Whatever the issue of the day is, Ezra Klein has an explanation. Since founding the news and opinion site Vox.com just three years ago, Klein has turned the concept of “explanatory journalism” into a winning formula in a media industry often reported to be #failing. Driving the success is Klein’s coveted audience: Vox’s articles, how-tos, videos, podcasts and content collections (known as “card stacks”) draw more millennials than free wi-fi at a Grumpy Cat convention. The website’s slick and addictive explainer videos—everything from How Steve Bannon Sees the World to Here’s What Happens to Your Knuckles When You Crack Them—have been viewed nearly 400 million times on YouTube alone.
At 32, Klein is just old enough to remember life before the internet, and he got into journalism when news organizations were still mostly setting aside This Day in History–type drivel “for online.” Born and raised in Irvine, California, where his father was a mathematician and his mother an artist, Klein, who studied politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz and UCLA, didn’t really find his footing until he moved east and became a full-time wonk. He briefly interned on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003 and, the following year, ran a blog—still called a “web-log” back then—from the Democratic National Convention.
With a mind for large numbers and an ability to write fluently and fast on many topics, Klein was hired by The Washington Post in 2009 and soon gained a following with his intelligent, nuanced posts on Obama-era politics for Wonkblog, which he launched in 2011. When he left to start his own news operation in 2014, Klein was one of the country’s top political commentators—at least among those who appreciate five-alarm coverage of the ever-hardening right. Typical Vox video headline: the republican health care bill makes no sense.
Today at Vox.com—part of the billion-dollar Vox Media empire, which also encompasses Curbed, Eater, SB Nation, the Verge, Recode and other brands—Klein oversees roughly 100 employees on a site that garners 175 million monthly content views and nearly 70 million average monthly video views and is one of the 10 fastest-growing general-news properties. Vox regularly surpasses top-tier competitors such as Politico, The Atlantic and CNN Politics in audience size, often outdoes Vice on video views even though Vice is much bigger (Vox’s YouTube channel, like that of Vice News, sits at just over 2 million subscribers), and is constantly popping open new media portals, whether it’s live conferences, podcasts or special Snapchat editions and Instagram stories. If you’ve scrolled through Facebook in recent months, you’ve no doubt seen a Vox video—Kellyanne Conway’s Interview Tricks, Explained was a popular one—even if you didn’t notice the little Vox logo.
What’s impressive about Klein isn’t that he finds ways to capture clicks; it’s that he brings audiences in so deep. His weekly podcast conversations on both The Weeds and The Ezra Klein Show demonstrate a level of curiosity and an emotional openness that are rare in our ADHD era. Klein spoke for more than an hour with author Ta-Nehisi Coates about Obama, atheism and becoming the guy “white people read to show they know something.” The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss held forth for nearly two hours on psychedelics and why he “fills his home with reminders of his eventual death.” Bill Gates talked to Klein about robots. In every encounter, Klein is as interested as he is interesting: He runs Vox as the site’s editor in chief but distrusts social media; he’s an entrepreneur who doesn’t like managing people; he’s a wunderkind who once had a 2.2 GPA.
Contributing writer David Hochman, who last interviewed Billy Bob Thornton for playboy, visited Klein at Vox’s hivelike, open-plan D.C. headquarters, not far from the White House. (Klein lives in the Adams Morgan neighborhood with his wife, Annie Lowrey, who writes for The Atlantic, and their two dogs.) “Klein comes off as slightly awkward at first,” says Hochman, who describes him as “antsy and good-looking in a Clark-Kent-searching-for-a-phone-booth sort of way.” But once he gets past the small talk, the charming brainiac emerges. “Whether he’s talking about the perils of American isolationism or the future of porn, Klein is formidably smart and endlessly provocative. A few minutes in, you want him to explain everything to you.”
Distrust in the media is at an all-time high. The White House dismisses the press as the opposition party and purveyors of fake news. Explain how the media can get its groove back.
I think the media actually has a lot of mojo right now. Vox and many of our colleagues elsewhere are doing incredible work. Never before in my lifetime have people been as focused as they are now on what is being reported in The Washington Post and The New York Times and on CNN. It’s clear what the media’s role is in a democracy, and I think as an institution the media is living up to it.
