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Politico’s Dylan Byers On Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, And The Dawning Of Free Agency In The MSM Blogger Market

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HH: Joined now by Politico’s media reporter, Dylan Byers. Dylan, a Happy Snow Day. Did you have to go to work today?

DB: I did not. I would not encourage to brave that snow.

HH: Now you know, you Washingtonians are absolutely going to be weeded out by natural selection. Now Dylan, the story of the day is Ezra Klein. And would you sum it up for the audience why this is so fascinating, especially to young online journalists?

DB: Sure. The quickest version of it is that it’s sort of a sign of the times about the way that the media landscape is changing, or at least the way that some people would argue it’s changing, which is that we are seeing a departure from the sort of old legacy media institutions that could have these sort of star staffers, and retain them for their entire careers. And we’re seeing a transition to where these star bloggers such as Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, types like that can actually strike out on their own with backing from either tech moguls, other media organizations, a group of donors, self-funded, what have you, and create actually successful media brands on their own.

HH: Now aren’t we just seeing actually replicate in journalism what we’ve seen in professional sports for a long time, which is the original team that you came up and you played out your option in the Major Leagues, and then you go out and you sign somewhere. And you give your opportunity to your brand to resign you. In the case of the Post, they passed on Ezra, young, talented, and he’s going to go off and sign with a new team, and maybe in a different league like Nate Silver did. But this is really actually market economics invading the old citadels of journalism, isn’t it?

DB: Sure, I think if you’re looking at it at 30,000 feet, that’s absolutely true. But I think at the same time what you have to acknowledge is that if you’re using that sort of parallel, you have to account for all of these new teams that have entered the league, so to speak, right? So the 20th Century was defined by these family-owned newspapers, these sort of big broadcast networks on television, things like that. And now we’re seeing, you know, Glenn Greenwald wants to strike out and do his own media project, and he gets the backing of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur who founded E-Bay. By a different token, Nate Silver wants to strike out and do his own thing, and he’s not getting the backing of a different news organization, a different newspaper or a different television media company. He’s getting, or television news media company. He’s getting the backing of ESPN, and they’re saying not come work for us, they’re really saying we’re going to give you the money to go invent your own thing and do whatever you want. If you look at what Ezra Klein is doing, he’s not just moving to a different news organization. He wants to start his own news organization. The question is which big media company is going to give him the money to do that and allow him to kind of exist on his own outside of whatever organization he joins.

HH: Now here’s the question. It requires a guess on your part, and a guess on my part. The Washington Post is looking at the request, I don’t know how much do you, what’s the buzz on what Ezra asked for from the Post?

DB: So what our sources told us was that he asked for more than $10 million dollars over a multiyear period. We don’t know how long that period was.

HH: All right, so…

DB: He also asked for about three dozen staffers.

HH: All right, so the Post says we have to, we can give him $10 million dollars and three dozen staffers, or we can, just to name some people who have been on the show in the last month, we can go hire, steal from the Free Beacon Lachlan Markay. We can go get from the Daily Caller Betsy Rothstein. We can go get Noah Rothman from Mediaite. Those are three young people under the age of, my guess, 25 for all of them, and we could buy 30 more of them. What do you think, Dylan? If they went out and did that, would they get more page views, and thus more advertising revenue at the Post, or investing in Ezra Klein, 29 year old, nice writer, good researcher, serious fellow, but really, was this a hard decision for the Post?

DB: It’s a very good question. None of the names that you mentioned command nearly a fraction of the audience that a figure like Ezra Klein does. That said, the issue is do you invest in a brand like Ezra Klein that is bigger, in some circles, that is almost bigger than the paper itself? Or do you invest in the core brand that you have, which is the Washington Post? Now if you’re looking at that $10 million plus dollars, and you’re thinking okay, what if we use these resources on hiring other talent, on beefing up what we’ve already got on pursuing these projects, and all of that goes to the Washington Post brand instead of the Ezra Klein brand, then maybe yes, that’s a better investment for them. And I think that’s probably the calculation that Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Washington Post, made.

HH: Sure, it’s just a page views calculation and an aggregator of talent. So it comes down to the byline versus the brand. And I wrote a decade ago in the book, Blog, the byline has replaced the brand, but in the consolidation era that we’re in right now, the brand launches bylines.

DB: Right.

HH: And then they play out their option and they leave, and that’s just great. But there’s no way, I think, the Washington Post would put out the direct cost and the opportunity cost. I’d just go hire, I mean, they brought Costa over, and here’s my bet. I bet Costa will have more page views within two years then Ezra did when he left today. What do you think?

