“The four things You Need to Know About Ezra Klein” could be described, respectively, as the psychological narrative, the coming-of-age narrative, the structural narrative, and the quest narrative. If it were left to Klein, he’d give by far the most weight to No. 3. “Oh, yeah, I pushed it at times,” he allows. “And I’m not saying it’s entirely wrong, but I think it’s a classic mistake to entirely work backward”—to assume an outcome was predetermined by character traits.
He sees himself as a beneficiary of technological trends in journalism and as having been in the right place at the right time. He often thinks about how his life could have turned out differently. If he hadn’t been rejected by the college paper, he might never have become a blogger. If Yglesias hadn’t responded to the first e-mail he sent him, he might not have become a prominent one. Because Klein was a college kid when blogging took off, he was in a position to parlay it into a career more easily than, say, a lawyer who was blogging on the side. “It’s very, very easy for me to imagine another world in which I’m the same guy and have all the same ambitions and hopes and dreams, and it just went nowhere,” he says.
Lowrey has a name for her husband’s penchant for processing the world as a matrix of impersonal forces: “Kleinian structuralism.” “I can’t overstate the degree to which he applies this to virtually everything,” she says. “If he sees a couple that’s a handsome man and a homely woman, he’ll be obsessed with what’s the missing variable that would explain how this could be working.” It’s also the prism through which he has made sense of his bullying experiences. “I thought a lot about why my life changed,” he says. “And I really felt, well, the change wasn’t so much me but my ability to opt into cultures that fit me better.”
Klein’s first in-depth attempt to overlay this worldview onto Washington was the book he sold in 2012, which he describes as “an effort to see Washington less as the outcome of individuals’ decisions and campaign tactics, and more to uncover the way it works as a coherent system that has internal systemic incentives and different parts affecting each other.” The manuscript was due this past July; he hasn’t finished it. He’s been consumed, instead, with what he calls “Project X.”
Klein’s theory of the news grew out of his frustration with the industry’s relentless presentism, with the fact that, because media organizations prioritize what’s new (that’s why it’s called news), an article about the latest development in Syria’s civil war would likely not mention the single most important fact necessary to understand what is happening: the historical enmity between Alawites and Sunnis. There is little allowance made for readers coming to a story late and an assumption that anyone who’s been following a story over time will remember all the relevant contextual information. Klein was constantly getting e-mails from readers asking questions like “I don’t understand how the subsidies work in Obamacare” and wrestling with how to better serve them. “When you’re trying to come up with a good approach to reporting on the bleeding edge of where the conversation’s moving,” he says, “you’re just leaving a lot of people who aren’t on the bleeding edge of that conversation out.”
The answer, as Klein sees it, lies in the handling of what he calls “persistent content,” the more static information that makes the new stuff make sense. And here, he believes, the Internet has untapped potential. Traditional media organizations have taken advantage of the Internet’s speed but not its longevity. “People set newspapers on fire, they use them for wrapping fish,” Yglesias says. “The Internet does not have that property. What I don’t think we’ve gotten is that you can make things last longer than in print.” People who think about digital journalism distinguish between what they call unchanging “stock content” and ephemeral “flow content.” Klein believes that distinction is unhelpfully stark. “We’re interested in ending the ‘versus’ there,” he says. “We believe there are rivers and lakes of content that work together.”
Wonkblog has gestured in this less novelty-fixated direction, with lots of “explainers” and aggressive resurfacing of old information. While Klein is being circumspect about the operational details of Project X, he suggests that breaking-news squibs could be very short and attached to constantly updated background articles, a bit like Wikipedia entries written by professional journalists. Long features might be regularly freshened up. Last year, for instance, Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews, who is joining Klein at Vox, wrote a profile of Stanley Fischer, who was then the central banker of Israel; now that Fischer has been nominated to the U.S. Federal Reserve, a definitive profile has a much greater chance of attracting traffic, and Klein imagines being able to direct Matthews to re-report it and “build out a new Stan Fischer profile off of this skeleton.”