Ezra Klein leaves Vox, the website he founded, for New York Times, in a digital media A-list exodus

Klein, 36, left The Post in 2014 to start Vox with two colleagues, Melissa Bell and Matthew Yglesias. The site — which publishes analytical reported articles explaining everything from Boeing’s issues with its 737 Max jet to Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian connections — is part of a constellation of specialized news-and-commentary sites owned by Vox Media, including SB Nation (sports), Curbed (real estate) and Eater (food). Vox is based in Washington and New York.

Despite multimillion-dollar investments from Wall Street firms and traditional media companies, many of the top names in digital media have struggled to realize the profits once imagined from the epochal transition from traditional print and broadcast media to the online kind. This has led to layoffs, waning of capital investment and a broad industry retrenchment.

Fierce competition for advertising and subscriber dollars, high overhead and more recently the pandemic have made it difficult to reap large returns. Many of the leading digital news sites have failed to return any profit, some after more than a decade in operation.

On Wednesday, two of the most popular and promising upstarts of yore, HuffPost (formerly the Huffington Post) and BuzzFeed agreed to a financial transaction in which BuzzFeed will acquire its rival and share content with HuffPost’s parent, Verizon Media. The purchase will be made primarily through an exchange of stock, an indication that cash — once the common currency for such deals — has become less available for such deals.

The agreement was another in a series of consolidation moves among online news purveyors, all aimed at creating larger, more competitive conglomerates.

Vox Media kicked off the merger wave in September 2019 when it announced plans to acquire New York Media, publisher of New York magazine. Vice Media, the millennial-focused digital media company, announced plans a month later to buy Refinery29, which targets young women. That same month, Group Nine Media, which itself is a conglomeration of once-independent digital media brands, bought the entertainment site PopSugar.

Klein and Williams are the second and third senior leaders at Vox to walk away from the site in the past week; co-founder Yglesias announced he was leaving to start his own newsletter last week.

“Vox was built on a kind of analytic concept that was [Klein’s] originally,” said Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times who wrote a book contrasting traditional media outlets such as the New York Times and The Post with younger digital upstarts such as Vice and BuzzFeed. “He took the explainer to a high art.”

The exodus of personalities back to traditional outlets “is sad, because all of these news media outlets we used to call upstarts are really dependent on digital advertising, and it’s the kiss of death,” Abramson added.

She described the recent wave of mergers as “marriages of weakness,” not strength. And the departure of editorial stars from those enterprises is not good for the profession. “Those journalists and outlets are doing original quality stuff that was healthy for our profession — and it’s not healthy for every single one of those highly-talented digital journalists to be at the [New York] Times.”

Other digital news stars have beaten a similar path, in some cases back to jobs at mainstream outlets. Buzzfeed’s editor, Ben Smith, left the publication earlier this year to join the Times as a media columnist. HuffPost’s editor, Lydia Polgreen, departed the site in March, joining a podcast company. Kara Swisher, another former Washington Post journalist who co-founded the technology site Recode (now owned by Vox Media), became a Times contributing writer and podcast host. And Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who co-founded the Intercept, said he was quitting last month to start a newsletter.

Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, credited Klein and Williams with building Vox “into the powerhouse that it is today” in a statement and added that it “has long since grown beyond being dependent on any individuals. It’s a talented team of 100s of people who contribute each day to its success.”

“I’m extraordinarily grateful to Ezra and Lauren for helping to build the Vox property of Vox Media into the powerhouse that it is today. Vox is a leader not only on the web but in podcasts, in TV shows, and it has the largest YouTube channel in the news category. Ezra and Lauren know better than anyone that Vox has long since grown beyond being dependent on any individuals. It’s a talented team of 100s of people who contribute each day to its success. And we wish them both the best going forward and we’re excited to evolve and grow and build Vox into something even more special in the years ahead.”

In announcing Klein’s hiring on Friday, the Times said he “helped set the standard for modern explanatory journalism early in his career, and he’s been able to do it through virtually every medium.”

Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.

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