November 14, 2020

ANNALS OF LEFTIST AUTOPHAGY: Why Matthew Yglesias Left Vox.

The journalist Matthew Yglesias, a co-founder of Vox, announced today that he is leaving that publication for the paid-newsletter platform Substack, so that he can enjoy more editorial independence.

The move may prove a good fit for Yglesias, who began his career as a highly successful independent blogger before blogging at The Atlantic and then elsewhere. But his absence as a staffer (a Vox spokesperson noted that he will continue to host a podcast, The Weeds) will make the publication he co-founded less ideologically diverse at a moment when negative polarization makes that attribute important to the country.

Like Andrew Sullivan, who joined Substack after parting ways with New York magazine, and Glenn Greenwald, who joined Substack after resigning from The Intercept, which he co-founded, Yglesias felt that he could no longer speak his mind without riling his colleagues. His managers wanted him to maintain a “restrained, institutional, statesmanlike voice,” he told me in a phone interview, in part because he was a co-founder of Vox. But as a relative moderate at the publication, he felt at times that it was important to challenge what he called the “dominant sensibility” in the “young-college-graduate bubble” that now sets the tone at many digital-media organizations.

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Many outlets, he argued, are missing something important. “The people making the media are young college graduates in big cities, and that kind of politics makes a lot of sense to them,” he said. “And we keep seeing that older people, and working-class people of all races and ethnicities, just don’t share that entire worldview. It’s important to me to be in a position to step outside that dynamic … That was challenging as someone who was a founder of a media outlet but not a manager of it.”

One trend that exacerbated that challenge: colleagues in media treating the expression of allegedly problematic ideas as if they were a human-resources issue. Earlier this year, for instance, after Yglesias signed a group letter published in Harper’s magazine objecting to cancel culture, one of his colleagues, Emily VanDerWerff, told Vox editors that his signature made her feel “less safe at Vox.”

Yglesias had been personally kind and supportive of her work, she wrote, but as a trans woman, she felt the letter should not have been signed by anyone at Vox, because she believed that it contained “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions,” and that several of its signatories are anti-trans. The letter’s authors reject those characterizations.

I asked Yglesias if that matter in any way motivated his departure. “Something we’ve seen in a lot of organizations is increasing sensitivity about language and what people say,” he told me. “It’s a damaging trend in the media in particular because it is an industry that’s about ideas, and if you treat disagreement as a source of harm or personal safety, then it’s very challenging to do good work.”

Safetyism claims yet another scalp, just as it did during the Tom Cotton freakout at the New York Times this past summer, and at the Atlantic (where the above article appears), whose crybully staffers suffered a collective meltdown when Kevin Williamson was hired to write there.

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