Here, Let Ezra Explain

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

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.”

Klein, standing at left, visiting Washington with his family in 1989.Photo: Courtesy of Ezra Klein

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.”

Perhaps the only person unsatisfied with Wonkblog’s growth was Klein himself. In addition to posting regularly on the blog and overseeing his staff, he wrote a weekly print column in the Post and another weekly column for Bloomberg View, and still found time to write long articles for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Plus he sold a book to Simon & Schuster. At MSNBC, he got a contract as an analyst.

When, in late 2012, the Times reported that he was likely to be offered his own MSNBC show, it made sense. Maddow had demonstrated it was possible to be smart on the idiot box, and countless journalists have made the transition from print to TV, with its promise of fame and a bigger salary.

One evening last January, I sat with Klein at the MSNBC studio near American University in Washington, D.C., as he was getting ready to guest-host The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell. It was clearly part of an ongoing audition for his own show. But even though Klein has a pleasant TV persona, you could see the tension between his desire to be good at hosting and the sense that it wasn’t the most comfortable fit. When a producer suggested that Klein ask Barney Frank about supposed anti-gay remarks made by Chuck Hagel, the nominee for secretary of Defense, Klein deflected: “I just don’t think that attack on Hagel is very interesting.” Later, he anguished over his opening line about Obama’s choice of Hagel. “I kind of want to write, ‘It was the worst day for neoconservatives since the day Vice-President Cheney shot a dude in the face,’ ” he said to me. “Which is a funny way to open the show. But I feel like, Do I need to poke Dick Cheney? This is the thing about TV that I do find hard: It rewards a sharpness that I wouldn’t use in my writing.”

Klein ended up cutting the joke, Chris Hayes ended up getting the MSNBC job, and Klein’s guest-hosting became less frequent. Suddenly, his next move looked uncertain. “He has a bit of the conquistador in him,” says Lowrey. “Everything he does, he’s kind of looking around at the women and the goats and the huts.” With TV off the table, he spent much of the past year planning something ambitious enough to hold his attention but that would take him away from cable TV and, for that matter, the whole personality-driven news business that he finds problematic.“I think the brand part of journalism is not gone, but as far as that being the hot new thing, that was a couple years ago,” he says. “My interest here is entirely about building a truly significant, central news property for the digital age, that if it succeeds—and it definitely might not—will be a huge company that is devoted to helping people, like a Wikipedia or New York Times. The wildest version of this has nothing to do with me.”

For someone who intends to reshape journalism, Klein has an unusual distaste for Great Man theories and a generic distrust of narrative. He prefers the X-ray power of the chart, the infographic, the bullet-point breakdown—of what he calls “data viz.” If Wonkblog ran a post about its creator, it would be titled something like: “The Four Things You Need to Know About Ezra Klein in One Chart.” Minus the chart:

1. Before Klein was a prodigy, he was a slug.

It had briefly seemed that young Ezra might be headed for bigger things when, at age 6, the L.A. Times wrote about his invention of the “Ice Cream Cooler and Melt Stopper,” a plastic guard so “my sister won’t spill everything anymore.” But his moment in the spotlight proved a blip in an otherwise lackluster childhood in Irvine, California.

When he was in seventh grade, a group of classmates formed a little gang, with cards identifying them as the Outlaws, and bullied Ezra and some other kids severely enough that the police were called. Ezra was overweight and unpopular; even in high school the bullying didn’t stop. “We were both obnoxious know-it-alls,” recalls his friend Tristan Reed, “and that’s an easy way to not have people like you.”

His sophomore year in high school, Ezra metamorphosed. Every day, for six months, he ate the same thing and ran three miles. He dropped 50 of his 220-plus pounds and started to focus more on how he dressed. “There was something that happened when he did lose that weight,” Gideon Kracov, his half-brother, says. “Something clicked with him.” Ezra was a voracious reader but a poor student, whiling away hours smoking pot and playing GoldenEye and Tony Hawk on his Nintendo 64. He says he graduated from high school with a 2.2 GPA and barely got into UC Santa Cruz.

