On January 24, at five in the morning after his final day at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein awoke in his condo in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood; sent out his final Wonkbook, the daily policy briefing e-mailed to more than 40,000 subscribers; and flew to California to visit UCLA, his alma mater. It was a Friday, and that evening, a few hundred students had gathered in a campus ballroom to watch two seers of the digital future chat about disruption. Klein was there at the invitation of Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, who was touring college campuses to promote his up-with-innovators book, Without Their Permission.
The event had a whiff of Palo Alto tent revival. As students took their seats, speakers blared EDM. Ohanian took the stage and began a comic spiel that was part entrepreneurial exhortation—the word awesome got heavy rotation—and part crowd-pleasing appeal to generational self-regard. He spoke of “the incumbents” (Silicon Valley–speak for Those to Be Overthrown) and, affecting the Batman villain Bane’s camp baritone, said, “They merely adopted the Internet. We were born in it. Molded by it.” He spoke of “the haters” and “the gatekeepers,” as a LOLCat-style photo was projected on the screen behind him showing a bespectacled granny over the caption WHAT CHANNEL IS THE NETFLIX ON?
Then Klein, who is 29, lope-strutted onstage to join him. By temperament, Klein is less of a revolutionary than Ohanian. He has never even fit the stereotype of a young Washington striver, exactly—he is more self-effacing than abrasive, and his boundless drive seems less about maximizing power than projecting his worldview and amassing successes. He has done this, in part, by insinuating himself into the Washington Establishment, and he is skeptical of technologist worship. While Ohanian whipped up the crowd with visions of Internet domination, Klein was a tempering voice, reminding the students of their extreme privilege and taking aim at the lionizing of Silicon Valley innovators. “I don’t think there’s anything all that heroic, honestly, about being Mark Zuckerberg,” he told the crowd.
But Klein isn’t a completely different breed from Ohanian and his fellow insurgents. For starters, he has expectations of his own accomplishments that, in their own, more earthbound way, rival Zuckerberg’s. He arrived in Washington a self-made outsider from the West Coast with a simple blog on TypePad. At the Post, he built Wonkblog, his explanatory politics and economics site, into a destination read with abnormally high traffic figures—especially impressive since it was probably the most technical, policy-dense part of the paper. As Nate Silver did during his three years at the New York Times, Klein functioned largely autonomously within a mainstream news organization; he was a brand the Post needed at least as much as he needed it.
And now he had decided he no longer needed it. Since reports to this effect began surfacing several weeks ago, the question of whether he would leave the paper behind—and for whom—had become a matter of feverish conjecture among journalists. Much of the chatter focused on the notion of journalist-as-brand, on the tension between individual online stars and the larger traditional news organizations they work for and, sometimes, leave. Last year, Andrew Sullivan had decamped from the Daily Beast to start his own, subscription-based site; Silver had left the Times to build a site of his own with ESPN’s backing.
Klein had met with “a lot” of suitors, among them VC billionaires, investment funds, and traditional media companies, before settling on Vox Media, a group of media websites including SB Nation, the Verge, and Eater. But in one crucial respect, all the commentators were misinformed. Klein wasn’t seeking to spin off what he thought of as “super Wonkblog”—that is, more of the same work he had done at the Post, though with greater independence and a bigger budget, and with his name splashed on top. Instead, he was looking for someone to fund something much riskier, something a guy like Alexis Ohanian could get behind.
It is “a software-eats-the-world idea,” Klein told the crowd at UCLA. During his eight years working in Washington, he had become convinced of a structural flaw in the way journalism is practiced—and he believed he might know how to do it better and very profitably. “We think there are a lot of ways in which the technology underlying journalism is reinforcing habits developed, and workflows developed, back when we were tied to killing trees and printing them out and having children deliver them to people,” he said. He then set forth a more general analysis of journalism. The column inches devoted to the new are column inches not given to the important, and this stress on novelty is a holdover from when the cost of making and moving paper limited what you could print. “The web explodes that constraint,” Klein said. “We can publish War and Peace in the morning, then ten things on Obamacare, and then a hundred pictures of cats … And for all that, we haven’t created a resource that people can really use. We’ve just created a resource where it’s really easy to come and find out what happened today.”