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March 25, 2017

Digital Native Ezra Klein Finds Post-Post Voice; Will Lewis Hops into New Frying Pan at WSJ

The trials of legacy newspaper companies are apparently without end.

This month, we see two quite different challenges confronting two of the most prestigious newspaper companies: the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The Post bids adieu to three next-generation journalists, people who had freshened the sometime stodgy brand of the Post. Sunday, it became final: Wonkblogger Ezra Klein and two cohorts are taking their talents to digital media chain-in-the-making Vox Media (Good David Carr column on wider context). The Journal today begins its first full week in the post-Fenwick era, going Lexless, as its CEO exited quickly, stage right, its next leadership — and direction — much up in the air.

There’s a parallel here. Hard as they try to make the digital transition, the challenges legacy companies face are knottier than the start-ups. Vox Media, Buzzfeed, Gawker, Business Insider and even the now-veteran Huffington Post can single-mindedly focus on building new business, on growth, for the most part with speculative capital more interested in growth than in long-term staying power. Vox knows how to make the digital business spin fast, in traffic and ad generation, though it faces an uphill battle in making a business of the Klein journalistic mission. The Post and the Journal must manage the old businesses and the new ones, balancing the two, spending money differently and making different choices.

Let’s look quickly at each of them and what their choices portend.

Certainly, we can look at the movement of Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, Slate’s business and economics correspondent who will join him in the new Vox venture, as part of the movement of high profile talent around the web. We’ve got the various recent examples of Andrew Sullivan, Nate Silver, David Pogue (“The Newsonomics of David Pogue and the Pujols Effect“),  Katie Couric and the reincarnation of AllThings D as ReCode. They are each differing twists on a similar theme: The national digital news expansion has created a kind of free agency that hardly existed in the old print/broadcast world. Talent can be bid on, with new money competing against the old. We first saw such free agency among sports columnists, as ESPN poached mouthpiece after mouthpiece away from the top dailies and gave them megaphones and multiplied compensation.

A few of the 2013 migrations will be successes; others will fail. We’ll learn more about the sustainable viability of reader-supported sites (the Daily Dish experiment updated at GigaOm), about star power and whether Kara and Walt can re-create their audience, advertising and event business as the Journal swaps out ATD with WSJ.D.

Perhaps, most interesting in the Klein/Yglesias+ move is the generational component. Klein is 29 and Yglesias is 32, while Klein’s defecting Post compatriots are 34-year-old Melissa Bell and 23-year-old Dylan Matthews.

As Post editors said about Matthews, upon announcing the departures: “Dylan Matthews is a wunderkind in his own right. A blogger since middle school, Dylan had freelanced for Slate and worked at the American Prospect — before his 18th birthday. He started contributing to Wonkblog while still a student at Harvard and jumped in full-time in 2012. Last year he launched Know More, which was an instant hit. We will miss his humor and sharp instincts for what works on the Web.”

Here, largely unlike the defections of 2013 (Nate Silver is now, gasp, closer to 40 than 30, at age 36), we have digital natives creating their own version of a serious, impact-seeking national news site. In Ezra Klein’s Sunday-published declaration of intent, we hear:

“Today, we are better than ever at telling people what’s happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what’s happened. We treat the emphasis on the newness of information as an important virtue rather than a painful compromise. The news business, however, is just a subset of the informing-our-audience business  —  and that’s the business we aim to be in. Our mission is to create a site that’s as good at explaining the world as it is at reporting on it.”

Those sentences are highly accurate and yet convey how hard it is to describe a journalism that serves readers in new ways only digital media can enable. Better to convey it: Wonkblog and Ygelsias’ work for Slate.  No few nouns describe it.

It’s not mainly the youth of the voices that define it. It is rather an updated sense of how to do journalism. At its best, it’s direct, often visually conveyed, intensely fact-based and — always — a work in progress. It recognizes that a story of the moment is a story that is all but a snapshot. The past matters (and is covered in links), the future matters (as next steps are central) and the conversation around the story is as important as the story itself. Wonkblog does what so many legacy news operations have such a difficult time doing: curating the best relevant stories and posts from other news organizations and sites.

There may be a wider political context here. Is Wonkblog highly political? Yes, in the truest sense of the word. It embraces politics — as in our case, the art and science of self-governance, and the belief in it — but does it in what we may call a post-partisan way. It doesn’t accept the tiresome dogma of left/right, progressive/conservative, Democrat/Republican. It tries to get to fact-based answers. While the Post as an institution is The Beltway, Wonkblog has tried to escape its boundaries. In that journalistic quest, we may hope to see a re-definition of our wider political discussion — over time, of course.

