Right in the midst of a tumultuous reorganization of magazine publishing, Vox Media has launched the latest in a growing stable of ambitious digital publications that merge high-end production values with the immediacy and flexibility of the Web.
Polygon, a sister site to The Verge that focuses explicitly on gaming, announced itself at about 10pm last night with the highest of digital standards, from high-def video to large, beautiful photography, and in-depth features – including a deep, nerdy inside look at Halo 4’s playest labs and a profile of competitive Street Fighter players. Commenters welcomed editor Christopher Grant’s inaugural letter with gifs of glee. The site already has fans, but of more interest will be whether or not it has staying power and can hold aloft the banner for a new era of magazines.
Grant says there’s room in the market for Polygon because gaming is a growing and changing sector, and the site is competing against a host of Web publications that are owned by large corporations. IGN, for instance, belongs to News Corporation, CBS has GamesSpot, G4 belongs to Comcast and NBC Universal, and Joystiq, Grant’s previous employer, is part of AOL.
“It’s huge media companies that have a lot of other problems on their plate,” says Grant. “And I don’t think any of them have the answer about what people want in their coverage.” Gawker Media doesn’t quite qualify as “big media,” so by that logic, Grant must regard its Kotaku as Polygon’s most worthy competitor.
Polygon’s editorial team, which is already at 20 and, Grant says, will hit 25 by year end, is drawn largely from those competitors, mimicking The Verge’s recruitment method, which basically amounts to a straight-up raid. Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff scored those editors and writers, largely from his alma mater, AOL, by offering them equity, promising independence, and bestowing upon them highly advanced publishing technology, including the custom-built Chorus content management system.
Back in January, Grant told Business Insider that it was relatively easy to lure the editors to Polygon, which had been publishing as part of The Verge’s gaming vertical until last night. “I thought the idea of putting a lot of chefs in the kitchen would be unpalatable to a lot of people,” he said. “But I found the opposite to be true.” To me, Grant describes the company as “the Narnia of journalism.” “This place you can’t imagine exists,” he says. “This place that treats journalists well.”
Grant says accessibility is a big part of Polygon’s editorial mandate. It will eschew industry jargon, and simplify the gaming of mechanics without dumbing it down. The stories will have strong angles and will often be about people rather than technicalities or numbers. While hosted on The Verge, Polygon was publishing about 50 stories a day and attracting monthly pageviews that numbered more than 3 million, according to Grant’s best estimates. In its new guise, it will maintain that publishing pace and keep a strong focus on reviews, publishing about 10 a week. In the next five days, Grant says, the site will publish eight or nine pieces of original reporting in addition to general newswire reporting. It is using some freelancers – the current rate is 25 cents a word for stories of 3,000 words of more – but he wants staff writers to handle most of the assignments.
Polygon is the newest part of what appears to be an emerging “dude empire” from Vox. Like sister titles The Verge and SB Nation, its team is very male dominated, and its audience male heavy. To emphasize the point, rumor has it that a car-focused site is next. But demographics aside, Polygon specifically and Vox Media in general represent a concerted and serious re-imagination of magazine-style publishing.
A couple of weeks ago, an Ars Technica contributor named Timothy B. Lee Tweeted his surprise that weekly magazines had taken so long to die. They haven’t gone completely, of course, but Lee’s Tweet had some oomph: It came on the heels of the announcement that Newsweek would cease publication at the end of the year. “It’s kind of amazing,” Lee said, “that it took 20 years for the web to start killing off weekly news magazines.”
Proponents of new media have been predicting magazines’ demise for years, and in 2012 it seems the downside realities of the digital era are finally starting to take effect. There’s a Twitter account called @themediaisdying that keeps a running tally of the magazine layoffs and shutdowns. Titles among the afflicted in recent weeks include Glamor, Self, and GQ, Australia’s The Week, Maxim, Golf Digest, Teen Vogue, and a list so long that it will etch high-res depression into your media-loving retinas.
On the other hand, as AdAge’s Simon Dumenco points out, some magazines are doing just fine. Architectural Digest has seen an 11.3 percent increase in ad pages this year, on the back of strong growth the previous two years. Food Network Magazine is over-delivering on its usual print run of 1.4 million by 200,000 copies. Marie Claire’s ad pages are up 15 percent and it has published two editions of spin-off Marie Claire@Work. They’ve all got digital editions as bulwarks for their paper products.
But Newsweek and those magazines are the extreme examples. Most others fall somewhere in between, and the general figures for the industry aren’t pretty. Magazine newsstand circulations dropped 10 percent in the first half of this year alone, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, and advertising is down 8.8 percent compared to the same time last year, per the Publishers Information Bureau.
Just as print magazines strike hard times, however, a new guard of optimists is emerging. They’re all digital – they have to be – and they come armed with new business models, venture-capital backing, and an approach to media that is as invigorating as it is naive (in the best sense of the word). These titles, which include Polygon, Buzzfeed, Quartz, NSFW, The Magazine, and The Verge, are designed with mobile in mind, blend longform with shortform, and are bringing fresh approaches to extracting dollars from advertisers, sponsors, and readers.
