Category Archives: Vox Media

Monday’s List, Vox Media Edition

Been a little while since a Monday’s List, so let’s fire it back up. Apologies for the work-centric nature of this week’s list, but work is very much the theme of the week. Check back next Monday for smack talk unrelated to Vox Media and the fine people who work here.

OBAMA: THE VOX CONVERSATION
In which Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox.com sit down with the sitting president of the United States, becoming the first pure digital news source to do so. The transcripts are fascinating because the conversation’s conducted at a very high level (NB Obama’s hilarious burn on Vox: “brainiac nerd types”), but the approach the Vox.com team took to the videos of the interview are where the real ground is broken. Check the transformation of the White House Maps room undertaken by the Vox team — a transformation that made possible the graphical wizardry unleashed in the clip above.

BILL GATES GUEST-EDITING THE VERGE IN FEBRUARY
Meanwhile, at The Verge, Bill Gates is guest-editing the site for the month of February. What does that mean in practice? Nilay Patel explains: “Throughout February, Bill will be narrating episodes of our animated series The Big Future to explain and illustrate his vision… Gates is our guest editor, but we have promised his team that we’ll do serious independent journalism against these themes; we will present a complete picture of this future to you.” The first video, above, ran last week; the next one drops momentarily.

THIRD GIANT SECRET THING
Obama and Gates is a whole lot for the first nine days of the month, but the 10th day of the month is bringing something equally momentous on another Vox Media site. Check back tomorrow for this annoying teaser to be FULLY REVEALED.

ALTON BROWN Q&A
The Food Network maestro dropped by Eater last week for a live chat with Eater readers in the Eater Forum. Hilarity transpired, as did some real cooking advice. Looking forward to seeing more of these interactive conversations at Eater and elsewhere at Vox Media.

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CITY ISLAND <3 CURBED
Every December, Curbed NY awards the Curbed Cup to the Neighborhood of the Year in New York City. This year, after a frenzied reader vote, the Bronx enclave of City Island took the cup. That’s all well and good, but where things really got fun was when the local media got all excited about the victory, and Curbed’s own Hana Alberts and Sara Polsky were invited out to a local bar this past weekend to celebrate with the locals. I couldn’t make the voyage, but there’s talk of a return visit this summer, which, rest assured, I will not miss.

JOBS AT VOX MEDIA
Finally, we’re hiring up an absolute storm right now across editorial, product, sales, and corporate. Be the dream. Join us.

The Verge’s Super Bowl Ad: It’s About The Future

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Moments after my flight from Munich touched down at JFK at 3:30pm yesterday, my phone lit up with text messages from friends. One, from a usually incredulous friend, read: “You guys are running a Super Bowl ad? Amazing.”

At this point, it was about an hour since The Verge had published, then unpublished, a post with the headline “DNP Verge Super Bowl ad” and some brief dummy copy by Nilay about how this space would be filled in before publication of the post on Super Bowl Sunday, February 1. Verge fanboys being Verge fanboys, many read the site via RSS, so the rogue post remained in their feeds and they immediately started chatting about the post on Twitter. It wasn’t long before several media organizations jumped on the story, and our CEO took to Twitter to confirm the commercial and release it to the world:

By now, Vox was fielding inquiries from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, both of whom quickly published their own stories on the news. After all, the story of a venture-capital backed online publisher, which happened to have just raised a $45 million round of financing, dropping $4.5 million of it on a Super Bowl commercial of all things, was irresistible. (A Twitter user superimposed the Pets.com sock puppet over a photo of The Verge staff.)

Which was all well and good until we let the cat out of the bag an hour later: The Verge was indeed airing a Super Bowl commercial during the game — but only in the local market of Helena, Montana, where to reach an audience of 30,000 we’d agreed to pay the going local rate of $700 per 30 second spot. This led to a round of revisions in the original media reports, and a wonderful new New York Times headline:

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I’ll leave it to the masterminds behind the troll — Nilay Patel and Jonathan Hunt — to write the full tick-tock of the matter, but suffice to say that I adore a good media stunt, and this one worked out about as well as one could have ever dreamed. (The team, naturally, took the greatest delight in having roped in Sam Biddle, although the local Helena media reporting on the story also proved particularly LOLworthy.)

