Melissa Bell surveys three weeks of Vox and asks what you think. A few things strike me:
1. One of their innovations — which has occasioned lots of hostility — has been to shift the window of what is considered “reportable as accepted truth.” A MSM article does not put defenders and opponents of evolutionary theory on the same footing. Vox presents the workability of a health care mandate as something — if not quite to be taken for granted — as a matter where a pro-mandate journalistic stance can be considered a matter of fact. By no means do I agree with all of their judgments, but I see them as ahead of the curve and outflanking their critics.
2. The site looks great, works great, and they are consistently finding interesting topics to report on, at a higher rate than most better-established MSM outlets. If I go to the site I will find something new I didn’t know about, every day. I don’t feel a need to push them into an RSS feed. By the way, the site looks especially good on an iPad.
3. When I was in fifth grade, I was pulled out of some of the more boring classes and give “SRAs” to work with. SRAs were color coded material laid out on a series of cards and boxed tabs, which could be manipulated and re-ordered if the student so chose, and which allowed progression to increasing levels of difficulty. Vox.com reminds me of SRAs, and of some of the instructional theories of the 1960s, although of course on the web and thus with a superior presentation. I preferred SRAs to class, but anything I like is to be considered suspect from a broader market point of view. By the way, IBM eventually sold the SRA brand name and content to McGraw-Hill.
4. With any site you have to ask where the “pandering element” comes in. With MR the TC pandering is to yours truly — the unpaid author — and it comes in the form of puffins, Japan, movie reviews, and obscure Straussian references, among other things which make me giggle. With Vox the pandering is highly factual and tonally neutral coverage of some hot button issues, such as the racism of Donald Sterling or telling your parents your true profession (porn star). This strategy likely will succeed, although those articles tend not to interest me personally. I think they will do pretty well on Facebook and other social media sites.
5. I am most worried about a certain uniformity of voice across the articles. Think of the headings, photos, and prose style as geared to put the links high in eventual Google searches. But readers miss the presence of distinctive voices, including Matt and Ezra themselves, who of course have served this role in the past. I’ve liked all of Matt’s articles for Vox so far, but I miss hearing Matt. You know, the Matt of mattyglesias.typepad.com and wisecracks about the Wizards. Slate and Salon are full of voices, and they have found this to be a successful formula, at least relative to the alternatives if not always in terms of net revenue.
I’ve liked Joseph Stromberg’s science coverage, and been impressed by his depth, but he does not (yet?) ring as a distinct voice in my mind. I don’t even have an illusory picture of what he might be like, and I wonder if their writers can continue to attract readers with such a relatively low level of vividness. (On the other hand, this limits the bargaining power of the writers!) Yet can the writers be given greater voice while keeping the Google maximization strategy in place?
Over time this uniformity of tone also will make it hard for them to recruit or keep top writers or writers looking for a path to the top. And every outlet needs a few of these writers, even if many of the pieces are to be more cookie-cutter in presentation.
6. Costs will rise when they send people outside of the office to do stories, as eventually they must.
7. I am still a pessimist about the long-term economics of media, and I remain unconvinced they have solved the key problem of a weak advertising market for on-line material. Still, I am keen to see how they will extend the site.