Two developments in the rise of personal franchise site in news.
1. Ideological renovation to the house style.
Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post and taking two key staffers with him. We hardly know anything yet — and I don’t know anything you don’t — about Klein’s new venture. Today people will be asking about the worth of Ezra Klein’s franchise to the Washington Post, and that is a fair starting point.
In calculating what Klein is worth, I modify the normal measures — traffic, revenue, influence, expertise and the buzz needed to attract talent — by an additional factor not usually cited. He helped the Post change and update its journalism while avoiding a holy war over news vs. opinion. Or “good journalism” vs. “wonky academic research.”
A more relaxed and mixed style of writing and presentation was normalized. Boundaries between news and social science fell away. Explanation of the basics rose in importance, creating an installed user base for future updates by the national staff. Making things the rest of the Washington Post was reporting about clearer and easier to follow: what’s the value of that? Plus: pulling it off without forcing the Post into an expensive category crisis. This is the way I explained it in July:
Instead of trying to renovate the ideology of professional newswork, a huge task that invites grandstanding, it’s easier for the editors of the Washington Post to let Ezra Klein do his (already shifted) thing and then add people to that franchise. They avoid a holy war over news vs. opinion while quietly letting the distinction corrode. Note that Klein is one of the Post’s most important political journalists but within the newsroom he is officially classified as a opinion columnist for the business section. This is a recognition that the formal structure makes no sense. The personal franchise site allows for innovation without toppling certain fictions that editors and some reporters hold dear.
For a sense of the dangers avoided see this 2012 column by the Post’s last ombudsman:
Last Tuesday, for example, Ezra Klein, chief of the popular online Wonkblog, analyzed the risk of unsettling the economy in a showdown between President Obama and congressional Republicans over extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts. The week before, Steven Pearlstein wrote a front-page news analysis that outlined the history of job outsourcing in the wake of the accusations between Obama and Mitt Romney over that subject.
Pearlstein and Klein are talented writers who make economics and complex policy issues clear, accessible and interesting. But should they be on the front page?
Yes, they should. Klein helped the Post get there. It may seem like modest progress to some — the newspaper should become more blog-like: pretty obvious by 2009-14 — but this underestimates the perils of the passage from an older way of doing things to the renovated one.
For example: In 2010 Dave Weigel had to resign from the Washington Post after someone leaked some emails of his, in which he complained about people on the political right whom he also had to cover. After he was gone, some staffers at the Post dumped on Weigel anonymously. One said:
“The sad truth is that the Washington Post, in its general desperation for page views, now hires people who came up in journalism without much adult supervision, and without the proper amount of toilet-training.”
Without the proper amount of toilet-training. That’s how some felt about Ezra Klein. But he prevailed, which was good for the Post newsroom. In asking about his value to the Post, a valid question, factor in the decisively overcome resistance to the changes in political journalism that his approach represented. I don’t know what “ideological renovation to the house style” is worth in dollar amounts, but it’s got to be something.
2. “How could we ALL blow it?”
I missed it when it first appeared on Wednesday but by Saturday people on Twitter had alerted me to Caleb Hannan’s feature for Grantland, Dr. V’s Magical Putter. (“The remarkable story behind a mysterious inventor who built a ‘scientifically superior’ golf club…”) Several people on Twitter wanted to know why I wasn’t saying more about it. So I caught up. Because I know by now… When there is a Twitter firestorm about a work of journalism there is usually — not in all cases — a good reason. Clarity about the reasons = takeaways from the storm.
In “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” the main character in the story is the inventor of a new golf club who was a.) a professional fraud, someone who inflated her credentials and b.) a transsexual woman. But the two became comingled in the way Grantland reported and presented the story. The inventor of the golf club committed suicide, we were told. The writer of the story had outed her to one of her business partners, we were told. Both facts were mentioned but not reckoned with. The suicide before publication of the subject of one’s reporting is a serious matter for any reporter. But in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” there was almost no reflection on that death.
