How Journalism Gets Done at Vox
August 27th, 2015

Like everyone else, I watched the Vox-Ezra Klein-Torbjorn Tannsjo-Brian Leiter fight yesterday. And truth be told, I don’t really have a dog in the fight. is, of course. But I don’t know Tannsjo at all and only know Leiter by reputation. (A friend of mine quipped, “They have to be like the Babe Ruth of assholes at Vox to out-asshole Leiter.”)

Also, I spend a lot of time on both sides of the editing/writing fence. I’ve had pieces get turned down, or spiked after acceptance. And I’ve had to do the rejection and spiking. This is all totally part of the writing life and part of being a professional is making your peace with this as part of the business.

What people who haven’t edited before may not understand is that the reasons for rejecting a piece can range from the straight-forward to the deeply complex. For instance, it could just be that the editor doesn’t like the piece. Or it could be that the editor likes the piece, but had previously rejected a similar piece by a long-time contributor, and doesn’t want to rub that other writer the wrong way. It could be that the editor likes the piece, but doesn’t have space to run it in a timely fashion. Or it could even be that the editor likes the piece, but thinks it would fit better at another publication.

There are hundreds of institutional, temporal, logistical, and relational considerations that go into these decisions, most of which the writer is never aware and which are too complicated and/or confidential to be explained. Which is why, to my mind, the ideal rejection is just explaining that the piece “isn’t quite right,” thanking the writer for the submission, and, if you have any good ideas on where the piece might find a home, then pointing the writer in the direction of another publication.

Again, I’ve been on both sides of those kinds of exchanges and if they follow that form, then both parties should be able to walk away happy.

All of that said, what’s offensive about the Vox situation isn’t that the site says they’re uncomfortable running a piece that implicitly questions the wisdom/morality of abortion and contraception. I don’t think that’s anything we didn’t know about the seriousness of the people at VOXDOTCOM already. (And on this score, I don’t think Ezra Klein’s explainer/non-apology really helped: Hey! We almost hired two pro-life people once!)

No, the really bad part is that Tannsjo hadn’t just submitted a piece on spec. Vox went to him and commissioned the piece. And then, when they didn’t like it, they did . . . nothing. They just sat on it.

That’s bad.

The writer/editor compact has two parts. The first is that writers should live with editorial decisions and be okay with them. But the second is that editors should deal with writers promptly, transparently, and courteously.

If you solicit a piece from someone, you owe them a great deal. They’ve just done a bunch of work for you, for free. You’re not obligated to publish them. But if you decide not to publish them, you’re obligated to let them know that fact immediately. You should apologize for the situation not working out. You should pay them a kill fee. And if you want to remain on good terms, you might help them find a different home for the piece.

You don’t just try to pocket-veto the piece and then, when pressed, send an email to the writer making it sound like it’s their fault for writing such an offensive, deviationist essay.

That’s the part of this episode which reveals things we didn’t already know about Vox.

  1. Nedward August 27, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    The worst part of it is Klein’s Little Father of the People act. The theory advanced by amoral Left Coast computer nerd Kevin Drum is that the Voxen had anticipated some epic buzz from a Provocative Prestigious Piece — after all they went to a highly credentialed foreign pinhead of the type they valorize; news analysis; global village; data-driven Web 2.0 — but were underwhelmed by what was turned in. He seems to share your view that the professional move is then to quietly spike it, etc. but the choice of emphasis (on the piece, not juice-Voxers) betrays some soft bigotry of low expectation. This Klein’s idea of “lemons from lemonade” turns out to resemble cult leader behavior. Maybe that’s necessary to keep the unicorn afloat on VC

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  3. KFox August 28, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    As someone who’s only ever worked on spec (and only ever dealt with editors who have handled the blind submission with grace), this situation is appalling. This is journalistic irresponsibility. I hope other writers Vox approaches keep this in mind when fielding the proposal.

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  5. mojo August 31, 2015 at 7:56 am

    VOX: Get The Money Up Front

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  7. Vox mixes up National Rifle Association with National Recovery Administration in attempted hit piece on the former August 31, 2015 at 8:20 am

    […] commissioned a piece on abortion and then wouldn’t pay for it or run it when it didn’t totally fit their […]

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  9. Ronbo September 2, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    There are people who are dicks and know it – Taki comes to mind. And then there are people like Ezra who are dicks and have absolutely no idea.