So many folks in the media now are worth reading and watching, all across the spectrum. I make it a point to read people on the right like David Frum, Ross Douthat and David Brooks. You have political reporters like Molly Ball, who is doing fantastic work. We’re seeing writers on the left and right push for a broader way of thinking. Yes, there’s an acute problem for local news and smaller newspapers, but with national and international news the situation has never been better. For those of us who enjoy swimming in those informational waters, there’s a lot to be grateful for right now.
It’s not easy, though.
It’s not easy, but it’s never dull.
What’s the best way to deal with an administration that lies all the time?
You need to figure out the truth and not get distracted by the lies. Donald Trump wants a fight with the media. What he does not want is the media reporting on his administration. The fight between Trump and the media is like a WWE fight. In some ways, that’s good for the media. It drives eyeballs. It drives subscriptions. It drives a backlash among people who don’t like Trump. But it can distract from the work of actually figuring out what’s in Trump’s policies, what’s in his regulations, who he’s appointing to key offices. What is going on in his White House? Every day that the conversation is about the media versus Trump is a day that it’s not about Trump and what he’s doing.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of news coming at everyone right now. A lot of traditional media is not built to promote understanding; it’s built to offer new pieces of information. But the benefit of the internet and digital media is the ability to put things into a visual context. Vox has found a foothold in bringing to bear a body of knowledge, as well as context, reporting and research, so people leave a story feeling like experts themselves. That makes them better able to understand all the new information that comes out around a story. Our task is to present whatever we create in a way that’s interesting, appealing and clear.
One of Vox’s most viewed videos is a five-minute deep dive on the Syrian war. Sounds like a bit of a hard sell.
Yes, and it’s been watched over 100 million times. It’s a huge hit. If you take important things and make them vivid and understandable and go into them in depth, people feel they comprehend these topics. The audience responds.
The biggest mistake we make in the media is worrying our audience will think a topic is boring or too complicated and so we don’t put the time into presenting it clearly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned at Vox, it is to never underestimate the audience. People think the Syrian war is too depressing? That’s bullshit. Our audience cares about it and wants to know more.
If the fucking baby boomers hadn’t lit everything on fire, maybe we’d have the luxury of apathy.
So it’s a myth that millennials are apathetic and care only about selfies and Kardashians?
Well, speaking as a millennial [laughs], I can say that no one thing defines us all. It’s a large group. I find that kind of exoticization very strange, and I don’t like it. Millennials are incredibly engaged. If the fucking baby boomers hadn’t lit everything on fire, maybe we’d have the luxury of apathy. But now we have to figure out where we’re heading.
From what I see over and over again at Vox and before that at Wonkblog, the media is just wrong about what millennials and news consumers in general are interested in. People didn’t think writing about policy would be a great traffic strategy. It turns out it is, and not because it’s some kind of cynical ploy but because people want to know more—even those people between the ages of 18 and 35.
Who could have predicted the popularity of long-form podcasts, for instance.
I definitely felt a craving to go deeper, especially in politics. Most interviews with political figures are garbage. They’re too fast, they’re obvious, they’re shallow. In a long-form podcast, you get to stretch out and get inside someone’s head. I’ve become a fan of the format.
Which ones do you love?
I love The Tim Ferriss Show, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, Marc Maron’s WTF, The Joe Rogan Experience. It was clear to me that bringing some of that flavor and those techniques into my world would lead to some interesting places.
You have had Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among many other guests, on The Ezra Klein Show in the past year. Who were your personal favorites?
I did one with Senator Cory Booker that I really love. I love how open he was about the spiritual foundations of his politics and the way that influences his thinking. A lot of politicians speak the language of religion and spirituality without appearing to be informed by them in a deep way. With Cory you can see him struggling in real time with questions of how to be a good person and how to be a moral politician and what his duty is in the world, given the particular set of gifts, responsibilities and powers he has. That’s really interesting.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is another extraordinary guy. I’ve known him for a long time and I don’t think there’s anybody in the game right now better at conveying his intellectual journey than he is. It’s one reason people respond to his work so much. He tells you how he learns and he lets you come with him. That’s different from presenting yourself as the expert. He’s not coming out and saying, “I already know this and now I’m going to teach it to you.”
It’s interesting you say that, since Vox is all about explaining things to people. One of the criticisms of your organization is that Vox is premised on the idea that experts have the answers and we as the audience need help understanding the facts. Isn’t that just pushing an opinion, and one that tends to come, in your case, with a liberal slant?
