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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.