Tag Archives: The Verge

Thoughts on Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s new website

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Ezra Klein’s Project X is here, and now it is called Vox.com.

This is what he and several of journalists left The Washington Post for. It’s early, but I’m impressed. There is still much work to done, however, to really make this new news organization stand out.

Here are my early thoughts:

  • The design is simple — There is nothing about the Web design of Vox.com that is eye popping. The site is clean, simple and easy to use. The design probably took less time to build than a lot of metro newspaper websites. Good design is about saying no, not yes. When you look at most journalism websites, it looks like no was almost never said no, except when it came to trying new things. Vox.com isn’t cluttered with random crap that most people don’t want. That’s the beauty of its design. Also, the design works very well on mobile, which is key to harnessing social media traffic properly. I also imagine Vox.com is aimed at a lot of educated, urban users who will read stories on their way to work on public transportation or at coffee shops on breaks. This website is perfect for those kinds of users.
  • The content is delicious and slightly esoteric — Naturally I’m a fan. Vox.com is a general interest site, except it’s not. It’s a general interest site for people who share Ezra Klein’s taste, just as Daring Fireball is a general interest site for those who share John Gruber’s taste in tech. It’s a site aimed at educated, urban, urbane readers who care about policy. Frankly, it’s a website that  appeals more to your typical white-collar DC-area worker than the Washington Post does.  I think general interest news sites are a tough business when they try to appeal to everyone. That’s what metro newspapers have traditional done, and while it worked in print, it’s a tougher sell online. Vox.com is a general interest website aimed at a niche audience. I think it’s the only way general interest can work on the Web. I also would think that advertisers are pretty excited about this site.
  • I love the Vox Conversations videos — There is nothing fancy technologically about these videos, just a big heaping of taste. The quality is high, and the videos are well thought out and edited. This isn’t smartphone journalism. This is video that would make Charlie Rose and TED proud. Lots of news organizations could do the same thing, but video like this takes time to build. These conversations are the kind of videos, however, that will be relevant for a long time to come, like TED Talks, which allows you to have higher production costs. The idea of producing tons of journalism each day is incongruous with high quality. These videos showcase that.
  • Cards are Wikipedia-esque way to explain large stories — I’d suggest firing this feature up on a mobile device to really get the full effect. Essentially cards are a way to explain by topics, such as the Ukraine Crisis, in more manageable chunks. Think of it as a more approachable Wikipedia that is more tightly edited on current hot-button topics. This is also a way to give context to stories. And Cards are a nice way to present ads to users every few clicks and swipes without detracting from the main content. Cards are kind of a high-brow way to do slideshows on important topics. Every news organization that has covered what is going on in Ukraine should have an explainer feature about what is going on. Just reporting on the day-to-day goings on with Ukraine and Russia doesn’t educate users on the why. News organizations should care more about the why. Cards are all about the why. The true value of cards, however, won’t be realized until they can be linked to additional reporting.
  • The lack of comments and community features is disappointing — News websites feel dead without community. Even though Vox.com features a nice design that works well on all my devices, and has stories that speak to me, the inability to read what people think and share my own opinions leaves me detached from this site. I don’t comment on most journalism sites that I read, but just reading the comments that are left (at least on the sites that build strong communities), enriches the experience and makes me feel a part of something bigger. The comments on nytimes.com, for instance, are fantastic and often extend the story significantly. I hope we see community features added soon, because Vox.com just doesn’t feel complete right now.
  • Excellent use of charts and data — I’m not talking about big data or fancy data-drive projects. I’m talking about putting in easy-to-read charts and graphs when they help tell a story. Does your story involve data of some sort? It should have at least one data visualization. That could be as simple as an Excel chart.
  • I dig the yellow color — Yellow is not a common color for websites. I’m grown weary of seeing so many blue websites or black and white color palettes for news organization. The yellow works well on several levels. Not only does Vox.com feel fresh like spring, but the yellow also reminds a user of highlighting a college textbook. Vox.com is a general interest news website, but it also wants to be educated and wonkish. The yellow color and the way links look like underlines in a textbook really underscore that. They even made links look like a real highlighter went over them by not being symmetrical. It’s a nice touch.
  • Text could be bigger — The text on Vox.com is bigger than most news organizations (some news organizations seem to want to make reading as difficult as possible), but I’d still like to see it bigger. Larger text is easier on the eyes, making reading easier for longer periods of time. For a site that wants to be wonkish and bookish, bigger type would help accomplish that. Bigger type is also easier on older eyes and people with vision issues. Medium does the best job of any website with text. I love the size and font choices they made. I’d like to see Vox.com adopt something similar.
  • Look Mom, no Flash! — The videos are viewable without Flash. Every news website needs to do this. It’s no surprise that a tech-focused company like Vox would use HTML 5 for everything, but it’s still worth mentioning.
  • I’d like to see higher resolution video — This is also a complaint that I have with another Vox property, The Verge. I’d love to be able to see some of their videos in higher resolution. The initial Vox Conversations video is soft and highly compressed. This keeps costs down and helps with loading times, but I’d like to see an option for at least high quality 720p video. Heck, I’d probably chip in $10 a year just for this feature. A lot of people won’t care about this, but it’s a premium feature that some may enjoy.

For those wondering, we’ll be launching a new responsive design this summer for the Interchange Project. This design was hastily hacked together. I’m excited to put all of my previous Web knowledge together with everything I’ve learned in my Human-computer Interaction master’s program.

Chorus is the best content management system I have ever heard of

TechCrunch writes a love letter about Vox Media’s content management system Chorus, and who can blame the, it sounds like the best CMS I’ve ever heard of:

Christened with the new name last month, the four year-old platform is now much more than a CMS. It comes with nearly every tool that’s needed for publishing, all tightly connected. And it’s already powering hundreds of SB Nation sports fan sites around the country, plus our gadget-oriented pseudo-competitors over at The Verge, forthcoming gaming site Polygon, and whatever else Vox decides to launch (I’ve heard there’s one coming about cars, for example).