I think people have a confused way of thinking about this. I’ve worked at The Washington Post , and a lot of my best friends are journalists, but I don’t believe straight news is straight. Which story you choose to do, who you choose to quote, the order you choose to put the paragraphs in—journalists leave the reader with the ideas they want the reader left with. At Vox I try to make sure we are transparent about what we learned, how we learned it, who we talked to and what we found. Then you can decide if you agree with us. By the end of a Vox article, you should have all the information to take whatever opinion you want. Even if you end up here and I end up there, we both learned a lot along the way.
I don’t see that as being opinionated. Part of our relationship with the audience is saying, “You hired us to do this job, to find out the answer, and here’s what we found. Maybe you don’t agree with it. Maybe you go a different way, but we did our best.” We have to do the reporting, and that creates a product that’s both useful and trustworthy, even if the truth feels slippery these days.
Since the election, conspiracy theories have shifted from conservatives digging up things on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to progressives obsessing over Donald Trump’s scandals and corruption. What’s your political paranoia level these days?
I must admit, I am in general not a conspiracy theorist, but I feel Trump is doing his damnedest to turn me into one. This administration sure seems to be covering a lot up and willing to take a lot of damage to not reveal what it is they’re covering up. When you watch that happen over and over again on the tax returns or on the Russia stuff, at some point you’re not a conspiracy theorist to think there’s something concerning in there. They could easily say, “This is clearly all bullshit. Let’s just appoint a prosecutor and get it out there. Let’s move on.” But that’s not the case. Even on the tax returns, how hard would it be to say, “Okay, we gave the returns to an independent group. They looked at them. Everything’s fine.” It makes you suspicious.
And why don’t people care?
I think people do care.
Not enough to be storming the gates at the White House. I walked by this morning, and there was one homeless vet in a wheelchair with a sign that said need weed money. That was it.
I think about this in two ways. First, don’t underestimate how unprecedented the political mobilization has been so far in the Trump era. There have been a ton of protests—in some cases the biggest single-day coordinated protests ever. Compared with a typical honeymoon run for a first-term president, people absolutely care. They’re showing up at Republican town halls, they’re organizing, they’re flooding congressional phone banks, they’re out there with pink pussy hats.
David Brooks calls it a lot of liberal feel-goodism.
That’s just not the case. Being politically active is not feel-goodism. If nothing else, it’s a powerful message that dissent will be a constant part of this era in American politics, as it should be of every era in American politics, as the Tea Party was to Obama—though I don’t think Obama had quite the same tendencies to delegitimize as Trump does. Organizing is powerful, and a lot of that organizing is now turning its attention to members of the House and the Senate. They listen, they’re accountable, and they come up for reelection. Every voting member of the House is up for reelection in 2018, and the groundswell against Trump is already influencing the choices those legislators are making.
At the same time, caring can be binary. Either you’re uninterested or you need to literally be dodging snipers on the White House lawn. People care, but they have lives. When you leave this interview you’ll probably go home, not throw rocks over the White House gate. People cared enough to vote against this guy—not enough people in the places where it counted but enough to have him lose the popular vote pretty decisively. We haven’t yet seen what protests can do.
Do you ever worry about being a journalist in these polarized times?
I do. All the time. I think things could go in very dark directions.
You’re scaring me a little.
The president has a lot of power and a lot of information, and a president who wanted to use that power and information for vengeance, if he had control of the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy was willing to do what he wanted, could do tremendous damage. Trump also has a mob-incitement dimension to him. I think a lot about when Trump was told that two of his supporters had been accused of beating up a homeless Hispanic man because “Donald Trump was right; all these illegals need to be deported.” Trump’s response was shocking. He said, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate.” He has talked at his rallies about paying the legal fees of anybody who punches a protestor. He has a comfort with violence from his crowds, and that is scary. Ninety-five to one it’s all fine, but low-probability things do happen.
I worry about a world where Trump has spent two or three years being frustrated by his own incompetence, by Congress, by the media, by the courts, by America’s political institutions, by public opinion. If some kind of terrorist attack or moment of opportunity happens, he can all of a sudden make a lot of change. If you ask what keeps me up at night, lately it’s the question “What does Donald Trump’s version of the Patriot Act look like?”
What would you ask Trump in an interview?
I’ve thought a lot about how to interview Trump. I don’t think he gets asked enough basic questions on how he does things and what he wants to do. He’s difficult because he doesn’t care about having good answers to those. But I’d keep the focus on some simple, straightforward questions: How does his tax plan work? How does his health care plan work? I think people get bored by that stuff, so they don’t ask.
