The Future of Data Journalism at the Washington Post

Posted on March 12, 2014


By Edirin Oputu

When blogger and commentator Ezra Klein joined the Washington Post in 2009, he was 25 years old and barely known outside beltway policy circles. But Wonkblog, the economic and domestic policy coverage site he founded, quickly took off and catapulted Klein to national acclaim. Now, with Klein himself taking off for a new venture, Vox at Vox Media, the Post is trying to figure out: Is it possible for lightning to strike twice?

Almost immediately after Klein’s January departure, the paper announced plans for a new site led by economic correspondent Jim Tankersley. The still-unnamed project will incorporate data-driven analysis and visual storytelling to discuss major economic issues, such as the status of women in the workforce, Tankersley said.

“Jim [Tankersley] hopes to build something that will stand up over time as various talents and personalities come and go,” Gregory Schneider, WaPo’s national economy and business editor, said via email. “The same can be said for the new Wonkblog. We will have strong new voices, and someone will be driving the daily report, but it will not be built around a single face or personality.”

But whether both the new site and Wonkblog, slated to continue with a complete staffing turnover, will garner the sort of traffic that the Post was able to attract thanks to Klein remains to be seen. The New Republic reported that Wonkblog pulled in over four million pageviews a month last year.

Klein came to the Post at a time when reporter-commentator hybrids weren’t common at news outlets, said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a member of CJR’s board of overseers. “Newsrooms didn’t know how to create that kind of product, or indeed sensibility within their own newsrooms,” she said. But the paper now seems confident enough to try. “What’s interesting here is the Post is clearly saying, ‘Well, we sort of know what the formula is. Now we know how we can do it, let’s give it a try’,” Bell said. “It’s the difference between a bought and a built model.”

Still, creating star power from scratch is unlikely to be easy. Politico’s Dylan Byers called Wonkblog’s vacant editor seat “the worst job in Washington,” with whoever fills it forced to compete with Klein’s Vox, as well as fellow brand powerhouse Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. And David Leonhardt’s upcoming data journalism project at The New York Times—under development as a result of Silver’s similar departure last summer to start his own self-branded project at ESPN—will likely add yet another voice to the increasingly crowded field of digital policy analysis.

When Klein left the Post, he took most of his Wonkbloggers with him, including Sarah Kliff, Dylan Matthews, and Brad Plumer, as well as the Post’s former director of platforms, Melissa Bell. The paper is restaffing Wonkblog—The Atlantic Cities’ Emily Badger and Politico’s Jason Millman recently signed on—but seems keen on starting with a fresh slate: Lydia DePillis, the last Wonkblogger hired under Klein and the only one who didn’t leave for Vox, is moving to Tankersley’s site. When asked about Wonkblog,Post representatives were tight-lipped about its future.

Tankersley said that his project will be very different from Wonkblog—its view of policy tends to be top-down, while his mission is to look from the ground-up. “We’re going to be really focused on the other end of that kaleidoscope—the question of what things that are happening to people in America demand a policy response, and what are the ways in which policy is affecting people’s lives,” he said.

Wonkblog will be increasing its data visualization resources, Schneider said, and also exploring different policy dimensions through new hire Emily Badger’s expertise in sustainability, transportation, and urban planning. “One of the great things about what Ezra did is that he helped us create this digital venue that feels very genuine to the Post,” Schneider said. “We’re wonks, we think policy is interesting, and we want to have this conversation with others who feel the same way. The new Wonkblog will have that same sensibility, but with different voices.”

Klein’s Vox will have a large following, Bell said, but the Post clearly believes its brand has value too. Tankersley’s site and the new Wonkblog will be a “litmus test” measuring “the power of the personal brand versus the ability of the institution to support and develop journalism which is as attractive,” she said, but based on “a pre-existing formula.”

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