Together with his co-founders, including Matt Yglesias, a columnist at Slate, and Melissa Bell, the Post’s former director of platforms, Klein intends to hire dozens of people to build a journalism site that will operate, they say, differently from anything already existing—a 21st-century encyclopedia as much as a digital news site. The new venture is the boldest statement yet of the media critique that has fueled Klein’s career. It is also part of a sudden surge of creative experimentation and big-money investment in digital journalism. All of which might help explain why, that evening at UCLA, a man who has built a career on the precise, dispassionate explanation of a complicated world was holding forth like he was giving a ted talk. “We want to think really hard about how to connect not just new information,” he said, “but to bring it together with important contextual information to create a more thorough source and place to understand the world.”
At UCLA, Klein extolled the newspaper he had just left, calling his tenure at the Post “one of, if not the greatest honor of my life.” It was “an amazing newsroom” full of “amazing people” who would continue to do “unbelievably amazing things.” He is at pains not to have his departure from the Post reflect in any way negatively on the paper. Nonetheless, he was always a bit of a misfit there.
When he was hired by the Post, Klein was 24, and already better known than many of the journalists on staff. He had first attracted attention as part of the Bush-era “netroots” phenomenon, the wave of liberal bloggers who, among other things, railed against what they saw as the centrist media’s failure to take on the president. After moving his blog to the American Prospect in 2007, he built a loyal core audience and scored a valuable insight: that a densely data- and policy-focused website could, counterintuitively, attract a larger audience than ones with more facile coverage. The Post took notice, and set about wooing him.
The paper Klein joined in early 2009 was retrenching. Raju Narisetti, who had been hired by editor Marcus Brauchli to integrate the then-separate web and print divisions, was trying to caffeinate the place. He saw in Klein, with his world-beating spirit, workaholic output, and prescient enthusiasm for shareable charts and data, a catalyst for that process. “It was like throwing him in the midst of unbelievers and proving otherwise,” says Narisetti. “I’m sure things weren’t that easy for him in the beginning. A lot of people at the Washington Post in traditional reporting roles lacked an appreciation that storytelling on the web can be a lot more engaging if you don’t rely just on words.”
Other things they lacked an appreciation for: Klein’s youth and his circumvention of the traditional rung-climbing. Five years earlier, he’d been a college kid blogging from his dorm room. Now, in a small cluster of cubicles in the middle of the business section of the newsroom, under a pendant sign reading WONKPOD, he built Wonkblog into a fief of its own.
Klein’s gift for explicating the complex is such that Rachel Maddow, on her MSNBC show, introduced “The Ezra Klein Challenge”—a recurring feature in which he raced a two-minute countdown clock to explain Ambien-strength topics like Spanish debt yields. He is an evangelist of argument-by-spreadsheet: A large number of Wonkblog posts consist mainly of a chart or graph. Once, after he’d had a long day, I watched Klein guide a finger sideways through the air, graphing the rhythm of the past twelve hours in illustration. “It’s calm, it’s calm, it’s calm,” he said, before spiking his finger upward to reflect the evening energy burst his schedule required. “Instead of a linear distribution,” he said, “it’s a power-law distribution.” Klein approaches food, the closest thing he has to a hobby, with similar purpose and exactitude: He and his wife, New York Times economic-policy reporter Annie Lowrey, used to manage their weekly meat consumption using a points system Klein compares to cap-and-trade without the trade. Even his indulgences seem the product of a man who is crunching data and plotting his joy. He ate at El Bulli before it closed, owns a sous-vide machine, and has interspersed his mostly policy-related tweets with declarations like “I’m officially adding fresh figs to my list of favorite foods.”
Wonkblog was, on its own terms, a success. Together with its spinoffs, technology-focused the Switch and viral-oriented Know More, it has been by far the Post’s highest-profile profit center during the past few years. Visitor traffic to the sites grew quickly, peaking at “well over” 10 million page views in some months, according to a person with knowledge of the site’s numbers; in 2013, Wonkblog alone reportedly averaged 2.7 million monthly visitors. The economics writer John Cassidy recently guessed an annual revenue of $1.2 million, but this person says the blogs make “a fuck-ton more money than that.”