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

2. He didn’t always fret about Cheney jokes.

The son of a Brazilian mathematician and an artist, Klein was introduced to Democratic politics through his half-brother. ­Kracov, a politically active environmental lawyer in L.A. thirteen years his senior, brought Ezra along to ride in a car with Senator Paul Wellstone, work the phone bank for Cory Booker, and march alongside Latino farm workers. To this day, their maternal grandfather, Leonard Kaufer, now 92, sends both Gideon and Ezra envelopes, two or three times a week, stuffed with annotated newspaper articles—kind of an analog proto-Wonkblog.

When Klein started blogging in 2003, his freshman year of college, it was as an outspoken activist. He worked on Gary Hart’s abortive 2004 presidential campaign, then briefly for Howard Dean in Vermont, and was among the bloggers invited to the 2004 Democratic convention. Like many bloggers, Klein’s early opinions could be acidic. Mickey Kaus was a “hack,” Thomas Friedman a “peddler of trite moderation,” and Dick Armey “like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”

But from the beginning, Klein’s blog posts seemed animated less by ideology than by good-government idealism and a broader media critique: that mainstream political reporting, with its focus on personalities and campaign drama and false equivalencies, wasn’t covering the important stuff, or covering it right. In April 2005, prompted by commenter response to a post about a think tank’s health-care report, Klein blogged a weeklong series of posts, each about a different country’s health-care system. “Everything was just ‘Bush sucks, Bush sucks,’ and Ezra comes along with ‘I want to do an international, cross-country health-care comparison,’ ” recalls Mark Schmitt, who would later edit Klein at the American Prospect.

At the Prospect, Klein learned to report, and he became an intellectual entrepreneur. Noticing that the magazine could use an authority on health care, he mastered the issue. Discerning the potential of online, he availed himself of the unlimited digital space to post detailed transcripts of long interviews. And when he took his show to the Post, his policy-focused approach to politics was, as much as anything, an identification of a market gap. “Ezra saw that there was unmet demand for this kind of content clearly in U.S. politics,” Reed says.

3. The stars aligned.

When Klein was starting out, the nascent liberal blogosphere was a place where the web’s flatness could work for you: No one was able to see that you still had peach fuzz as you were typing. Klein’s ascent dovetailed with the late-aughts domestic-policy boom. A president with a similar worldview had been elected, and for the first two years of the Obama administration, the Democrats ­controlled both houses of Congress, leading to the most prolific legislative era since LBJ. Obama’s three big pieces of first-term legislation—health care, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank—were the kinds of arcane and complex subjects Klein excelled at explaining. And blogs, iterative and unlimited in space, turned out to be an excellent medium for covering policy debates: You could go long and deep; you could repeat and revise and update and follow an issue’s evolution. This was especially true for covering ­legislation, and when Klein arrived in D.C., he had a first-mover advantage. The big outlets didn’t yet have star bloggers.

4. He worked it, too.

Klein succeeded in the blogosphere in part by reaching out to ­others. His chief inspiration was Matt Yglesias, another college-kid blogger and moderate liberal who’d initially been sympathetic to the case for the Iraq War, then changed his mind about it. Yglesias started linking to Klein fairly regularly, and Klein was persistent in soliciting links from other bloggers and asking to be put on their blog rolls, too.

It was Klein’s decision to transfer to a bigger school (UCLA) and, eager to get to Washington, to take on extra courses to graduate college in three years. He got on MSNBC by pestering producers until they booked him. And not long after arriving in D.C., Klein found a way to put himself at the center of a heady conversation: He started a listserv called JournoList, a place where left-of-center journalists, scholars, and policy folks could talk. “I think Ezra had a real determination to cross over and not be an outsider blogger guy,” Yglesias says. “He wanted to build bridges with people in the media.” When JournoList came under attack by conservatives, Klein’s friend Dave Weigel, a contributor, was forced out of the Post; Klein himself was quick with damage ­control, shutting the listserv down.

“Have you read A Sense of Where You Are?” Weigel asks. “Ezra has an insanely good sense, when he enters a room, a virtual room or a room at a party, of exactly what needs to be done before he gets out of there. He’s a really good guy. He also knows just what to do to make a good impression.”

“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.”

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.”

Here, Let Ezra Explain