I think Trump gets bored by that stuff.
Maybe so. In general there’s a premium in political interviewing on asking questions that sound tough but are actually easy. The hard-hitting question on the controversy of the day is the question politicians are always prepared for. The question they’re not prepared for is the open-ended query about how some basic part of American public policy works and what they think about it.
You mentioned getting inside people’s heads. What’s going on inside Trump’s?
Tough one. Trump is extraordinarily talented in some very specific ways and also extraordinarily limited. I’ve rarely seen quite the combination he presents. He’s a great entertainer with an instinct for navigating the American psyche. He’s masterful. You can’t look away from Trump. He is the best showman we’ve seen in a long time. But what you cannot underestimate is that he has no shame. Shame powerfully restrains many of us, but for him it’s okay to get tons of negative press or have elders of his own party say he’s destroying our democracy. That should make him feel bad. We’re all social animals. Even politicians we think of as craven and cynical do things to avoid shaming themselves. With Trump, having zero shame gives him this range of motion nobody else has. He’s willing to withstand any backlash as long as he’s getting attention. Nothing fazes him. The flip side of that is he doesn’t learn from his mistakes. He doesn’t try to become better.
Have you not heard the phrase Make America great again?
He doesn’t learn from his own mistakes. He doesn’t try to become better. Somebody wrote, I think it might have been Masha Gessen, that Trump is ambitious but not aspirational. President Obama would say things like “You made me a better man,” “Michelle has made me a better husband,” “My daughters have made me a better father,” or at the end, to the American people, “You made me a better president.” Obama was constantly trying to be better.
That’s standard political rhetoric.
Plenty of people on all sides of the political spectrum do it. Plenty of people are dedicated to their own personal improvement. George W. Bush’s rhetoric was largely about being a better person, more compassionate, more humble. Trump doesn’t think like that. Instead, he walls himself off from information that’s negative to him. I think that’s an important part of who he is. It’s why he watches Fox News. It’s why he pays attention to CNN and the Times and other mainstream sources but gets angry only about what they’re not covering.
Incidentally, who else would you like on your podcast?
I want Joe Biden at some point. I think he would be 120 minutes of excellent tape. I’d like to do a really good interview with Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, who I think is brilliant. I wanted to do the one I did this February for a long time: Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, on the rise of humankind. I want to interview Sonia Sotomayor. The Supreme Court justices are hard to get, but they read us. We’ve actually been cited in some of their decisions. I have a long list. I’m working on U.S. Representative John Lewis. There are a bunch of interesting Republican senators right now. Outside politics, Neil Gaiman is always fascinating. Oh, and Steve Bannon, of course.
Bannon is having a big year.
Bannon is someone who, like him or hate him, has a structured worldview and a pretty idiosyncratic one at that. When he’s given speeches and gone off script, his ideology is interesting and worth understanding. I disagree with parts of it pretty profoundly, but he’s having a lot of influence on the president, so I’d want to draw out as much of that as I could.
Can we talk about you for a moment?
If we must.
I’ve heard you say you were overweight when you were growing up. You weren’t popular with the girls?
Or the boys.
You seem quite well-adjusted now. What shifted?
It took me a long time to figure out social activities. I sometimes felt like a Martian who had to decode the language. I was a weird kid. I was argumentative. I was very overweight and dressed very badly. When I was 15 I weighed 50-ish pounds more than I do now, and I was a lot shorter then. It was a significant difference. I was insecure, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was desperate to be liked, but being a heavy kid with long hair who knows a lot of big words and keeps telling people they’re wrong—it’s not a recipe for popularity.
You did well in school, no doubt.
I did very badly, actually.
I graduated high school with a 2.2. GPA. I failed a bunch of classes. I was like the math-for-jocks poster boy.
Is that like Gwyneth Paltrow saying she was the ugly duckling in high school?
No! I graduated high school with a 2.2 GPA. I failed a bunch of classes. I was like the math-for-jocks poster boy by the end of it.
Were you doing drugs or something?
It just took me a long time to figure out that I don’t process information well auditorily. Even today as a reporter I can’t call into a teleconference. I can’t attend a talk and retain anything. I would go to class every day and just space. I have what you would now understand as a learning disability. It’s funny: A therapist not that long ago said, “You have this myth about what happened to you in high school. Now we would just prescribe a bunch of Adderall and you’d go on your way.” Instead, I just read a lot of comic books.
