Three weeks of

Melissa Bell surveys three weeks of Vox and asks what you think.  A few things strike me:

1. One of their innovations — which has occasioned lots of hostility — has been to shift the window of what is considered “reportable as accepted truth.”  A MSM article does not put defenders and opponents of evolutionary theory on the same footing.  Vox presents the workability of a health care mandate as something — if not quite to be taken for granted — as a matter where a pro-mandate journalistic stance can be considered a matter of fact.  By no means do I agree with all of their judgments, but I see them as ahead of the curve and outflanking their critics.

2. The site looks great, works great, and they are consistently finding interesting topics to report on, at a higher rate than most better-established MSM outlets.  If I go to the site I will find something new I didn’t know about, every day.  I don’t feel a need to push them into an RSS feed.  By the way, the site looks especially good on an iPad.

3. When I was in fifth grade, I was pulled out of some of the more boring classes and give “SRAs” to work with.  SRAs were color coded material laid out on a series of cards and boxed tabs, which could be manipulated and re-ordered if the student so chose, and which allowed progression to increasing levels of difficulty. reminds me of SRAs, and of some of the instructional theories of the 1960s, although of course on the web and thus with a superior presentation.  I preferred SRAs to class, but anything I like is to be considered suspect from a broader market point of view.  By the way, IBM eventually sold the SRA brand name and content to McGraw-Hill.

4. With any site you have to ask where the “pandering element” comes in.  With MR the TC pandering is to yours truly — the unpaid author — and it comes in the form of puffins, Japan, movie reviews, and obscure Straussian references, among other things which make me giggle.  With Vox the pandering is highly factual and tonally neutral coverage of some hot button issues, such as the racism of Donald Sterling or telling your parents your true profession (porn star).  This strategy likely will succeed, although those articles tend not to interest me personally.  I think they will do pretty well on Facebook and other social media sites.

5. I am most worried about a certain uniformity of voice across the articles.  Think of the headings, photos, and prose style as geared to put the links high in eventual Google searches.  But readers miss the presence of distinctive voices, including Matt and Ezra themselves, who of course have served this role in the past.  I’ve liked all of Matt’s articles for Vox so far, but I miss hearing Matt.  You know, the Matt of and wisecracks about the Wizards.  Slate and Salon are full of voices, and they have found this to be a successful formula, at least relative to the alternatives if not always in terms of net revenue.

I’ve liked Joseph Stromberg’s science coverage, and been impressed by his depth, but he does not (yet?) ring as a distinct voice in my mind.  I don’t even have an illusory picture of what he might be like, and I wonder if their writers can continue to attract readers with such a relatively low level of vividness.  (On the other hand, this limits the bargaining power of the writers!)  Yet can the writers be given greater voice while keeping the Google maximization strategy in place?

Over time this uniformity of tone also will make it hard for them to recruit or keep top writers or writers looking for a path to the top.  And every outlet needs a few of these writers, even if many of the pieces are to be more cookie-cutter in presentation.

6. Costs will rise when they send people outside of the office to do stories, as eventually they must.

7. I am still a pessimist about the long-term economics of media, and I remain unconvinced they have solved the key problem of a weak advertising market for on-line material.  Still, I am keen to see how they will extend the site.


The niche of wonk news is saturated. Too many sites trying to do the same thing

Looks like you've forgotten that supply creates its own demand, I suspect we'll see a Wonk Windfall soon enough.

It is clearly not intended for me, but for people who get their news through Facebook. I avoid following links there like I don't watch Cable news.

Well I guess it signals nonagreeableness and non-conformity, two traits usually inversely correlated with IQ. Facebook is the future and it's the most efficient way of distributing information that humanity has created thus far.

You forgot to add that immigration will somehow improve everything. Then again, you've been at this for so long that a few slip-ups are bound to occur, sooner or later, so I figured I'd help out.

