Ezra Klein, Vox Media, and Commodifying Status

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Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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52 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Somewhat off topic, but tangentially related, is a question I’ve been wondering about these past few years.

    Why is it that when a blogger tries some new method to monetize what they do — whether it be blog for an existing non-blog site, or Sully’s year-old subscription experiment, or partnering with another medium (Nate Silver, Volkahv Cosnsp.) or creating your own new site like what Klein and Iglesias are doing — other bloggers everywhere not only sneer, but so obviously root for it to fail?

    What is it about us bloggers that we would rather see others like us publicly fail than have a sustainable model that might get us paid? Are we that petty a group of people?Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Who has been rooting for these things to fail?

      I think it’s important to note though that this isn’t Digby running a donation drive, or people at The New Inquiry or Jacobin plugging subscriptions–the projects you list were all financially lucrative prior to being spun-off into their own stand-alone brands.

      Also, to take Sullivan as an example, his project was entirely transparent–keep doing what we’re doing, but get money directly from readers. That’s very different from Sullivan going and hooking up with someone else to create “the next big thing™.”Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        I see bloggers trash Sully’s model and delightedly call it a “failure” all the time.

        Sheesh, just google balloon juice or salon and andrew sullivan.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        I was unaware of these! I’m sure there’s more than a little jealousy in any group of bloggers hoping a group of their rivals doesn’t make money if the first can’t.

        I do think Sullivan’s project works based on this whole model though. He takes other people’s work and makes it valuable by virtue of having signaled to others that it’s worth knowing/thinking about/checking out.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Morrissey??? really?Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @greginak – Why not?Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Without Johnny Marr, Morrissey is mostly just whiny, full of himself and in love with his own suffering. He was like that with the Smiths, but the music was better. And i’m joking a bit, well only partially joking, well actually just a small tab of joking mixed in with my dislike of the M.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Granted that he never had another foil as consistently genius as Marr, and had his solo ups and downs (though Mick Ronson’s influence on the guitars on Your Arsenal, or the sweeping melodies of tracks like “Every Day Is Like Sunday” or “The More You Ignore Me…” are easily the equals of his Smiths stuff); but Morrissey is one of the most original, distinctive and entertaining frontmen of the rock era.

        Not only can he legitimately lay claim to expanding the lyrical vocabulary and themes of guitar pop music, dude is HILARIOUS, both on record and off-record in interviews and such.

        Is he infuriating sometimes? Hell yeah. Has he made some real stinkers? Hello, Kill Uncle.

        But he’s also a consumate showman, and someone who’s learned to make the best expressive use of his limited singing range (he’s really a throwback to the earlier pre-rock crooners). And I’ve only rarely seen a performer manipulate an audience’s energy levels and responses as adroitly as he can.

        That’s a compliment; it’s masterful, almost cultlike, and he always makes sure he’s got a crack band behind him.

        I’d put him up there with Diamond Dave. 😉Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Plus that song just seemed apropos.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Wow….interesting. To each his own. Of course i hate davey L roth also, so there is thatReport

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        May my gravatar haunt you in your sleep.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I guess i’ll add that much like Jerry had Neumann and ummm i guess Neuman had Jerry, we all have those bands/singers that are nemesis like. We just don’t get them and they rub us the wrong way.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Haunting my dreams…..take a number, get in line, make sure your paperwork is filled out and no cutting.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I’ll Jump right on that.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        @greginak,

        You are my hero now.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Aw, all y’all’s taste is in y’all’s mouths.

        (why yes, I HAVE been catching up on Justified).Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        @james-hanley

        Is he the wind beneath your wings?Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        No, but I’m hoping he’s strong, fast and fresh from the fight.

        (Bonnie Tyler so kicks Bette Midler’s ass.)Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        You know what Morrisey song/album I really like?

        That one where he’s a misunderstood artist that no one understands.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Johanna loves that one. She’s got, like, a dozen copies of it.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        Ah, so he is your street-wise Hercules.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        Oh heck, I’m still living How Soon is Now.

        I think I shall tomorrow go to the queer bar and sit smugly alone.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I never before realized that Our Tod had such an inner troll in him, because between this and the Elvis thing, he tasks me…he tasks me.

        If I thought he could possibly be serious, I would be forced to stroke my bearded chin, adjust my glasses, and ask…”Und ven, exactly…did you realize zat you did not very much like ze ‘rock und roll’?”

        Besides, I thought “That one where he’s a misunderstood artist that no one understands” was Win Butler’s concept for Reflektor – and that thing’s not even funny!Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        We’re too cool to be rock stars! Except when we’re being rock stars. Then we’re too cool to be too cool to be rock stars!

        (I’m not sure if those are actual Arcade Fire lyrics, but they might as well be.)