The story isn’t over yet. Might The Verge send someone to cozy Helena, Montana, on Super Bowl Sunday? Do stay tuned. But for now, the final word to the CEO of T-Mobile, John Legere:

Traffic Bonuses

As part of his promised return to blogging in the new year, Nick Denton said something somewhat shocking last week — that Gawker Media, which pioneered the practice of paid traffic bonuses for bloggers, will no longer dole out rewards based on traffic in 2015.

It’s about time. Or perhaps, long past time: as Nick acknowledged in his epic year-end memo, Gawker’s traffic bonuses clearly led to unintended consequences: “Editorial traffic was lifted but often by viral stories that we would rather mock. We — the freest journalists on the planet — were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.” (Great line, btw.)

So how did Gawker end up there, at the end of such a long but seemingly obvious road?

Recall that a decade back, Gawker sites were written by a single blogger paid a monthly stipend. The company, like many young companies, ran on a shoestring. And so to both find ways to pay people a bit more money if they succeeded, Gawker implemented traffic bonuses. Made a lot of sense. Then, as the sites started to grow in staffing size, and the concept of virality (then, hilariously, what we termed “spikes”) first emerged, it became clear that traffic bonuses based on each month’s traffic didn’t make sense; one big hit could warp the math. So Gawker — by this point I was working there and helping to engineer these changes — moved to a quarterly bonus system in which three-month goals were set for pageview growth, and site leads were empowered to divide any bonus amongst their teams as they saw fit if they were successful in hitting bonus over an individual quarter.

This quarterly plan corrected for short-term hiccups, rewarding longer-term growth. But giving site leads discretion on how much money to give to who caused a new set of headaches. Complete subjectivity, and money, aren’t a great mix.

So when I shifted to running Curbed full-time, I took part of the Gawker formula — the quarterly structure — but changed the reward portion such that each team member had a bonus number they could achieve, or fail to achieve, together. (This plan was of course imperfect in its own ways too, namely that a strong team member could carry a weak team member, but I figured we had other ways of sussing out weak team members.) Given the relatively small size of Curbed’s editorial teams, this worked all the way through 2013.

Vox CEO Jim Bankoff takes a different view of traffic bonuses: that they’re asinine. Well, maybe not asinine, but that they encourage the wrong kind of behavior. And, moreover, that they’re perverse in the sense that, as Jim put it, “If we’re hiring the best people, why would we expect less than their best on any given day?”

So when we joined up with Vox Media, we did away with traffic bonuses for 2014, and never looked back. Result? Traffic across the Curbed/Eater/Racked group of sites grew 4x-10x in 2014.

In fact, traffic growth across all the Vox Media properties in 2014 was strong: the company finished the year with an audience size more than double that at the start of the year, which is remarkable considering the size of the audience we’re talking about. We did that in part with aggressive goal setting. And so we’re starting 2015 with a fresh set of goals, split across three buckets: traffic, social traffic, and video. (I won’t go into the way we break these buckets down more granularly, but rest assured, it’s pretty granular.) What do the goals serve, in the absence of a paid bonus structure? The ability to make sure all parts of the company are on the same page about what we need to achieve this year to be successful, and goals to strive for, for success’s sake. With a deeply motivated group of people, that’s more than enough.

Meantime, what now for Gawker? Denton, again: “Stories that generate attention will be noted and rewarded, but only those that Tommy Craggs and his colleagues deem worthy of that attention. A layer of subjective editorial judgment will return. Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.” Putting aside the hilarity of that last line, I wonder about the “noted and rewarded” bit. If that’s a return to bonuses for work being decided on a totally subjective basis — well, that’ll be a lot of fun for all involved.

Me, I’m glad to be out of the traffic bonus game, no matter how happy that makes those vindicated Newspaper Men.

CES Past and Present

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[Verge trailer at CES in this afternoon's fading sunlight.]

I attended my first Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 1997. Six months earlier, fresh out of college, I’d started a job as an associate editor at a new consumer electronics magazine called Wideband. Our boss, an industry legend named Richard Ekstract, had created and sold a number of trade magazines, and Wideband was his latest effort. With an eye towards differentiating it from the other tired trade magazines in the space, he staffed it exclusively with 20-somethings.