The meta-analytic correlation between IQ and agreeableness is 0.00. Table 3 here:,%20Jackson,%20et%20al.pdf

I notice this post does not contain either the word 'news' or 'blog'. I'm not sure whether to bookmark under news or blog. Actually I have the same deep problem with the other Vox (the serious one), which now seems boxed in. But that's a side issue. Of the three new age sites previously heralded at MR I prefer over Upshot. I think it might be the colours and layout. Maybe yellow and grey are hypnotic. For the first time ever I'm actually finding patience and time to read Matt Yglesias (sometimes). What have I learned? does not have comments (not that I can find). Encouraged by this I have suspended comments on my own web site (which also strives for hypnotic layout). What's the point of comments, after all? I'd like to know. End.


I think this kind of, umm, stuff is the reason some people aren't crazy about comments.

And yet here you are, in the comments, sharing your umm, stuff.

From the author's perspective, presumably:

Yes, and even here he confirms the value of comments: "Writers quickly learn that the comments section is usually a sad place -- useful for seeing if readers catch mistakes or gaps in the argument, but not a good place to dwell or invite responses." See, it's the "catch mistakes or gaps in the argument" part that is important. The trolls are just an unfortunate side effect.

It is also a good place to recognize whether something like 'loyal reader' or 'best satire site on the web' will fly when referenced by the site owner.

(In terms of this web site with its identification with two members of the GMU Econ faculty, the answer is essentially it won't - but then, PR has never been something that any member of that faculty has ever been all that good at - which is why Prof. Vaughn was so eager to ensure that Prof. Buchanan was identified with GMU when he won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, and only after he was awarded the medal, did the hangers-on get their hands on the reflected glory.)

They're adding comments soon, at least for some articles.

I think comments are a good way to allow critiques of the author's work so that he or she can improve. For all the derision comments get I rarely come across any that are banal or useless.

> For all the derision comments get I rarely come across any that are banal or useless.

Have you looked at one of your own comments lately?

Comments also exponentially increase engagement and page views. Without comments on this story, MR would have received one page view and your engagement would have been limited to the time you spent reading the article. See how that works?

It's not a good site, I can't get over the amount of self-righteousness their writers seem to have. Easy to pile on the likes of David Sterling & Clive Bundy but how many Black writers are on the staff at Vox?

They need more puffins.

Here's another comparison of all three:

For me, I like Fivethirtyeight the best. I see little new in Vox, other than the silly cards (which most people will find annoying). Explanatory journalism seems to mean "explaining why we're right." I don't see how it differs from most other blogs.

As for Upshot, it's good but makes me think of when Columbia/CBS Records tried to use the slogan "But The Man can't bust our music."

The difference between what Vox is doing and opinion writing is Vox claims to be God's special snowflake. It's an old habit on the Left. They pinkie swear they don't have an ideological bone in their body as they spew forth rivers of ideology.

My read on these sites is they are just trying the narrow the space for public debate. The gods say X, therefore anyone saying not-X is a heretic/sinner/apostate. They are celebrating empiricism until Steve Sailer walks into the room, then it is hissing and murmuring about buring witches.

I think you're right here in your analysis - one SMALL quibble with verbage, I don't believe it is correct to say "Steve Sailer walks into a room" instead Steve Sailer SAILS into the room. Aside from that, spot on.

Vox presents the workability of a health care mandate as something — if not quite to be taken for granted — as a matter where a pro-mandate journalistic stance can be considered a matter of fact. By no means do I agree with all of their judgments, but I see them as ahead of the curve and outflanking their critics.

I fail to see how this is "ahead of the curve". Sites like Realclimate have been doing this for years.

I guess if you like Obamacare it's ahead of the curve.

Yes. It's easy to get the impression - and how would one quantify this - that more and more the Left is going the full Chris Mooney. There are Eloi and there are Morlocks. Morlocks don't have to be debated -- merely explained.

I didn't really follow this. I'm not sure what he means by 'workability of a health care mandate'. Did he mean would it be found Constitutional? If the penalty portion was high enough to avoid the 'cost death spiral' of people only signing up for insurance when they felt like their health was about to start failing? Or even just the techincal issue of whether the IRS can keep track of who really has coverage and whether they did or didn't meet the mandate? Or is it a more philosophical 'workability' as in should the gov't mandate health coverage?

If it's any of those items they all got plenty of play in the pre-vox world.

