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Policy Journalism Is Having Its Moment

Getty Entertainment: Dimitrios Kambouris/Staff

After weeks of media speculation—the kind you typically see around an NBA free agency, not a policy journalist contemplating a career move—Ezra Klein has confirmed that he is leaving the Washington Post in order to start his own journalism project. The news became public this morning, when managers at the Post issued a memo announcing the departure. Citing, among other things, Klein's creation of "Wonkblog," the managers called him a “wunderkind blogger” and promised to “take pride in watching him chart out his new venture.” Two of Klein’s colleagues, Melissa Bell (director of platforms at the Post) and Dylan Matthews (a Wonkblog writer and “wunderkind in his own right,” as the Post memo calls him) are also leaving to join the new publication. They will likely have some company at the new organization, as Klein’s initial prospectus reportedly called for a staff of 30. 

Klein gave the Post a chance to support the new venture. Management declined. And whether they made the right call, obviously, is impossible to say. But if it’s risky for entrepreneurial-minded journalists to start new ventures, it’s also risky for media institutions to let such journalists walk out the door. Nobody should know this better than managers at the Post, which passed up the opportunity to underwrite and own the publication that eventually became Politico. Of course, the Post will be just fine. It’s still got talented writers, institutional resources, and a brand name that means a great deal in and beyond Washington. But the fact that investors seem ready to back Klein's project represents a watershed moment of sorts—and one worth celebrating.

Not that long ago, when journalism was still primarily a print enterprise, reporting on policy didn’t get a whole lot of respect in Washington. Profiles and stories of political intrigue ended up on the front page. Analyses of candidate infrastructure plans got a few inches inside. Nowadays policy journalism actually has (some) cachet. The internet was obviously a key catalyst in this shift. Online distribution means more specialized sources of information can still find large audiences. It has also loosened what had been the biggest constraint on policy analysis: Space. Policy journalists must always worry about losing the attention of their audiences—you're still reading, right?—but now they don’t have to worry about running out of column inches on page A24. One other factor may be the political environment. For the last few years, the focus of political debate in Washington has been big, complicated questions about policy. Should we give everybody health insurance? Should we fight climate change? These questions put a high premium on policy wonkery. They have made nerdiness cool—or, at least, cooler.

Whatever the reasons for this shift in media consumption, it’s change for the better–and one for which Ezra (yes, he’s a friend) deserves plenty of credit. The great thing about Wonkblog is its unapolegetic devotion to policy detail and its commitment to intellectual rigor. Numbers? Charts? Line by line analyses of obscure legislative Klein and his talented colleagues bring it. Even when it has come to more traditional forms of journalism, they have found ways to highlight substance—and to make substance matter. Probably my favorite example is from August, 2009, when Sarah Palin was attacking health care reform because, she said, proposed funding of end-of-life planning would create “death panels.” Klein had the good sense to interview Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, who had sponsored an early version of the idea, and to publish a full transcript. Isackson called Palin “nuts.” It didn't stop the death panel argument from reverberating. But it put the argument in its proper context. 

The unsettling part of Klein’s departure is the shift in power, away from large media organizations, it would seem to reinforce. All but the largest newspapers are dying and we don’t know, yet, exactly what will take their places. But, overall, journalism is richer and more informative because people like Josh Marshall, Nate Silver, and now Ezra Klein are reinventing it. In the best of circumstances, the legacy institutions are participants in this transformation, rather than mere by-standers. That seems to be happening at the New York Times, where David Leonhardt, the Pulitzer-winning economics writer, is starting a policy journalism project of his own. The Post, for its part, has said it plans to keep Wonkblog going, even without Klein to run it. That would be great. If you care about policy, the last few years have been good. The next few might be even better.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that The Washington Post had issued their memo about Klein's departure on Wednesday. We regret the error.