Ezra Klein's Vox.com launches but it's a bit undercooked
Vox.com, Ezra Klein's general interest site that launched on Sunday night, looks a lot like the bastard child of BuzzFeed and Wikipedia. The site's launch topics range from Obamacare to "Game of Thrones" and feature an eclectic mix of longer articles and listicles meant to help stories that normally appeal to insiders and experts find a wider audience. The site was founded with the hopes of serving the "vegetables" of journalism -- stories about important but often difficult-to-understand topics -- in a more appealing manner, and it's already on its way to meeting that goal. Consider these yams candied.
Its ambitions to create new technologies that change the way journalism is presented, however, have yet to come to fruition. The site's marquee feature is a tool that allows its journalists to explain complicated stories in a series of bite-sized cards that cover a story like the Ukraine crisis from beginning to end. While these cards are appealing in theory, in practice they're little more than glorified slideshows that happen to focus on important stories instead of, say, "6 Dogs Who Know How to Have Fun."
That isn't to say that these cards are uninteresting. As a reader, I would prefer to click through a few brief cards than to read another thousand-word article packed with references I don't understand. (Which, in a way, is like admitting that Henry Blodget was right about slideshows when he defended them during a PandoMonthly interview last year.) But as someone who regularly curses at WordPress and hoped that Vox.com would drive innovation in how content is presented and managed, I'm not overwhelmed by its current offering. These yams are candied, but they're still yams.
Vox.com's founding trio -- Melissa Bell and Klein from the Post and Matt Yglesias from Slate -- recognize that the site isn't anywhere near as advanced as many might have expected based on their earlier proclamations. In their launch post, they write:
The site we have today isn't perfect, and it isn't anywhere near complete — not editorially, and not technologically. Poking around this evening, or this week, or this month, you may notice a few things seem missing. We don't have commenting features on most articles. We don't have a menu bar. We're woefully lacking in snazzy data visualizations. We have some card stacks on key topics in the news, but there are many, many more left to build.
That's not because community or navigation or graphics or context aren't important to us. It's because they're important enough to us that we don't want to do them badly. We’re working on them and when we feel comfortable that we're delivering a certain level of quality, we’ll release our ideas into the wild and test, refine, and improve them. Let's hope that a little more time in the oven lets Vox.com move beyond mere slideshows and Q and A's. Its initial offerings aren't bad, but if the best in explanatory journalism looks like BuzzFeed written by a college professor, perhaps the category won't be as huge as Bell, Klein, Yglesias, and Bankoff think.
Reactions from around the Web
The New York Times notes how important it has become for publications to experiment with new technologies:
Technology has become crucial to every newsroom, of course, but not all technology has been designed equally. News organizations born in the print era have generally knit together disparate systems over the years to produce websites that integrate graphics, social media and reader comments with various degrees of smoothness.
Many all-digital organizations have built their content management systems from the ground up with the Internet in mind. That strategy, many say, produces a more organic melding of journalism and technology.
AdAge points out that Vox.com's "cards" could help it monetize with more integrated ads:
Card stacks also represent a new ad product for Vox Media. 'If there's a card stack on Obamacare or Bitcoin, advertisers can integrate directly into those topic areas,' [Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff] said, adding that any sponsored cards would be clearly labeled as such.New York Magazine summarizes Vox.com's new "cards" technology in its own tongue-in-cheek explainer of the site's purpose:
As Vox Media looks to build a self-sustaining company from the $73.2 million it has raised in funding, Vox Media's product team has made a point of developing editorial products with advertising in mind. 'During the latter part of last year, we started doing this thing where for any product we're building, advertising is day zero,' [Vox Media chief product officer Trei Brundrett] said.
Basically, it's like a more attractive Wikipedia page written by one well-informed nerd on the internet rather than many nerds on the internet.
Pando weighs in
Carmel DeAmicis explained Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff's ambitions, which probably influenced the decision to focus on advertising as new sites are being built, after he sat down for a PandoMonthly interview in New York:
[Bankoff] sees advertising schemes as a tale of two markets. One one hand, there’s a real time bidding, programmatic, scalable, frictionless approach to advertising. In contrast, Vox takes a brand building approach, believing that crappy little banner ads aren’t good for the advertisers or the content creators.
At the same time, the company doesn’t want to pour endless money down a content and design hole. Bankoff is thinking bigger picture. Vox Media’s publications pay a lot of attention to using technology and workflow to make quality scale.
'You can’t do it as a one-off and expect it to work,' Bankoff says. 'How do we take something that’s beautiful, whether it’s a feature layout, whether it’s a native ad campaign, and how do we get that to scale across big numbers, big audiences, big dollars? That’s our mindset, and that’s why we’ve been successful from a business perspective.'
Pando's resident explainer, David Holmes, wrote about Vox.com's potential to build an explanatory journalism site that actually works:
It’s too early to gauge how successful this experiment will be. Explanatory content can certainly be very popular: Mark Ames’ Ukraine explainer has been one of our most-read pieces of the new year. And the writing staff’s proven itself at plenty of outlets. I’m most interested in the technology angle, because that’s what Vox.com may offer that other explainer sites cannot. I’d love to see it use that vaunted platform to bring background and context to every story across the Vox Media empire (maybe that explains the seemingly redundant name, Vox.com), so that every article page is also an attractive, user-friendly opportunity for readers to learn more without going down a rabbit-hole of Wikipedia pages. And with Jim “Hit-You-In-The-Face-With-Money” Bankoff funding things, Vox.com has a better shot than most.
Tim Worstall wrote about his concerns with Vox.com after some of the site's early videos were released:
And that’s where I think Vox.com’s problems are going to come from. All of the people involved with it are bright and they’ve all climbed that greasy pole well, showing they have talent as well as smarts. But they all also seem to have a similar worldview: one where just the right pull on the right governmental lever is going to solve those complex problems. A belief in technocratic wonkery if you like. And a belief in technocratic wonkery is something that’s going to map very closely over centre of the road Democratic Party positions: just as my own prejudices lead my views to map very closely over those of the Libertarian Party (although, fortunately for my sanity, without descending into Randian nonsense).[Image via Vox Media]
And that’s what I think is going to end up being the problem with Vox.com. Not that things will be badly written, not that the basic subject matter will be uninteresting. But that the 'explainers' will be of one particular worldview, will be telling us how the world looks and should be run by those with that innate belief in technocratic wonkery.