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Summary:

Washington Post editor-in-chief Marty Baron defended his decision not to finance Ezra Klein’s vision for a news Wikipedia, saying it didn’t make financial sense. He was probably right — but the Post should have done it anyway

It’s hard enough being the editor of a newspaper like the Washington Post at the best of times — and these are clearly not the best of times — but it has to be even harder to try and defend your decision to tell a star blogger like Ezra Klein to take a hike, especially after he has just launched a well-received site financed by a competitor. Post editor-in-chief Marty Baron did his best in a recent Q&A, but in doing so he provided even more reasons to doubt whether the Post is thinking clearly about its future and how to get there.

Baron’s comments came after a recent speech to the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, one in which he expressed optimism about the future of journalism, and mentioned that having journalists like Klein leave to start new things was a natural part of the process and not a sign that newspapers were dying, etc. “Saying you’re the ‘next big thing’ and hiring a bunch of people is the easy part,” he said. In the question period that followed, Baron addressed Klein’s departure more directly — here’s an excerpt of what he said, as transcribed by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Josh Benton:

“I think people have been left with the impression with the coverage that somehow he was trying to do this within the umbrella of The Washington Post, and that’s just simply not the case. What Ezra said when he came to senior executives at the Post — and I was the first one he came to, as far as I know — was that he wanted to create an entirely new news organization, something entirely separate from the Post.

And that he would be in charge of it — he would be the president, the CEO, the editor-in-chief, he would select the technology, he would select the advertising chief — pretty much everything. And it would exist outside the framework of The Washington Post. It was not a request for more financing for his venture within the Post called Wonkblog, which we had financed to the tune of millions of dollars over many years.”

Financially sensible, but still wrong

Ezra Klein

Baron went on to say that Klein was looking for a sum equivalent to 10 percent of the Post‘s entire annual newsroom budget, which works out to about $10 million (although Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, Klein’s new boss, has cast some doubt on that figure in the past), and that he simply couldn’t justify spending that kind of money — especially on something that would live outside the Post as a separate entity, controlled by Klein.

Marty Baron is not a stupid man, so this argument makes a lot of sense. He is running a large newspaper, one whose financial health is still somewhat dodgy — despite the fact that it is now owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — and spending $10 million on a wild idea from a single blogger to create a kind of news Wikipedia probably seems like a dumb thing to do. As far as we can tell, Bezos thought it was dumb as well, or he would have cut some kind of deal.

But as Felix Salmon at Reuters points out, this is exactly the kind of bet that the Post arguably needs to be making at this point. Does it need to husband its resources and try to make its existing business more economically sound? Of course it does. But it needs to make some big bets as well, I think — and backing Klein would have been a smart one, as I tried to point out before he left the paper to start what became Vox.

Josh Benton said in his post that some of the coverage of Klein’s departure falls into the “preconceived narrative that Newspaper People Are Dumb And Internet People Get It,” and there is much truth to that. And all I would argue is that newspaper people like Baron need to take some leaps of faith if they are to survive the disruption going on all around them.

As Salmon notes, what Klein was proposing wasn’t really that different from the model that Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg pioneered with All Things Digital — a standalone site that was wholly owned by Dow Jones, but run as a separate entity. Of course, Dow Jones arguably failed to really take advantage of that model even when it was working well, and eventually Swisher and Co. left to join NBC Digital instead with Re/code (is that because Dow Jones is dumb? Of course not. Just unable to see the forest for all the lumber).

An alternate future that could have been

newspaper boxes

As more than one person noted even before Klein left the Post, the newspaper has already missed one potentially large opportunity of this kind by allowing the team that formed Politico to leave and set up a competing organization. Why make it a two-fer with Klein? Picture this as an alternative future: the Post chooses to keep Politico’s founders in-house and gives them enough financing to start a standalone site that effectively accomplishes the same thing, except that it is either wholly-owned or majority-owned by the Post. Then the paper funds Ezra Klein’s Project X using the same model, and maybe one or two other things as well. What does that future look like compared to the one it has now?

In some ways, as Salmon points out, Ezra Klein is better off with a company like Vox, which understands digital technology and how to build new platforms — something the Post understands about as well as it understands quantum mechanics. And Politico is probably better off as well being a standalone entity.

In fact, its debatable whether either one would have become what it is now if it had been started within the Post. But it would have been interesting to see them try, and the Post would likely have learned a lot in the process. And if they had succeeded, it would have had an ownership stake in two digital-only entities that could have become growth engines in a way the Post website likely never will.

Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Thinkstock / Janie Airey and Flickr users Son of Broccoli and George Kelly

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  1. It really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t choice for WaPo if Klein really asked for $10M.

    Really there needs to be a middle ground for folks like Klein within organizations like WaPo (or Silver, or Swisher or whoever).

    WaPo could have given him something, maybe $1M budget (10% of his original ask) for a year to let him begin with the understanding that the business value of it would be addressed again in that time.

    ie: What would have been the MVP and how much would WaPo need to invest to just get to that MVP (minimum viable product).

