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Vox’s “Future Perfect” wants to explain it all

We wax philosophical with Ezra Klein about his website’s new vertical, which aims to take a macro view in an ever-shrinking news cycle.

Vox’s “Future Perfect” wants to explain it all
[Photo: Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW; Illustration: jeffjacbs1990/Pixabay]

For years, Vox cofounder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein had noticed a blind spot in his coverage. Most of the journalism, he tells me, was “very focused on what’s new.” Or not even what’s new, but the minutiae controlling the narrative: what people are currently in conflict about; what others are tweeting about. Klein felt some of the reportage was trapped in its own ephemera–lost in what seemed like only a few seconds, until the next supposedly big event came along and changed our understanding of what happened prior.

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Klein had been kicking around an idea with fellow Vox correspondent Dylan Matthews about a vertical that answers this problem by focusing on larger, perhaps slower, stories. Today it comes to life in the form a new section called Future Perfect. As Klein describes it, the coverage is “inspired by the idea of what’s important.” He’s giving writers a long leash to discuss issues that may not necessarily have a news peg, yet still have “tremendous effects on [people’s] lives,” he says. Think ongoing issues like malaria, human extinction, animal suffering.

Ezra Klein [Photo: courtesy of Vox]
Future Perfect is funded with help from the Rockefeller Foundation, and is looking at topics through a very specific lens. The site is inspired by the philosophical trend of “Effective Altruism,” an idea made popular by important philosophers like Peter Singer that is essentially an updated, utilitarian-focused way of analyzing human morality. Philosopher William MacAskill and the Centre for Effective Altruism describe the movement as “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and then taking action on that basis.”

EA is often associated with a certain kind of person–namely, Silicon Valley heavyweights (such as Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz) who love to wax philosophic about the ways their businesses and Big Ideas are changing the world. I’ve always interpreted the movement (or, perhaps the movement’s popularity) as a kind of detached way that elites can feel better about being rich. Yes, it has deep philosophical roots and promotes intentional moral actions (which is good!), but EA is often used by well-meaning entrepreneurs as a way to describe the most effective routes for philanthropy or outreach discussion, while ignoring the fact that their business-as-usual practices perpetuate the very systems that create these terrible problems they supposedly want to fix. In some ways, Effective Altruism has become a handy philosophical term taken up by a certain class of people to reaffirm the good they’ve always believed themselves to be doing in the world.

For Klein, this is outside of the site’s purview. He sees EA as an effective way to approach topics–not the panacea divulged in each article. “We are trying to use it as a lens to look at the world,” says Klein, “what is out there that is causing a lot of suffering that can be ameliorated.” He goes on, “We’re not sitting around making decisions about how to invest money.”

The long and short of it

Future Perfect will launch with a variety of content. It will have text articles–likely similar to the explainers already seen on Vox, albeit with a bigger scope; it will have a podcasting element, too; and it will also seek out contributors and sources who can expertly speak to these issues. Today, for example, the site published a interview with Bill Gates, which discusses topics from philanthropy to artificial intelligence to the use of governance institutions as a way to increase human well-being. Future Perfect intends to cast a wide net, both topic-wise and medium-wise; “We’re Vox,” says Klein. “These stories will live everywhere in every format we can think of.”

Klein is hopeful this could bring about a new type of journalism into vogue, one that focuses on synthesis and not novel discovery. He sees Vox creating journalism that’s akin to academic literature reviews. Often, he says, news stories try to focus on what is unknown. Future Perfect, in contrast, will try to “sum up what is known on a topic.” And that’s “going to make this coverage feel a little bit different,” Klein expects.

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In a sense, Future Perfect is approaching daily online news in a more magazine-like way. Print periodicals, by their very design and publishing cycle, need to be more universal with topics. A magazine editor assigns a story that she knows will still be relevant in six months, because that’s when the story is going to go live. This, says Klein, creates a “distance for things.” Magazines, he goes on, “had a structure that forced more of that [slower, broader] approach.” But things have changed drastically in the digital age where an entire 24-hour news cycle is changed by a single tweet. The old structure, laments Klein, “is gone.”

I get the sense that part of Klein’s affinity toward this project is his exasperation with the media rat race. The 2016 election had something to do with it, he admits. “The news cycle and the tweet cycle was shouting at us to cover a narrower and narrower set of things,” he says. Media companies, he goes on, “had to come up with ways to structure coverage that had different incentives, different cues.” Which is to say that modern journalism, in Klein’s view, has become focused on the ever-changing universe of the current second we’re in. “Of course, it’s important,” he acknowledges, “but it can’t be totalizing.”

Overall, Future Perfect is Vox’s and Klein’s way of trying to think about the world more macrocosmically. He talks about it like it’s something new or perhaps forgotten–and I suppose if I were a political journalist I may feel that way. Yet sites like Wikipedia and other, perhaps less news-focused destinations may serve a similar purpose to what Klein hopes audiences will find unconventional. What’s most important is that it gives writers and readers fresh, often overlooked topics to chew on. He hopes the project will resonate with others as much as it resonates with him personally.

Vox has been bulking up of late–it most recently introduced The Goods, which is its new vertical that takes over for the now-defunct Racked.com. Now it has Future Perfect too, expanding the site’s coverage even further. We’ll see where things go next.

Klein sees a bright future for Future Perfect; today it’s trying to find its audience. “I always have expansion plans,” he tells me. But first, “we have to launch something successful.”

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About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about many things.

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