Who were your go-to superheroes?
I read a lot of X-Men. I read Ghost Rider. Adam Warlock was my favorite as a kid. As I’ve become an adult it’s shocking to me to see how useful those stories are as allegories. Xenophobia, polarization, human rights—all those issues are in there. I didn’t foresee that it would be worthwhile to know a whole lot about Wolverine and the Infinity Gauntlet as someone covering politics.
Did your family talk current events at the dinner table?
We got the Los Angeles Times, but we were not one of those news-junkie families. I only got into news after 9/11. I was in high school at the time. I remember I was in first period and saw the second plane crash. My brother gave me Noam Chomsky’s book 9-11, and I started arguing with my dad about the Afghanistan war. Then I found Jack Germond’s memoir Fat Man in a Middle Seat, about his time as a political journalist. We were in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a moment when you realized that whether or not you were interested in world politics, world politics was interested in you.
You started blogging at 18. How are you different now?
I think I have a lot more humility. Look, when I was an 18-year-old blogger, nothing mattered. As a kid in college, writing for nobody, I didn’t have the same weight on my shoulders. I’m humbled by how much I don’t know and also by the fear of getting things wrong. My promise to my audience is that I’m not going to be wrong, or at least not factually wrong. I can be wrong in my predictions and extrapolations after doing my due diligence, but I need to get the facts right. People will let you know when you’re wrong, and they don’t like it. It betrays a trust.
Vox skews pretty far to the left. How often do you talk to people who disagree with you?
Every day. I do much more reporting these days among Republicans than among Democrats. I like talking to people who disagree with me. It’s interesting and informative. You can learn from people who agree with you, but you’re not going to learn that much.
What underlies the tribal splits in America right now? We’re divided into so many silos of thought and ideology.
We are polarized, but I think people miss something about polarization. It’s not a measure of disagreement; it’s a measure of how that disagreement is sorted. The fact that politics is more polarized now is a function of that disagreement being sorted by two parties that are then self-sorted by ideology.
So the divisions were always there and we just didn’t recognize them?
Our differences used to be organized differently. Strom Thurmond was the second-most-conservative senator, but he started out as a Democrat. At that time, the most liberal senator was also a Democrat. We couldn’t have that today with the lockstep, hyper-partisan way the parties work. Yes, if you go back 70 or 80 years you’ll find huge fractures in our society. The United States wasn’t united. We kept a stable political system for a long time based on white terrorism. We protected lynching for a lot of the mid-century period until politics calmed things down. You had a society that was in some ways on the verge of a crack-up.
But today we’re seeing an ideological polarization of the parties that is a force multiplier for disagreement in the culture at large. Our party affiliation now falls in line with whatever we’re angry about and whatever we believe. Politics takes on a much more important identity when that’s the case. Democrats and Republicans had virtually the same views on the O.J. Simpson trial verdict and the Bernhard Goetz trial verdict. Now there are massive differences between the two parties on whether George Zimmerman was guilty or even whether 12 Years a Slave should have won an Oscar. I don’t think the country is more divided than it was, but those visions have been absorbed and sorted into two parties.
It doesn’t take much of a spark to set a fire between the two sides these days.
That’s right. Things escalate quickly, in part because our political identities are growing so strong they can absorb other things. Gamergate is a fascinating example; a dispute about sexist stereotypes of women in video-game culture becomes something that forms ideological coalitions. It becomes a culture war.
Milo Yiannopoulos, who is now famous, got his big rise during Gamergate. You had all these political websites descending on the topic, and each one had a stance affiliated with a party. Now, on top of the party division itself, you stack division over attitudes about race, and it divides us even further. Then you stack the kind of videos you watch and enjoy, the kind of music you like, where you live, cities or rural areas, income levels. You stack these differences until you’re living in a bubble of what’s important to you.
Can’t we all just get along?
I’m not particularly optimistic. I don’t think we’re going to get rid of polarization. I think it’s going to get worse. We need to make sure politics doesn’t break under its weight, which is possible. Other countries have political systems in which polarization has always been the norm, and those systems work better; they work more smoothly.
America has managed okay for a couple hundred years.
