Explanatory 'Verticals' Give Big-Name Journalists More Power

Jan 3, 2014
Originally published on January 7, 2014 12:26 pm
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Recently, we've heard of some big changes at several news organizations involving some of their most prominent journalists. At the Washington Post, the founder of the popular policy site Wonkblog, Ezra Klein, is weighing a departure. And the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are both scrambling to set up dedicated news teams to replace journalists who have left in pursuit of more money and independence.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our studios in New York. And David, these sites - like, say, Wonkblog - they're called verticals in the news business, right? What does that mean?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, what it means is you've got this digital presence. You think of it as a site and a blog, but it's run by a team of people with expertise in the area they're covering. And they're really relentlessly focused on the subject at hand but in, at times, an off-the-news way. They may explain what's happening in the news instead of breaking what's happening in the news. They'll find things that illustrate it metaphorically or with incredibly analytical data-crunching. And they'll find different ways of getting at the problems and issues behind the headlines rather than the headlines themselves.

CORNISH: It used to be called the beat, right?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, yeah, except it's not just a question of who was named to what. It's a question of what drove the decision that you're reading about on the front pages. It's a little complementary rather than replacing traditional reporting.

CORNISH: So what's the state of play for Ezra Klein at the Post?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he apparently - this has been reported by Huffington Post and now, in more detail, by the New York Times - he went to his bosses at the Post and said, look, I'd like you to invest many millions of dollars - the Times said it was an eight-figure request - to really build this up and expand what he did in explanatory journalism beyond the health care policy, economics and federal policy that he had focused on, to a broader array of issues.

You know, the Post has been in some economic trouble. It was recently bought by a billionaire - Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon. Ezra Klein may have reasonably thought there was some money to play with there, but they may have said this is putting a lot of money on a specific project. They weren't ready to do it. He's thinking whether to go independent or seek a new home.

CORNISH: And you report this is as part of a wider trend. Tell us more about what's going on at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's take the Times first. You may remember FiveThirtyEight was all the rage during the 2012 elections, as people clicked on to see what the polling would suggest about what would happen in November. He decamped - Nate Silver, the creator of that blog - from the New York Times to ESPN, which gave him more latitude to explore his analysis and approach to sports and to entertainment.

Similarly, perhaps more meaningfully at the Wall Street Journal, you had something called AllThingsD - for digital; a familiar phrase, perhaps. Kara Swisher, a reporter, and Walter Mossberg, the digital device reviewer for them, had set up a franchise where they had this vertical, this online presence as well as a presence in the newspaper. But they also had an enormously profitable conference business that they had set up.

They felt they made profits for a dozen years for the Wall Street Journal without a heck of a lot help from the home office, and they decided to spin that off. They created something called Re/Code. They're doing it in partnership with NBC News and CNBC, the financial cable news division. But they have controlling ownership stake in it. They've brought onboard an investor - Terry Semel, who used to be the CEO of Yahoo!

But it's a way in which you're seeing this upending of who controls what the content is, and what the nature of these verticals are; and you're seeing the Journal and the Times scrambling to replace them with new ventures - in the Times' case, being led by David Leonhardt, the former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times.

CORNISH: Now, how are these changes affecting the nature of journalism?

FOLKENFLIK: You're seeing a lot more conversational style. You're seeing shorter journalism. You're seeing more visual, graphics, video, audio, different approaches blended. But what I think you're really seeing is a pivot; where the balance of power going from these major, famous, you know, world-renowned news organizations to many of the journalists who have really driven online digital traffic for them. People like Ezra Klein have been really important for the Washington Post in the digital age, and that's given him a lot more power than he would have had 10, 15 years ago as a reporter, or even as a columnist.

CORNISH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thank you.


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