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Blogs review: The wonk bubble

What’s at stake: There’s been an interesting development phase in the news industry with fresh money being poured into ventures that want to become the next big thing in how America consumes content. As the supply for serious, empirical, and quantitative analysis of (so-far mostly US) policy grows, we’ll learn whether the demand for wonkery is big enough to make these ventures profitable and sustainable.

By: Date: April 14, 2014 Topic: Global Economics & Governance

What’s at stake: There’s been an interesting development phase in the news industry with fresh money being poured into ventures that want to become the next big thing in how America consumes content. As the supply for serious, empirical, and quantitative analysis of (so-far mostly US) policy grows, we’ll learn whether the demand for wonkery is big enough to make these ventures profitable and sustainable.

The rise of the wonk

Henning Meyer writes that the digital niche media market has entered another very interesting development phase, at least in the US. More and more well-known authors who made their names in the emerging digital age have left their mainstream publications to start smaller and more targeted publications with an edge.  Whether it was Nate Silver, who left The New York Times to build up his blog FiveThirtyEight, Glenn Greenwald, who left The Guardian to found The Intercept, or most recently Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias who started Vox.com, there is a clear trend in this direction.

Felix Salmon writes that if you’re in the market for serious, empirical, quantitative analysis of national policy, the East Coast Media Elite has you covered like never before. Tess VandenDolder writes that the success of FiveThirtyEight and then Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog on The Washington Post, has inspired many other major publications to try to build their own internal homes for data journalism. The New York Times is launching The Upshot, to focus heavily on visualizations, while The New Republic and the New Yorker are building special verticals within their respective sites to focus on the wonkish aspects of policy.

Michael Wolff calls this the auteur school – in which the business shifts from being organized by institutions to being organized around individual journalists with discrete followings. Andrew Sullivan, a blogger first at the Atlantic and then at the Daily Beast, may be the grandfather of the auteur school, leaving the Daily Beast a year ago to set up his own subscription site.

Technology and the development of explanatory journalism

Ezra Klein writes that the constraint of newness was crucial when the dominant technology was newsprint: limited space forces hard choices. You can’t print a newspaper telling readers everything they need to know about the world, day after day. But you can print a newspaper telling them what they need to know about what happened on Monday. The web has no such limits. There’s space to tell people both what happened today and what happened that led to today. But the software newsrooms have adopted in the digital age has too often reinforced a workflow built around the old medium. We’ve made the news faster, more beautiful, and more accessible. But in doing we’ve carried the constraints of an old technology over to a new one. In an interview, Ezra Klein explains that they want to be able to take the reader from not knowing anything about a subject to having a working understanding of it.

Joshua Gans writes that journalism has tended to be reactive rather than preparatory. That is, a news story breaks, there are some quick reports but no one really knows what is going on and the expert journalists don’t have time to explain it at the time. Then it evolves, more features get done and we reach some state of knowledge a few days later. Vox seems to be evolving towards a different model. Its ‘explaining cards’ are a form of preparation. They are things the journalists make and manage to keep up to date so that when a story or development breaks, they can easily refer to them. That means that when a reader becomes interested, the background information that is trusted is at hand. The cards themselves are pretty dry but, in the right place, at the right time can potentially help people understand what is going on a little better. Gaps in knowledge are filled and we can be brought up to speed.

Profitability and the wonk niche

John Gapper writes that suddenly, after a prolonged drought, fresh money is pouring into US digital news. The strange thing is where it is going. Instead of mass-market publications – the online equivalent of newspapers or network television – it is being directed to elite start-ups whose editors prefer hard-nosed analysis of data to splashy headlines. Felix Salmon writes that all of these ventures claim to be in it for the money: They’re for-profit entities that see real financial value in providing accessible wonkery to the online masses. But is that really credible? Is there any realistic hope that the tens of millions of dollars being poured into these sites will ever pay real dividends for the media companies hiring all these eggheads? Or is the Wonk Bubble just the latest bandwagon, an act of desperation from fearful executives who don’t want to seem behind the curve and who have no real idea what they’re doing?

Michael Wolff writes that the flight from journalist institutions has much to do, obviously, with what everyone assumes to be bleak futures within them. But, curiously, the escape is to an even more difficult economic landscape. At a cost per thousand advertising rate on the web or in mobile of $1 or $2 – pretty standard – Ezra Klein will make, optimistically, $8,000 a month, before expenses, if he has a million readers (assuming four page view per unique visitor). Klein apparently has the idea to build out his brand to encompass much more policy coverage, perhaps attracting more visitors and offering more pages to view. Still, it’s hard to think how the 8-figure investment he is reportedly seeking, could ever, in a million years, pay off.

Tess VandenDolder summarizes Felix Salmon’s argument that the move toward data journalism is a sign of a media renaissance.

  1. News websites are built to provide "fast, accurate explanation and analysis of current policy debates."
  2. Advertisers crave the educated and affluent audience that reads wonkish content.
  3. Journalists are free to present their own opinions and analysis without worrying about objective reporting.
  4. There is a low cost to data journalism, since most information is parsed from other news sources.
  5. The wonk bubble is still small.

Felix Salmon writes that the Wonk Bubble might be inflating pretty fast right now, but it’s still tiny in comparison to the news business as a whole, which means it could potentially keep on growing at this pace for quite a while. The wonk niche is getting lots of headlines right now, mainly because so many high-profile pundits are changing employers or starting new projects. But it is still a niche, and a pretty small one at that. The same thing is likely to happen with the wonks. As the Wonk Bubble continues to grow, and online news organizations become more comfortable with this new form of journalism, you’ll increasingly find that the wonks’ journalistic techniques—the explainers, the charts, the accessible-yet-informed voice—will appear all over the news file. Eventually, a separate wonk site will feel as quaint as a separate blog site feels today. 

Felix Salmon writes that the more wonkery there is, the more valuable it becomes. Wonkery is like the diamond stores on New York’s 47th Street: Each one makes money not despite the nearby competition, but because of it. Back when wonkery was confined to the early-2000s blogosphere, it took real effort to seek it out, and the audience was primarily other bloggers. In the era of the social web, the potential audience for such material has grown by orders of magnitude.

John Gapper writes that one notable aspect of this trend is that it is confined to the US. Only the US has a big enough market, and sufficient venture and philanthropic capital to fund such experiments. The French-language market, for example, is having trouble supporting mass media, let alone intriguing niches.


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