The merits and pitfalls of this staffing strategy were never more evident than when Richard announced that, en masse, the staff would be heading to Las Vegas to cover the Consumer Electronics Show. We stayed at The Aladdin, a hotel that would promptly be imploded after we checked out. (It’s where Planet Hollywood stands now.) I had no idea what I was doing, so I scheduled interviews with company executives in different convention halls, leaving myself 10 minutes between appointments that in actuality took more like an hour to navigate. I sweated like crazy, filled tiny notebooks with notes, and even got some stories. Then each night, after walking all day, our Wideband crew would hit the town, gamble and drink until dawn, then crash and repeat the cycle. It was one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

All of which might explain my fondness for the Consumer Electronics Show — and Las Vegas in general — that others seem to lack. By my math, this is my eleventh CES. I’ve moved to that place in my career where I’m really just here for the schmoozing, but The Verge has an entire trailer and most of the staff on site and they’re reporting hundreds of stories a day and creating a ton of amazing video. (I’m typing these words from inside The Verge trailer. It has an unforgettable odor.) If you want to read one good thing about what’s up at this year’s show, I’d recommend this one by Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel: Gadgets are Back.

Speaking of Nilay, a few minutes ago, I was standing outside The Verge trailer talking on my phone when I spotted Nilay approaching. He was stopped by a fanboy for a selfie, which he obliged. Then he ambled up to me, backpack over his back, plastic container holding a hamburger in one hand. “This week is fucking weird, man.”

True. But also kind of the best.

Going Vertical

Last week, Rafat Ali wrote a great blog post titled Why It’s Time for a Vertical Media Collective. He explains:

For all the hype that media loves to shower on itself, vertical media companies, outlets and startups are the invisible middle child that everyone ignores. Even media reporters writing at vertical media outlets ignore it, while using those platforms to talk about the same five BuzzVoxViceQuartz538Gawker & the ilk.

I have written previously about my love for verticals — after all I have built my life in them — and companies and sites I admire that are taking a vertical focus and building long-lasting loyalties way beyond the flavor-of-the-day types.

Verticals, the real ones, are focused on subject matters where professionals build careers in, or enthusiasts spent their lives in being obsessed about. By definition, these are specific niches, but businesses being built on top of these don’t have to be.

As someone who spent a decade building and growing the vertical media stacks of Curbed, Eater, and Racked, I couldn’t agree more. In his post, Rafat rattles off a bunch of vertical media companies that he loves. Here are some of mine, in no particular order: Pando (Sarah Lacy’s Silicon Valley events and media company); Apartment Therapy (Max Ryan’s interiors site); Food52 (Amanda Hesser’s impressive recipe-cum-commerce hub); MediaRedef (Jason Hirschorn’s growing curated email newsletter empire); and Skift (Rafat’s own travel intelligence and events concern).

Each of these sites does what a strong vertical media company should do: deliver an insane depth of knowledge about its world, and, in many cases, creates ways for people who live in the penumbra of that world to meet up in real life and/or transact commerce in a very specialized way (such as with Food52′s Provisions store, which feels like shopping alongside Amanda Hesser herself).

Separate from Rafat’s post, I’ve been thinking about verticalized media as it relates to Vox Media. Despite Rafat lumping Vox in with a bunch of other horizontal media plays at the start of his post, I think one of the core advantages of a model like Vox’s (or Gawker Media’s) as compared to, say, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, or Mashable, is that our verticals can stay mostly verticalized, whereas more horizontal media companies need to expand their purview significantly in order to increase audience. Refinery 29, one of the leading fashion websites, has been doing this aggressively over the past few years, branching out into food and drink and movies and TV coverage, among numerous other subverticals. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to give a rabid audience more of what they want, and R29 has a pretty good filter for this sort of thing. But I also think a brand like R29 risks losing its authority in its original vertical when the site that was once the best place about one thing becomes yet another site about everything.

An interesting Digiday story that came out this morning about The Verge illustrates this same tension inside Vox Media:

The Verge may have been founded as a competitor to tech sites like CNet and Engadget, but it’s now eyeing newer, bigger targets: lifestyle publishers like Rolling Stone and Vice. Since its launch in 2011, the Vox Media tech site has extended its editorial coverage beyond technology to culture, science and even general news. This has all been in the hopes of building its audience beyond gadget enthusiasts and attracting more lifestyle-oriented advertisers.

