Editor's Note

March/ April/ May 2014 The Limits of the Wonkosphere

By Paul Glastris

Are we entering a golden age of policy journalism? Consider the evidence. Ezra Klein, founder of the Washington Post’s phenomenally successful online policy news site Wonkblog, recently left to form what he says will be an even more revolutionary digital venture in explanatory policy journalism. The Post says it will not only continue but beef up Wonkblog while adding a new site headed by journalist Jim Tankersley that will use narrative reporting to illuminate economic data. Meanwhile, the New York Times is set to launch a wonky politics and policy site overseen by ace economics writer David Leonhardt.

Up until the last decade or so, there really weren’t “policy journalists” per se, outside the rarified pages of magazines like the Washington Monthly. In mainstream outlets, the political reporters, the stars of most newsrooms, wrote some about policy, but only as it related to the horse race. They were oddsmakers (will such-and-such bill pass the Senate?), not explainers or evaluators (how well do experts think the bill’s specific provisions will work in practice?). The task of following the details of policy was relegated to a second group, beat reporters who covered certain agencies and issues. The best of these (think the New York Times’s Robert Pear’s health care coverage) had encyclopedic knowledge of their issues and sources deep in the bureaucracy. They won awards and enjoyed a certain amount of respect in newsrooms. But they were not celebrities. They did not get invited on TV to share their opinions. And they did not write much about the political dimensions of the issues they covered.

Then, in the early 2000s, George W. Bush came to power in a highly contested election at just about the time blogging technology was becoming widely available. As a result, thousands of amateur left-of-center citizens started writing about politics, mostly with the aim of figuring out how to beat Republicans in elections. Some of these bloggers took a deeper interest in explaining and exposing the Bush administration’s policies (on tax cuts, the Iraq War, etc.), and a handful of them got very good at it—Kevin Drum and Josh Marshall led the way, quickly followed by people like Matt Yglesias. But unlike in the mainstream publications, where policy and politics were kept separate, in these writers the subjects were fused.

Their growing audiences showed that there was an untapped market for this kind of politically savvy, on-the-news policy writing. Writers like the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn and Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff have driven much of the conversation on the Affordable Care Act with their ability to clarify complexities and blow away the smoke of false information.

The rise of this digital wonkosphere (and the beachhead it has established on TV thanks to MSNBC’s wonky host Chris Hayes) really is something new and worth celebrating, and I’m proud that people like Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, and Ezra Klein did early stints here at the Washington Monthly. But there are a couple of weaknesses to the genre worth worrying about.

The first can be seen in the fact that the wonkosphere missed the biggest health care reform story of the past year: the botched rollout of the online health insurance exchanges. The traditional media failed to see that one coming, too, as did Congress and the White House, even though documents quickly surfaced showing that plenty of people in the agencies and the contracting companies knew that disaster was brewing. The shriveling of the old media beat reporting system and the government’s shrinking willingness to conduct oversight probably explains this systematic failure. But if the wonkosphere aims to be a better alternative to traditional policy coverage, it needs to broaden its scope of reporting, to have sources not just among academic experts and high-level policy-makers but deeper down in the agencies and other organizations where the rubber of policy meets the road of reality.

The wonkosphere’s other big weakness derives, ironically, from one of its greatest strengths: its newsiness. Policy bloggers drive traffic by illuminating and adjudicating policy disputes at the center of the day’s political news. But almost by definition that means their reporting agenda is tied to whatever policy issues official Washington deems important or to those that happen to be generating a lot of partisan controversy. While that’s a valuable service, we also desperately need journalists to be looking over the horizon, at the policies Washington and the news media should be focused on but aren’t—like new ideas to provide Americans with retirement security, or affordable higher education, or what can be done beyond Obamacare to bring down the costs of health care.

But such over-the-horizon reporting, as with rubber-meets-road implementation reporting, takes money and patience. The problem is that neither resource is in very plentiful supply in journalism these days.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. This article was supported by the American Independent Institute.

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