'the unpaid author'

Well, the Amazon links must help compensate for the unpaid aspect.

Along with the self-promotion of all the books - which, assuming any are sold from this site (it being a reasonable guess that some are), gets both the publisher royalty and the Amazon bonus.

Then there is the cross promotion of things like MRU or the NYT column (which one could reasonably believe was gained in part from the writing done here, and its broad Internet reach).

And having a tenured job at a state supported university means never having to worry about a paycheck anyways.

And as a director of a public policy institute interested in influencing public debate, one would think that being able to increase that center's public profile and reinforcing the public policies it advocates is the sort of task that comes with such a position, and is thus its own reward.

There's more to it than that. Are you aware Tyler Cowen is the director of a mysterious organization known as the Mercatus Center? Located, unsuspectingly right at the heart of George Mason University.

I miss the commodore - his navigation was much better.

The Mercatus Center is located in Arlington, quite far from the heart of GMU in Fairfax.

Though admittedly, the name of a Metro stop was changed - at taxpayer expense, of course - to create an association with GMU -

'Known originally as simply Virginia Square, in July 1985 the Metro board voted unanimously to rename the station Virginia Square–GMU.[4] With the "GMU" standing for the adjacent, Arlington campus of George Mason University, the $50,000 required for the change was paid for by Arlington County.'–_GMU_(WMATA_station)

Keeping with tradition, as the Arlington Campus was an extremely profitable location, again at taxpayer expense -

'On November 28, 1978 the George Mason University Foundation acquired eleven acres of land and a single building: the twenty-five year-old former department store belonging to the International School of Law in the Virginia Square section of Arlington.
The George Mason University Foundation later sold approximately half of the land on the western side of the parcel to the Federal Government for nearly five times the amount it paid for the entire property.[3] On it the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation built its L. William Seidman Center.'

This has been another bone-chilling Tale From the Cryptkeeper: GMU Edition. What other shocking mysteries await which could make the blood of even the strongest men run cold?

How about this? - 'At Stepnogorsk, Alibekov created the most efficient industrial scale assembly line for biological formulations. In a time of war, the assembly line could be used to produce weaponized anthrax. Continued successes in science and biotechnology led to more promotions which resulted in a transfer to Moscow'

For more exciting information about this man and his connection to GMU's Center for Biodefense, see the comment section at

538 seems to be turning into a sports site. I'm liking it more and more. It's sports for people who don't watch sports on TV (about 0.5% of sports fans, granted).

Yglesias's articles on Donald Sterling have been boring. There are a lot of very interesting angles to this story, like the mistress's connection to Magic Johnson who is connected to the sports franchise buying Guggenheim Partners who are somehow connected to ... well, the SEC is trying to figure out exactly how the Guggenheim Partners are connected to ... well, for now let's just call this guy a figure from the history books of economics and finance:

I'm shocked -- shocked -- that you are a defender of racist Donald Sterling. I never would have believed it from someone so fair minded on racial issues.

Who gives a shit if the Jew is "racist".

Furthermore, imbecile, he didn't defend anything here. He opined that there are more interesting angles to this story, showcasing his boundless superiority to Matty as a writer/journalist.

So hush.

Antisemite and a racist, who'd have thunk. Also referring to yourself in the third person?


Things I have noticed:
1. on MR are not Vox's target market.
2. Vox's writers all tweet and retweet one another. Repeatedly. Then tweet again when a new card is added to a deck. (This is annoying but probably works).
3. 538 finds occasional signals, but most of it is noise that seems to defeat its goal of using data for a better understanding. Instead of being a hedgehog with a few major areas, they are admittedly foxy. The reason 538 was so great before was its focus and rigorous methodology. That is lacking here and is more "Fun With Numbers".
4. Vox meanwhile remains on target, whether you like that target or not.

I also miss the actual voices. I get what they are doing but I don't see a Chait or Krugman or Sullivan (or MR) debate happening. I could agree or debate with Yglesias and Klein I merely get calmly informed about things with some occasional winks and in-jokes.

I think Matt Yglesias is a terrible, unoriginal writer. If he's associated, I'm not interested.

