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Here, Let Ezra Explain

Klein points to the Wirecutter, a technology site that posts continuously updated one-page recommendations for, say, the best monitor to buy right now. “They don’t review every monitor that comes out,” he told me. “They say, ‘Well, this is the thing you need to know as a normal human being.’ It’s one page all the time, and it doesn’t change, but the actual information on it changes. That’s a really important insight.”

This was a few hours before his UCLA talk, and we were sitting outside a nearby In-N-Out Burger, an old favorite of Klein’s. He had come straight from the airport and ordered two hamburgers for himself (any meat-consumption quota is suspended when he’s on the road). “When I was on the way here, I wanted to remember a couple of the secret orders,” Klein said, referring to In-N-Out Burger’s arcane glossary of off-menu options. “There’s a Serious Eats page that found every single one of them. It has 75,000 likes on Facebook. And the reason isn’t that when it was published it was a huge newsbreak. The reason is, people keep going back to it. I’ve gone back to it multiple times myself.” Klein expects to launch Project X with a focus on politics and economics, but hopefully expand it into other subjects.

Reports have put Project X’s budget at eight figures (which Klein doesn’t deny, though, as he points out, “what’s the window for that?”), and some observers have wondered whether Project X will ever attract enough of an audience to support itself. Most attempts to analyze Klein’s numbers have tended toward a crude calculus based on the dwindling commodity business of selling banner ads against digital journalism; at Wonkblog, though, and almost certainly in his new venture, revenues are driven not only by raw ad impressions but by customized ad products, special events, and sponsorships, which he (and Vox Media) believes are a much better long-term bet. But it is a bet—one of the chanciest to come out of the last few years of media upheaval.

When Klein first went to the Post with his idea, the paper passed, not because of money issues so much as that he wanted his own technology, and his own edit and business staff. Klein ended up going with Vox, a native digital-media network, because of its strength in those areas. At a News Foo “unconference” last summer, he heard Trei Brundrett, Vox’s chief product officer, and “it scared the shit out of me, because he appeared to have already built a lot of the technology I’d dreamed about.” The company later reached out to him. Klein will be the ­editor-in-chief of Project X and a Vox vice-­president with, according to Jim Bankoff, Vox’s CEO, “a senior voice in the company.”

Some of the reaction to Klein’s departure from the Post has been that the Post has once more blown it, just as some believe the paper did when it allowed its star political journalists to leave and found the web upstart Politico. Klein never saw it that way. “There’s a lot of ‘Here goes the Post again,’ which is kind of fucked up,” he says. “Politico could only be Politico outside the Post. It wasn’t that [former Post owner] Don Graham, who’s on the fucking board of Facebook, didn’t understand the innovator’s dilemma.” Klein thinks that it simply doesn’t make sense for an established company to fund a competing site, and that the Post was right to stay focused on its core mission.

Klein was surprised, he says, by the amount of media attention his new venture has already received. “There was a 24-hour period when we were going to revolutionize media and change everything,” he said last week. “Then there was a 24-hour period when we were doomed to fail. And then lots of older journalists were offended we’re using the term ‘content-­management system.’ ” This was clearly a reference to an article by George Packer on The New Yorker’s website, in which he’d pooh-poohed a common technology term as empty jargon and dismissed digital journalism as unreported. “It’s funny,” Klein said. “If he’d done a second of reporting, he’d have found out we’re going to do a lot of reporting. So there was a meta-hilarity to that.”

All the attention, though, has been valuable. As of last Wednesday, in the three days since Klein announced his new venture, he had received more than 600 résumés. “Yesterday, we were getting fifteen to twenty an hour,” he told me. At the same time, Klein was trying to dial back expectations, and to manage his own contradictory impulses to treat hero-narratives skeptically while also giving his own shot at history a proper sell. “We’re building an organization to solve these problems,” he said, “not saying that we already have at the outset. That’s not faux ­humility. We have some ideas I think are cool. I don’t know that they’ll work.”