January 20, 2015

When Vox launched in April, it was led by an article from co-founder Ezra Klein that seemed to lay out his ambitions for the new site.

Titled “How politics makes us stupid,” it explained that debates are often intractable because of confirmation bias, the idea that people use new information to reinforce their prejudices. Klein suggested that informed policy discussions — the kind that Vox strives to spark — might help America find its way out of blue-in-the-face shouting matches.

Now, with the 2016 presidential election on the horizon, Vox is placing bets on political coverage that aims to break free from the echo chamber that Klein described. The site recently hired Politico deputy managing editor Laura McGann as its first politics editor, charged with bringing Vox’s trademark policy journalism to the presidential race. And it plans to add political reporters and policy experts to its ranks in advance of the election.

“The 2016 presidential election is about to be the dominant news story in America,” McGann said. “And Vox really wants to do that story justice, and cover it well and write about it in a way that is meaningful and impactful.”

The big idea, McGann says, is to create policy-driven campaign coverage by reimagining what a traditional political reporting team looks like. At most news outlets, journalists who cover big policy issues like healthcare and education are kept separate from reporters who tag along with candidates on the campaign trail.

But at Vox, those two teams will be one. If a presidential hopeful is preparing to give a candidacy-defining speech on tax reform, Vox might send a policy reporter to cover the speech, or pair a politics reporter with a policy reporter for maximum context. The ultimate goal is to bring Vox’s interdisciplinary approach to the news — where designers, reporters and developers work closely with one another — to political coverage.

“Politics is the game that’s wrapped around the substance of what happens in governing, and we want to have less of a distinction between the two categories,” McGann said. “We want to talk about both things at once.”

McGann is also in the middle of rethinking how certain staples of presidential races might be covered with a policy bent. How, for example, to cover debates without pugilistic spin declaring who “won” and who “lost?” What does election night coverage look like? And how can Vox report on the campaign’s inevitable gaffes with greater depth? McGann is still working on the first two questions, but she some ideas about the third.

Covering gaffes might be a matter of treating them as moments of clarity and candor from candidates rather than simple slip-ups, McGann said. When a candidate falls off-message, he or she might actually be getting at larger policy issues worthy of further analysis.

By way of explanation, McGann cited two big gaffes from the last presidential campaign: Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” flub, which could have been a jumping-off point for a discussion about gender disparities in government jobs, and Rick Perry’s “oops” moment, which might have catalyzed a genuine debate about the implications of eliminating branches of the federal government.

“There wasn’t much reaction from the rest of the Republican field about how extreme this position is,” McGann said. “Why not? Those are huge questions that pretty much weren’t answered at the perfect moment to engage an audience.”

One of the biggest obstacles facing Vox is the fierce competition for talented political journalists, McGann said. As presidential hopefuls begin courting the American people in advance of the 2016 election, a similar game is being played among news outlets. Prominent political journalists are being wooed and won by various organizations as they staff up to cover the impending race.

Maggie Haberman, a senior Politico reporter, was recently snapped up by The New York Times to cover campaign news. Gregg Birnbaum, formerly deputy managing editor at Politico, was hired away by the New York Daily News to serve as head of political content. And Dianna Heitz, also deputy managing editor at Politico, was recently tapped to be senior multi-platform editor at CNN Politics Digital. Politico, for its part, recently hired a talent recruiter, presumably to offset the churn.

The politics staff at Vox currently consists of six reporters, but the newsroom will assign its more versatile policy writers to political coverage in the coming months, McGann said. The number of new hires depends largely on how many talented prospects she’s able to find.

“If I had 10 incredible candidates and I felt like I could put them in front of Ezra Klein and make a case to hire all of them, I would do that,” McGann said. “But I’m more concerned with finding the right people than a certain number.”

Vox co-founder Melissa Bell says Vox’s politics content has seen increased readership in recent months. In December, its coverage drew a larger audience than competitors including HuffPost Politics, Fox News Politics and CNN Politics, according to Comscore data. That was the same month the site experimented with refreshing and re-promoting content that had previously appeared on the site.

Bell says she sees Vox’s brand of analysis-driven campaign coverage as an accompaniment to traditional breaking news reports that might come from other outlets, such as The Associated Press or Politico.

“That’s a great news service,” Bell said. “It’s just that there’s a lot of news organizations that are doing that, and we’d like to provide something else.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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