Hmm. To each his own. He's one of my favorites in the blogosphere - smart and original. I agree with TC that his individual voice is missing from Vox though.

He was good at foreign policy, where his philosophy major logical skills were useful. The switch to business journalism at Slate didn't really work out. Hopefully, he'll find a better groove at Vox.

Tyler, I had the same SRA experience when I was a kid. I hadn't thought about it in years until I read your post! The teachers didn't always know what to do with me, so they put me over to one side and handed me the SRA box, and I remember those multicolored tabs. I think the easy ones in front were a sort of aqua color. The other elementary-school solution some of them hit on was to allow me free access to the library after I'd finished up the classwork, which worked out pretty well, too.

Ditto. Thanks for rekindling the memories.

Another SRA refugee. Hmmm... what if that was the educational innovation that really worked!

Worked to what end?
To make folks who are good at answering card questions feel like they are being well educated?

I jumped right into the Olive level.

Some brag about their I.Q.'s, but I'll always be able to say I was the master of the SRA Olive level.

@Todd K,
O.k., that made me lighten up a little and laugh!

In first grade I was the first student given SRAs, so I got a head start on advancing through the colors. But perhaps a week later another student was given SRAs, and she was plenty smart and started gaining on me. So I redoubled my efforts; I actually forget who was ahead at the end of the year (which might mean that I lost).

As for Marie's question about learning, I have no idea. The main reason that we advanced so quickly through the SRAs was that we already knew how to read, so I guess the SRAs can't get any credit for teaching us to read. But did they teach us to read better? I simply do not remember.

This discussion of SRAs reminds me of the SQR reading technique (although apparently it's actually supposed to be SQ3R; but what we were taught was SQR): survey, question, and then read. Which at the time I thought was kind of dumb but over the decades I've come to appreciate it; before I read anything I ask myself: who wrote this, and why, and what does it purport to be about? I will often bounce around a book looking at passages trying to get less superficial answers to those questions before I settle down to read it (if I end up deciding to read the whole thing). It's a reason why I don't like reading a book from a kindle; the kindle makes it much more laborious to pause reading and skip to some other section, or to jump to the back cover, or wherever.

And then there were the Iowa tests; I still remember the one which had the students read an article "How to Make a Banana Flip". Annoyingly, "flip" was being used as a noun not a verb: the whole article was instructions for how to make what we might now call a smoothie. But I was always disappointed (the same question could be used two or three years in a row despite the students advancing in grade levels) because I thought I was going to learn some levitational magic trick.

My doubt about them has to do with opportunity cost. Their advantage was that they were nonfiction, it is hard for a kid to read nonfiction and girls particularly are seldom self-motivated to do so when fiction is around.

Other than that, though, hours spent on true good nonfiction work or on true classics would have advanced students much further. The idea is that reading cards the "right way" is better for educating a kid than reading, say, Treasure Island, or a book on cells or Jupiter. As you say, the kids reading the SRAs already were readers, they got there on their own and for a reason. Whatever they liked to read and the way they liked to read had made them proficient in a way their peers were not. So then you take those kids, target them, and rework the way they read and the content they read. It doesn't advance them along the path they are already ahead on, it moves them to another path. A more pliable one. You zero in on the kids who are most likely to cause trouble by, for example, questioning the teacher and actually dim their lights while simultaneously endearing them to the teacher who tells them how special and SRAable they are. Which can also have the great side effect of distancing them from their peers, in case any pesky independent thinking does linger.

Now if you'll excuse me, I can't write any more, the black helicopters are making too much noise. . . . ;)

You know, for the life of me I still have no idea who Melissa Bell is. I remember some Twitter blowup about her being a partner, not an employee, but that really doesn't tell me anything.

SRAs -- wow.
I remember those things, too. I felt so important.
Here's what they did. It's bad enough if the stupid kids disrupt class, but when the (often slightly) above average kids get bored you can have real trouble.
They might, every once in a century, want to think independently.
Stick them in a corner with a box of busy work, but make it colorful and make it look like a privilege. Cheaper than "gifted" classes.
If a parent gripes that a kid is learning nothing useful, tell her how special her kid is and that she's going to do SRAs now. Griping over, the teacher can get back to not teaching anything useful.