DB: That is hard, Robert Costa is his own, is certainly becoming his own brand. He’s certainly widely known in the circles of Washington and New York media. He’s widely respected. What Ezra Klein offered was a sort of different kind of journalism. What Robert Costa is really good at is actually a traditional form of sort of boots on the ground behind the scenes on Capitol Hill reporting. What seems to be in demand these days, whether it’s Ezra Klein or Nate Silver, or a host of these other, or David Pogue, a host of these other journalists who have sort of struck out on their own recently is this sort of explanatory journalism, analysis-driven journalism. Robert Costa can certainly offer that. Whether he can develop that into the sort of brand where people know Robert, more people know about Robert Cost than know that he works for the Washington Post is a different question.

HH: Analytical writing of the sort done in my company by Guy Benson and Katie Pavlich, who are huge traffic generators, because they also do the Ezra Klein center-right what Ezra is left wing. They’re huge traffic drivers to Townhall.com, because they do that sort of thing. But that’s not a hard skill set, is it, Dylan? I mean, Ezra is a talented 29 year old who had the Washington Post behind him. But is there anything that makes him distinct? Nate Silver is a statistical wizard. What’s Ezra’s claim that is different from all these other youngsters?

DB: Well, two points on that. First, I would say you’re right to talk about a difference between Nate Silver and Ezra Klein. Ezra Klein did not commence nearly the amount of traffic that Nate Silver did. He was not the sensation, and he did not kind of, you know, create this new genre, or at least capitalize on this new genre.

HH: Okay, hold the second thought through the break, Dylan. Don’t go anywhere. Come back after the break. I want to hear what the second distinction is that you’re going to talk about between Ezra and Nate. This is the heart of the opportunity cost that people like Bezos have to make when they make this sort of choice.

— – – – –

HH: When we went to break, Dylan, you were talking about the difference between Ezra Klein, Washington Post former Wonk blogger, and Nate Silver, former 538 blogger for the New York Times. Both have left their organizations, both have, I think Nate Silver is going to succeed at anything, because the guy’s just a computer. But what about Ezra? What’s the second difference?

DB: Well, I think you brought up a very good point, which is that he is, what he does is something that a lot of people can do. You can offer analysis. You know, at the end of the day, that’s not something that’s exclusive to him maybe the way that the sort of data focus journalism that Nate Silver does has become very much his thing. What I will say is it’s harder than it looks. I mean, what Ezra Klein does in his ability to have written so many things that have resonated so much with a certain audience, a primarily progressive audience to the point where you start talking to people in Seattle and San Francisco, you know, in New York and Washington, places like that, and they say you know, how about that Ezra Klein, whether they read him in the Washington Post, whether they read him on Bloomberg View, whether they saw him on MSNBC, I mean, a lot of people, I think if the internet has proved anything, it’s that 95% of the stuff we read out there is actually really bad, and it is actually hard to be consistently good, to post 10-12 times a day really smart analysis. And he has managed to do that. So I wouldn’t underestimate his value to wherever he goes.

HH: Oh, I don’t. But here’s the question. Here’s the question. The Washington Post, I read Ezra, because I know the Washington Post has editorial checks on his ideological tendencies that for example, Media Matter doesn’t. When he goes out on his own, what’s going to prevent him from becoming Media Matters?

DB: Well, look, here’s what I would say about, and obviously, I don’t speak for Ezra. But what I would say is he’s certainly a progressive. I think he’s also a realist. You know, if you look at his coverage of the Affordable Care Act, he has been consistently critical of the rollout of Obamacare, one of the biggest critics. But at every turn, he’s done that with a sort of, he’s been grounded in sort of the facts and just an honest assessment of what’s going on. Does he lean left? Absolutely. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue that he’s going to need to check when he moves outside of the Post.

HH: But for people like me, one of his center-right readers…

DB: Right.

HH: If he goes off, what’s going to be, I know that the Post surrounds him with bumpers that he can’t go over the guardrails. Media Matters doesn’t have that. I don’t ever go to Media Matters. I don’t care what they write. Nobody really does. But what’s going to keep Ezra’s integrity quotient up high with the center-right readers who have read him as an interesting reflection of the progressive point of view?

DB: Well, I would argue that that integrity is organic and true to him. I mean, the Washington Post has no problem publishing, say, a Greg Sargent, who is very comfortable writing way out on the left, nor a Jennifer Rubin, who is very comfortable writing way out on the right. I think those bumpers are self-enforced.

HH: Yeah, but what they don’t do, Greg’s a very good blogger, as is Jennifer, but they are also still checked by the Post brand. I mean, they will be checked. They don’t go on vendettas. They’re not silly. They’re not childish. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out, Dylan. Great story at Politico’s column today. Dylan Byers of Politico, thank you.

End of interview.

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