Initial Impressions of Vox

Earlier this year, I wrote about the coming influx of new journalism sites and opined on their prospects against current media stalwarts.  All of the sites that I referenced at the time are now live and have been operating at full capacity for at least a couple of months.  Here’s what Vox, my pick for the most promising of the new ventures, has accomplished and what it should do differently going forward.

Vox’s Mission Statement

Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Melissa Bell launched Vox (originally codenamed Project X) in late March.  Their goal: to explain the news and to make complex stories both accessible and engaging.  From their soft-launch site explainer:

In journalism, you’ll sometimes hear articles about hard topics referred to as “vegetables” or “the spinach” — the idea being that readers don’t like those subjects but they should be reading about them anyway. Our view is that there’s no important topic that can’t be made interesting to the audience. If we’re writing about something important — something that matters in people’s lives — and we’ve made it boring then that failure is on us, not on our readers.

They also promised a unique, technology-rich feature set to accomplish this goal:

It’s our job to experiment with all kinds of preparations: Feature articles, traditional news articles, Q&As, FAQs, graphics, videos, visualizations, and even faux-conversations like this one. It means being willing to adopt a tone that isn’t intimidating and being honest that we’re also trying to figure this stuff out. It means developing some innovative new editorial products that let us deliver contextual information more cleanly, clearly, and regularly. Our only promise is that our goal in all cases will be to move people from curiosity to understanding.

Five-Card Stud: Vox’s Card Stack Model

The centerpiece of Vox’s media model has been what it calls “card stacks.”  Card stacks are pop-up interactive features that break down a given issue into topic-based cards, with each card representing a sub-issue or important piece of information related to the topic at hand.  Check out Timothy Lee’s card stack about net neutrality as an example.  The stack walks the reader through the basics of what net neutrality is, the history net neutrality, and the peripheral questions and debates in the news that involve it.

The card stack idea isn’t necessarily original; Bloomberg has been publishing similar “QuickTakes” of given issues for a while now.  But Vox has given primacy to card stacks within its editorial framework and sees them as the bedrock for future stories that pertain to the issue in question.  Most news pieces are relegated to the trash heap of history almost immediately after publication, but Vox’s cards are a promising case study of how certain stories can have continued value in the long run.

Successes

1. The writing is fantastic.  Vox’s journalists have been producing high-quality work from the get-go.  Sarah Kliff, Libby Nelson, Max Fisher, and Tim Lee, among others, have produced really excellent coverage of healthcare, education, foreign policy, and technology, respective.  Matt Yglesias’ review of Capital in the 21st Century is more or less my platonic ideal of the book review: it explains the book’s content and provides a succinct overview of why that content matters.  (I really hope additional book and film reviews like this will be published in the future.)  Dylan Matthews is still Dylan Matthews.  With a team this good, quality is basically a guarantee, which suggests readers will return to the site.

2. The features are innovative and varied.  I love the execution of the card stacks thus far, especially those that dig into the background of huge issues or topics like the Affordable Care Act.  The card stacks are easy to read and are arguably a better, more concise go-to source than Wikipedia or any other information portal, at least for general topic overviews.  Matt (Mazewski, not Yglesias) mentioned to me a little while back that he enjoys the video pieces for their succinctness and quality.  The Q&A breakdowns are a good change of pace and function as mini-card stacks for quick reads.  Vox’s format mix is the best example yet of the new course that innovative internet journalism can plot.

3. Inclusive, unobstructed design.  Credit Melissa Bell’s team for crafting a site that has avoided the design and technology pitfalls of so many other news organizations.  The design is clean yet bold.  Card stacks are simple and easy to navigate.  The mobile site functions flawlessly compared to the desktop site.  Ads are tastefully juxtaposed to pieces and don’t clutter the page.  There are no sponsored content links adorning the end of articles.  Comments are not currently accepted, which is a surprising (and not unwelcome) break from the model nearly every other news site employs.  All of these factors add up to a reading experience that puts the focus on the news and respects the reader by avoiding content gimmicks.  That could be a distinguishing factor as Vox’s reputation solidifies as a haven from the inescapable garbage of Buzzfeed, Forbes, etc.

Room for Improvement

Though Vox’s site design is quite good, the site’s organizational layout needs to be improved as its team begins to aggregate content.   Its current biggest weakness is the lack of a framework for browsing previous stories and posts.  For a site that’s designed to use older stories as a running basis for new events, that’s more than a small problem.  There isn’t even a search bar to locate old articles by topic.

Creating an archive would go a long way towards solving that problem and making Vox’s content more accessible.  But it wouldn’t solve the underlying issue of Vox’s content organization: it’s often unclear why a given story format was paired with a given story.   As Vox continues to grow, it would be helpful to establish consistency in what kinds of stories are posted in each format to better inform readers how each piece fits into the Vox ecosystem.