So, this is the comparison with Vox? Pretty apt, maybe?

When I was in school I was often told by the teacher to sit in the cornor. I wasn't given these SRAs however, I am wondering if there were budget cutbacks or some other reason why my elementary school didn't have them.

Did they give you a special fancy hat?

They always gave me a giant ice cream cone but with no ice cream in it. And I don't know what it was made out of but it tasted terrible, like paper or something.

Stromberg does get stuff wrong... a function of what happens when you don't talk to enough people in a field who know how things actually work .

Ummmmm we're living in the age of Big Data (in case you haven't noticed) field-specific knowledge is no long neccessary. All useful knowledge can now be generated from an Excel model design by one of the Wonderful Wonks of Washington.


Granted, your immigration trolling is wearing quite thin, but if you branch out like this, your troll life expectancy is going to increase.

You mean Stromberg writes like lots of economists (Tyler, et al) do - ignoring the real world.

Ever see Tyler or any other economist explain how things really work for workers? Nope, he and all other economists simply argue every worker are better off working for $1 per hour than not working at all. After all, workers are just like passengers on planes - all the same, all commodities. reminds TC of educational material for precocious fifth-graders. I'd call this faint praise, but it actually seems pretty accurate to me.

Tyler has talked about Vox quite a bit but has he linked to anything interesting over there? Not that I'm aware of.

Maybe I'm wrong by it seems to be the same characters saying the same predictable thing under a new banner.

Right. Not a lot of linkworthy stuff yet from any of these sites. I like 538 for its sports statistics stuff, but most of it is so petty I haven't been trying to explain to my readers why I find it interesting.

If you're like me you appreciate 538 because it's sports coverage for sports fans who don't watch TV.

You know what really grinds my gears, and it was the same with Ezra Klein's Wonk blog: the post titles. So many stories have titles like "Here's why X means (or doesn't mean) Y", or "Why X is or isn't doing Z". I mean really it's just the same cliched title over and over.

Hey, don't ever visit Business Insider then. It will make your eyes fall out.

It's a well-done project, the next step for the "wonk" brand, but I still prefer their main competitor, wikipedia--particularly for technical topics.

I started following Vox on Facebook and was pretty surprised to learn that Ezra is basically Sean Hannity with Charts. I expected him to be less of a partison hack, but have been very dissapointed.

Why on Earth did you expect that?

Interesting that link which contained the following: Klein justified excluding conservatives from participation as "not about fostering ideology but preventing a collapse into flame war. The emphasis is on empiricism, not ideology".[3]

Sounds like Lil Ezra is singing the same old song. Reading Vox will make you stupid.

Vox = Kinsley Slate + Daily Kos for Nice Girls.

The original Michael Kinsley Slate was eclectic, interesting, foolish, and interested in a little something more than piling on to the daily meme pushed by insider Dems.

Kos wants to trumpet fire and brimstone versions the of the daily meme pushed by insider Dems.

Vox is the Daily Dem meme, but scrubbed of confrontation and acrimony, because nice girls like being nice.

Right. Advertisers want women because men give so much of their income to women to spend for them. But women's magazines are repetitious.

You're impressed with the depth of Stromberg's science reporting? Really, Mr Cowan? I went and read "Here's why you just got unfriended on Facebook". The only difference in the way this story was reported in Vox versus the MSM is that Stromberg starts by sort of acknowledging that the data might be ever so suspect. He then proceeds to credulously regurgitate the conclusions via pretty bar charts.

The Facebook unfriending data was drawn from a non-random sample of volunteer survey takers identified by their Tweets about unfriending. Can you say "hopelessly biased"? Stromberg can't. Instead he just fits the data to his readers' narrative and produces the wholly uninteresting conclusion that statistical analysis confirms what we suspected: people do X (unfriend) because Y (the unfriended is boring or insulting ie no longer a friend).

