April 8, 2014

My sources say no to Ezra Klein's Vox.

Columbia Journalism Review has this:
It looks like a core editorial mission of Vox.com is going to be delivering those “really good, really clear, really comprehensive online summaries” of issues in the news. And its core innovation, at least for now, is “card stacks”—essentially, standing explainers that break a topic down question by question, chunk by chunk. In an oddly analog analogy, they’re modeled after the index cards you might have used to organize your school notes—click on a yellow-shaded phrase in a card, or in a main story, and it’ll take you right to the corresponding card.
What's odd about the "analog analogy"? It's a computer convention, going back to the desktops and trashcans of the 80s. Macintosh came out on January 24, 1984, the winter before Ezra Klein was born. Index cards and highlighters are doubly dorky, both because the real-life tools are associated with college nerds of a distant era and because of the old computer cliché of making things on screen seem like something in the real world.

Why fiddle with Vox's card stacks when there's Wikipedia? It's easier than Googling for background and clicking on the Wikipedia article (which is what nearly always comes up first), but you have to want to stay intra-Vox, and how good are those cards?

Seth Mandel at Commentary tested out the card on Ukraine:
It’s a smooth and readable interface, but the product itself basically comes across as targeting those without the attention span for Wikipedia. Klein has hired the Washington Post’s foreign-affairs blogger Max Fisher to “explain” foreign policy to Vox’s readers. And the Ukraine explainer has a somewhat surprising conclusion.

The backgrounder on the Ukraine crisis has (at least as I write this) 20 “cards,” each with a subheader meant to answer a specific question about the issue. Because the Ukraine crisis is evolving and escalating in real time, readers will wonder what to expect in the near future. Card 17 presents this opportunity, titled “Is Russia going to invade eastern Ukraine?” Good question. The answer, however, was revealing not about Ukraine but about Vox itself.

As John Tabin noticed last night, Vox’s answer seemed to change within the hour, from “At this point it looks pretty unlikely” to “there are growing reasons to worry that Russia may also try to annex some parts of eastern Ukraine as well.” Why the sudden change? Read on, and it becomes clear. The next card is titled, accurately, “You didn’t answer my question!” Indeed Vox did not answer your question. “This is very much a work in progress,” Fisher continues. “It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.”
Seems like the analog analogy is a Magic 8 Ball.  Reply hazy try again.
Suggestions for further reading about the Ukraine crisis include five major publications: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading these publications – indeed, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe is a great source for Russia-related material and the NYRB contributor Vox suggests is Timothy Snyder, certainly an expert on the region.

But if you’ve slogged through 19 cards for a Vox explainer, what was your reward? A suggestion that if you want your questions answered, you should really be reading actual reporters and experts. Vox, then, appears to be a collection of road signs, pointing you in the right direction. 
Signs point to yes traditional media... Wikipedia is like that too, in its footnotes. You can opt to trust the summaries or click through those links to the sources when you feel mistrustful. Over time, if the summarizing site is good, you build up trust and you stay on the site and you keep going back. That's what Vox is trying to do. It's a big traffic strategy, perhaps with special pull for the desirable demographic: very young people. I'm thinking of readers who lack enough background to read the news and (probably) who like a comfortably liberal spin to the background and don't feel talked down to by editors who've pre-highlighted their text and shared their index cards.

Allie Jones at The Wire says:
In an attempt to catch everyone up on everything, Vox provides us with title cards like "What is an Easter egg?" and "How do you board a train?" While Klein calls these "Vox Cards" a core part of the site, they don't seem to provide any information that you can't get on Wikipedia or About.com....

And here's Erik Wemple at The Washington Post (the traditional journalism site from which Ezra absconded):
Yesterday Klein & Co. posted a bunch of articles on Vox.com. Check that, actually: In the words of Klein and a couple of colleagues, they launched the “beginning of our effort to build the vast repository of information that will make it possible for us to explain the news in real time.” Such flashes of insufferability bring yet more scrutiny, more motivation for the naysayers to poke at the new venture.
And here's the NYT article "Vox Takes Melding of Journalism and Technology to a New Level," with photos of the Ezra and others posing in their office space as if cued to look intensely focused on the project of transforming journalism. (Like this.)