I’ve used a lot of CMSes in my day. None sound nearly this good. Joshua Topolsky described The Verge’s CMS as a living, breathing Web app that is ongoing continuos development. I’ve never seen a publication talk about their CMS like that before, nor have I seen top editors care so deeply about their CMS.

Top editors should care. The quality of a CMS can greatly impact the quality of a website. What makes Chorus so interesting is not only does it support virtually unheard of features such as layout functionality (look at how The Verge’s posts are unique compared to other news sites and can change from one post to the next), but it also combines story assignment and management with writing.

It’s one Web app that seeks to manage the entire editorial workflow. Nothing else is like this. For an editorial website, this is a huge competitive advantage that should allow them to produce more stories by reducing some of the management overhead needed for managing the story creation and editing process.

WordPress was the only CMS that I have enjoyed and thought was well built. It feels like it was built by people who were trying to make a product that they would actually use. You don’t want a CMS from a bunch consultants who have never worked in your industry or cared about it.

WordPress is very malleable and with its plugin system, companies can create fairly unique installations of it. But if you can have the money and time, developing your own custom platform may give your company a competitive advantage.

Usually, I would reocmmend staying away from a proprietary CMS like Chorus. Open source usually ends up better in the long run because of better support, future development and a larger community of developers around the platform. This advice, however, does not apply if you are actvely developing and interating on your own CMS and willing to invest significant ongoing development resources into it.

What Vox appears to have built is a CMS that fits their needs perfectly, in a way that neither an open source CMS nor a proprietary one from a vender could. When I look at The Verge compared with TechCrunch, Mashable, Engadget and other tech sites, I see a unique site. The Verge stands out with its story streams, advanced commenting controls, unique layouts for stories, advanced ways of navigating stories and other features.

If managing content is a major part of what your company does, and you’re a large enough company, perhaps it does make sense to invest in developing your own platform. When you develop your own platform, your programmers and content creators can work together to create a platform that fits your exact needs:

“We don’t throw things over the fence,” explains Trei Brundrett, the company’s vice president of product and technology. “We map our development plan around the tools that our editorial and advertising teams tell us they need, and then rapidly evolve the product based on data and feedback.”

As odd as this sounds, that’s not how things usually work at journalism organizations.

Can newspapers innovate too fast? Is that what went wrong?

Can you innovate too fast? That’s what the Washington Post’s ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton wants to know:

One of the things that surprised and heartened me when I came to The Post 10 months ago was the tremendous amount of innovation going on.

Hardly a week goes by without the Web site or newspaper launching some feature, or a venture to attract more revenue, or a blog, or a social media innovation. Just since I have been here, The Post has redesigned its Web site; installed a new content management system; pioneered the Facebook social reader, which tracks and announces what your Facebook friends are reading; added a team of policy bloggers to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog; revised its comment system for readers; added a ton more news videos online; started The Root DC, a site aimed at African American readers; and probably about 10 other things I can’t remember.

The answer to innovating too fast really depends on your position as a company. If you’re a dominate company, racking in profits, perhaps spending too much time and money on new stuff would be a mistake. Targeted R&D in the Apple mold produces better results than the spaghetti-on-the-wall R&D of Google. But there isn’t a newspaper company that is an Apple or a Google.

If you are a company in a besieged industry that is rapidly disappearing, I don’t think it’s possible to innovate too fast. Does anyone really think that the newspaper industry is in the situation it is in today because it innovated too fast?

But it is important to draw a distinction between new initiatives and innovation. Thus the proper questions are, “Are the new initiatives we are trying the correct ones? Are we spending our time wisely? Do we have the proper setup to ensure innovation?”

The Washington Post and many other news organizations are certainly trying a lot of new things. I wouldn’t call that innovation. New initiatives that resonate with users, drive traffic and ultimately help a news organization make money (and thus employ staffers) should be considered innovation. New initiatives that push journalism forward should be considered innovation and ultimately encouraged.

By this measure, I would say the Post and other news organizations need a lot more innovation. Particularly missing right now is innovation on the business model front. While The New York Times has been experimenting with different ways to make money, most notably its pay meter, I don’t recall any serious initiatives from the Post when it comes to business models. That’s innovation that the Post could sorely use.

Pexton does cite that several Post users complain that washingtonpost.com is becoming cluttered. I think that’s a fair point. I find Washington Post story pages to be distracting and hard to read (almost built for Instapaper and Reader to declutter them). This isn’t due to too much innovation, but rather far too little restraint.

This is an issue afflicting most legacy news organizations. The experience of focusing on and enjoying an individual story is rapidly disappearing beneath an avalanche of chrome: social media widgets, ads that are far too distracting and rarely relevant, polls that are unrelated to the story at hand, links to unrelated content on the site, newsletter signups, etc, etc.

My guess is that Pexton, and the employees at the Post agreeing with him, haven’t thought too deeply about what innovation at a news organization looks like. I’d suggest they check out the new tech news site The Verge. They have real innovation like story streams that allow them to create micro-blogs for big, ongoing stories. Their reviews feature layout and typography that makes them feel more like an interactive magazine spread, complete with very high-caliber video reviews and charts.

While the Post may have rolled out a new content management system and design (the site doesn’t look or feel much different to me, the end user), you can tell The Verge has a CMS unlike what traditional news outlets have. The site looks and feels different to end users. It’s what innovation feels like.

Perhaps Pexton should ask his colleagues why the Post’s website doesn’t look and feel nearly as a good as The Verge. There is no good reason it doesn’t.