Next I read "Why doctors should be prescribing marijuana for MS". Stromberg apparently only read the abstract of the paper he references. Had he read the paper itself he would have found nothing but small positive effects across a narrow band of symptoms common to a handful of neurological diseases. He also might have noted the heretofore unknown to me at least huge placebo effect among people who think they're getting Mary J extract. Finally, had he read down to the section on adverse effects he might have picked a different title for his post -

"AEs are a significant concern with marijuana use. Outside the setting of treatment trials, cognitive impairment is more likely to be of concern. One study of patients with MS who smoked cannabis at least once a month showed an increase in cognitive impairment. Another article showed that patients with MS who used cannabis were twice as likely to be classified as globally cognitively impaired as those who did not use cannabis. Some patients who have neurologic conditions may have preexisting cognitive dysfunction, which may increase their susceptibility to cannabinoids' toxicities. Moreover, it is especially concerning that a medication that may have an AE of suicide may be prescribed in a population such as patients with MS who already are at increased suicide risk."

Have you developed a taste for pop science, Mr. Cowan?

Yeah, disappointing. For years, Matt Ridley held down the Science post at the Economist. No one else in the same league.

Can't hear individual writer's voices. The tone is reasonable, authoritative--"Come to us and we will make it make sense for you." Sounds like Henry Luce's Time magazine.

"Over time this uniformity of tone also will make it hard for them to recruit or keep top writers or writers looking for a path to the top. And every outlet needs a few of these writers, even if many of the pieces are to be more cookie-cutter in presentation."

This sounds like something a hippie or beatnik would say...

You would hate the military, workers at McDs or Wendy's, GM or Honda or Kia, farm worker, steel maker, package deliverer, drug maker or dispenser.

In general you must hate the industrial age and division of labor.

He's a tenured professor at GMU, an institution funded by the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia - why would anyone think that Prof. Cowen would be interested in serving his nation in the military, or being a union member, or a minimum wage worker at Walmart or McDonald's?

And speaking as someone who has been personal friends with a number of tenured members of the GMU faculty over several decades (admittedly, none of them in the Econ Dept.), the idea that most of those professors would be able to handle the tasks involved in being in the military, or in a union, or working a minimum wage job is truly amusing.

Tyler: Very amused that you remember doing SRA's. I thought I was the only one who still remembered them fondly.

"it comes in the form of puffins, Japan, movie reviews, and obscure Straussian references"

I feel vaguely insulted. but I guess that is also part of pandering.

MR is a different version of Vox. Sure, MR doesn't have the same depth in its "stories", but (according to Cowen) it isn't supposed to. Indeed, it's Cowen's "reading list" that brings me back to MR, a reading list that inspires confidence in what Cowen writes and says (because it's a broad list). I even describe MR (to those not familiar with it) that it's Cowen's way of sharing his reading list with a large audience. And many of the comments confirm that MR readers do read Cowen's reading list. In that respect, MR is simply a more active version of Vox.

I can't figure out whether "In Martha Stewart's world, there is no lime apocalypse" was meant to be ironic.

I'm not a fan of the site. I find it difficult to navigate, and the management of the site has clearly decided to downplay individual voices. You cannot, for example, easily search for posts by specific authors--which is something I would want to be able to do. Also, it's difficult to tell, from the opening page, what you are going to get if you click through, So far, I'm following links to Vox, but not visiting it very often (and I really dislike the "card" presentation thing).

Every time an author's name appears on the site, there is a link embedded in it that leads to all their articles.

Card seem to primarily be a way to catalog groups of info about a particular topic, not too dissimilar from tags. I don't know whether I like them yet.

Another voice in the liberal chorus that is the media. Why should I bother? What will I read there that I won't hear on NPR, MSNBC, CNN, or the Daily Show?

1) I had forgotten about SRA's. What nostalgia you brought back for me.

2) I haven't visited the site. But ultimately it seems to be its business proposition has to be to cannibalize other sites. There is only so much audience for progressive wonk content. So their numbers are going to flatten out fairly early on and the only uncertainty is what that level is and where the audience comes from: other free sites, pay sites or something else. HuffPo, NY Times, other.

[If you don't remember SRAs, it's because you never used them in school and you are a goddamned idiot.]

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