In its most recent move, the site hired Grantland culture editor Emily Yoshida to build out the its coverage of movies, television and music. The Verge is also putting the finishing touches on an automotive and transportation section, which will push its coverage boundaries even further.

Listening to Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel explain it, the purview of The Verge isn’t so much “technology” as it is “the future.” Which helps explain the filter The Verge will use to expand its coverage into areas like entertainment and automotive. The risk is that in doing so, The Verge loses touch with the core of what makes it so great — and its fans so passionate about it. Nilay and the team are aware of this risk, and I believe they’ll manage it successfully. (I also could not be more excited about The Verge’s addition of Emily Yoshida to its team; she’s going to kill it.) But it’s a risk worth remembering and revisiting as The Verge grows.

Meantime, Rafat’s planning to assemble a bunch of folks obsessed with vertical media — including me — next month in New York City. He’s calling the undertaking the Verticals Collective, and hey, you know it’s serious because he’s even got a website for it up and running. If any of what I’ve written about here touches a nerve, join us. I expect the conversation will be illuminating — and oh so very vertical.

Here’s something cool that’s happening at FYI, the new cable network from A&E:

In 2015, FYI will partner with real estate blog conglomerate Curbed for My City’s Just Not That Into Me. It will follow different individuals who are parting ways with their current towns and shows how they pick their next stop. Like Tiny House Nation before it, it aims to address the financial limitations of urban real estate facing so many in their 20s and 30s. Curbed will be integrating editorially on the show and online. Real estate expert Courtney Poulos is hosting with 10 half-hour episodes already in production.

Conglomerate! Don’t mind if we do.

Slack Down!

Yesterday, for the first extended period of time, Slack went down at Vox HQ. And, apparently, down too at the HQs of every other company that now uses Stewart Butterfield’s chat platform. The feeling felt like nothing so much as the Fail Whale of yore: people in our office looking at each other with eyes that seemed to say, “Well now what are we going to do?” Until someone near our desk pod said out loud, “Slack is down. Now what are we going to do?”

The importance of Slack at this moment in time at the companies that have fully bought into it can’t be understated. (Literally: the platform is expensive on a per-user case, as captured wonderfully by Mat Honan’s chronicling of Gawker’s Joel Johnson in this Wired essay on Slack.) At a Vox Media offsite last week, Slack came up as the solution to a bunch of thorny problems, and was citied as the savior of several more. For a far-flung company like Vox — with big teams in New York and Washington DC, and employees in spots ranging from Austin to Los Angeles to London — a comprehensive chat-and-chatroom product like Slack that people actually love has been a true gamechanger.

But what of Campfire, HipChat, or plain old Gchat? I’m not totally sure, but there’s something about Slack that seems to click with everyone. Back at Curbed, we tried multiple communication tools over the years but none caught on with every team, so groups ended up isolated on islands of their own, unreachable by the rest of the company except via email. Slack nearly instantly won over everyone — to the point we all sat here yesterday, when Slack went down, and wondered what the hell we were supposed to do next. (At least I’m still on AIM.)

In the Wired piece on Slack, Mat Honan writes, “Slack’s well-designed chat function is a trojan horse for bigger ideas. Its ambition is to become the hub at the center of all your other business software.” Alright, fine, but I think Slack’s next opportunity is simpler. It is to replace email. Not all email, of course. I have concluded that there will always be email. But the amount of email that has disappeared at Vox Media since the conversion to Slack is nontrivial — and there’s the promise of much more. The day I can Slack a meeting with people at Gawker Media instead of emailing them to set up a call will be a very good day.

Meantime, Slack: no more Fail Whales, please, yes? (AIM: lockloct)

Eater’s Critics, Now in HD

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I’ll stop writing about Eater after this, promise. For a few days. But there’s one more thing I want to highlight. (Well, okay, two.)

One of the biggest changes to Eater in 2014 came last spring, long before yesterday’s relaunch. That was the hiring of Eater’s first-ever restaurant critics, the power trio of Robert Sietsema (late of the Village Voice), Ryan Sutton (who joined us from Bloomberg), and Bill Addison. They’ve each been filing stories for months now, but it’s in the redesigned reviews templates that debuted yesterday that their work truly shines. I’d go so far as to say that Eater’s review pages are the single most beautiful pages of their type on the whole damn internet. For proof, check out Sutton today on Keith McNally’s Cherche Midi, and Sietsema at a new Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Pho Vietnam 87. (For more: the Eater reviews homepage.)

