A flurry of journalists have been launching news sites lately, each with a formidable amount of hype, but rather than applaud this as a golden age for journalism, the media echo chamber was quick to pull out the knives.
The pile-on at Vox, which launched this week, started before the site went live, with conservative bloggers labeling it as left-wing propaganda and the mainstream media criticizing it and its founding editor Ezra Klein. When Vox did launch, the founders made attempts at humility, emphasizing that Vox was a work in progress (in contrast with Silver’s 3,500-word manifesto), but critics still panned it as underwhelming. Pando called Vox’s explainers “little more than glorified slideshows.”
“It reminds me of [when] there used to be magazine launches and people would tear it apart,” said New York Times media columnist David Carr, one of the few who wrote a sympathetic column about Klein. “I think it’s always been a reflex that’s existed with new product launches, and when it comes to any product launch in the media space, it becomes acute.”
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, in an unusually revealing column about Times culture, wrote that Silver’s disruptive approach to covering the news ran against the grain at the paper. Carr made a similar point. “I don’t think it’s strictly professional jealousy as much as, we as a profession have made it a business to fit in and these guys are in the business of standing out.”
Klein should feel better that he’s not alone. Nate Silver’s relaunch of FiveThirtyEight last month was teased in dribs and drabs, as Silver breathlessly informed his over nearly 700,000 Twitter followers to “stand by” for each and every new hire. It’s no surprise that when when FiveThirtyEight finally debuted last month that many were disappointed. “Too superficial for smart and informed readers, yet on topics which are too abstruse for the more casual readers,” huffed Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen. The drumbeat of criticism reached a crescendo when Silver’s former Times colleague, columnist Paul Krugman, said the site underdelivered.
“Newness almost always surprises and usually disappoints people,” said Josh Marshall, who founded political news startup Talking Points Memo in 2000. “That’s why almost no one ever likes a site redesign on day one. There’s also jealousy. But in each case we have founders who had something that worked amazingly well in a tightly confined, focused context now trying to cover lots of topics for a general audience. That’s a massive and challenging transition with no guarantee of success. A lot of bumps along the way should come as no surprise.”
First Look Media, backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and fronted by Glenn Greenwald, elicited criticism for Omidyar’s ties to Ukraine activities and for having a loosey-goosey leadership structure.
Certainly, there are real questions as to whether these sites can make it as a business — Michael Wolff, the curmudgeonly media columnist, said the notion of business success for these efforts is “just preposterous” — but the criticism belies something more. Journalists have always been an insecure bunch, and at a time when news is still searching for a workable business model, the idea that someone could strike out on their own and take on the establishment stokes fear rather than admiration.
A little more humility could always help, of course. Choire Sicha, co-founder of The Awl and ex-editor at Gawker, said Vox’s video manifesto “made me want to kick them. It was like someone coming in and saying, ‘We’re the smartest dudes in the room.’”
His broader complaint is that he doesn’t see these new sites as enlarging the financial pie for journalism as much as redistributing it. “There’s also a valid criticism that — well, who does get VC funding? Not to discount [Vox’s] Melissa Bell. She’s terrific. A lot of us on the Internet look at it and we kept making jokes, like, it’s been a great month for white guys.”