Fortunately, our political identity is not our only identity. We default to American. Think about what would happen if there was another terrorist attack on New York. Suddenly the entire country would love New York, correctly so. It would activate our national identity. A lot of life is about which identity is being activated at which moment. Different events externally call out different moods and allegiances for extended periods of time. Right now I think politics is going to keep us pretty divided. That could change if government functioned better and if people made better decisions. But you stack a financial crisis on top of wars, on top of very fast demographic changes, on top of feelings of fear and being threatened, on top of 30 years of wage stagnation, and you begin to understand the morass we’re in today.
Let’s switch gears. You’re an intelligent, sophisticated person. Do you ever cringe when you see Vox clickbait headlines like how david blaine barfs frogs?
First of all, I don’t see it as clickbait. I think it’s fascinating to know how David Blaine barfs frogs. Are you not interested in how David Blaine barfs frogs?
Well, yeah, I guess it is pretty intriguing.
I care a lot about how well we do stories. I’m not condescending or elitist about which stories to do. It’s important to me—genuinely important—that we cover celebrity news well. Just as we take a big complicated issue like health care and make it accessible and clear, we also take things that might seem trivial—barfing frogs, for instance—and show why they’re reflecting America’s subconscious in an important way. I mean, have you seen Vox’s rap explainer?
Yes. It’s a brilliant video. The breakdown on internal rhymes, multisyllabic rhymes, cross-the-bar lines. It really shows how hard it is to make rap look easy.
It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. It’s one of the best things any human being has ever done. The explainer approach is an approach to information that we can apply to anything, not just rap and not just politics or foreign affairs. It works everywhere, and it can be on anything. We get massive engagement and readership on Apple News. On YouTube, we have more than 130 million minutes of watch time a month with an average watch of over three minutes and 30 seconds. Think about that. The average time somebody spends on a video of ours on YouTube is more than three and a half minutes. In a world where everybody is constantly complaining about attention spans, that is amazing. And others are appropriating it now.
I’ve noticed The New York Times is learning a lot from Vox. I take this as high praise, but they’ve hired a few of our people and have made runs at a number more. Explanatory journalism is now a thing for them. I take a lot of pride in that. The New York Times is an amazing institution.
Would you ever want to run it or, say, The Washington Post?
I do not think so. I will run Vox, and one day I will not run Vox, and I will be surprised if I run anything after that.
Do you have any interest in running for public office?
Can you imagine retiring by 40?
No, but I love creating and I miss it. I think I’m a good manager, but managing is hard on me in a way that writing and podcasting are not. Running Vox is worth it. We’re building something that’s worthwhile, but I’m not somebody who, if you ask me to fill out a task sheet, would want it to be filled with meetings and management. People sometimes call me an entrepreneur, but I don’t have that impulse. It’s super hard to build a company. There are easier ways to spend your time.
Then why did you start Vox?
I started Vox because I, along with my co-founders, Melissa Bell and Matthew Yglesias, got obsessed with the idea that the news was too focused on the new. Take Obama-care: At Wonkblog, we covered that intensely. I think we did a good job, day after day, answering the question, “What happened in Obamacare today?” But that isn’t the question most people were asking. They were asking, “What is Obamacare? What are the subsidies? How do they work?” We had answered these questions, but it was all locked in archives. So I got interested in whether there were ways to reinvent what we were doing, to consistently surface more contextual information. When we were all on paper, that wasn’t possible—pages were expensive, and old editions had to be thrown out. But since the new medium didn’t have those limitations, it seemed possible to make sure there was always enough context in a story for someone new to the topic to figure out what was going on. Once I began thinking about that, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t abstractly want to start a new publication; I wanted to try to create this service, and doing that required starting a new publication.
Vox’s parent company, Vox Media, runs popular websites including Curbed, Eater, Recode and SB Nation and is valued at $1 billion. Now that you’re making money, what do you splurge on?
I do well, but it’s nothing crazy. The best situation you can have with money is to have enough so you don’t worry too much about it. For instance, I never thought I’d be able to buy a house in D.C., and now we own a house. But we also have a pretty high savings rate, and we don’t take expensive vacations. I have a lot of anxiety around spending serious money. I would sooner set my home on fire than spend $1,000 on a douchey watch. And needless to say, technology makes it easier than ever to be smart about money, along with improving the rest of your life.
What apps do you love right now?