Here are the last 2 paragraphs of the NYT article:
Ms. Bell said Vox.com would start with roughly 20 reporters with expertise around specific topics, a limited travel budget, and, of course, very inchoate technology.

Ms. Bell confessed that she was both “excited and terrified” to go out with a product that has had just three months to gestate. “I worry people will say, ‘Hey, you guys promised us magic,’ ” she said, “and I’ll say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Give us some time and we will get there.’ ”
Hey, you guys promised us magic...

Very doubtful....


Scott said...

It's called "Vox" because "Talking Points Memo" was already taken.

Bob Ellison said...

Everybody's a media critic nowadays. Althouse, Jon Stewart, even Obama.

What if Vox works out, though? They might dumb media down enough for people to digest it.

Doesn't seem like a good business model, though. Stewart is funny.

Anonymous said...

Start with a subject. Filter the results. Filter the filtered results. Re-filter the remaining re-filtered results. End with the word "the". It always comes down to "the".

Big Mike said...

Vox is the title of a book by Nicholson Baker about a couple of strangers having phone sex. I assume the title is copyrighted.

YoungHegelian said...

I think we're starting to understand why Jeff Bezos didn't want to pony up big bucks for this undertaking.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

The whole project sounds like an indictment of the failed public education system. People should ALREADY know those things from traditional sources, or at least have been taught the fundamental human nature principles that would allow them to work good answers out for themselves.

Things like: What's Putin likely to do? - well, mix "the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior" with "when bullies see weakness, they do not back off to reconsider the inappropriateness of their bully behavior - they push on".

That sort of thing.

MayBee said...

I don't find the index cards as a study help nerdy, and I think the card idea sounds charming. It simply sounds poorly executed.

Ezra has enough fans in high places (msnbc, Obama) that Vox will be given many chances to work.

The comparison to the Magic 8 Ball is perfect.

Anonymous said...

Uh, "card stacks"? You mean, like the old HyperCard program I used back in the late '80s?

Wow. Hyperlinking. What an age we live in.

rhhardin said...

Analog computers used voltage values to solve differential equations, the circuit being an analog of the equation.

Fast, easy, limited accuracy because the components of the circuit had limited accuracy.

Digital computers were expensive and clunky but had unlimited accuracy if you spent the money.

Now they're beyond cheap.

Analog then came to mean anything not digital, including the original objects of the analog analogy.

rhhardin said...

I still have flash cards of Hunsberger's Quintessential Dictionary.

It seemed like a shame to throw them away after I went to all the trouble to make them.

Drago said...

It is my understanding that Bezos and his people were never pitched the concept of this effort.

It was apparently the Post leadership and Graham family that nixed internal funding, primarily in keeping with a policy to not fund ventures that emphasize any "other than Washington Post" branded activities.

PB said...

I don't think any computer industry individual would refer to that as "analog". Writing words and numbers on paper would still be digital, however speaking it would be analog as would be recording those words on an analog audio recorder.

Ezra's new venture should be called "Echo" because all he is doing is echoing the liberal/progressive/democrat party line. Obama Echo might be better.

mccullough said...

Best of luck to them

SE Flores said...

The description of Vox reminds me of a syndicated television show back in the 70's-80's called "PM Magazine" where a local TV/Radio personality would introduce a packaged story done elsewhere. A comedian (Paul Reiser?) did a routine about the intro's and show along the lines of: "Tonight we're going take you to a 'restaurant', a place where people just like you can go and get food made for them by someone else. They choose what food they want by reading a 'menu', which is a listing of the food the restaurant offers. Here's reporter Bill Smith with more..."

Michael K said...

I do agree with the comment that it seems intended for the poorly educated, meaning most college graduates these days.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere off in the hazy future, technology is merging with journalism to form a benevolent pure democracy database, where citizens can go to become better citizens. Some are serious, some are smiling, all income levels, races and classes mingle in the public square, happy to finally have their politics, thinking, and betterment available at the click of a notecard.

If the government can't do it, a raft of the right citizens can.

effinayright said...

Big Mike said...

Vox is the title of a book by Nicholson Baker about a couple of strangers having phone sex. I assume the title is copyrighted.


