Much has been made about Ezra Klein’s move to Vox Media. He eschewed traditional outlets like the Washington Post (or, perhaps more likely, they weren’t interested in funding his pet project) for Internet upstart Vox Media. In some ways, I applaud Klein’s entrepreneurial spirit. If the Post doesn’t want his idea, he’ll make it a reality somewhere else. On the other hand, is there anything more insipid than explanatory journalism? This new-fangled term is Klein’s way of saying that he will fully explain every subject to his sadly uninformed audience. He and Vox will dive into every nitty-gritty detail while still following the daily news cycle.
What interests me, though, is how this approach can so completely miss the big picture. Take Matthew Yglesias. This past weekend he penned a post about how egg prices are falling. Ostensibly, this was driven by the fact that it was Easter and many Americans paint Easter eggs. How droll. Easter (breaking news) is the Christian celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. This is an audacious claim and one that must be grappled with. Over the years, journalists have produced plenty of columns about the creeping secularization of the holiday, or how it’s celebrated around the world, or any number of serious, non-religious topics. But falling egg prices? Come on.
I have some sympathy for Yglesias. He is one of the few honest progressives online. He’s willing to engage in debate and actually say what he thinks. For the purpose of dialogue, this is useful. However, here he’s fallen into a trap that so many young writers do (myself included): electing to be topical over writing anything of substance. Every day there are new trending topics online and a relatively simple way of keeping one’s page views up is to select one of these topics and write on it from one’s conservative/progressive perspective. However, there are times when being topical doesn’t trump one’s complete inability to add anything useful to the conversation. Yglesias’ piece on Easter is a wonderful example of this. Easter is too large in its implications, both religiously and culturally, to devote any thought into the niche economic theory that underlies falling egg prices.
This represents a hole in Klein’s detail-driven approach. With journalists focusing on the minutia of stories, they are in danger of missing the big picture. So one question I would recommend Yglesias, Klein, et al, to consider when writing any of their stories is: “So what?” Then perhaps I’ll roll my eyes less at their banal columns.