Ezra Klein, Vox Media, and Commodifying Status
I couldn’t quite get why everyone was so excited about Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post to start a new venture with Vox Media. I still don’t.
No one really knows what the new project will yield, aside from a handful of platitudes about “explaining the world” and leveraging the newest tech and most cutting edge design to do it–boilerplate startup-speak that proliferates in an age where everyone expects longstanding societal issues to be solved by way of the latest crowd-sourced, “big data” driven scheme (or the person peddling it).
It makes sense though that there’d be a particularly euphoric response to “Vox is our next.” Few things are more excitable to the writer reporter than the opportunity to write and report on their own business and colleagues. Add to that the fusion of two mega-sleek brands, Vox and the Wonk Boy Wonder, and a chance to indulge in insider-y speculation ad nauseam about the boundless potency of an idea with no physical correlate, and the ensuing hysteria is more understandable.
I was surprised how much mindshare the Klein-Vox elopement was getting, but am completely dumbfounded by many of the responses to George Packer’s criticism of it. Writers and pundits I enjoy reading on a regular basis, and who seemingly pride themselves on taking rigorous, empirical, “data”-based approaches to their subjects, basically rejected Packer’s analysis because it didn’t involve reporting, nor could it have since the project hasn’t even materialized in any meaningful way yet (i.e. don’t criticize something until it’s real). Of course, this is part of the very point Packer was making: David Carr et al are have bestowed savior status on a marketing venture they know absolutely nothing about.
And, at least as currently presented, “Vox is our next” is a marketing venture. Vox is first and foremost a high-end match maker for brands and audiences. It’s as much about having your company be seen in the esteemed cultural space of a Vox media outlet as it is about spreading awareness.
The rise in sponsored content is no small part of this. Because places like The Verge aren’t supported by advertisers so much as they’re sponsored by brands. Coke doesn’t just want you to know its name and associate it with thirst quenching refreshment, it wants you to see LeBron James being the one to enjoy it.
This isn’t by any means a new strategy, but certainly social media has made it much more central. All brands tacitly represent lifestyles. That’s why PCs (Windows/Dell) are for squares, while outside-the-box thinking creatives prefer Apple. It’s very important then, more so I would argue than for traditional media outlets like the Times or Post, that a certain kind of person choose to get their information from The Verge, while also thinking that in order to be that kind of person, that person needs to go to The Verge to get their information.
Vox Media needs to cultivate brand loyalists, and in order to do that it needs to attract the attention of hip, in-the-know 20-something to 30-somethings while also making those people feel like going to Vox Media sites is essential to maintaining their elite social and cultural insider-y status.
The brands of Klein (and Yglesias) are already partly that, just for political sophistication rather than consumer technology and design. What separates Wonkblog from the thousands of other blogs doing policy analysis and political commentary isn’t just a set of quality standards and a group of sharp and intelligent writers, it’s a way of framing the information and presenting it such that you, the reader, feel like you’re getting the inside track on a given subject, even though you’re just one of millions doing so.
The #SlatePitch, “Everything You Need to Know About X,” and “X, Y, and Z Explained in One Chart/Graph/Statistic” are each rhetorically streamlined to accomplish this sort of thing. The process goes something like this: take a simple subject, show how it’s complex, then show how a very small set of straightforward but adequately counter-intuitive factoids actually explain it quite well.
When performed by a skilled, experienced, and knowledgeable writer (of which there is no shortage), the effect is to make the reader feel somewhat self-satisfied for having correctly assumed that the subject was more complex than all the other rubes they interact with were making it out to be, while also giving them a language with which to take these sophisticated insights and make them ready-made for tweeting online, talking around the dinner table, or sounding astute in-between gulps of Miracle IPA No. 47 during happy hour.
What prompted me to write about this in the first place was a question raised by Chris Grant (EiC of Polygon, another of Vox Media’s sites), “Not sure what it says when both Sony and Microsoft are doing long form features about their own projects.
#RIPjournalism #theendisnigh.” That is, if companies like Microsoft and Sony can put together chic, nonfiction, longform narratives about their own products themselves, what is left for a place like Polygon or The Verge to do?
It’s a damning thing to wonder on the one hand because it presumes (by my understanding at least) that the comparable features these sites would run are so easily aped by, and almost indistinguishable from, the company-commissioned ones that both products are substitutable. On the other though, I think it’s a worthwhile question because it helps point more clearly to what the true purpose of “cutting-edge” digital journalism sites like these is.
It’s not, primarily, to provide information about upcoming products and market events before those companies make it available independently (on websites, through press releases, etc.), but rather to supply a hierarchy of tastes and ideas through commentary, reviews, and think pieces. It’s not enough to own the latest iPhone or be a consummate fan of “Breaking Bad,” one needs to be able to talk about these things in such a way that social and cultural cachet (or at least the perception of them) can be slowly accrued in a cycle of validating oneself based on tech savvy and cultural knowingness, and being able to validate what counts as savvy and knowingness based on what those at the top of the food chain are saying and how virally they can say it.
Companies like Microsoft and Apple will still need media outlets because companies can not make themselves cool. That still comes from public perception and elite opinion. An iPhone can only validate me, and I validate it as a superior aesthetic and technological object, if some one with more cool-factor and buzz does so first. Sites like The Verge, Gizmodo, and Wired are intermediaries where the status game can play out in full, where the editors at those places, always being more cool than the companies to their left, and the commenters on their right, can commodify hipness and price it at a premium by creating scarcity (and what could be more scarce than a brand attached to a single person’s name; there’s only one Klein, or Malcolm Gladwell, or Chris Anderson, and they can only have so many ideas in a day).
It’s the basic tendency to seek emotional and mental satisfaction in luxury products, to have one’s personal worth validated through possessing a Corvette or BMW 640i, not in the feeling of how it handles or the detail and precision if its design, but the symbolic meaning attached to what it means to drive those particular vehicles, made by those particular companies.
The real success of “digital journalism” is figuring out how to turn this status game into a viable model for generating words, the imagined spaces they fill, and most importantly commodifying the prestige derived from both in order to sell it to the sponsors.