        Aaand now this is stuck in my head:

        Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      What is it about us bloggers that we would rather see others like us publicly fail than have a sustainable model that might get us paid? Are we that petty a group of people?

      Generally, yes. I think it’s simply sour grapes. Why should someone else get paid for something we do for free? The best unpaid bloggers out there are certainly much better than the worst paid ones.

      Personally, I’ve never harbored a desire to make money off writing. Academic journals never paid me for my papers*, and those involved considerable amounts of undesirable work whereas writing for a blog is almost 100% enjoyable.

      * Yes, I was given a salary so I could spend time writing those papers, but still the association between my writing and my getting paid was loosely coupled.Report

  2. Avatar zic says:

    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.

    The gate keepers. Once, in the wild and wacky world of pop music, the gate keepers were the publishers of sheet music. Once, it was the record label and radio play.

    Some gates rust away, new gates are built. Often in ways we least expect them, too. I’m pretty sure that someone in the distant past had similar fears of the printing press, the eraser, and the telephone.

    But just as every generation looks to differentiate itself from the previous, the gatekeepers look for new ways to define cool, and to have more control over their message and its distribution.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I don’t have a lot of patience for George Packer in general. Some – he’s quite good in spots – but it’s limited.Report

  4. Avatar James Hanley says:

    It’s as much about having your company be seen in the esteemed cultural space of a Vox media outlet

    What the fish is Vox and why am I supposed to esteem it?Report

  5. Avatar veronica dire says:

    I dunno. To me this article seemed to be just another eddy in the same sneering ecosystem it claims to critique. Not sure what to make of that. Hipsters mocking hipsters? We shall eat our young?Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Key differences:

      This is a meta-level critique–one that is still subject to the influences it tries to demonstrate, but one which I also think demonstrates those influences which others have an interest in denying.

      Also, we’re not a brand, nor is this post part of a money making scheme, so there’s also that.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Also, we’re not a brand, nor is this post part of a money making scheme, so there’s also that.

        I hope you’ll examine this thought more carefully; because it’s base assumptions may be incorrect. It’s not a direct money-making scheme; perhaps. But there are other reasons for writing for free on a blog; and for writing critique of writing as a money-making scheme that are indirectly aimed at money-making schemes; including compiling a portfolio of published works, reputation, and (god forbid) exposure.Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        Internalize the language used to describe market practices and they can be used to describe anything, even when none of conventional market practices (exchange of money and goods) are taking place.

        Social capital is only capital if it can be leveraged at some point to produce financial returns. Likewise, there’s a difference between building a brand, and having a reputation.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Ethan, I meant that as a compliment and as encouragement; building a writing portfolio is how you build a brand, a reputation, and how you actually get paid for writing; there is nothing wrong with doing that, and there is nothing wrong with critique of platforms even as you work to create your own brand.

        But if you aim to write professionally, I don’t think suggesting that the critique is separate from that helps you; it may well haunt you. Writing well takes some considerable effort; good writing is worth being paid to produce. Good content is also worth something, and there is no shame in it. (And I only bothered because I think you will make an excellent writer.) In fact, the shame is that it, like playing music or painting pictures, writing is something we should do for free for the exposure. That exposure is of little value if it isn’t helping the creator be financially stable enough to be reimbursed for creating; and that perverse notion — create because you love it, money is of no import — deserves some substantial critique.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        “Likewise, there’s a difference between building a brand, and having a reputation.”

        potatoes and potatoes. that said, i’d probably giggle at someone who talked about having a “personal brand”, even if all they’re really discussing is reputation and how they market their skills.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        I haven’t written for a while. But when I was writing, I gave little thought of financial gain, which seems to bring up all kinds of nonsense criticisms, as if only people seeking a paycheck are serious.

        Which is bunk. I wanted to write things very much worth reading, even in a sea of professionally written pieces. But to earn a living on it? — nope. The writing market is such a sketchy, uncertain place. I much prefer my regular paycheck from my tech-sector job.

        Anyway, to the article above, I don’t like it’s smug tone. And to me self-awareness is an overvalued currency, if in the end all it provides is an empty gesture to itself. “Oh look at me! I’m so ironically self aware!”

        Yeah, what-evs. Is that all you got?Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @veronica-dire, I have written for money, and profitably so for a good stretch. Completely as a freelancer, too; almost every story I sold, I pitched and produced on deadline for a long time. Eventually, I managed to put together enough ‘contributing editor’ listings to actually earn a living wage.

        But I’m also married to a professional musician, and most of our friends are freelance artists of one sort or another.

        So the living wage of creating is a very serious discussion to me. And this notion, I gave little thought of financial gain, which seems to bring up all kinds of nonsense criticisms, as if only people seeking a paycheck are serious. deserves some serious examination. I don’t suggest that, not at all.

