Þe Forlorn Hope Þt Was Vox.com, & BRIEFLY NOTED
For 2022-12-07 We
CONDITION: Republican Idiocracy:
FOCUS: Þe Forlorn Hope Þt Was Vox.com:
"Advantage, blogosphere!" as Dan Dresner used to like to say. I order up a weblog post from Matt Yglesias, and he delivers, spectacularly! Read the whole thing! But here is a taste:
Matt Yglesias: What I learned co-founding Vox: ‘The current Vox management team or editorial staff… are doing a good job executing a reasonable strategy—it’s just not the strategy we set off with…. This post is my effort to unpack how we fell short of those aspirations…. We wanted to cover a wide range of topics with more depth and more speed, taking advantage of digital tools but also the timelessness of the web.... We thought this was scalable…. This was basically wrong.... There were people ready and willing to do high-quality, fast-paced analytical journalism across a range of policy areas at the same level as the original group that came over from the Post, but it was a modest number, and many of them already had good jobs at other publications and were hard to poach. Training people who didn’t have the knack for it right off the bat was just massively more difficult…. We didn’t have any “secret sauce” methodology we could reliably impart to new journalists to make them do work that was Ezra-esque....
There was and is an audience for the kind of broad explanatory journalism we wanted to do, there weren’t customers for it..... Vox’s readers weren’t customers; Vox was an ad sales business…. To get a really big web audience, you need broad distribution from Facebook and Google.... That meant… serv[ing] the needs of advertisers… the needs of the platforms… we just weren’t masters of our destiny…. Most of the media trends [people] deplore are direct consequences of Facebook’s influence over journalism in the mid-2010s.... Hard-core identity politics and simplistic socialism performed incredibly well on Facebook during this period….
The dream of executing a low-end disruption on the incumbent news media was also undermined by the fact that the New York Times just refused to be disrupted… We… hoped that by not respecting the line between news and editorial, we’d create a situation where our staff was considered unhireable by prestige news outlets…. [But] once Max and Amanda left… it was clear… that “get a good job offer from the New York Times” was a great capstone to a successful career at Vox….
One of my most neoliberal shill beliefs is that journalists and academics and intellectuals tend to underestimate businesspeople because they underestimate how difficult this stuff all is. And I think that leads to errors of political judgment…. Media enterprises are businesses, and they are subject to commercial forces and pressures. That’s not to excuse bad articles, which absolutely run, but it is to say that if your model of decision making doesn’t foreground the basic business model issues, you’re misjudging the situation…
As you all know perhaps too well, I am the audience for "explainer journalism": I want to buy the work of smart people who try to inform me about the world—who will work for me, rather than for, in order, their sources, bosses, and advertisers.
Matt’s story is of a vox.com setting out to fight the good fight and tilt at the windmills, but winding up being ground very fine betwee n the millstones of the New York Times, Facebook, and Google. To these I would add a fourth—the tech funding structure, which requires that one aim for world domination rather than for filling one’s niche and making a healthy profit.
The tech funding structure, first of all, means that you become subcontractors for Google’s and Facebook’s ad businesses, because you are swinging for the fences rather than expanding explainer journalism at a sustainable rate while being profit-positive.
Becoming a Facebook subcontractor then meant, as Matt parodies the situation:
[Since] hard-core identity politics and simplistic socialism performed incredibly well on Facebook… people who had some authentic left-wing opinions found that writing on the subjects where they were the most left tended to generate the most traffic…. So you ended up with this whole cohort of discourse structured around “Is Bernie Sanders perfect in every way or is it problematic to vote for a white man?” as the only possible lens for examining American politics and society…
That is greatly overstated. But not entirely ovestated. And that is not an explainer orientation to the world. So when Matt writes:
There’s another world in which Vox never launches, and Wonkblog at The Washington Post is built out into a somewhat more robust version of itself, a policy-oriented alternative to those kinds of politics-first D.C. publications…
I think: there is also a world in which Vox launches as a somewhat more robust version of Wonkblog, a policy-oriented alternative to politics-first D.C. publications, and is a smashing albeit niche success—go from the (old) New Republic to the (old) Washington Monthly, and then go twice as far in the same direction. Then I think that Vox threat would have had a significant impact on how the political-games-horserace publications did business, and we would be in a better world.