Let’s see. [takes out phone] I like that with HotelTonight you can find some pretty sweet last-minute discounts on hotel rooms. I use the Calm app, not for its guided meditations but more for its relaxing-to-the-rain sounds. I really love Marvel Unlimited. You pay 70 bucks a year and get access to thousands of Marvel issues up until six months ago. The problem with comics is you drill through them in a minute and they’re three or four bucks a pop. I could easily read 12 or 15 comic books before going to bed. Marvel Unlimited makes that a reasonably priced proposition. Oh, and Instagram, of course. Instagram is one of the few happy places on the internet.
That’s true. Explain why.
You can only put a heart on things. That’s basically all you can do. You’d have to be a capital asshole to go on to somebody’s picture of their vacation or their baby or their dog and just start cursing at them. That’s not to say that hasn’t happened to me.
You have a troll problem?
We’ve never had comments at Vox, so that helps.
But the haters find you.
They find me, definitely. Let’s just say I haven’t looked at my Twitter mentions since 2012.
You have more than 1.6 million followers. Do you worry you’re missing out?
No. It’s the opposite. I think Twitter is negatively addicting. Same thing with Facebook. It’s fine to look at it sometimes, but those kinds of information are built to make you addicted. They are built to form habits. They are built so you feel if you haven’t checked in in the past hour that you will miss things forever. Meanwhile, the book on my nightstand is always going to be there, so it’s easy for me to justify not picking it up.
Twitter is bad on a professional level too. It creates this herd mentality for journalists. Everybody is getting the same information, so they’re all going to think the same things. I’m trying to pull myself back to books and papers and research. I’m challenging myself to spend an hour a day in the morning quietly reading a book and getting ideas and reporting. It is hard to do, but it’s important. It’s funny, though, because I’ll sometimes retweet people and they’ll come to me afterward and be like, “You turned my Twitter account into a sewer for 12 hours. Thanks a lot, dude.”
What’s your relationship with Snapchat?
I like Snapchat, but it’s a very idiosyncratic interface. I think that’s why people over 40 can’t figure it out. People were wondering how the IPO could soar the way it did, but I completely understand it. Like a lot of these technologies, Snapchat is valuable not because of the interface but because so many people contribute to it for free. Facebook and Twitter, the same. Uber similarly. That means the company gets to know a lot about you, and the technology becomes more useful as it learns where you are, where you’re going, where you’ve been, where you might want to go.
Who needs Russian hackers when Facebook knows your every move?
The hacking problem is insidious and something I think about every day. I open my computer and a red bar on my Gmail comes up that says Google believes it has detected state-sponsored hackers trying to break into my account. It comes back every couple of days. I’m not the only journalist this happens to. This is a real thing. I’ve talked to Google about it. There’s a lot I do around internet-security hygiene that I wish I didn’t have to do, but these are the times we’re in.
Your wife, Annie Lowrey, is a political journalist too. Do the two of you ever go on media fasts?
Well, in my job I really can’t take a news fast. I have to know what’s going on.
But you must need breaks from all the noise.
Annie will sometimes look at Twitter at night in bed, and if I know Twitter is open near me, cortisol floods my bloodstream. What’s happening? It’s amazing to me how physiological my response to that stuff is now. I see it and I can feel my blood pressure spike.
We all feel it at times. This can’t be good for society.
The constant diet of social media is like dumping toxins into your veins. I think it’s a genuine threat to news and to some of these platforms. I don’t know how long people will voluntarily expose themselves to things that make them feel so bad. The incredible levels of conflict, confrontation, controversy and outrage—if the conversation doesn’t get more productive, I think there’s going to be an exhaustion point.
What could you do better?
Everything. Literally everything. I would like to be a much better manager. I’m committed to more things at any given moment than I can manage effectively. I could be a better writer. I could spend more time reporting. I could be a better husband. I could be home more. I spend a lot of mental time in the space between where I am and where I think I could and should be. That’s not a great habit. It has in some ways been adaptive for my professional career, but I have a very high negativity bias as a person. Positive things roll off my back and negative things stick.
You’re a pretty straitlaced guy. Any vices? Don’t say chocolate.
My real vices are things I’m embarrassed about.
This is playboy. Too much sex? Cocaine? Rock and roll?
I spend a lot of time at bad EDM shows. I’m a big fan of Autograf. I’m a big fan of Big Wild, Big Gigantic and other groups with the word big in them. Alle Farben, who is a German DJ. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. I listen to it and I think it makes me disreputable in the eyes of others.