These things convinced me: Something had gone awry with this piece. On Sunday I was hopeful:
Maybe when the editors do finally address the Dr V story @Grantland33 will come through. With something deep, honest and searching.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 20, 2014
On Monday, they shined. With this letter of apology from the editor, founder and keeper of the franchise, Bill Simmons, and this critique (“Understanding the serious errors in ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter'”) by Christina Kahrl, a journalist for ESPN who is herself transgender, Grantland came through with a response that is morally serious, informationally rich and intellectually honest.
These points stands out for me:
* It was a full apology, no trace of “sorry if anyone was offended.”
I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that we definitely screwed up, but it happened sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning. On Sunday, ESPN apologized on our behalf. I am apologizing on our behalf right now. My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused….
When anyone criticizes the Dr. V feature for lacking empathy in the final few paragraphs, they’re right…
Whether you believe we were right or wrong, let’s at least agree that we made an indefensible mistake not to solicit input from ANYONE in the trans community.
* It was informative about how journalists at Grantland make decisions:
Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief. All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it…
We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it?
That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.
* A person, Bill Simmons, an editor with a human voice, took responsibility for these lapses:
Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.
* Grantland’s failures were not procedural or accidental — bad apples, or random lapses — but journalistic and intellectual weaknesses, flatly described:
We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough… We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.
“We weren’t sophisticated enough. We weren’t educated.” These are rare admissions for journalists who have made it to the top of their profession. It’s hard for them to say: we were out of out depth, unqualified for the assignment. Bill Simmons with Grantland has struck it big in sports journalism. His apology — comprised of his own statement plus the candid assessment of Christina Kahrl — was graceful, forceful, humble. But not complete.
For me the most inexplicable and damning lapse in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was the almost casual or incidental way in which the reporter revealed that the subject — and target — of his reporting had committed suicide. No pause for reflection, no moral accounting, no signs of a struggle. I did not find Bill Simmons convincing on this:
Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more. Had he shoehorned his own perspective/feelings/emotions into the ending, it could have been perceived as unnecessarily contrived. And that’s not a good outcome, either.
One of the strongest impressions Bill Simmons left with his apology and mea culpa is: experienced editor protecting younger writer. He says repeatedly that Grantland failed Caleb Hannan, rather than the other way around. I admire that. But Hannan also failed himself by boasting on Twitter about how good it felt to block people who had begun to rip into him for his piece. Simmons glosses over this, which is unfortunate. For he also admits that the Twitter firestorm is what alerted Grantland to fatal problems with the piece.
3. The scale of their ambition:
You can admire it or mock it. But one thing to understand about Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Kara Swisher, etc. is the scale of their ambition.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 22, 2014
That goes for Bill Simmons too. What I mean is: They don’t just want their own site, and the freedom to be their own boss. They want to build operations that are ultimately bigger than the sites they left. They have ideas as well as ambitions. They want to do news differently and take over the space. Maybe that won’t happen, but don’t think you know what they want. They want more.
4. “Help! I want to catch up with this Dr. V controversy…”
Here are the five links you need. Read them all, in this order, and you will be caught up.
* First, read the original article by Caleb Hannan for Grantland, Dr. V’s Magical Putter.
* Then go to Deadspin’s round-up and explainer: How Grantland Screwed Up The Story Of Essay Anne Vanderbilt, Inventor. This will give you a sense of the whole controversy.
* Third: Absorb this post, one of the best critiques I found. Maria Dahvana Headley’s SINATRA’S COLD IS CONTAGIOUS: Hostile Subjects, Vulnerable Sources & The Ethics of Outing.
* Now you’re ready to assess Grantland’s response: The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor
(“How ‘Dr. V’s Magical Putter’ came to be published”) by Bill Simmons, editor in chief, and…
* What Grantland Got Wrong: Understanding the serious errors in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” by transgender ESPN journalist Christina Kahrl.
And if you’re thinking of doing a dissertation, this is an attempt to archive all the pieces about “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” by journalists and bloggers.