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Jan. 20, 2017, 11 a.m.
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Ezra Klein hopes Vox can change the fact that “people who are more into the news read the news more”

“The primary cleavage in news readership is not liberal vs. conservative. It’s news junkie vs. non-news junkie.”

Nobody can argue that Vox didn’t let readers know what it thought about Donald Trump. For months leading up to the election, the site posted stories like “The rise of American authoritarianism,” “Donald Trump’s success reveals a frightening weakness in American democracy,” and “Donald Trump’s nomination is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid.”

In some mythical world where voters all read explainers and where politics aren’t so deeply partisan, articles like these might have helped to keep Trump from being elected. But in many ways, the 2016 presidential election gave lie to the notion that there’s some perfect connection between the information voters have access to and their actions in the voting booth. On a recent episode of his podcast The Ezra Klein Show, in response to a question about which of his prior beliefs had been destroyed by the election’s outcome, Vox cofounder Klein said, “I would have told you it was impossible for somebody to be elected if a majority of voters thought they were unqualified to hold the office.” Exit polls showed that exit polls that 65 percent of voters thought Trump did not have the right temperament to serve as president; some percentage of voters who thought he was unqualified voted for him anyway.

In an interview with me this week, Klein stressed that his view is a personal one, and “not hugely relevant to the work we’re doing at Vox.” But, he said, “I do think people lacked a lot of what they needed to make a judgment” in this election. He sees the main divide as being not a political one (though a Pew study out this week makes it clear that Clinton and Trump voters relied on very different news sources), but one based on something more like habit.

“I’m concerned about reaching people who have not made it a personal hobby to check in on the day’s political news every morning and every evening,” he said. “The harder thing is not just jumping out of the filter bubble, but jumping out of the interest bubble.”

I spoke with Klein and with Vox’s newly promoted executive editor Lauren Williams about the site’s direction in 2017. A transcript of our conversation, lightly condensed and edited for length and clarity, follows.

Laura Hazard Owen: I don’t want to spend too long rehashing how the media covered the presidential campaign and the election, but since this has been such a huge topic of debate — when do you think general coverage worked well, and when did it fail?

Ezra Klein: Vox was founded on this idea that the way we do news often privileges the new over the important. And when I look back on 2016 and the media’s role in 2016 that’s a place where, as an industry, I think we really fell apart.

The election brought so much that was new and so much that also felt abnormal, and we covered that really, really well — not in every individual case, but overall, I think the media did a good job conveying that this was an unprecedented, norm-breaking election.

What got lost amidst that five-alarm-fire coverage of every Donald Trump tweet and every controversy was a lot of reporting and work on topics that were important, but not as new — in the sense that they were not as abnormal, they were not as unusual. In the end, I think that people knew a lot about Donald Trump’s tweets, they knew a lot about Hillary Clinton’s emails, but they didn’t know just about anything about Donald Trump’s tax plan, or his health care plan, or Hillary Clinton’s pre-K plan. All of these things that are gonna guide the way Trump ends up organizing his presidency, and actually changing people’s lives, I think, got a lot of short shrift.

When we think about what we’re going to be covering in the coming months, we are really thinking hard about how to make sure we are focused on the parts of his presidency that are important, that are going to change people’s lives, that have life-or-death consequences behind them, and how to avoid being continuously distracted by things that are flashy and unusual and even abnormal, but potentially don’t carry that weight.

Owen: During the campaign, Vox really did hammer a lot on Trump’s policy positions, who they would affect and why. I’m curious about what you think the disconnect there is.

Partly, it seems that the people who are reading Vox are not the people who need that information the most. I mean, do you think voters didn’t have enough information about Trump not to elect him? Or do you think they had all this information and went with him anyway?

Klein: That’s speaking for voters. I do think Vox did a good job on a lot of this stuff over the course of the election. I think we did a great job covering Trump’s financial deregulation policies, I think we did a great job covering his tax policies. If you look through our coverage, there’s a lot to be proud of, and I’m really proud of it. This is a doubling-down on that aspect of the way we covered him, and the way we covered the campaign.

My answer before, to your original question, was a little bit about the role of the media in the 2016 election, and what I think people knew and didn’t know. I do think people had poor information going into the polls. I do think people lacked a lot of what they needed to make a judgment here.

Now, look, everyone always has incomplete information. You can’t get away from that. Politics is just insanely, insanely information-dense, and those folks whose job it is not to follow this full-time are not going to be…even those folks who do follow it full-time don’t have all the information we probably need.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think a better job could have been done on their behalf. I do think there’s going to be a lot more focus on policy — because that policy is not just going to be plans Trump’s releasing through a campaign, but legislation traveling through Congress that will take health care away from 30 million people, or that will start a trade war with Germany. I think there’s going to be a lot more attention on it; there’s going to be a lot more of an interest in it. And so we are going to be there, doing our absolute best to explain what’s really going on here, and what it means for people.

