When it was announced that SB Nation was getting into the technology blogging business with the refugee all-stars from Engadget it was a clear indicator the blog network was planning on growing beyond sports fans. Today they made it official, not just with the launch of The Verge but with the creation of Vox Media, Inc., a new parent company that will oversee the newly christened technology site, SB Nation, and no doubt new sites in the future.
It’s a classic publishing move — plant the flag and expand as you gain audience, a strategy that’s one part Luce and one part Denton. The mix combines distinctive editorial voices with an ambition to scale, running headfirst into a crowded party. Just like there is no shortage of gossip, politics, or pop culture blogs, we’ve got a wealth of sports and technology sites. What Vox CEO Jim Bankoff told me is that the crowded field isn’t his biggest concern. While there are plenty of ad dollars to fight over, competition, especially in media, doesn’t mean what it once did.
“The competition may not be the exact same zero-sum game as it was before,” Bankoff said. “On the web, people have access to products and consumers can go from one site to the next. It’s not like the newspaper world or magazine world where you choose one or the other exclusively.”
That changing dynamic, as well as the shifting relationship between writers and their audience, is more or less what SB Nation and The Verge are counting on. Readers’ media diets are more varied, while at the same time they enjoy more direct connection with writers and outlets. They’re going to go after the same scoops, but the stories and personalities are just as important as scoops, which is why VOX places a value on having engaging technology and writers. Vox is, after all, Latin for “voice.” “We think it’s the marriage of talent and technology that will help to define successful media companies going forward,” Bankoff said.
It seems like that’s been the recipe for Bankoff from the beginning and one of the reasons he finds himself, and his company, where they are today. SB Nation built its reputation on accessible writing and on innovating in the oft-stagnant blog-technology space, which was one of the lures for Joshua Topolsky and other former Engadget staffers to make the leap to a company primarily known for sports.
Vox will rely on a common ad sales staff and developer core working behind the scenes, Bankoff told me. The underpinnings of the sites will share a lot in common, but design-wise there won’t be much carry-over, Bankoff said, as the now-launched Verge makes clear.
Still, there are some similarities. In the way SB Nation is broken down into sites by teams or schools, The Verge appears to go a similar route for tech companies or products. Taking the place of Roll ‘Bama Roll is the Android hub, one of 12 hubs given prime top-of-page real estate. (Fans’ passion for Apple shares a lot with fans’ passion for the Packers.) They’re distinct sites with aggregated content on products and companies, though all under The Verge instead of standalone sites.
The Verge is the first big test for Vox — introducing a new title in a field they’ve got less than eight months’ experience in. They had a head start and launching pad in This is My Next, the site where the editors and writers of The Verge have kept busy breaking news, offering product reviews, and hosting a podcast, all of which they’ll carry over to the new site. All of that translates into an audience they should be able to take with them to The Verge, like when your favorite TV show moves to a new time slot. In the months the site was active as a placeholder, they reached 3 million monthly unique visitors and over 10 million monthly pageviews, Bankoff told me. “Before they knew it, This is My Next had really taken off organically,” he said. “We’re really excited to have all that momentum.”
The next step for Vox is continuing to grow the audience to the sites. One way they’re going to do that is through partnerships, with SB Nation is taking part in the new YouTube programming project. Meanwhile, editor Topolsky will be busy spinning plates of his own, writing columns for The Washington Post and making regular appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
The birth of The Verge and Vox pose an obvious question: What new sites are in the pipeline? You don’t go through the trouble of developing a new media-company structure (not to mention raising several new rounds of investment) if you’re not planning on becoming bigger. Fashion, politics, entertainment? Bankoff said no decisions have been made on Vox Site 3 just yet. What they won’t do, he said, is simply target a category because of its market potential. Bankoff said the same kind of process that went into developing The Verge — identifying the right team, defining the editorial direction, and understanding the relationship to technology — would be used in creating new sites.
“Our approach will be to understand where there is opportunity,” Bankoff said. “Where there is a business opportunity, but also an opportunity to find a team that will continue down the path of high quality talent and understands the medium.”