Now don’t get me wrong—the current Vox.com is first-class, best-of-breed—but it is not the flourishing of explainer journalism that I would have wished to see. To say that its dominant mode is “is Bernie Sanders perfect in every way or is it problematic to vote for a white man?” is far too extreme, but that resonant mode does make it difficult for it to fulfill what I see as its primary mission.
The thing that surprised me most was the roll of the New York Times as millstone, griding vox.com into dust.
That the New York Times did not want to be disrupted is no surprise.
That it succeeded in avoiding disruption still puzzles me.
For one thing, it is really surprising to me that it was able to hire talent away from vox.com.
When I think of the New York Times, I think of “emails!” and “but Jared and Ivanka are horrified and are working diligently to save us all”. I think of its coverage of issues I know well that almost invariably makes me wince. I think of things like:
David Yaffe-Bellany: How Sam Bankman-Fried’s Crypto Empire Collapsed: Mr. Bankman-Fried said in an interview that he had expanded too fast and failed to see warning signs. But he shared few details about his handling of FTX customers’ funds: ‘In less than a week, the cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried went from industry leader to industry villain, lost most of his fortune, saw his $32 billion company plunge into bankruptcy and became the target of investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department. But in a wide-ranging interview on Sunday that stretched past midnight, he sounded surprisingly calm. “You would’ve thought that I’d be getting no sleep right now, and instead I’m getting some,” he said. “It could be worse.”
The empire built by Mr. Bankman-Fried, who was once compared to titans of finance like John Pierpont Morgan and Warren Buffett, collapsed last week after a run on deposits left his crypto exchange, FTX, with an $8 billion shortfall, forcing the firm to file for bankruptcy. The damage has rippled across the industry, destabilizing other crypto companies and sowing widespread distrust of the technology. Besides some Twitter posts, messages to employees and occasional texts to reporters, Mr. Bankman-Fried, 30, has said little publicly over the last week. In the interview on Sunday, he voiced numerous regrets over the collapse of FTX. But he would offer only limited details about the central questions swirling around him: whether FTX improperly used billions of dollars of customer funds to prop up a trading firm that he also founded, Alameda Research…
That is not what the lead of that story should have been. The lead should have been something like this: Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX collapsed because Changpeng Zhao decided he was no longer interested in supporting FTX’s FTT token, and cashed in Binance’s $500 million. And it turned out that $8 billion of customers’ money that FTX had no legal right to touch had been stolen and remains missing.
That is a very different lead from what we get, which is:
Crypto financial empire collapses
Sam Bankman-Fried says he expanded too fast and failed to see warning signs
Few details about the “handling of customer funds” revealed [NOTE: “handling”, not “disappearance of $8 billion]
In less than a weak SBF does a heel turn
SEC and Justice investigations
SBF sounded calm, getting some sleep
SBF once compared to titans of finance
An $8 billion “shortfall”
Other crypto exchanges destabilized
SBF has said little
SBF in an interview voiced numerous regrets
And then, finally, in paragraph 5: “whether FTX improperly used billions of dollars of customer funds”. But there should not be a “whether”. The word should be “how” or “why”.
Things like this make me, frankly, embarrassed for those who work for the New York Times—having working for your sources first at the core of the institutional culture, with “puff pieces” and “beat sweeteners” as a major genre of your organization’s work. I do have a very strong sense that those who moved from vox.com to the New York Times will in the future look back on how they did their best work at vox.com, and wonder why they jumped.
There is a sense in which… how do I put this… The New York Times is where intellect goes to die. I have said that when Jackie Calmes moved from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times she rapidly went from one of my must-reads to a rarely-read. My friend Dan Froomkin interviewed her, and she explained why:
“Part of is the fault of beat reporting… the pressures you’re under to maintain sources”…
“I felt more pressure of the bothsidesism sort coming from the New York Timesthan I did from the Wall Street Journal…. The New York Times… bends over backwards to give both sides their due…. If you’re saying Republicans do something wrong you have to indicate that Democrats bear some blame too”…
It seems to me that it would be much more fun to write explainers than clickbait or beat sweeteners, and find yourself working for your sources first, your bosses second, the advertisers third, and the reader not at all. And yet I have no reason to disbelieve Matt’s observation that vox.com could not hold onto reporters by promising them a better-suited if worse-paid place to be their best selves.
