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Originally published Monday, December 8, 2014 at 5:31 PM

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The old journalism and the new

So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention, writes syndicated columnist Ross Douthat.


Syndicated columnist

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Sometimes media events synchronize almost too neatly. Last weekend, the entity known as Vox Media, whose array of properties includes this year’s big liberal-journalism startup, Vox.com, announced that its latest round of investment had raised the company’s valuation to a robust $380 million.

Then on Thursday, The New Republic, a storied liberal magazine that’s emphatically not worth $380 million, saw its editor-in-chief and literary editor sacked by a pair of figures out of a Silicon Valley satire — a tech almost-billionaire, Chris Hughes, who won the meritocracy’s equivalent of the lottery when he roomed with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, and Hughes’ digital guru, Guy Vidra, whose plan for vertical integration with the Singularity can now proceed apace.

Mass resignations followed; eulogies were penned for the TNR-that-was. (And, admittedly, that hadn’t really existed for some time.) But the most interesting in memoriam came from Ezra Klein, Vox.com’s editor-in-chief, because he wrote as a spokesman for a new model of political journalism pronouncing a parting benediction on the old one.

“The eulogy that needs to be written,” Klein argued, is actually for an entire kind of publication — the “ambitious policy magazine,” whether on the left or right, that once set the terms of Washington’s debates.

With the emergence of the Internet, those magazines lost their monopolies, and the debate “spilled online, beyond their pages, outside their borders,” with both new competitors and specific voices (Klein kindly cites my own) becoming more important than before.

As Klein correctly implies, this shift has produced a deeper policy conversation than print journalism ever sustained. Indeed, the oceans of space online, the easy availability of studies and reports, the ability to go endless rounds on topics — plus the willingness of many experts to blog and bicker for the sheer fun of it! — has made the Internet era a golden age for technocratic argument and data-driven debate.

But there is a price to be paid as well. That price, Klein suggests, is the loss of the older magazines’ ability to be idiosyncratic and nonpandering and just tell their readers what they should care about, because more than ever before you need to care about what readers click on first (like the latest John Oliver SMACKDOWN, in the case of Vox) to get the traffic that pays for the ads that subsidize a seven-part argument about health-care costs.

So as much as the new landscape has to offer, Klein concludes, “something is being lost in the transition from policy magazines to policy websites, and it’s still an open question how much of it can be regained.”

All of this is sensible and true. But there’s one large amendment that needs to be offered. The New Republic as-it-was, the magazine I and others grew up reading, was emphatically not just a “policy magazine.” It was, instead, a publication that deliberately integrated its policy writing with often-extraordinary coverage of literature, philosophy, history, religion, music, fine art.

It wasn’t just a liberal magazine, in other words; it was a liberal-arts magazine, which unlike many of today’s online ventures never left its readers with the delusion that literary style or intellectual ambition were of secondary importance, or that today’s fashions represented permanent truths.

Unlike our era’s ascendant data journalism, it also never implied that technocracy was somehow a self-sustaining proposition, or that a utilitarianism of policy inputs and social outcomes suffices to understand every area of life. (And unlike many liberal outlets, in its finest years it published, employed and even occasionally was edited by people on the right of center — something some of us particularly appreciated.)

So when we talk about what’s being lost in the transition from old to new, print to digital, it’s this larger, humanistic realm that needs attention. It isn’t just policy writing that’s thriving online; it’s anything that’s immediate, analytical, data-driven — from election coverage to pop culture obsessiveness to rigorous analysis of baseball’s trade market.

Like most readers, I devour this material. Like most journalists, I write some of it. I’m grateful that the outlets that produce it all exist.

But among publications old and new and reinvented, it’s also hard not to notice that John Oliver videos — or, more broadly, the array of food and sports and gadget sites that surround Klein’s enterprise at Vox Media — aren’t just paying for the policy analysis. They’re actively displacing other kinds of cultural coverage and interaction, in which the glibness of the everyday is challenged by ideas and forms older than a startup, more subtle than a TV recap, more rigorous than a comedian’s monologue.

And since today’s liberalism is particularly enamored of arc-of-history arguments that either condemn or implicitly whisk away the past, this may be a particular problem for the Internet-era progressive mind.

The peril isn’t just that blithe dot-com philistines will tear down institutions that once sustained a liberal humanism. It’s that those institutions’ successors won’t even recognize what’s lost.

Ross Douthat is a regular columnist for The New York Times.



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