Any streaming binges you’d care to confess?
Legion, the new FX show, is excellent. I started watching The OA on Netflix recently, which has been weird and good so far. I think Saturday Night Live has been good lately, and not just on the political side. But there’s nothing I love more than Bob’s Burgers. Somehow they have constructed a family dynamic that is sweet and affirming with a sense of absurdist humor that is really funny. There’s not much in culture that I think is perfect. There’s a lot of culture I think is good. I think Bob’s Burgers is a perfect piece of culture.
What are your thoughts on porn?
I appreciate the interviews they do. [laughs] Porn. Okay, I’ll give you an answer that is maybe a bit off topic but is related. I am not a believer in most of the sci-fi dystopias that people believe in. I don’t think AI is going to become super intelligent and destroy us all. I don’t think the singularity is on the near horizon. I am a bit of a believer, though, in VR dystopia. I put on an Oculus VR headset not too long ago and was stunned to realize that we had actually invented virtual reality and nobody told me. I think I expected it to be like an old Virtual Boy, if you remember that Nintendo product. I was sitting on the edge of a building, looking down, and I jumped back because I thought I might fall. The rate at which that technology will improve, the rate at which the screens will improve, at which we will be able to get better rigs, at which those rigs will come down in price, at which we will be able to invent content for those….
It’s all going to be driven by sex. Is that what you’re suggesting?
Well, I’ll say that if you live in a declining town where there are no great jobs, and you can click on this headset and have incredibly orgasmic sex with someone beautiful or have real communication—we haven’t begun to see where pornography can go. I saw a demo where you’re talking to an alien, and the alien’s eyes track you. The realism of that interaction took my breath away. When we all have our avatars and those avatars can track and interact with one another, it’s going to be appealing beyond belief to people.
I don’t think we’re ready for what pornography is going to be able to do with that. It’s coming faster than we can handle. Those kinds of innovations have the qualities, when you think about them economically, of drugs, but we don’t treat them like drugs. I’m not even sure we should treat drugs the way we treat drugs, but that’s a different issue. Not to reveal too much of my own college experience, but psilocybin mushrooms are illegal and you don’t want to be doing them every day. With these consumer electronics, they’re going to be legal and they’re going to be celebrated and you’re going to want to use them every day. You can see how addicted we are to screens. When VR and sex with avatars become immersive, well, does the world of Ready Player One seem that unlikely to me? No, it doesn’t.
The stakes are high, and I think people are tired. In the midst of all that, it’s easy to not be your best self.
What’s the future going to say about this period of history?
I often think about the stories we’re covering versus what historians will write about. Certain things won’t get skipped over—Trump, the rise of right-wing populism across the advanced world. But there are times when I wonder if some things we think are important now will become afterthoughts and that all anybody is actually going to write about is CRISPR and the moment human beings took control of their own evolution. I’m not sure we always have a good sense of what’s important in the moment in which we live. But I’m pretty sure we pay too much attention to taxes and not enough to technology.
I think we’ll be remembered for our choices and ethics. The way we treat animals within the food system right now is unconscionable. I do not think that in the future any of our excuses about the fact that we cared more about eating chicken wings than about keeping chickens from being tortured will hold up. History will not judge us kindly for that.
Your Vox bio lists you as Head Vegetable Chef.
I’m vegan at home and vegan-vegetarian out in the world. If you’re vegan, you have to go all the way, or you’re not vegan. I don’t mean to blur those lines. I eat fully plant-based at home and try to do that out in the world.
In the future we will all be eating differently. I really believe that. We will be held accountable for how we treat animals. But above all, we will be held accountable for how we treat people. That’s something I think and worry about every single fucking day. I think the media industry and the news cycle and the world are pushing us to be bad people. I think Twitter makes people shitty. I think it rewards snark and glibness. Donald Trump every single day is modeling a politics of pettiness and vengeance unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The stakes are high, and I think people are tired. In the midst of all that, it’s easy to not be your best self. Oftentimes, the incentives aren’t to be yourself at all. Maybe you’ll get more shares or more retweets by being a jerk. But I do think we need to wage a daily fight to be better than that. I’m not sitting here on a soapbox, but it’s something I’m deeply concerned about. When we fail at something as a culture, we need to think about how we can do better. That’s how societies take care of themselves and improve. It’s how we evolve. Our culture can’t just take care of itself. It’s something you have to be working on every single day.