MUST-READ: Republicans: Base & Superstructure:
I think the answer is that the supply of intellectuals has a very wide spectrum and a very deep bench. For any politician who can mobilize enough voters with button, pushing brother, to win an election, there will be an ample supply of intellectuals willing to dress the hippopotamus up in a tutu. Or maybe I should say: an ample supply of pundits. I don’t think Hazony, Vermeule, or Ahmari are intellectuals because I have no evidence that any of them has ever been moved by argument:
Damon Linker: All About That Republican Base: ‘How long will conservative intellectuals abide its illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies?… What is the opposite of the base? Party “elites”? Maybe. But we need to distinguish among different groups of elites: funders/donors (Peter Thiel; Charles Koch; Paul Singer); “entertainers” (Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro); and intellectuals/pundits (Yoram Hazony, Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari). Note that in listing intellectuals/pundits, I didn’t mention Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, or David Brooks…. They have fallen far enough out of step with the Republican base…. I was never as prominent a writer as Goldberg, Kristol, or Brooks, but they were in some sense my models.…
I set out to write a column titled “Fatherhood 2002,” about how my wife and I aspired to have an egalitarian family in which each of us equally immersed ourselves in the joys and tribulations of caring for a newborn baby…. Almost immediately, angry letters began streaming into the magazine’s offices…. We published eight of them… not really representative of the responses we received…. The many letters we didn’t publish were… the insult-laden polemics that would appear at the time in online comment threads and today in right-wing swarms on Twitter and other social-media platforms….
Reading all of those angry, sometimes vulgar, letters from First Things readers attacking me and the magazine, accusing us of abandoning the properly gendered outlook on the family, supposedly rooted in Scripture… left me feeling deeply alienated from the place I worked… in terms of the workplace’s telos—its end or goal. I was an editor for an opinion magazine. But who were its readers? What did its “base” believe about the world? How did I feel about devoting myself and my talents to serving this group of people and its prejudices, which I now began to wonder if I shared?…
Well, one of you of the role of the editor of an opinion magazine is that one is an apostle to the gentiles after all—until the gentiles stone you, and Richard John Neuhaus demands that you leave. But that requires a very very solid rock of selfhood to anchor yourself. That rock tends not to be found in the Catholic, but in the Protestant tradition: Hier stehe, ich kann nicht anders.
IMAGES: Lensa: Thoughtful:
What should I name these three pictures: “Brad as ____”?
ONE VIDEO: Alan Rickman Is an Actor:
How anyone can make this scene work is beyond me!
Oþer Things Þt Went Whizzing by…
Very Briefly Noted:
Colby Smith & Caitlin Gilbert: US unemployment rate set to surpass 5.5%, economists predict: ‘FT/IGM poll suggests waning optimism the Fed can tame inflation without causing material job losses Of the 45 economists surveyed, 85% project that the National Bureau of Economic Research — the arbiter of when recessions begin and end — will declare one by next year…
Jonathan Gitlin: New cars too expensive? This solar-powered EV will cost $6,250: ‘Squad says in sunny climes like Las Vegas you may never need to charge it…
Dan Vergano: China’s zero-covid policy won’t work forever. But there’s no easy way out of it: ‘The government is hinting it will loosen restrictions, but low immunity levels in the population and a lack of hospital capacity are major liabilities…
Ben Thompson & Ben Gilbert & David Rosenthal: Stratechery…
Kui Mwai: Former Governor Nikki Haley Says Georgia-Born Senator Raphael Warnock Should Be Deported: ‘Haley joined Republican candidate Herschel Walker's bus tour of Georgia this past Sunday to support his campaign and bash Democrat incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Jonathan Bernstein: Republicans Haven’t Solved Their Herschel Walker: ‘The party’s obsession with phony scandals deters strong candidates from running and undermines lawmakers with serious policy goals…
Joan Walsh: Warnock Wins, But Jim Crow and Liberal Self-Sabotage Are Still Alive in Georgia: ‘And the coalition that helped defeat the GOP is fractured and needs attention…
Steve M.: In a Sane America, the Georgia Senate Race Would Have Been a Rout: ‘I'm happy… but it shouldn't have been close…. Herschel Walker… won 48.5% of the vote in November and 48.6% in the runoff…. Grievances still motivate Republican voters…. Imagine this race plus a GOP that didn't disdain early voting… a Walker endorsement from Saint Ron DeSantis. He could have won…
