This year’s International Symposium of Online Journalism in Austin was kicked off by Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, one of the hottest media companies today.
Vox Media, the online publisher behind SB Nation, The Verge and Polygon, has attracted a lot of attention since Ezra Klein, the creator of the popular Wonkblog, left the Washington Post to start his own venture under the Vox umbrella. (Vox.com launched Sunday night.)
The rising digital empire was one of the fastest-growing in 2013, attracting 72.9 million unique visitors to all its brands combined. Vox has raised more than US$70 million in capital.
During his keynote, Bankoff gave a few insights about how he approaches hiring, what digital media need to do to survive, and why technology can’t be an afterthought. Here are a few highlights.
-To scale, brands need to control their technology destiny.
One of the things that has earned Vox Media praise is the technology behind it. Its custom-made content management system, Chorus, which powers all the company’s websites, seamlessly integrates all the tools needed for publishing on the web.
“The joke is that Chorus is a unicorn with a kitten on its back. People think it is a magical system that fixes everything,” Melissa Bell of Vox told the New York Times in an article on the site's launch.
Dubbed as a “modern media stack” (people at Vox don’t even want to call it a CMS), Chorus was designed to break away from traditional publishing systems and its limitations from the get-go.
“Unencumbered by the byzantine publishing process of traditional media companies and with our web native blogger DNA, we are rapidly evolving the stack to set higher expectations with writers, readers, and passionate community members,” read the company’s post announcing its launch in 2012.
Vox Media focuses heavily on technology, and Bankoff has a strong reason why. "Media companies that want to scale need to control their technology destiny," he said during his keynote.
That is also one of the reasons Vox Media was able to lure Ezra Klein away from the Washington Post. In that same NYT article, Klein said that Vox had the tools he and his team were looking for to create his new venture.
In the same way, Bankoff recommended that digital publishers not be too platform-dependent.
@bankoff : brand building - avoid platform dependency (eg. clickbait on FB) because platforms owners can change their algorithm! #ISOJ— Kuang Keng Kuek Ser (@kuangkeng) April 4, 2014
-Digital brands need to be authoritative.
On the web, where everyone has a voice and a megaphone, Bankoff argues that specific branding is more effective than having general topic sections under one domain. That's the strategy behind Vox Media's success, with sites like SB Nation, which is dedicated to sports, and Polygon, dedicated to covering the gaming industry.
In the space where community and authority are so critical, you have to develop authoritative brands — Vox Media's @bankoff at #ISOJ— Jonathan Groves (@grovesprof) April 4, 2014
The roots of @voxmediainc was in sports blogging -- with one for every team and every topic. - @bankoff #ISOJ— Elizabeth Wiley (@ewiley) April 4, 2014
-Hacker culture meets journalism.
For Bankoff the key to success is to hire talented people and give them the right tools to produce great stories. “Use technology, use talent and use distribution to make it awesome,” he said.
These talented people are those who don’t wait for an opportunity to come to them: they start building things on their own without asking permission, just as Mark Zuckerberg didn’t ask for permission when he built Facebook, he said.
The best web storytellers are people who are passionate, who would be doing this in their spare time, even if they weren’t hired to work in a newsroom, he said.
He refers to web-native journalists as “media hackers.” If they haven’t been born with the web, at least they dedicated their careers to it, he said. “We make it our business to seek out those people and support them.”
“We have to embrace the culture of multidisciplinary thinking, where hacker culture from the tech world meets the journalism culture.”
-For content publishers, the best is about to come.
There’s still hope for web storytellers and digital brands, judging from Bankoff’s three-phase explainer of the history of content publishing on the web.
In the first phase, “porting to the web,” the web presence of media companies was an afterthought, a place to dump content without any strategy. There was a lack of innovation. Of course, this didn’t scale.
In the second phase, “the race to the bottom,” publishers rushed to make web content production cheaper and efficient, taking advantage of interns and contributors, he explained. News publishers were obsessed with the Google algorithm. The result: click-baity content that lacked quality (think of listicles and slideshows), and didn’t do a good job luring advertisers.
“As a brand advertiser, you’re not going to spend a lot of money being next to content you don’t trust,” Bankoff said.
In the third phase, the “race to the top,” publishers invest in quality content and innovate. New modern brands that matter to consumers take the stage. Quality content starts to scale, digital subscriptions rise as well as revenue from ads. “Even the Google algorithm is starting to reward quality and depth.”
When asked whether Vox is profitable, Bankoff said that “they're operating at about break-even,” expecting to be profitable soon. Of the seven brands under the Vox umbrella, six are profitable.
-Diversity is still an issue for new media.
Diversity in journalism has resurfaced as a hot topic in the past few weeks, and the new media darlings FiveThirtyEight and Vox have been criticized for not hiring a diverse staff. Although he didn’t mention it in his presentation, Bankoff addressed this issue when a woman in the audience asked him what strategy he would use to make sure that Vox Media hires minorities.
I'm worried about @bankoff's strategy for recruiting. If he's looking for web stars how does that align with diversity efforts? #isoj— Sara f Peralta (@sarafperalta) April 4, 2014
Vox Media’s CEO replied that to achieve diversity, companies need to be aggressive about hiring, look for talented people of color and make them stars.
"That's work that we have to do," he said. "We have to be more part of the community."
Video of Vox.com launch.
Image: Slide from Bankoff's presentation, courtesy of Eduardo Suárez (@eduardosuarez).
Maite Fernández is IJNet’s managing editor. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has an M.J. in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland.