January 3, 2017

To understand how Donald Trump will change America, don’t listen to his speeches, says Vox Editor-in-Chief Ezra Klein.

Instead, look at the president-elect’s policies, he said.

“This idea that Donald Trump exists in some state of quantum unknowability is going to end the day that he raises his hand and takes the oath of office,” Klein said. “So we need to change ourselves to give people coverage grounded in the specifics of his actual platform.”

With less than 20 days before Trump is sworn in as president, Klein and company are doing just that.

Jim Tankersley, who covers economic policy for The Washington Post, is heading to Vox.com to run its politics and policy section. He’ll replace Laura McGann, who is being promoted to the new position of editorial director. Lauren Williams, the site’s managing editor, is also being promoted, to the position of executive editor.

The appointments are the result of hard thinking by Klein about where Vox succeeded — and where it failed — during the runup to the election, he said. The big idea: More editorial muscle will give Vox a more deliberative bent and stave off reactive stories. With more editors, Klein wants to propel Vox toward its primary concern — durable and consequential explainer journalism — and away from stories about the social media controversy du jour.

“If you asked me what my biggest fear for us is in this coming era, I’d say the crush of distraction and tweets and everything else will make us reactive, not creative,” Klein said.

By joining Vox, Tankersley is reuniting with the man he helped replace at The Washington Post. Months after Klein left The Post to found Vox in 2014, Tankersley launched Storyline, a vertical that aimed to explain big topics through a series of individual stories. In a memo to employees announcing Tankersley’s hire, Klein hailed his “head for numbers” and “heart for people” noting that he would focus Vox.com’s policy journalism on people.

This will be particularly important, Klein said, during the most consequential periods of policymaking in American history. The fate of the Affordable Care Act hangs in the balance, as does the composition of the Supreme Court and America’s stance on climate change.

Meanwhile, Trump’s policies — not his rhetoric — are key to understanding the trajectory of the country, Klein said. Time and again on the campaign trail, Trump’s policy decisions contradicted his stump speech, such as the time he claimed he was going to preserve Medicare before installing a privatization-friendly transition team.

Now that Trump has been elected, Klein said, coverage should focus less on his character and more on how his presidency changes the country. The office of the presidency is more important than the psychology of the man who occupies it, and Klein wants to focus Vox on Trump’s decisions.

“The reason this isn’t just a reality television show is the things he does will affect people,” Klein said. “And, as such, keeping your eye on the things he does, the people he’s appointing — I think that can take you pretty far.”

Klein wants to steer Vox away from trivial journalism, but that doesn’t mean his team will shy away from covering Trump’s Twitter feed entirely. Statements about increasing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, for example, are newsworthy no matter where they’re made, he said.

“I think (the media was) very good at covering what seemed strange and unusual about this election…what we did not do a good job of, by the same token, was the brass tacks of the things that were not new about this election but are probably going to be more consequential in its aftermath,” Klein said. “What was Donald Trump’s tax plan, and how does it work? What was his financial deregulation plan, and what would it do?”

Tankersley’s hire and the promotions of Williams and McGann are part of a broader expansion, Klein said. Although the details are still fuzzy, Vox plans to add additional editors who will report to Lauren and sharpen the site’s focus.

This game plan isn’t set in stone. As Trump’s positions shift and the White House responds to changes at home and abroad, Vox will adjust its approach accordingly.

“This is not the end of our hiring,” Klein said. “This is not the end of our thinking about how we approach this area.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said editors would report to Laura McGann. They will report to Lauren Williams.

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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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