For example: it makes a lot of sense for Sarah Kliff’s primer on the Affordable Care Act to be published in a card stack, since the ACA is a huge topic and will likely be referenced in a substantial number of future posts.  Based on Vox’s mission statement, it seems like card stacks are the engine for repurposing basic story information for new events and updates.  So why was coverage of Jill Abramson’s firing also published as a card stack?  It was certainly an important event, but it’s highly unlikely this specific incident will be used a as a reference for more than one or two future posts.  If card stacks are most closely linked with recurring utility, why not publish this post as an FAQ or a faux conversation?

I’d take two broad measures to add clarity to Vox’s organizational framework:

1. Use card stacks for stories about institutions, histories, ongoing movements, and key historical events.  Use other features for everything else.

Or, basically, divide content into “things we will use again” and “posts with issue-specific longevity or scope.”  Designate card stacks as the medium for overarching issues that will have a probable chance for future re-use.  My crude measuring stick: imagine it’s December 2015 and we’re recounting key events from 2014 that will probably be relevant going into 2016.  Anything that’s deemed as relevant should be in a card stack; anything that’s deemed less important should be published via a different feature.

So the ACA, the violence in Ukraine, and the coup in Thailand all make sense as card stacks since they’re important issues that will likely have recurring relevance in the medium-term.  The Jill Abramson case and the Bryan Singer allegations would probably have more of a short-term lifespan and should be published as something else, though overarching topics like pay discrimination by gender certainly warrant card stacks.  Of course, any events that magnify in importance could be upgraded to a card stack accordingly.

This might not seem like a significant issue, but as Vox’s published material continues to increase in quantity, it’s important for readers to get a sense of what each story format represents.  I’m also a firm believer that a repository of quality card stacks would be a distinctly monetizable product, an asset collection that could be billed as a friendlier Wikipedia.  It’s important to ensure this product would be of consistently high-level quality rather than a mix of lasting issues and ephemera.  A card stack about the new X-Men film, for example, would have only detracted from the product’s holistic value as it pertains to schools, libraries, and other possible third-party vendors.

2. Create an archive and divide it into four sections: card stacks, non-video features, videos, and opinion pieces.

This would be simple.  Create four product pages that aggregate content for easy navigability.  Card stacks would have their own separate page for the reasons described above.  All other features would be collected elsewhere.  Vox’s video series has been very, very good so far and it would make sense to distinguish video material from all other content, both for easier viewing and the unique ad revenue opportunities associated with the medium.  An opinion page wouldn’t be necessary, but some analysts have bemoaned the loss of Matt and Ezra’s non-“Voxsplaining” musings, and creating an opinion page would ensure Vox has great and clearly delineated takes on both the news and commentary.

Why This Matters

Yglesias recently responded to a critique of Vox from Facebook Content Director Mike Hudack, who argues that Vox’s content decisions betray the team’s original goal of publishing serious journalism:

Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of interacting with screens from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.

And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is “How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever.” Which is better than “you can’t clean your jeans by freezing them.”

The jeans story is their most read story today. Followed by “What microsoft doesn’t get about tablets” and “Is ’17 People’ really the best West Wing episode?”

It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.

In response, Yglesias argued that social media sites like Facebook are the reason that this kind of content receives more attention than serious journalism:

As of writing, the jeans story has been shared 1,062 times on Facebook while the DATA Act story has been shared just 242 times. That’s why the jeans story has been read by more people. We featured the DATA Act story much more prominently on our home page, but these days the bulk of web traffic is driven by social media and the bulk of social traffic is driven by Facebook.

Yglesias is correct insofar as social media sites are quickly becoming the go-to source for news and peer-recommended stories.  But even though Vox might give greater homepage weight to stories like the DATA Act article, there is no such primacy given to these lengthier pieces in Vox’s own story history OR on its Facebook and Twitter streams.  Content is publicized with equal weight and filed away with equal weight.

If Vox wants to change this perception, preserving content like card stacks and videos becomes a critical tool in showing which assets and stories have real centrality in Vox’s content bank.  No one should fault Vox for pushing stories on frozen jeans and what “basic” means, since these kinds of traffic-boosters are easy to read and attract eyeballs and revenue.  But Vox should be faulted for not doing enough to distinguish the content it wants to prioritize after publication, especially when so much of it is really damn good.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that Vox was my pick for the most promising of the new internet sites.  To my mind, Vox’s talent and broad story variety, coupled with its focus on long-term storytelling and backing of the powerful Vox Media brand, will ensure its continued expansion and innovation going forward.  Taking these steps to streamline its content will go a long way in buttressing its mission statement and most effectively leveraging its assets.

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