Now, Bill Addison. Addison, who lives in Atlanta and previously worked as food critic for Atlanta Magazine, the Dallas Morning News, and the San Francisco Chronicle, is the man we hired for the craziest job we’ve ever advertised for: a roving restaurant editor tasked with spending 40 weeks on the road this year eating everywhere and everything, then spending the last month of the year synthesizing it along with Eater’s editors into Eater’s first-ever National 38 list of the Best Restaurants in America. Eater calls his dispatches The Road to the 38.

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As great as the Road to the 38 has been, as part of Eater’s redesign the team upgraded all of Bill’s dispatches to the new templates, so now they’re available in all their glory. Among my favorites: his visit to Al Forno, my favorite restaurant from college in Providence, RI; a recent return to Alinea in Chicago; several make-you-want-to-go-now San Francisco reviews like Bar Tartine; and, last week, a journey to Portland, ME and the Maine coast. Check out all of Addison’s Road to the 38, and this interview the Chicago Tribune did with Bill to understand how in the world he’s pulling this job off. (Actual question: “How are you not dead?!”)

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When Eater’s National 38 debuts in December, it’ll be grouped into another new technology debuted with Eater’s relaunch: the Eater Mapstack. Readers of Vox.com might recognize the concept from Vox’s cardstacks, which were developed by the team for persistent storytelling on major stories such as this cardstack on Isis. At Eater, mapstacks offer an easy way to scroll through lists like Eater’s Manhattan heatmap. Give ‘em a whirl.

Eater’s New Look

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Eater’s new site launched this morning (at approximately 2:15am, should you happen to have been up). It’s a complete rethinking of Eater from the ground up — a fascinating process to go through given that I’ve been living with the brand for nine years and have a considerable amount of fondness for it, as well as a lot of intractable ideas about it too. Happily, this time around the editorial side was guided by Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt, while the Vox Product team brought its extraordinary experience building web brands to the table.

The process took seven months. The starting point: rethinking the brand’s visual identity. Eater has had two logos in its history. The original one is the one we launched with in 2005, conceived by BL and executed by yours truly in Photoshop to mimic restaurants too cool to print their full name on the awning:

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(This logo is also where Eater’s house style of putting ~E~ around an E to signify Eater spawned from.)

In 2009, Curbed’s head of tech Eliot Shepard and Gawker graphics head extraordinaire Jim Cooke collaborated to create a real logo for Eater based on the typology in the R&L Restaurant sign that still hung above legendary Meatpacking District restaurant Florent. This time around, Ted Irvine, who oversees design for Vox Product, reached out to a handful of designers for new logo takes; we were open to a completely different approach if the right one presented itself.

I’m glad, though, that we opted to go with a refresh of the Eater logo — an approach pitched by Cory Schmitz, who did the logowork on Polygon for Vox as well. Cory took Jim and Eliot’s typeface and simplified it, preserving the essential lines, notably the unexpected drop in the A and the curves in the Es and A. (I’m sure there are fancy font geek names for these things, but I’m only an amateur font geek.)

Here’s the result:

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I love it.

As the above makes clear, the design team also played around with illustrated food icons as part of the new design. Initially, I was very resistant to this idea, fearing the sort of cutesy/lazy fork-and-plate motifs that inform the look and feel of a bunch of Eater’s competitors. “If we’re going to do illustrations, we’re going to need them to be something more like a burning arm,” I joked. So Georgia Cowley, Kelsey Scherer and Dylan Lathrop (who did the illustrations) gave us a burning arm. It now adorns Eater’s homepage:

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Less noticeable but equally brilliant is the work put in by that team crafting illustrated identities for each of Eater’s 26 city sites. Check out Dylan’s bats-with-breakfast-tacos look for Eater Austin, or the dog drinking a cold-pressed juice on Eater LA. I thought pulling off illustrations in a way that would fit Eater’s brand would never work — until Vox Product showed us that they did.

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Love and thanks to the Vox design team. Burning Arm and Bats with Breakfast Tacos 4eva.