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The Wall Street Journal website — paywalled from the very beginning — turns 20 years old today
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April 28, 2014, 11:11 a.m.
LINK: www.vox.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 28, 2014

It’s a small thing, but worth noting: For stories that are built around a single interview, Vox is now publishing both the story and the interview transcript in parallel. Take this Thomas Piketty piece by Matt Yglesias, for instance: story and interview, both on the same page (html-wise, if not visually), with a button toggle between them.

vox-story-interview

Is this revolutionary? Nope. But think about the small good things it does:

— It presents content in two different forms. Some people will prefer the story; some will prefer the interview. (That’s particularly true on a subject like Piketty, whose new book has launched a thousand thinkpieces in the past couple of weeks.) This serves both.

— It does so at virtually no cost; the interview’s already complete. And it aligns well with Vox’s message that they’re promoting depth and understanding rather than surface knowledge.

— It opens up the possibility of richer testing and audience data. Do people spend more time with one form than the other? Are people more likely to share when they’re reading one form or the other? Does presenting one or the other to the reader first encourage different behaviors? (No idea if Vox is tracking any or all of that, but it’s all possible, and it could be tracked across many different pieces.)

Is it perfect? Nope. I suspect a lot of people arrive at the article page and don’t even realize there’s an interview a click away — or vice versa. In fact, I first noticed Vox was doing this when I saw Brian Boyer complaining about the interaction model on these pages:

At the time, the switcher was only at the top of the page, and the two states shared the same URL — it was impossible to link directly to the interview. But within a couple of hours, Vox’s Yuri Victor was tweeting about how those problems were about to be fixed.

I mention all this because I get a little frustrated when Vox’s big edge is portrayed as Chorus, its content management system. Chorus is very nice! Most newspapers’ CMSes are terrible! And any CMS designed primarily for digital is likely to be better for digital publishing than one designed first for print. The loving coverage Chorus gets would seem to imply that, if only every news organization had a Chorus, they’d all be getting venture capital thrown their way too.

But Vox’s edge really isn’t in a particular piece of software. It’s in people and culture. The CMS is an outcome of those two things, not the driver of them.

The Washington Post, where Victor and many of the other Voxers used to work, has an unloved primary CMS, but it also runs WordPress, a perfectly good option. I won’t claim WordPress can do everything Chorus can do — for instance, WordPress cannot produce rainbows and cotton candy, at least not without a plugin — but it can do an awful lot. I haven’t seen anything on Vox.com so far that couldn’t be built pretty easily on WordPress.

But the difference really isn’t Chorus. The difference is that Vox is open to experimentation, it demands rapid iteration, and it puts technology-shaping people on par with word-shaping people. The difference is that, in many traditional newsrooms, changing the UI on a page like this one would have taken multiple meetings where the tech side’s knowledge would likely have been undervalued. It’s a corporate ethos and a permission structure that means good ideas don’t have to get bottled up. It’s being the kind of place that would build Chorus in the first place. That is Vox’s edge, and you can’t buy that off the shelf.

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