media’s task is “yes, keep the audience updated, but more importantly, provide the tools they need to make sense of those updates in a broader context.” So I think his central goal isn’t to reduce the bombardment of unnecessary updates at times that suit the news organization rather than the reader; the central goal is to provide more context.

        Of course, these two goals can go hand in hand, and should. Whether that will happen—or whether commercial pressures will drive them to churn out more updates and less context—is something we’ll have to see.

  14. ezra abrams says:

    i haven’t seen anyone note that there isn’t that much actual *content* on wonkblog – it is merely retreads of existing reports; everything on wonkblog you could do from your office

    it isn’t news; it is something else; the idea that it is a big money maker or will replace news is either silly or scary, depending on your point of view; I think it will fall flat – has highbrow stuff ever made money ?

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Strikes me that you could visualize A Story as the tippy-top tip of a pyramid of context.
    IOW, more context than can be consumed even in a doctoral thesis.

    So part of Klein’s supposed goal is to pick the correct context and to be trusted to do so.
    In addition, context contains hard fact–so-and-so was elected on date X–and court decisions which are frequently disputed, and opinion pieces by the anointed Wise Men, and other references which may or may not strike one reader–but not another–as relevant.

    So we’re trusting the context aggregator to be competent and honest. In fact, if Klein starts in on an issue about which he knows nothing, he may not even know where to go for huge chunks of context.

    So it’s Trust Klein.

  16. guy says:

    Perspective. Forget the dream where 1 f* actor can serve as thé source. If people want background they go to specialists. By definition news-media are generalists. At best they give a platform to specialists. News-media, get off your f* big horses, specialize & learn to live with it.

  17. You explained the second point so clearly. On the first point: I think journalism does a pretty good job keeping us updated now. What the public really needs and lacks: important (to them as individuals and to society) intrinsically complicated stuff explained as clearly as possible, but without compromising important complexity.

    Kristof was just complaining about how most academics fail to provide that. He missed that the problem you and Ezra Klein diagnosed also serves as a barrier to academics:

    http://dahliaremler.com/2014/02/22/what-kristof-and-his-critics-missed-journalisms-obsession-with-newness-helps-keep-academics-obscure-or-why-ezra-klein-is-even-more-right/