Ezra Klein has a career trajectory that would have been impossible to imagine just two decades ago. The 33-year-old editor in chief of Vox, the flagship site of parent company Vox Media, got his start in journalism by blogging about politics as a college freshmen and became part of a coterie of generally liberal Internet pundits in Washington, D.C. In 2007, his blog moved to the American Prospect. Two years later, he was hired by The Washington Post, where he created and ran Wonkblog. While at the Post, he also wrote a weekly column for Bloomberg View and was a regular contributor on MSNBC. Now, as the editor in chief of Vox, Klein hosts two podcasts, writes for the site and manages its 85 editorial employees.
WWD met with Klein at Vox Media’s freshly painted new digs in New York’s Financial District. For Klein, who is based in Washington, his brief trip to Manhattan was his first time in the new offices. He was dressed in a uniform standard for men in news media: a button-down shirt tucked into dark wash jeans, glasses with a square frame and a neatly trimmed beard.
WWD: What was the idea for Vox when you started it in 2014?
Ezra Klein: We started Vox with this idea that we could use modern publishing technologies and an emphasis on explanation and context to create a new kind of product. The sort of underlying idea was that one of the compromises we had to make as an industry with the technology of print paper was that we couldn’t tell people everything they needed to know to give people all of the context for all the news stories that were in the newspaper. You would have needed a truck to deliver a single issue. But digitally, you didn’t need that. So the idea was to figure out how could we attach context to the stories in ways that allowed people to come in midstream more effectively.
WWD: What has changed since you started three years ago?
E.K.: When we started, we thought we would do that through a product we called “card stacks,” which were these attachable collections of information you could expand and swipe through. They were very cool. But as the platform space fractured — card stacks couldn’t appear in a Facebook Instant article or on Apple News — one thing we found happening was that it wasn’t actually any one product, but an ethos that infused everything we do.
WWD: Considering how diffuse news sources are now, is it a challenge starting and branding a new media property?
E.K.: I have found, a little to my surprise, that when you get into these platforms where everything is faster and it’s more mixed up, people’s desire to know who is talking to them has become more significant. When I started this, I think a misconception I had was that people don’t care where they get their information from. But people care deeply. The audience that follows you on Facebook is a loyal audience. We have people who subscribe to us on Apple News and read us every day. They have alerts coming to their phones. I think more than a million people have signed up to let us be on their screens in that way. We have people who get a notification every time we publish a new YouTube video. They are new audiences and in some cases they are different. But they want information they can trust.
WWD: Has Vox changed covering the Trump administration? And how did you deal with not having explained the election?
E.K.: We were, like other people, surprised by Trump’s win. But in terms of how we reacted, we have put a lot of resources in trying to really be able to explain policy in the Trump era. One thing that I believe was a lesson from the campaign for the media industry is that we were so focused on what was unusual and aberrant about Trump that we missed a lot of what was normal and basic about him. People had so much more of a sense of his indiscretions and his tweets and Hillary Clinton’s, I think somewhat overblown but nevertheless, e-mail scandals. I don’t think we had a good sense of either candidate’s health care plan or tax plans. My background is as a policy reporter, and we are a place that takes policy very, very seriously. At the same time, we have moved into this period of very intense scandal and investigation, where the story is not just what Trump is doing or failing to do, but what is being uncovered about him and what he did behind closed doors. So we are reorienting ourselves to cover that better, and we will probably do some of that through hiring. We don’t know what will happen yet — I want to be very careful about saying that — but we are in what might prove to be a very precarious period, which we have not seen that many times in history. The news is challenging right now. One hard thing about it is that often things don’t lend themselves to good explanations or we don’t have enough information. So we are sometimes in pretty murky waters, as everyone is. But it’s an era where people’s anxiety about what’s going on and need to understand what’s happening around them has created a real demand for news coverage that’s dedicated to filling that need.
WWD: How do you react to all the breaking news and the sped up news cycle?
E.K.: That is the job. It’s always been the job. This is just more intense. You find out what the story is, you use the tools you have to get clear on it, you bring the knowledge that you’ve built up over the past however long. Part of the trick is just having people who know what they’re doing. In terms of the pace, yeah, it’s exhausting. I feel for all of us in the media, and in the White House and in the country. I mean, this is not a fun time.
WWD: Do you think people have become more aware of the importance of journalism?
E.K.: This is a very proud moment for journalism. I think The New York Times and The Washington Post are genuine champions in this moment. The role that they are playing in democracy is the role that you hear about journalism playing in civics classes. Other people are doing great work, but the Times and the Post have really been leaders. The public is watching, and they are hungry. They know something is wrong, there’s a lot of anxiety out there. There’s a real sense that the mission of journalism is very clear.
WWD: What do you read?
E.K.: I read Vox. I try to make my way through my InstaPaper and look at Nuzzle. I read the Post and the Times. I get things recommended to me on Twitter and over e-mail and in Slack. I try to read books in the morning. I really think it’s important right now to pull your head out of the news stream. One of the hardest things right now is keeping any sense of perspective. There’s never too little to read.
WWD: So what books are you reading?
E.K.: I’m spending a lot of time reading books about Watergate and other extreme periods in our history, because the dynamics are very different. I mean, I haven’t lived through this before. “Washington Journal” by Elizabeth Drew is great because it’s a contemporaneous diary of the Watergate period. She doesn’t tell you a clean story, she tells you what it was like to live through it. “Final Days” by [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein is extremely good on the dynamics inside an embattled White House. I think the question of that book is how do you persuade yourself you are the hero of the story when you are the villain, or at least working for the villain.
WWD: You started as a blogger and even though it wasn’t that long ago, a lot has changed. How would you start out now?
E.K.: When I started blogging, I didn’t do it for a purpose. I did it because I was bored. I didn’t think it would amount to anything. I was a freshman in college. One thing I wonder is whether I would just be spending time on Twitter. I think Twitter incentivizes things that aren’t always great. Although f–k it, early blogging wasn’t always great either.
WWD: What’s it like hosting a podcast?
E.K.: The two podcasts I host remind me, in the best possible way, of my background, which is blogging. They are so much more personal and so much more unfiltered than the more polished, socially packaged work we do now. Which isn’t to say it’s better or worse. But when I’m writing for the site, I really don’t want to be wrong. I’m not going to try something on. But on a podcast, people can hear that you are just a human being speaking extemporaneously, so there is a little more awareness that you are trying on ideas and working through ideas. It’s something I used to like about blogging.
WWD: Do you miss blogging?
E.K.: I do. I write three or four pieces a week, I do two podcasts, I make some video. So I am out there. But what I miss is having the time to report what I used to. It’s not that I can’t find a couple hours to bang out a piece or a reaction to something or some thoughts. But I don’t always have the time I wish I had to understand something I don’t understand. So I’m trying to do a little bit less of the quick pieces and a little bit more of the “here’s how the Singaporean health care system works” kind of stuff, because to be good at my job, I have to keep learning. The thing that I fear the most is becoming one of those journalists who is still trying to apply the thinking of the decade in which they started three or four decades later.
WWD: Was there a journalist who you wanted your career to look like when you were starting out?
E.K.: The time in which I came up has had so much tumult and disruption, that it’s a little hard to look at someone and say I want my career to look like that. Because there is no “that” anymore.