Pando

2014 was the year of the explainer, for better or worse

By David Holmes , written on December 31, 2014

From The News Desk

Remember April? I know it was a long, long time ago -- decades in "Internet time." But if you think back, you might remember that journalists couldn't stop talking about "explainers." No fewer than three sites, from media-ordained "wunderkinds" like ex-New York Times data guy Nate Silver and ex-Washington Post politics reporter Ezra Klein, had launched in the span of a few months. Between Silver's FiveThirtyEight, Klein's Vox.com, and the Times' Upshot, there'd never been more high-profile ways to learn "Everything You Need to Know About X." These sites would use data, they would make you feel smart, and, most importantly, they would make you sound smart.

And so it's with no small bit of schadenfreude -- particularly considering how well-funded the site's parent company is -- that we read Kevin Draper's "46 Times Vox Totally Fucked Up a Story." Some "fuck ups" were forgivable, like mislabeling "the web" as "the Internet." Others are more serious: A correction to an article titled, "Tonight will be the longest night in the history of Earth" reads, "Tonight will not be the longest night in the history of Earth."

Things move insanely fast in Web publishing. Everybody makes mistakes. The big problem with Vox, however, is the pomposity and feigned expertise with which it approaches every topic, even as it makes as many errors, big and small, as any other publisher. Vox's defenders can cite "process journalism" and that the Web makes it possible to correct mistakes instantly. That's a trade-off for the fact that often when a story is first published it is, in the words of Jeff Jarvis, "in beta." This is true of every site on the Internet, from the smallest blogs to the New York Times' homepage. But if you're a site like Vox, and your stated mission is to make people smarter, it puts a huge red "X" on your back.

There's an easy fix to Vox's accuracy woes: move slower, by hiring more writers and asking them to publish less frequently. Yet the site's doing so well -- it already surpassed its 2015 traffic goals just five months after it launched -- I would be surprised to see it make a huge change to its workflow. Which is okay. If Vox wants to be a fun, conversational website devoted to a huge breadth of topics and appealing to a mass audience, so be it. It just shouldn't pretend it's making people smarter.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]