Vox is the Latin word for "Voice".
You can't claim a copyright an existing single word, since it's not a literary or artistic "work". Baker and the publisher likely assert a copyright for the book itself.

A trademark, OTOH, of a single word [e.g. Vox amps and guitars] is possible, when it identifies the company that makes them. Ditto with "Microsoft Word".

There's already a Vox Media Co., so I'm wondering if Klein can register a trademark for just "Vox". It might be construed by the Patent Office as "confusingly similar", which is a no-no.

Ann Althouse said...

"Uh, "card stacks"? You mean, like the old HyperCard program I used back in the late '80s?"

Thanks. I was wracking my brain trying to remember that. One of my sons used that years ago.

khesanh0802 said...

I think Erik Wemple's comment about Klein/Vox "flashes of insufferability" is perfect. It is probably something he has been waiting to say for a long time.

Klein is so stuck in the liberal mindset that, though his appeal may be strong to the uninitiated - UW Madison-types - it's hard to believe it will have staying power.

Ann Althouse said...

The other word I was trying to think of: skeuomorphism.

Richard Dolan said...

The audience is not, at least in the first instance, the poorly educated, but instead those looking for the 'approved line' on any current policy issue. It's a strange echo from the '30s and '40s, when the New Masses, the Partisan Review and other progressive journals tried to one-up each other, by offering the latest take on how to stay on the ideological right side of developments in the USSR. Klein wants to be the go-to source for the up-to-date 'approved line' for lefties (he might say sensible lefties) on all policy issues.

An even older model would be Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopdie, ou dictionnaire raisonne des science, des arts and des metiers (1751--). The conceit behind the idea that Klein (or Diderot) can provide the essential 'explanatory' journalism is that he is uniquely gifted with penetrating insight and analytical tools, and so can offer you all the answers. It didn't work out so well for Diderot & Co., just as the search for the always evolving 'approved line' eventually fractured the lefties of the '30s and '40s into warring camps. Given the times, I suspect that Klein's venture is even less likely to succeed.

Simon Kenton said...

E.B. White saw it coming. Digests. Digests of digests. Eventually all the news of the day was reduced to a single word. If Klein were actually a reader, he would have named Vox "Irtnog." It would also save a lot of baby electrons, since he could enlighten us daily with the single word that condensed all into itself, rather than horsewhipping his staff into reducing all knowledge to sententious cardlets. Personally - I'm hesitant to offer my guess to the learned commentariat at Althouse, but here's my attempt - I think the first issue should resolve to the single word "clatfart."

Tank said...

Steve Sailer takes apart a Vox article here.

Chris Lopes said...

Sounds like the late JFK Jr.'s attempt to create a political magazine for people who weren't really interested in politics. It stayed in business based on his celebrity alone, and passed on as soon as he did.

Klein doesn't have that kind of cache, so his is an iffy proposition at best. The low information voter he's aiming at isn't going to bother going to the site as he/she already knows as much about any current issue (usually from the Daily Show) as he/she wants to know. Even as a source for the latest liberal talking points, it has too much competition in that area to be useful.

RecChief said...

"“I worry people will say, ‘Hey, you guys promised us magic,’ ” she said, “and I’ll say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Give us some time and we will get there.’ ”"

is that barack obama or someone in Ezra Klein's office?

Jane the Actuary said...

Interesting contrast to fivethirtyeight.com. (Why do they call themselves that?)

No comments on the Vox site -- I suppose because they're your betters and there should be no need to talk back to or object to what they say, or converse about it?

The few times I've poked around the 538 comments, the readers seemed to be rather well-informed and articulate, not just full of name-calling.

Sigivald said...

So they've ... reinvented HyperCard?

In order to do Wikipedia's job, even more badly?

(I can't help but agree with Scott on how the slant of the content must inevitably end, given Klein's leadership.

It's not even that I necessarily think it's deliberate - but Klein's background assumptions aren't remotely neutral, and I'm not sure he knows that.)

John Stodder said...

to fivethirtyeight.com. (Why do they call themselves that?)

538 is the total number of electoral votes in play.

Anonymous said...

Haters gonna to hate...

Zero surprise that most critics of Vox are competitors.