Of course, the Post — which deserves so much credit for the Wonkblog creation and expansion — will move on with its own reinvention. It’s got the name Wonkblog, just as the Journal kept All Things D, but now must decide how to use it. Is it a ghetto, and with what kind of voice? Is the Post, going forward going to be the voice of one generation — let’s call it the Woodward generation, or something newer, younger and fresher, in addition. Additive voice is tough, and that’s the task of the post-Klein Post. Whatever it based its decision on to not fund the new Klein enterprise — the risk/return in reader and ad revenue — it must find ways to turn the next generation of civic-minded readers into paying customers. The Vox move is a setback in that pursuit.

Over at the Journal, the tech site switcheroo offers just a side drama to the larger questions the Journal faces. WSJ.D, as put together by global tech editor Jon Krim is brimful with tech news, assembled by an expanded staff. Yet, its voice is so far unclear, a parallel issue to what the Post now confronts anew.

The big question, of course, is the Journal’s overall leadership and direction-setting. Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the Journal had lost competitive mojo in its war with the Times (“The Newsonomics of Momentum in the WSJ/NYT Battle”). It seemed clear that the parent Dow Jones needed a fresh approach, but CEO Fenwick’s leaving still startled many. Now, new News Corp CEO Robert Thomson has appointed Will Lewis to be interim chief executive. Given News Corp’s short bench, he doesn’t appear to have much competition for the permanent job.

Lewis is a strategic thinker, who led editorial innovation at London’s Telegraph 2005-2010, when the Telegraph was the toast of the digital innovation world. Losing out in a Telegraph power struggle, he and three of his top execs landed at News International, News Corp’s UK arm. Just as they were beginning to form new strategy for the money-losing Times, Hackgate exploded. Lewis became Mr. Fix-It, the best “honest broker” News Corp could find. As the scandal widened, it consumed a good two years of his time, and he has only lately re-emerged as chief creative officer of the new split-off News Corp. Now, the Fenwick mistake fixed, he’s been shuffled into a new unexpected role. (A semi-complete Will Lewis file, compliments of the Guardian.)

While his management style is sure to be welcome after Fenwick’s much-publicized my-way-or-the-expressway manner, his business management experience is underwhelming on paper. Fenwick brought a strong B2B experience to Dow Jones two years ago, though lacking fatefully in the Journal’s B2C business, Lewis has neither. As he makes initial assessments (with the strong guidance of Robert Thomson, who helped build much of the Journal leadership team that Fenwick disassembled), he’ll be faced with two kinds of challenges: strategic and executive.

Thomson, in firing Fenwick, pledged to fix the new DJX product, which is causing major issues in Dow Jones’ B2B markets. Fixing it is one thing; divesting it may be another. Why is News Corp, a profoundly consumer-oriented company, in the B2B business at all? It simply came along when Rupert got the company of his lifetime, the Journal. Though it has supplied more than a third of DJ profits, this may be a new time of reckoning. An investment banker testing of the waters for the Factiva business and the niche financial products lines could well be in order. (It will now be tough for Dow Jones to sell off its Dow Jones Wires, a more mature business, since the DJX transformation has meant the integration of DJ Wires journalists into one WSJ/Newswires+ group.)

After making his first decisive move as CEO in firing Fenwick, one of Thomson’s next major decisions will be whether to keep Dow Jones’ B2B businesses, or sell them, allowing the company to focus single-mindedly on the next generation of Wall Street Journal growth.

Certainly, the biggest question is how to re-rev the Journal’s engines. Fenwick replaced most of the exec corps, as I pointed out. Critics have complained that too many are more experienced in B2B than B2C and that a Bloomberg groupthink pervaded the place. Whatever the truth of that, it’s never comfortable to be the people recently hired by the guy newly fired. Whatever individual talents are present, and there are strong ones, Lewis will have to decide quickly who to keep and who to add. The profound questions of new product development, sales strategies and reader revenue innovation demand that.

Will Lewis looks like the man in the new hot seat, but, of course, he could truly be interim. In a search for a permanent CEO, it’s possible that the 132-year-old Dow Jones could even do the unthinkable and hire a non-Brit, perhaps, even an American.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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