        Rather, I’d suggest that in creative fields that are highly competitive, the only way to reach a living-wage is to contribute, and that such contributions should be viewed as both portfolio building and skill building. If you play the blues, they call it paying your dues. In a world where unpaid internships and non-paid contributions, writing to open-source code to unpaid gigs, are the norm, how someone threads the path from tasting (do I really want to do this) to paid professional deserves serious thought, not easy dismissal.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @zic — Fair enough.

        But really, my intentions were in one direction only. Your post seemed to suggest that the “publish for free online” ecosystem was valuable exactly inasmuch as it leads to a career. But that is not true, as the hope-to-be-pros exist in that space alongside committed amateurs such as myself. And we’re writers to. And some of us are very serious.

        But that is my full point. In fact, over the years I have learned to say nothing about profession writing, as I know nothing about professional writing.

        (Which is my common theme: when you do not know, shut up.)Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        zic,
        If people spent 4 years writing (and working odd jobs) rather than going to college, you think they’d be better off?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        (To butt in: I know a handful of folks for whom that would have been true. Given the increase of price of college since I went, I can only suspect that, all other things being equal, it’d be true for even more people than waay back in the heady days of freshly arguing whether Use Your Illusion I was better than Use Your Illusion II.)Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @kim it would depend.

        I didn’t go to college. When it came to researching and reporting, my previous life as a systems analysts/DBA/programmer was incredibly useful; I already had a lot of experience doing techinical writing and interviewing people to understand what their needs were as I designed computer systems to meet those needs. (Yes, I was a computer programmer back in the day when aptitude, not a degree, were what was required to get a good-paying job programming computers).

        But I was very, very lucky in the mentors (editors) I found to work with when I began writing. A couple of them, in particular, put a lot of effort into my work, and I produced a lot of high-quality content for their publications.

        One of the things that bothers me about blogs is the lack of editors in the mix. For blogs widely read and commented upon, some of that bleeds through after publication; but more input before would improve the niche.Report

    • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

      Is that how you feel about every criticism of consumption ever made by a consumer?Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    All brands tacitly represent lifestyles. That’s why PCs (Windows/Dell) are for squares, while outside-the-box thinking creatives prefer Apple.

    And here I thought I preferred Macs because they come with a fully functional Unix shell instead of the next-to-useless DOS command window. (Don’t talk to me about Linux. Their xterms still have bugs I remember from 1991.)Report

  7. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I’m sorta on veronica’s side on this. I mean, sure, there’s enough buzz(feed)word bingo to fill a couple of cards, but if I get what Klein is trying to do with this – and if he is actually *able* to do it – I approve wholeheartedly.

    It does harken back to the more idealistic days of the internet (and Klein’s own days for that matter). I haven’t really followed Klein since he moved to the Post (and was only catching him sporadically before that), but back in his peak amateur days, he was very good at not letting polemic, or assumptions, get in front of the data – which he always rigorously (by my mind) researched and analyzed. (even if and when I disagreed with his policy prescriptions, because of course I would).

    Remember when Kazzy said, ““There are few trends worse in sports media (and probably media in general, but sports media is what I know best) than the construction of narratives and then parsing of facts to fit those narratives.”, and I said that statement also applied to most political reporting? Well, it applies to most reporting across the board these days, and politics & policy are the two biggest venues for it.

    If Klein can break that paradigm, which is what I think is the principle thing he is trying to do, that would be a very, very good thing.

    Can he actually do it, though? For one, that ‘must have a narrative’ paradigm is strong, and many a ship has broken apart on its rocks. And, as you imply, Klein is just one fish in a vast pond. 10 million dollars against the actual thought and opinion leaders of today’s diverse and fractured media needs to be used wisely and guardedly, lest become another victim of the Web x.x good idea fairy.

    (and last, hiring Yglesias makes me skeptical of the project and its imputed (mostly by me) aims, because that man is *all about* narrative).Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Another thought. The counterpoint, or maybe precedent – or maybe both – to what Klein is doing is The Economist. Data rich, wide ranging reporting, with some subjects no one else covers, or at least no one covers in depth. Written with a technocratic, centrist bent, but with personalities deliberately suppressed, to the point the bylines are absent and the columnists all have pseudonyms.

    If I am not mistaken though, the Economist hired many of the same Juicebox Mafiosos* during the last decade (and if I am also not mistaken, most of them have since departed) in a effort to broaden their appeal to the new generation of wonk.

    So either this has been tried before, and it didn’t quite work. Or it has been working, and the effort to make it trendy didn’t. I really don’t know what sort of financial position the Economist is in, either in absolute terms or even in relation to the collapsing publishing industry.

    *and/or associates like Wilkerson and McArdleReport