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April 7, 2014, 2:34 p.m.
LINK: www.niemanlab.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 7, 2014

It’s remarkable, I think, how much mainstream-media attention the departures of Nate Silver from The New York Times and Ezra Klein from The Washington Post have gotten over the past few months. I’ve admired the work of both men enormously, and I look forward to reading their new sites for years to come. But I think the chatter has been so loud in part because it fit into the preconceived narrative that Newspaper People Are Dumb And Internet People Get It. That narrative’s been right plenty of times over the past decade — but it’s also a little too pat for my liking, a default frame for every question.

vox-logoLast night, the Klein & Co. project Vox launched — more about that to come — and in The New York Times Klein was quoted as saying unflattering things about the Post (which were later amended to be unflattering things about newspapers as a whole).

At ISOJ this weekend, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron gave a speech about the state of news today, which we covered elsewhere. But he also, in the Q&A that followed, talked a bit about how the Klein departure went down from his perspective. I thought it was worth presenting that perspective.

This sort of he-said-he-said shade-throwing is kind of boring, in the end — more about internal politics and personalities than ideas. Today we have a really interesting new news startup, embedded at maybe the smartest online news company, one that I’ve always hoped would move beyond sports/tech/games and into more traditional news. And we have one of America’s great newspapers, adding net staff for the first time in years, trying new things, and with a close to ideal ownership situation. It’s good all around! So maybe a little less trash talk?

Until then, let me ironically contribute to the chatter by sharing Baron’s comments:

I have great admiration for Ezra and I wish him well. And as I said, I think this is a sign of health in our industry that there is capital for people to embark on entrepreneurial ventures. He obviously had the entrepreneurial itch and decided to attend to that itch. He’s been able to find financing, and good for him. As I said, I think the availability of financing is a healthy aspect of our industry.

That said, I think people have been left with the impression with the coverage that somehow he was trying to do this within the umbrella of The Washington Post, and that’s just simply not the case. What Ezra said when he came to senior executives at the Post — and I was the first one he came to, as far as I know — was that he wanted to create an entirely new news organization, something entirely separate from the Post. And that he would be in charge of it — he would be the president, the CEO, the editor-in-chief, he would select the technology, he would select the advertising chief — pretty much everything. And it would exist outside the framework of The Washington Post.

It was not a request for more financing for his venture within the Post called Wonkblog, which we had financed to the tune of millions of dollars over many years — we had grown it. I don’t know how well people knew Ezra before he worked at The Washington Post, but I know that after he worked at The Washington Post, they knew him quite well. It was a great platform for him, and he was great for us as well.

But this was something that he — he had said that, you know, Wonkblog had grown about as much as it could — maybe it could have a few more people — but what he had in mind was a separate news organization. And what he really wanted to know — what he wanted to know was whether Jeff Bezos would be willing to finance that.

And that’s fine, and we obviously ran that up the pole. But I don’t have a venture capital fund available to me. I’ve looked all around — I’ve looked in the files. I don’t have a venture capital fund. And our publisher, I don’t believe, has a venture capital fund either. The company is owned 100 percent by Jeff Bezos, so any decision to fund a new venture would be his to make. And, as it turned out, the amount of money that apparently was being sought, you know, was somewhere roughly equivalent to 10 percent of our newsroom budget. And, you know, I think it’s safe to say that I would not have been too happy if 10 percent of my newsroom budget had been earmarked for [this project].

Here’s audio, if you want to check my transcribing skills, and the full Q&A starts around 5 hours and 56 minutes into this day-long ISOJ video.

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