Polygon has also been very magazine-like in its aggressive self-promotion, carefully parcelling out its announcements in January and then, for the unveiling of its name, in April. It doesn’t shy away from describing its own team as “insanely talented,” and it even partnered with Internet Explorer to produce a documentary series about the making of the site. In the trailer for the series, called “Press Reset,” the staff agonizes over the meaning and import of building an editorial product for the gaming community. The video features Polygon editors being tattooed, driving cross-country with family, and pronouncing, from a kitchen table, that “I believe that people are ready for it and I believe that the people that we’ve assembled are the absolute best people in the world to deliver it.” In the background plays music that sounds like it has been lifted from a life insurance commercial.
What Polygon and its ilk signal, however, is that digital platforms have now reached a point where they are competitive with, and probably better than, paper as a distribution media for magazine content. Until now, they weren’t. It took all of those 20 years that Lee referred in his Tweet. We are only now emerging from the Huffington Post era, which was driven and dominated by search-engine optimization and wedded to the desktop browser. In the HuffPo and Drudge era, design was secondary to utility and traffic imperatives, which were mainly tied to search keywords. That era reached its apotheosis when the HuffPo published a scintillating scoop with the headline “What Time Does The Super Bowl Start?”. Meanwhile, paper still had the advantage of beautiful spreads, immersive design experiences, and content that could be integrated with high-production advertising that could command real dollars.
What’s changed? Tablets arrived and smartphones got bigger. Both got into more people’s hands. Now people are reading on mobile in fast-increasing numbers, and we’re only just getting started. The iPad’s retina display makes the device a platform for attractive magazine layouts, and it’s just as portable as the paper product. The difference is that it can hold a few hundred magazines at a time and can be updated within a matter of moments. Smartphones are with us always, and as larger screens become the norm, as exhibited by the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy SIII, mobile reading will likely surpass all other types of reading. Earlier this month, smartphone books platform startup Oyster raised $3 million of early-stage funding based on that rationale.
Grant expects that in the next five years more than half of Polygon’s audience will come to the site via mobile. In part because of that expectation, Polygon has fully responsive design, meaning it will adjust to your screen size regardless of what device you’re on. He describes the site as “anti-app” in that it will live on the Web rather than be something to download to iOS or Android. “We made a very committed decision that we would not go after apps and we would go after a HTML5 native-style experience,” he says. Quartz and NSFW have taken similar approaches, and don’t be surprised to see PandoDaily moving in the same direction soon.
There may also be shifting consumption habits among readers. Over the last decade as publishers have proliferated on the Internet, we have been inundated with a high-velocity deluge of news stories, blog posts, quick-reaction analyses, and Tweets, much of it easy to snack on, but most of it of low value nutritionally. Quick-and-easy is also cheap and forgettable, and readers increasingly hunger for longform content. At least, that’s how it seems to us. As Sarah Lacy said recently, respondents to PandoDaily’s recent survey overwhelmingly indicated that they want longform content, and our 2,000–3,000 stories consistently drive the most traffic.
These trends – the big shift to mobile and changing reader demands – are likely what’s fuelling Vox Media’s optimism. None of these factors assure success for Polygon. Not by a long shot. Publishing is still a tough business. Editorial is expensive – especially if you have a writing staff of 25 – and digital ad growth isn’t exactly going gangbusters right now. And even though it’s a digital publication, Polygon’s overheads aren’t likely to be low. Vox’s tech and development team won’t come cheap. In a sense, the company is merely replacing the traditional costs of printing, distribution, and delivery with development costs.
Some of the ads Polygon has launched with look bad, too. The chintzy animated banners for Clear Men Scalp Therapy, Miller Lite, BMW, and “Doom 3” might represent big names, but, given the high-quality design environment, they also seem like throwbacks, reminiscent of a time when Slate and Salon were first being launched. Buzzfeed’s approach of favoring sponsored and social content over banners is much more appealing. Hopefully it proves to be sustainable, too.
Naturally, those ads are there because of revenue pressures. Every publication has to make money somehow, and it seems Polygon is committed to that goal from day one. It will need to be. Vox Media has taken on a substantial amount of revenue obligation thanks to four rounds of fundraising, its latest, a Series D, topping out at $17 million. The company has raised $40 million in total. How long might that take to pay back?
And herein lies a big, unanswered question. Newsweek is dead. In print, at least, it has proven to be unsustainable in this always-on, mobile world. On the other hand, its would-be magazine-sector successors – the likes of Polygon, The Verge, Buzzfeed, Quartz – might be offering hope, but their longevity is far from proven. These publications are barely out of the womb.
For now, it feels good to cheer on Polygon. It’s a quality product in a promising space with a strong team and an exciting model. It’s representative of a new era of magazines that provides some cause for hope. But we should save the real celebrations until Polygon and its brethren have shown that they don’t need the backup cash.