    Folks like Klein would have to be willing to play that game, but in many respects it’s a good bet to take. You get to innovate, prove the worth of your idea and do it within the cozy warmth of an organization that might actually learn something from your iteration/MVP.

    It’s definitely a compromise – but one that I’d love to see. Basically the Wonkblogs/538’s of the news world need to evolve from being “blogs” under an umbrella brand to being brands owned by an umbrella company.

    /.02

    1. I agree, Dave — $10 million is a lot of money. And perhaps it would have been better if Ezra had asked for less, or been willing to settle for a demo or beta test of his vision. I still think the Post should have tried harder to keep him somehow. Appreciate the comment.

      1. But, Matthew, that would have required either a) the Post to be a junior partner in an enterprise it doesn’t control or b) demanded Klein to be a junior partner in a business he started, but the Post controls.

        Because this is the reality. Let’s remember that a reason why Klein started Vox was because he wanted independence from WaPo, something he could never really get as an employee. Starting Vox under the Post umbrella — or even with the Post providing nearly all the initial seed money — would have unlikely to happen unless Ezra was willing to give up significant control. That wasn’t going to happen.

        Also think about it from the position of WaPo: Klein was asking the Post to provide seed money for a venture that he wanted to control with minimal input from it. Even if it was just $1 million, there was no way any smart investor — especially one that is also potentially a competitor in the space — would do this without expecting significant input into operations and strategy. Ezra wasn’t going to want that at all.

        From where I sit, both WaPo and Klein dodged a bullet. This is especially true given that arrangements similar to what you are proposing (All Things Digital on one end, Deadline Hollywood on another) have worked out badly for either the companies or the creative types involved. Ezra is now free to go out and get a wide array of venture funding that allows him to operate a little more freely. And WaPo can now figure out how to innovate within its current structure.

  2. i have made comments on Washington Post articles and they offer an invitation for me to subscribe that i am considered worthy to pay for supporting them. Reuters tells me i have to obey them if i wish to comment on what i read for free. i have shown them and others @slayerwulfe using twitpic and other sharing sites, that i do not obey. if you want me to register to comment, make me register to read first. I think Klein understands and all of you should look, our high courts have declared that all that comment are journalist and i may comment on anything,whenever,wherever.
    slayerwulfe

  3. Klein should not have asked for less money, and he dodged a bullet when he left the Post for Vox. People forget that, for all its (increasingly stale) prestige, the Post is a very local business, and it has never had the readership and resources of the NY Times. Politico needed to leave. Klein needed to leave. The Post’s regular revenue panics and broken leadership would have dragged them down. My concern for Klein is that he waited too long to jump.

  4. I think the more revealing moment (which came after the section Josh Benton quoted) is when Marty Baron said that Klein’s proposal had “nothing to do with the future of the Washington Post.”

    That… is quite a statement. It makes me doubt that they understood the proposal.

    1. I disagree, Jay. Marty understood the proposal. It’s just that he saw the landscape — and it is littered with examples such as All Things Digital (which didn’t work out well for News Corp., and was inconvenient for Kara and Walt), Deadline Hollywood (which worked out great for Nikki Finke until she sold out in the hopes of building a Hollywood trade rag empire), and even RealClearPolitics (which is now in a stalemate between the goals of its founders and that of Forbes). With the chances being high that an investment in Vox would not work out the way WaPo wanted, why risk it?

      That said, WaPo does need to figure out a way to survive and thrive in the new media landscape. It’s just that it wouldn’t have happened by investing in Vox, especially without having significant input. And that, in turn, would have not worked out well for Ezra because he wants independence. Otherwise, Klein would have just stayed with WaPo as an employee.

      1. I don’t know about your other examples, but did All Things Digital not work out for News Corp. because they didn’t know what they were doing or how to take advantage of it? I would argue that’s the case.

        1. Not necessarily, Matthew. I think part of the issue with All Things Digital is that the inherent structure of the arrangement — a new media minnow within a larger organization whose revenues are driven largely from old-line businesses — wasn’t ever going to work. There’s a reason why Henry Luce and Briton Hadden started Time as a stand-alone business instead of within the Baltimore News (and why nearly every successful media company started life as an independent start-up): There is little room for innovative businesses to happen within old-line structures. Even if News Corp. knew what it was doing or how to take advantage of it, structural issues would have gotten in the way.

          There’s also the reality that Kara and Walt wanted to do what they wanted to do. They wanted independence and that couldn’t remain that way forever so long as All Things Digital was under News Corp’s umbrella. Remember: People, especially us media types, start businesses largely because we don’t want to continue working under bosses and not reaping the full rewards (in terms of room for solo decision-making as well as money) of our labors.

          Again, Matthew, I think WaPo and Klein dodged a bullet with the former’s decision to not fund Vox. Will it work out for either in the long run? Who knows.

    2. I totally agree, Jay. It makes me concerned about Marty’s vision of the future.

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