Owen: You said on your podcast that there are going to be specific things Vox will be focusing on more — perhaps at the expense of things you would like to have done, but the resources have to be shifted into what’s more pressing at this moment. Can you talk about what some of those specific new areas are that you’re going to be moving into, and then what might have to wait until a little bit of a less crazy time?

Klein: The investments we’re making are overwhelmingly focused on covering policies during the Trump administration and in the Trump era. You’re going to see a lot of job postings going up in the coming days or weeks; I actually literally don’t know what all of them are yet, so I don’t want to pick them off one by one, but overall, what we are trying to think through is how we make sure that we have authoritative subject-issue experts who can really tell you what’s going on when a new plan comes out, or when a new policy is sent to Congress, or when a new nominee is announced. That expansion is going to focus around our policy team, it’s going to focus on our foreign team, our identities team, and there’s also going to be a big expansion along these lines in our video team.

In terms of what we wanted to do that we’re not going to be able to do as much of? I am not going to be specific on that because I would like to do it one day and do not want to give away all our ideas. But there are things that are a lot less political that I think are really important in the world, that I think are undercovered by the media broadly, and I look forward to the day when we can drive harder into some of them.

Owen: When you go onto Vox’s Facebook page, or you read some of the comments to some of your Facebook posts, Ezra, in particular, it’s clear that Vox has viewed by some as a liberal site, one that some Trump voters are very angry about, that they consider part of the liberal media.

How do you start reaching to those voters? Some of the Trump voters who, for example, told [Vox.com senior editor] Sarah Kliff that they didn’t realize that Trump was actually going to take away Obamacare when they voted for him. How do you reach a broader audience when it seems that you are now seen as a partisan site?

Klein: We watch our audience data pretty closely, and our audience data does not show or suggest to us that we are overwhelmingly read on one side or the other of the political sphere, which is good. Obviously, we have social traffic, but we also have search traffic, traffic coming in from referrals, traffic coming in from newsletters. And overall our audience leans a bit left, but it doesn’t lean overwhelmingly so. We think we’re reaching a lot of people, but when I think about the underlying question that I think you’re asking, I worry about it in a different way.

The primary cleavage in news readership is not liberal vs. conservative. It’s news junkie vs. non-news junkie. I’m not concerned about reaching people on the left or the right who are very involved in the news. We do that. I’m concerned about reaching people who have not made it a personal hobby to check in on the day’s political news every morning and every evening. The harder thing is not just jumping out of the filter bubble, but jumping out of the interest bubble. That, I think, speaks to the kind of folks you’re talking about in Sarah Kliff’s article, people who have busy lives, maybe have other interests that are not politics, and are just a little bit less engaged with the process.

That is not a question I think we have fully solved. We have ideas, and one reason we create explainers in so many different formats, from text to visual, short to long, video to not video, is that we are trying to create things that will work for different kinds of people, and different kinds of learners. You don’t just have to be into big bricks of text to read Vox.

There’s a lot here about distribution, and different places that we’re hoping and planning to go in the coming year. We’ve seen Apple News explode for us in a very good way. That’s a very different audience from the one we were reaching before, from what we can tell.

But there’s work to do here. There always is. It’s not a new phenomenon, that people who are more into the news read the news more. But I think it’s one that we need to be thoughtful about now more than ever, and it’s one that makes me feel good about our fundamental mission, which is to create explainers and expository journalism on these topics that is open and appealing and tuned to a reader who has not been following the issue from the beginning.

I think that once somebody is interested in something and comes to us, we are often uniquely good at saying, hey, it’s okay if you were not watching the last six months of this. Here’s where to start, and we can take you through the whole thing, and you can become expert enough on it that you can then continue following on.

Lauren Williams: I have a family member who recently came to me and said: I keep hearing about this alt-right, I don’t know anything about the alt-right, what am I supposed to think about the alt-right? Should I be as scared as people say I should be, or is it all made up? We want to be a resource for that person. Read our explainer: Now you really understand the alt-right. It doesn’t matter if you just came in seeing headlines before, or just seeing a clip on the news. If you read our explainer, you come away with a deep understanding, and it’s accessible. And like Ezra said, we have big, long explainers. We have explainers in 500 words. We have explainers in three minutes. We have any number of ways that we try to get this information out to all different types of readers and viewers.

Owen: Okay, so it’s more of a division between news junkie and non-news-junkie. That said, I don’t think anyone would argue that Vox is a conservative-leaning site. Do you think there’s room for, and/or a need for, or do you see any efforts already to be sort of a Vox of the right?