In the long 20th century, the great social disruptions produced by Schumpeterian creative destruction were largely counterbalanced in their effects by extraordinary increases in wealth. Now Kevin Daly and Tadas Gedminas of Goldman Sachs tells us in which social disruptions continue—fueled by global warming as well as technological change—but income growth and thus economic opportunity rapidly slows. A wolf-fanged century, perhaps?:
Chris Anstey: Ditch the Sunglasses: ‘Looking out to 2075, Kevin Daly and Tadas Gedminas caution that world growth, which has already dimmed over the decades, is heading further south. Much of the slowdown is thanks to a deceleration in population gains…. The duo highlights that a slowdown in productivity has been seen over the past several years in both emerging markets — which are further away from the frontiers of technology and so have more catching-up potential — as well as developed economies. That suggests that the culprit is a weakening in the globalization of trade, they wrote. This is something that goes beyond just shipments of goods, they added — “it encapsulates the growth in the cross-border movement of goods, capital, people, technologies, data, and ideas.” “It seems unlikely that the global economy will regain the rates of productivity growth achieved during the 2000-2010 decade,” Daly and Gedminas said. “Moreover, the possibility of an outright reversal is a key risk to the global outlook.”… As for economic rankings by size, the top three in 2075 are projected to be China, India and the US, having just been overtaken by the South Asian giant…
Another convert to Piketty’s theory of a “Brahmin Left”:
Ed Luce: America’s shipwrecked working class: ‘Union Joe’ Biden is not quite the deliverer he vowed to be: ‘Labour’s share of US national income steadily dropped…. The shrinking corners of America that are still unionised are mostly in jobs where they are least needed, such as the police and prisons…. This trend is deeper than whether Trump or Biden is on the ballot in 2024…. Democrats are the party of the campus with a cultural agenda that alienates a rising share of uneducated whites and non-whites, and Republicans who are skilled at harvesting blue-collar resentment of elites who pay little more than lip service to their needs…
I am very glad to see somebody saying it. I was starting to think I might be crazy:
Aaron Rupar & Noah Berlatsky: Ron DeSantis is not moderate: ‘Don't be fooled by Elon Musk and National Review…. DeSantis doesn’t paint himself orange and is a professional politician rather than a reality TV star. That much is true. But in historical terms, and in relationship to the values and policy preferences of the American electorate, he is not normal or moderate…. That DeSantis may run against Trump shouldn’t distract us from the fact that he is consciously dedicated to imitating and extending Trumpism. The people pushing DeSantis as normal don’t oppose Trump because they dislike his policies or his methods. They oppose Trump because he didn’t impose those policies and methods forcefully and successfully enough…. The right doesn’t want “moderate” or “normal.” The base — and not just the base — likes the Trumpian style of rage and hate all the time. They like the idea of disenfranchising everyone who might oppose them…. From the perspective of the National Review, the big problem with Trump isn’t that he’s a bigot; they’re bigots too. It isn’t that he’s a fascist; they think fascism is fine. The problem is that he keeps losing…
Yes, the media-industrial-advertising complex continues to be a major threat to America and it's prosperity. Any more questions.?:
Heather Cox Richardson: December 6, 2022: ‘Biden... undercut[s]] the radical right by ignoring its demands and demonstrating an America in which everyone works together to solve our biggest problems. His trip to Arizona... about “the American manufacturing boom.... But reporters immediately asked if President Biden would visit the border in Arizona, bowing to a right-wing talking point.... The news from the right-wing faction in the nation often seems to steal the oxygen from the sober, stable politicians trying to address real issues...
Apropos Vox: meanwhile, as usual, Cory Doctorow digs into the backstory with suggestions as to what should and should not be done to improve the situation structurally, in this instance with Facebook as his focus: https://pluralistic.net/2022/12/07/luck-of-the-irish/#schrems-revenge, and what this would mean for the advertising market and publishing, among other things.
Matt Yglesias might be "very smart", but I would take him more seriously if he ever once acknowledged any of his own blind spots, biases, and lack of experience in certain spheres (particularly but not limited to public education where he claims to be an expert but has never experienced as a student, employee, or parent).