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Ever since Ezra Klein left his perch as the editor of the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog to strike out on his own, media insiders have been wondering what exactly he would build as part of Vox Media, the fast-growing parent company of The Verge and SB Nation. After a couple of teasers, the world got its first look at the new site — now known simply as Vox — when it opened to the public on Sunday night. While there is much to like about the new effort, it also faces some significant challenges, both as a journalistic endeavor and as a business.
Building new things is never easy — especially in the media industry, which often likes to devour or shoot down anything even remotely new or different. Just look at Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight venture at ESPN, which like Klein’s project is an outgrowth of Silver’s successful blog at the New York Times: although it has fans, the predominant response to the launch was criticism that it didn’t go deep enough, didn’t live up to the hype, etc.
Experimentation in media is good
While there has been somewhat less hype about Klein’s venture, there is still a lot riding on it, if only because the former Post blogger has been repeatedly referred to as a “wunderkind” and reportedly asked for a fairly impressive package from his former newspaper before leaving for Vox Media. And while he may not have done as much trash-talking of traditional journalism as Silver, Klein has made references like the one in a recent NYT interview, in which he said he was “held back by the culture of journalism” at the Post.
I’ve written before about why I think it’s important to experiment with new things in media (primarily because no one really knows what will work and what won’t, despite all the people who claim to know this — including me) and so I think it’s good that Klein decided to get an early version of what he wants to provide up as quickly as possible, so that he could test it on a real audience and hopefully adapt quickly. As he described it in his launch post:
“We’re launching this fast for one simple reason: there is no better way to figure out the best way to do explanatory journalism on the web than to do explanatory journalism on the web.”
Given that it is the first version of something that will undoubtedly grow and change, I don’t want to attack it for its weaknesses, but I do want to sketch out what I think are its strengths and its challenges. So here are three things I think the site does well, and three things that it is going to have to think hard about:
The Good Things:
— A clear purpose and a clean design: From my initial reading of the site, including most of its backgrounders and overviews, Vox provides more or less what Klein said he was trying to build when he described it as a “news site/encyclopedia.” It is clean-looking and well-designed, with very little to distract the eye — especially when compared with some other sites that have multiple advertising and promotional boxes, banners and interstitial widgets. The design definitely fits with the explanatory “slow journalism” approach Vox wants to take, which is good.
— The “card” metaphor makes sense: The most notable difference from a regular news site is the use of what Vox calls “cards,” or short digests of information about a topic, which it links to using special yellow highlighting. In a way, these are similar to the internally-generated “topic pages” that traditional media outlets such as the New York Times often link to, although the Vox version tends to be shorter and somewhat more topical, like this one.
— Well-optimized for mobile use: One good thing about the “card” approach (which other digital-content companies of various kinds have also adopted, including Twitter) is that it works well on a mobile device, and Vox has taken advantage of this by making its cards easily swipe-able with one finger. In fact, the whole site is well designed for mobile, since it is what designers call “responsive,” in that it automatically adjusts to fit any screen size.
— Making it into a business: Vox is part of the larger Vox Media empire, which is fairly well funded, but presumably it still has to make a business case for what it does. And there are other well-funded companies focused on the same intersection of information and journalism, including FiveThirtyEight. Vox plans to focus on high-end customized advertising, and advertisers may want to be attached to its intellectually rigorous approach, but that still has to be proven.
— Competing with Wikipedia: Many people mention FiveThirtyEight or even traditional media outlets like the New York Times, but for me one of the biggest and most dangerous competitors for what Vox wants to do is Wikipedia. It has vast scale, thanks to its all-volunteer approach (Vox actually has to pay its writers and editors a salary), and it also has an important friend in Google, which is going to be a distinct challenge for Vox if it focuses on search-driven traffic rather than socially-driven traffic, as some believe it will.
— Making it personal: In many ways, Vox is swimming against the tide in digital media, which has been making journalism much more personal than it used to be, with First Look Media being a prominent example. For a site whose name means “voice,” the Vox approach seems to be relatively voice-less and impersonal, although there are flashes of humor (try entering the famous Konami code on the site for an example). That may suit Vox’s explanatory approach, but it could also make it harder to build an engaged audience.
As someone who thinks that the rush of real-time journalism often leaves valuable context and background out of the equation, I have a soft spot for the kind of explanatory journalism that Ezra Klein wants to do with Vox and I wish them well. But there is a difference between serving a consumer need or a journalistic need and filling a business or market need, and scaling up to even a fraction of Wikipedia’s capabilities is going to be an expensive proposition.
Post and photo thumbnails courtesy of Flickr user Son of Broccoli