Klein: I’ll just say this flatly: We don’t think of ourselves as on the left, so we wouldn’t see the need for a Vox on the right. We do our best. We have a lot of really good reporters in this room, they spend a lot of time trying to understand their subjects, and at the end of that, they try to write their conclusions as best they can. Sometimes those pieces fall center-left, and I think they often do. Sometimes they fall center-right and piss a lot of people off. Sometimes they piss people off well to our left. We were not very well liked by the left during the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton primary. A lot of people felt very frustrated by our coverage.

One hard thing about Donald Trump is that he is not running, in my view, an operation that, at least at this juncture, has been trying very hard on policy. And so when you dig into his policy and you dig into what he’s saying and you dig into how he’s acting, you often come away with conclusions that are not super-favorable to Trump. If he were to begin acting in a very different way and putting out more fully considered policy ideas and putting forward nominees who are compromise nominees, you might see us cover him a lot more positively. In my view, that’s really on him, not on us.

Owen: Have you guys considered syndicating some Vox content to other places? You’ve talked about reaching audiences on a number of platforms, but I mean in something like print newspapers, or a tighter partnership along the lines of what The Wirecutter is doing with The New York Times.

Klein: We’re always interested in expanding our reach. We work right now with a lot of different platforms and partners. A lot of these things are limited simply by time. The Wirecutter’s in a bit of a different position because they were outright purchased by the Times, so I think that will put a different level of closeness in that collaboration. But I think when we look at this stuff, which we do — and we’ve definitely entered some syndication deals over time at least in smaller ways — we’re really looking at: For the investment of time, how many people can we reach, is that audience going to be one that is going to respond to and benefit from our content, and are we doing it in the right way? We want to make sure we are going into new platforms or new audiences in ways that are tuned to them.

The limit on our ambitions, always, is staff size, manpower, and man-hours, or woman-hours as the case may be, so that just creates some constraints on how far we can go with that stuff. But I’m pretty proud, honestly, with just the sheer number of platforms we are on, and the sheer number of platforms we are on and being experimental and thoughtful about. That has led to some really tremendous growth for us over the past year and I expect there will be even more coming in that direction over the next year.

Owen: What do you think about the role, if any, that fake news played in this election? How much focus is that something that you guys are going to work on — doing things like debunking, or is that an area you’d stay away from?

Williams: I think it really depends. It’s hard to tell when a story has reached a point where debunking for a widespread audience is even necessary. But our jobs that we take on are to explain things that are controversial or confusing, and if a story reaches that level, then, you know, we would explain it. We’re not on a mission to debunk every fake story that’s out there. That would be a losing proposition.

Owen: Because we’ve seen a lot of coverage of Trump’s tweets, and a lot of coverage of how to cover Trump’s tweets, what is your rule going to be for when those do and don’t get covered?

Klein: In terms of Trump tweets, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule. We cover them when we think there is something important to cover around them. His tweet fight with Meryl Streep was not a big story for us because we didn’t think there was a hugely important context there. His fight with John Lewis, which spoke in interesting ways to how Trump tends to talk about African-American communities, with the way descent from the African-American community is often delegitimized — there was enough there that made it, I think, a really important story, so we covered that one more.

Owen: Finally, how do you think that we are going to see coverage of Trump shift post-inauguration, not just on Vox but in general?

Klein: The real big thing that changes when you go from being Candidate Trump to being President Trump is that rhetoric has to become reality. There’s this conversation about whether Trump should have been taken seriously or literally. In my view, he often wasn’t taken seriously or literally. People applied this mental Trump discount to anything he said. They weren’t even sure he believed it.

But when you become president and you’re making policy — and that is what you do as president — all of a sudden, you don’t get to be taken neither seriously nor literally. You are taken very, very literally. That’s because whatever you’re doing is written down into legal language. So when he says that Tom Price, his pick for Health and Human Services secretary, is going to release a health care plan — when that plan comes out, people are not going to treat it as a funny, interesting, weird eccentric document that may or may not mean anything. They will treat it as the health care plan of the president of the United States.

So I think people are going to start taking Trump a lot more…I think that Trump is going to have to become much more specific, and I think his specifics will no longer have the advantage of having a discount applied to them. That’s really going to change the tenor of coverage. It doesn’t mean there won’t still be a lot of coverage of his tweets and this and that. But there’s going to be a lot more coverage, as a percentage, of the actual things he’s doing and saying and pushing, because he is about to enter a period — and we’re all about to enter a period — where ambiguity ends. And legislative language, and executive orders, and other countries in the world taking his statements as the statements of the President of the United States, begins.

PART OF A SERIES     The Rejigger
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