In the past year, there have been two high-profile resignations in the media world that were conducted in protest: the mass departure of the bulk of The New Republic's editorial staff in late 2014 and the exit this week of two top editors at Gawker. At first glance, it would seem that these two organizations have little in common; one is a venerable magazine that is more than a century old and the other a news site for the cool set that began its life as a media gossip blog. But it turns out that these rebellious editorial staffers fell on their swords in the face of the same nemesis, whose growing influence, depending on whom you ask, either portends a sustainable business model for serious online journalism or a further descent into the kind of mindless hell that Clickhole excels in parodying.
I am speaking, of course, of Vox.com, the explainer site founded by Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and Melissa Bell. It is a site that many people, on both the right and the left, love to hate. It also was something of a shadow player in the respective controversies that led to the exodus from TNR and to the existential dilemma that has suddenly engulfed Gawker. A look at the appeal of Vox, to both advertisers and audiences alike, may help explain why this budding success story has led so many journalists to enact their very own Howard Beale moments.
The implosion at TNR, you will recall, involved owner Chris Hughes pushing out the magazine's editor, Franklin Foer, over their differences on how best to navigate the new media landscape. Hughes' point man in this struggle, CEO Guy Vidra, emerged in media reports as a kind of stock villain from Silicon Valley, a walking mishmash of buzz-phrases about "breaking sh-t" and "vertically integrated" digital media companies — and he was also, it turned out, a big fan of Vox. In the case of Gawker, the two editors, Tommy Craggs and Max Read, resigned after the company's founder and head, Nick Denton, pulled a story that had been heavily criticized for outing a private citizen who works at the magazine conglomerate Condé Nast. In the messy aftermath, it became clear that the retraction was part of a broader reorientation toward a gentler Gawker — "Vox but a little edgier," according to one staffer quoted in New York.
It would help, at this point, to define Vox, an entity that has, like the word "hipster," become almost meaningless, a receptacle for various grievances about ideological bias, traffic-whoring, and new media in general. Vox was launched as an explainer site, an expanded, standalone version of the popular Wonkblog that Klein helmed at The Washington Post. Wonkblog was a great journalistic enterprise, rising to prominence at a time when the news was dominated by immensely complex issues, from the causes and effects of the Great Recession, to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. It ushered in a new kind of journalism, one that made sense of very thorny policy questions while cutting through the insane death-panel-esque spin that surrounded these issues at the political level. Its DNA is now embedded everywhere on the internet, from The New York Times' excellent Upshot vertical to Gawker itself, which publishes explainers that manage to be both informative and very funny at the same time (a sample question from Gawker's take on the explainer's customary Q&A format: "Tell me why to hate TPP?").
But Vox is not an explainer site, not principally anyway. Like all news sites whose primary focus is not on-the-ground reporting, Vox specializes in opinion, commentary, and aggregation. It essentially takes the news (in other words, what is happening in the world at any given moment in time) and frames it in a way that appeals to its young, liberal audience. If it shares a worldview with the likes of Slate, it has rejected Slate's trademark of approaching issues through a counterintuitive lens, instead characterizing its views as self-evident truths. (To pull but one recent example: "Next time someone says racism isn't real, show them this 3-minute video.") The stories are overwhelmingly positive, affirmative, and uplifting ("The unexpected and ingenious strategy of Obama's second term"), traits that are known to win the favor of the great Facebook horde. Other, bigger sites like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post do this kind of work at a higher volume and an even sunnier wattage, but Vox is different in that it is coated in a wonkish veneer that makes it appealing to the "smart," affluent audience that advertisers covet.
No site is immune to these trends, whether they are imposed by corporate executives skipping over the rubbled ruins of the firewall that once guaranteed editorial independence or adopted by editors themselves in pursuit of the higher traffic that will provide them with a modicum of job security. (A quick look around this site will undoubtedly reveal the glass house from which I write.) But this approach has serious drawbacks, one of which is that it can lead news sites to parrot the Obama administration's line. The White House is unsurprisingly quite fond of Vox, and Press Secretary Josh Earnest has even tweeted links of Vox stories with messages like "the headline says it all." (The headline in question was "'I would give it an A': Why nuclear experts love the Iran deal.")
But the main problem is that this kind of journalism leads to a numbing sameness, turning the media into a cheerleading squad for liberal victories and an outrage machine for liberal defeats. (Not discussed in this essay is the conservative media, which caters to a totally different demographic.) It is particularly problematic for sites that are constitutionally unpleasant and color outside the lines of the neoliberal consensus — two qualities that characterize Gawker and the old TNR, both of which had a penchant for brilliant, merciless attacks on liberal pieties that could sometimes fail spectacularly. I won't be the millionth person to kick the old TNR's corpse, but suffice it to say that Gawker's controversial story badly misread the cultural terrain. To add my grain of sand to the pile-on, it was needlessly cruel and plainly outside the realm of fair journalistic inquiry. And in media terms, it broke the Vox rule of positive reinforcement as hard as you can break it.
This is not to say that the new TNR is Vox-lite, or that Gawker is destined to explain stories that do not need explaining. It is to note that Vox's model is successful, and that Vox is expanding as a result — putting pressure on everyone else to be more like Vox. This could mean that the new media is going to be more tolerant, less racist, and less homophobic. It could mean that the once lawless internet is finally giving way to a kind of self-generated etiquette (the enormously popular site reddit is undergoing a similar transformation). Or it could mean that the news industry is sinking into a mire of banal groupthink. Only time will tell.