The End Of The Wunderkind

by Trevor Butterworth

The word wunderkind was dragged, politely, into usage by that great plodder George Bernard Shaw to note that every age manages to season its offspring with instantaneous genius; Mozart is not a singularity. And for decades after, “wonder child” happily stayed within the safe semantic confines of age and the arts. Which was nice for the rest of us. You couldn’t be a wunderkind, without being a kind; you were not to be wundered at if you couldn’t perform some great musical, or perhaps painterly, feat. Then, in 1972, the New Yorker — channeling the emergence of youth culture the decade before — pushed the watershed and gave the kids some breathing space to shine. “It’s a real American tragedy — Wunderkind at twenty, Übermensch at thirty, kaputt (sic) at forty,” the magazine quipped in a cartoon of businessmen with noticeable American Hustle style haircuts. In the ongoing louche spirit of the times, the magazine extended the phrase to a horse named Zen — reassuringly a colt at the time — in 1975; and by 1982, thanks to Robert Ludlum, you could ride being a wunderkind all the way to the grand old age of 30.

There has been much talk of “wunderkind” over the past week, as blogging’s Chopin — Ezra Klein — left his home at The Washington Post. The architect of the Post’s successful “WonkBlog,” Klein would strike out as a media brand, taking some coworkers with him. Why? Money, power, the call of the Media’s West, where journalists could be free to be themselves, free to roam the Internet, free of all those stupid rules and the creative shortsightedness of the journalistic old world.

The 29-year old Klein was “America’s foremost wunderkind of writing words about charts,” said Wonkette cheekily. But readers like charts, and charts with policy explanation had given Klein the kind of currency that few other journalists had at the Post, to the tune of four million page views a month. (For comparison, “viral wunderkind” Neetzan Zimmeran performed to the tune of 33 million page views last November at Gawker, before he left for Whisper, located in the actual Wild West.) Klein was a “wunderkind,” said the Washington City Paper; “wunderkind,” said the Huffington Post; “wunderkind,” said Salon; “wunderkind,” said pretty much everybody — although to be fair, everybody really means everyone who cares about, as The New Republic put it last year in a profile of — who else? Ezra Klein — Washington’s fetish for wunderkinds. (Yes, that should be wunderkinder.)

And when you take this outpouring and combine it with the thousands of mentions of the “wunderkind Ezra Klein” that already exist in Googleland — you have something extraordinary, the most wunderkindlich adult in history. If that kind of accolade — that sort of responsibility — didn’t make you want to retreat to a cabin in a mountain valley in Wyoming, somewhere that wasn’t going to get dial up until 2030, it could only make you invincible.

Some of the recent profligacy, it has to be said, came from everyone quoting the same script, namely the Washington Post’s farewell memo describing Klein when he arrived at the newspaper at the age of 24 as a “wunderkind blogger with brash confidence” and now as a “brash wunderkind,” five years later. But legends are made by everyone repeating what someone else said. Slate’s Dave Weigel wasn’t sure — the double use of wunderkind could be “easily read as a dimunition [sic] of a reporter/columnist who helped expand the paper online.” Perhaps, but not according to Ludlum’s rules. Better to be wondered at rather than get old.

The Post also described another departing WonkBlog apparatchik, Dylan Matthews, as “a wunderkind in his own right.” Which is nice, a hat-tip to the Ron Weasleys of the WonkBlog world. A third departee — by many accounts a Hermione with a sense of humor — Melissa Bell, was simply described as… “pivotal.” Which was interesting: you rarely hear women being described as wunderkindlich, do you? There was Zadie Smith, but that was usually confined to describing her literary debut, White Teeth. The other is Tavi Gevinson, who already launched her own (profitable!) publication way back in 2011, at the age of 15.

The Post trio has been joined in their new mystery media venture by another youngish writer, Matt Yglesias — and yes, he too has been described as a wunderkind, but not quite as frequently as Klein, perhaps because it is more difficult to shake the idea of a gifted child from the reality of an often bearded man.

