It’s gratifying when Ezra Klein quotes my work, since I admire what he and his colleagues Suzy Khimm, Sarah Kliff, Dylan Matthews, and Brad Plumer are doing at the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog. Wonkblog was relaunched and expanded this week. I think this is a particularly heartening development for the future of web journalism. (The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s support for the Incidental Economist is a second heartening development.) Many people are searching for a deeper, better, more economically sustainable model of policy journalism in the Facebook/Twitter/TMZ/whatever era. There’s no obvious path here, but this is encouraging.
Ezra is successful for many reasons. One is his quick grasp of the possibilities created through the web form. He realized earlier than most that the web allows you to go deeper than the space constraints of newspapers allow. Thus long-form interviews with Gang of Six senators or implementation experts. One can cover more specialized topics than would be allowed to clog precious general media real estate. Thus, one can write 1,300 words with promiscuous links to delve into the implementation challenges facing the CLASS act, natural gas pricing, or whatever without crowding out other things.
Of course that last point isn’t strictly true…. The internet is infinite, but the writer’s capacities and the reader’s attention span aren’t. The quickest and smartest journalist can’t cover everything with the diligence, the expertise, or the shoe-leather that these topics deserve. This is an especially serious problem because, structurally, the attention economy is a superstar economy. A relative handful of terrific journalists and commentators command an outsized proportion of readers’ time and attention. Other excellent people get less attention because, well, readers have only a finite amount of noontime websurf bandwidth Monday at 12:00. For similar reasons, and sometimes with the same stars, television viewers have only a finite amount of bandwidth 9pm Monday night to watch cable TV analysis of the day’s news.
This structural problem is aggravated by two other challenges. The short attention span of the clicking audience is fundamental. (Indeed you stopped reading 100 words ago.) The second, ironically, is the blessing and the curse conferred by our current politics. The exhilaration of the 2008 campaign, the unique figure of President Obama, the plain craziness of the Tea Party—these all push the blogosphere in the direction of an intensely personalized and partisan politics. Most of the time, there’s a bigger reward for firing partisan broadsides or for slamming Michele Bachmann’s strange statements about vaccines than there is in doing other kinds of work.
Don’t get me wrong. This political work is quite important. Nearly every day, the Wall Street Journal publishes misleading editorials. FOX News does the same. Jonathan Chait, the people at Media Matters, Eric Alterman, and other terrific writers perform an essential service by providing the required counterpunches and factual rebuttals. I’ve done quite a bit of this myself, and I’m sure I will do more of it.
Essential as it is, this is still a reactive enterprise, and (when done by less talented people than Chait and Alterman) often a shallow, polemical one. Someone needs to do more synthetic and analytic work. It’s not enough, as a journalistic enterprise, to know that the Wall Street Journal editorial page can’t be trusted on matters of tax policy. Someone needs to go beyond rebuttal to explore what actually would happen if we raised capital gains rates or altered the tax treatment of carried interest. Someone has to master the boring details of tax policy, to understand what options we really have in the taxation of multinational corporations, and so on.
It’s not clear that web journalism—or any form of journalism—has a workable economic model to ensure this work is done. Moonlighting amateurs, such as myself, can sometimes help. It’s not clear that this is a workable or wise model, either.
Reporters admirably surmounted these problems during the 2009-10 health reform debate. I’ve been criticized for saying this; it’s still true. Ezra, Jonathan Cohn, Robert Pear, and many others covered this story as well as any story has been covered in the history of American social policy.
In part, this coverage was excellent because dozens of journalists and policy experts provided excellent coverage of important issues that stars could not have mastered on their own. Indeed the stars often added the greatest value as generous aggregators, bringing attention to people such as Tim Jost and Howard Gleckman who brought their own A-games to specific matters that would otherwise have been readily ignored.
As the centerpiece legislative fight of the Obama presidency, health reform commanded the impressive collective resources of what is frighteningly labeled “legacy media.” The story unfolded slowly on a national stage, giving reporters time to draw upon a huge ecosystem of policy experts, advocates, clinicians, administration officials, and congressional staff. In the distance, there were clear legislative endpoints marking partisan victory or defeat.
A huge translational enterprise existed to bring technical policy and clinical material to public attention. One element of this enterprise consisted of semi-technical journals such as Health Affairs and the perspectives sections of JAMA and the New England Journal. Another element consisted of scholarly and advocacy communities that enjoyed relatively rich funding from a variety of sources across the ideological spectrum. My own public health career began through a post-doc as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy Research. The program’s social network was invaluable for my research, advocacy, and journalism during the health reform debate. Others had similar experiences.
But how many issues bring the same infrastructure? How many can really be covered like this? And what happens when the klieg lights are turned off? How are those state health insurance exchanges going? What about the hundreds of pages of insurance regulations. Will the Mayo Clinic et al. really want to be accountable care organizations? Who–besides the lobbyists and the advocates–are paying attention to the arcane, often-hidden, or boring implementation matters that will determine the Affordable Care Act’s ultimate success in controlling costs, in encouraging innovation, in helping millions of sick people obtain needed care.
Every morning, I wake up to a half-dozen stories that are clearly important and that any policy site should be trying to follow in some detail. Stories about the troubled implementation of the health-care and financial reform bills, stories about the wrangling over infrastructure spending and energy regulations, stories about the unusual power a bureaucrat or backbencher is exerting over an issue that affects us all. Stories that matter, but that I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to cover….
My goal as a journalist has always been to cover Washington through the lens of policy rather than politics, and to show that it can be done in a way that feels interesting and vital. But I’ve cheated a little: I’ve focused on the big stories, the A1 stories, the stories that everyone already knew they wanted to read and hear about.
At Wonkblog, we’ll continue to cover those stories. But we’ll also cover the stories that aren’t leading the evening news, but perhaps should be. I have felt personally ashamed that after spending so much time covering the passage of health-care reform and Dodd-Frank, I have spent so little time keeping you up-to-date on the efforts to implement the two laws. With Sarah and Suzy here, those stories will no longer go uncovered. I have always felt embarrassed that I know so little about energy and climate change, which are arguably the most consequential issues facing our economy, and even our planet. With Brad here, those topics will be covered.
There’s a crying need to convert opportunities created by the star system into deeper, more sustained web journalism. It’s not the right mission for every site. It’s right mission for this one. Good luck guys.