Marty Baron is partly right about the Washington Post and Ezra Klein — but mostly wrong

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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

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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

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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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