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Summary:

After his offer of a co-ownership deal was rebuffed, Wonkblog founder Ezra Klein is leaving the Washington Post for his own venture — a departure that reminds more than one media watcher of how the Post lost what would eventually become Politico.

As many media watchers expected he might, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein announced on Tuesday that he has left his former employer for an unidentified new venture, after publisher Katharine Weymouth and owner Jeff Bezos reportedly rejected his demands for $10 million in funding and a staff of 34 to run an independent site. For many Post-watchers, Klein’s departure sounds a lot like when the founders of Politico — also former Washington Post staffers — quit to form their own site, a loss that many believe the Post was unwise to allow.

In a surprisingly gracious internal memo that briefly took down the Poynter website after it was posted there, the Post said that Klein would be missed, calling him a “brash wunderkind,” and wishing him the best in his new endeavor. The memo also mentioned that two other staffers — former Post head of platform and blog development Melissa Bell and blogger Dylan Matthews — are also leaving to join Klein in his new venture (according to one recent report, the Post made an offer to Derek Thompson of The Atlantic to take over Klein’s role but he refused).

The Post may regret losing Klein

Not much is known about where Klein plans to set up shop with his team, although there has been speculation that he might have either obtained venture funding for a standalone operation or is planning to join Vox Media — rumors that are based primarily on his recent Twitter behavior.

In just the past year, we have seen a number of different models emerge for journalists like Klein, who built his personal brand up over time as editor of the Post‘s Wonkblog. Some writers, including former New York Times blogger Nate Silver and the team behind All Things Digital, accepted offers from other entities (ESPN and NBC, respectively), while others have forged ahead on their own — as former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin has with her subscription site The Information, and as Andrew Sullivan has done with The Daily Dish.

For at least some of those who have been watching the back-and-forth between Klein and his former employers over the past few months, the scenario where a talented group of political writers leave to start a new venture after being rebuffed by Post management sounds awfully familiar, because the standalone site Politico was founded under exactly those circumstances in 2006, by former Post editor/writers Jim VandeHei and John Harris.

Newspapers need to do more experimenting

As I tried to point out in a recent post about Klein and the speculation that he was leaving, there is an argument to be made that the Post should be trying harder to hang on to talented writers and journalists like Klein, who has built a substantial traffic-generating and brand-building operation within the newspaper over the past few years. Although $10 million for a semi-independent unit seems like a lot, the potential value of keeping him within the newspaper’s fold is also significant.

As Kara Swisher of Re/Code (and formerly of All Things Digital) noted in her comments to Dylan Byers at Politico, cutting a deal like the one Klein tried to make is difficult at best, in part because newspapers like the Post hate to not own and control 100 percent of the things that fall under their brand — as Swisher knows full well, from having exactly those kinds of negotiations at various points with the Wall Street Journal about her former site.

This kind of “not invented here/owned by us” mentality is arguably one of the biggest stumbling blocks for major media entities like the Post and the New York Times when it comes to launching new ventures or experimenting with different formats. While the Post has been better than most at trying new things, such as the Trove news-recommendation engine or the Facebook “social reader,” they still seem to be wedded to controlling everything themselves — and so far at least, their new owner hasn’t altered that approach.

My personal view is that the Post and other papers need to get rid of that stumbling block and embrace more co-ownership models and other alternative methods, or they will eventually lose every single Klein-like writer they have.

Post and thumbnail image courtesy of Shutterstock / lenetstan

  1. Trevor Butterworth Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Just what part of Amazon suggests a splitting of the Post brand into Post-Klein was ever likely, let alone reasonable?

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  2. Samuel Clemens Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Interesting idea if there could be some kind of affiliate relationship. Or newspapers could just die.

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  3. Christopher Fotos Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Radley Balko. The Volokh Conspiracy. Bellwethers I presume. Experiments that cost less than $10 million. Bezos is just getting started.

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  4. Trevor Butterworth Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    I think your comment is spot on Christopher: Klein overplayed his value. The Post’s big mistake was canning Brian Krebs when it merged its online and old world news rooms. He now gets about a quarter or the monthlies that the entire wonk blog team gets. Why? Because he is the go to cyber crime reporter. Which means he has an a-list tech audience. Swisher is a marquee reporter with a powerful conference audience. Silver is a pollster. Klein is just not in their league – he’s not actually a health economist.

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  5. What went wrong with newspapers is that they had journalists like Klein making business decisions while the business teams were essentially glorified ad salespeople not capable of making any decisions, besides where their next meal would be. Nowhere in the leadership mix were the type of quantitative MBAs you see in other industries. Newspapers could get away with it when they had a geographical lock on an audience, but with the slow death of the printing press and delivery trucks, most can’t compete. Based on his superficial writing, especially when covering business issues, I’d put Klein’s chance of success at about the same as his winning the new billion-dollar basketball pool.

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