Michael Kinsley Has a Bone to Pick With Vox

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Today’s worst person of the first 15 minutes of the morning is Michael Kinsley, who has some bones to pick with modern internet journalism, pioneered by people he calls “Ezras,” after Ezra Klein, founder of Vox. Here’s a sample:

An Ezra also will shuffle the deck and summarize ruthlessly. This seems to be an inherent tendency of the Web: the search for ways to put the news, and analysis of the news, in some kind of new order—something more satisfying than the random cacophony and confusion you must plow through today if you want to pass yourself off as well informed. But there are so many Web sites summarizing and shuffling that in fact you feel you are falling ever farther behind. This process of summarizing and shuffling is called “aggregation.”

….The fancier term is “curation.”…Some folks have yet another word for aggregation and related activities on the Web. They call it “plagiarism.”

Et cetera. You may rest assured that the internet is not letting this pass unnoticed. And truthfully, the whole thing does seem kind of silly. Kinsley admits that garden variety journalism has some problems (faux objectivity, fear of math, and so forth), but then criticizes Vox-style journalism for—what? Trying to make sense of complex subjects? That’s what all journalism does. Doing research as well as reporting? That’s what all good journalism does. Sometimes writing trivial pieces? If that were a firing offense, there wouldn’t be any journalism at all.

So I guess I don’t know what Kinsley’s real problem is. Vox-style journalism does rely more on research than traditional journalism, and it does illustrate its stories with more charts than traditional journalism. And I’ll confess that even as a chart addict myself, I think this can go too far. I usually scroll quickly by when I see a headline like “23 charts that explain the rise of ISIS.” Even chart addicts have their limits, and sometimes charts can impose a simplicity on a subject that doesn’t actually exist. Still, this is a minor complaint.

Personally, I think that if Vox has any problems, it’s with their favorite headlines. For example:

  • 7 winners and losers from….
  • ….explained
  • ….in 3 charts

However, even the Voxers seem to have realized that this stuff was getting out of hand, and they’ve cut back on these and other overused headlines. So, really, there’s hardly anything left to complain about aside from the lack of cats.

But here’s what I think might have been bothering Kinsley, which he either didn’t quite know or wasn’t quite willing to say out loud: Vox and similar sites appeal to people with a different esthetic than, say, readers of the New York Times. It appeals to people who aren’t afraid of numbers. It appeals to people who think reporting is just one tool of journalism, and maybe not even the most important one. It appeals to people who don’t mind journalism with a point of view (though I’ll concede that I don’t think Vox has found quite the right balance here). In other words, it’s built on top of the nerdy, wonky esthetic that built the internet. That esthetic doesn’t appeal to everyone, especially those who aren’t especially nerdy or wonky themselves. I suspect it doesn’t appeal to Kinsley.

But then again, the esthetic of Car & Driver might not appeal to him either. That’s because it’s aimed at a particular subset of the reading world. No one thinks that’s a problem, so what’s wrong with a more general-purpose news site that also appeals to a particular subset of the reading world? Beats me.

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