It will come as little surprise to find that the departure of not one but two wunderkinder from the Post struck some observers as carelessness rather than misfortune, another self-inflicted disaster for a newspaper that has a knack for saying “no” to talent whenever the talent has a good idea for the Post. “And may I say respectfully to the Post: You idiots!” wrote The New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. Which is a peculiar locution, as the preface “respectfully” doesn’t really lessen the effect of being called an idiot or a fool or a moron; rather, it says that you are not speaking in the heat of argument — the intoxicated rage at seeing someone who “really understood health policy” leave an important institution — but in the calm of rational consideration. In quoting Krugman, Capital New York left out the flim flam and led with “You idiots.”

Other luminaries questioned what Klein’s departure said about the Post’s strategy for survival: “POLITICO took away their bread and butter of covering politics, but thanks to him they had policy. If they lose that too, they’re just a bunch of angry old columnists that people laugh at,” Joe Weisenthal, executive editor of Business Insider told POLITICO, the shouty politics news site created in 2006 by former Posties John Harris and Jim VandeHei. At the Nieman Journalism Lab, Dan Kennedy wondered whether old-fashioned notions of command and control needed to be abandoned by newsrooms, so that they can take advantage of the ambitions of “young journalists like Ezra Klein.” At GigaOm, Matthew Ingram concurred co-ownership was the way forward: “Amazon’s Washington Post With Ezra Klein,” so to speak.

There is another way of looking at this. It acknowledges that yes, the Post was addicted to stodge, that the Graham family operating system was running on DOS, that when it merged its digital and print newspapers it canned some of its smartest digital journalists, and that its evisceration of book reviewing was a cultural disaster for the city it claimed to serve. But at the same time, it had been just been bought by the canniest retailer in modern history. Perhaps Jeff Bezos was once called a wunderkind too — Princeton Summa Cum Laude in engineering and computer science, Phi Beta Kappa — but it’s now irrelevant. Following the New Yorker guide to life, he transitioned into an Übermensch, and made Amazon an Überbrand.

And what did the wunderkind Ezra Klein do precisely at the moment that the Washington Post had a tech genius for a publisher — at the moment all its bad decisions could be undone, at the moment it undeservedly had its best damn chance at surviving the digital extinction of traditional news? He made Bezos an offer that Bezos, by any rational understanding of business, couldn’t accept. Why, after paying a quarter of a billion dollars for a brand, would Bezos immediately diffuse that brand by investing $10 million more in an individual fiefdom? It doesn’t matter that Klein was going to spend it on 30 hires, each no doubt a wunderkind in his own right (others — the women — obviously pivotal to success). That’s not a brand strategy. Amazon is a network and the nodes are not bigger than the network; nodes, even wundernoden, can be replaced. Really they should be replaceable, because you never want to find yourself in the position of owning the next Martha Stewart, an illustration of what happens when good individual brands get into trouble. Nor could it be said that Klein was offering the Post another Politico — sorry, POLITICO — opportunity, for Harris and Vanderhei had little of Klein’s personal branding invested in their product. Their product turned out to be far greater than either of them. Neither was trapped in being a wunderkind.

Perhaps the Klein quartet will make it on their own, if you understand “on their own” as meaning with a chunk of start-up capital and someone’s hand in their equity. Perhaps they will grow into a sum of their parts. Perhaps this particular age of the wunderkind is coming properly to a close in the messy business of creating new media ventures and making news media work. It has to happen, we need this generation to have the courage to grow up, take risks, and face responsibilities. Either way — success, failure, or a long-drawn out meh — they will succeed in one respect. They will finally throw off the seemingly endless promise of their superannuated youth for the payback of adulthood, wherein, to cite the “wily” “Ulysses” (the “w” word of classical times), “some work of noble note, may yet be done.” For Klein and Co. — and all the other aging-out wunderkinder of Washington and beyond, for the likes of CNN’s Brian Stelter and NBC’s Luke Russert — it’s now Übermensch or kaput.

Trevor Butterworth is a contributor to Newsweek and editor-at-large for