March 24th, 2014
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
Will Vox be a bunch of articles like this one?
Our commitment to explaining the news is a commitment to an outcome not a commitment to any particular article format. We do think, however, that the traditional article format is ripe for reinvention.
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.
Vegetables can be cooked poorly. But they can also be roasted to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt. It’s our job to experiment with all kinds of preparations: Feature articles, traditional news articles, Q&As, FAQs, graphics, videos (you saw the one above, right?), 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.
What will Vox cover?
Politics, public policy, world affairs, pop culture, science, business, food, sports, and everything else that matters are part of our editorial ambit.
We intend to be a general news site and “news” has always been defined broadly. Open up your favorite newspaper or news site and you’ll find some stories that are about things that literally just happened and some stories that are about more enduring, important subjects.
Our approach is similarly inclusive: Some of our topics will be about fast-breaking news stories and some will just be about important topics. For instance: An explanation of how other countries’ health-care systems work — or even how our country’s health-care system works — probably won’t contain much new information but it’ll contain a lot of important information that’s new to most people. We’re not going to get caught up in talmudic debates about what does and doesn’t count as “news.”
Everyone agrees a new model is needed. No doubt many of the new efforts will fail. Here is Paul Krugman expressing his disappointment with Nate Silver:
Unfortunately, Silver seems to have taken the wrong lesson from his election-forecasting success. In that case, he pitted his statistical approach against campaign-narrative pundits, who turned out to know approximately nothing. What he seems to have concluded is that there are no experts anywhere, that a smart data analyst can and should ignore all that.
But not all fields are like that — in fact, even political analysis isn’t like that, if you talk to political scientists instead of political reporters. So, for example, before glancing at some correlation and asserting causation, you really should talk to the researchers.
Similarly, climate science has been developed by many careful researchers who are every bit as good at data analysis as Silver, and know the physics too, so ignoring them and hiring a known irresponsible skeptic to cover the field is a very good way to discredit your enterprise. Economists work hard on the data; on the whole you’re going to do better by tracking their research than by trying to roll your own, and you should be very wary if your analysis runs counter to what a lot of professionals say.
Basically, it looks as if Silver is working from the premise that the supposed experts in every field are just like the political analysts at Politico, and that there is no real expertise he needs to take on board. If he doesn’t change that premise, his enterprise is going to run aground very fast.
Then there is the niche strategy. General purpose news sources are dead. Everything will be a niche. What are the correct niches of the future? The Verge covers games technology and a little bit of politics, if it involves technology, such as Turkey banning access to Twitter.
Turkey has reportedly blocked Google DNS inside its borders, eliminating a backdoor that briefly helped Turks stay connected to Twitter after the country banned access. Earlier this week, Turkey’s prime minister promised to “eradicate” the popular service with the help of a court order. “I don’t care what the international community says,” Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at a campaign rally. “Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.” Twitter says it’s looking into claims that the company failed to remove content deemed inflammatory by local courts, but has encouraged users to continue posting tweets via SMS in the meantime.
I’m not going to offer my own answers; I know or have met many of the people in question, wish them all well, and am not going to publicly speculate about their chances. Instead, I’ll add the following observations to Tyler’s:
1. You can’t gain much information by looking at the business plans. As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Fundamentally, the business plan of anyone backing these organizations is (or should be) “take a phenomenally talented person and give them money to hire other very talented people and see what they can do.” In the media space, that’s not a bad business plan.
2. The biggest constraint that any of these organizations will face in growing traffic and reputation is the finite time of the founders. Scaling up is a hard problem for any business, but it’s going to be especially hard on these projects. The Web wants lots of Nate Silver and Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein and Matt Taibbi. An organization is also going to want lots of them — to organize what the organization does, rather than produce great writing.
At a lot of points in a startup’s life cycle, managerial overhead grows much faster than the business, because informal systems that work really well for small groups completely break down as the group gets bigger. Those who can’t clear that hurdle are going to have a lot of trouble. And there’s no way in advance to tell who is going to clear that hurdle, because none of the people in question have managed a startup before.
3. The second-hardest problem they will face is monetizing the traffic they get. There’s a reason so many news organizations are struggling with this. And what makes a great blogger does not necessarily make a great ad salesman or conference promoter. Again, the only way to find out whether this is going to work is to do it.
4. Most things fail. Some of these projects may not make it — at least, not as giant new media juggernauts. When that happens, some people will point and laugh. But the folks they should point and laugh at are the people who didn’t have the vision or courage to get out there and try to do something brand-new. Going out on your own like this takes tremendous guts and hard work, and I admire every one of these guys for being willing to try.