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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.

— Joshua Benton
                                   
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  • Ryan Gantz

    Joshua, thank you for the final four paragraphs here. You’ve articulated the Vox Media ethos (to which we aspire, at least) better than we usually do ourselves.

    What’s interesting: this answer is never satisfying to folks, at least when we give it. I think people hear “It’s in people and culture” and process it like we’re talking bland PR mediaspeak. They nod, and then ask to see Chorus screenshots. There’s something vaguely sinister in that reaction, some kind of deep assumption that technology (and even design) is the answer to modern problems.

  • Tom

    Very cool and appreciated. However, I find something else Vox is doing to be just as appreciated and needed – the sharing of raw machine readable data sets from articles that utilize lots of data analysis. Posting the raw data and R code if relevant is a big step forward in journalism. I wish more would do it.

  • http://batman-news.com/ Batman-News.com

    Vox Media is truly changing the web for the better. I can’t wait to see what they do next! (The Verge 2.0?)

  • http://ivewritten.wordpress.com/ Jeff Thomas

    “It does so at virtually no cost.”

    I can imagine that could be true if the interview is recorded and then transcribed by capable speech-to-text software. Otherwise, interview transcription can take as long, or longer, than the writing of a story. Even less costly than transcription would be throwing the audio of the interview into SoundCloud.

    Video, too, is wonderful. Ever edited video? Specialists can do it like a ninja. Your average cops reporter, however, will spend hours transforming the 12 minutes of raw crime-scene footage in his iPhone into a 40-second clip and uploading it to his newsroom’s video server. There aren’t many print/web newsrooms with video ninjas on the payroll.

    I’m an alum of the Explainer School of Journalism, so count me as a fan of the Vox concept, and as in agreement with the points made here about the value of running interview transcripts alongside the news narrative. But there’s been something missing in all this otherwise worthy attention to Vox and its newborn ilk: whether it means anything for the larger journalism ecosystem. Vox may be wonderful, but it won’t be explaining the decisions made by my local school board. It won’t be filing the records requests that will be necessary to untangle the dysfunction in my City Hall. It won’t be following any of the money that flows around my community.

    Vox et al have the advantage of scale. With the resources similar to a well-staffed single newsroom, they play to a national, even global, market. Yet even globally conscious people live their lives locally. The quality of the air they breathe; the safety of the streets they walk; the abilities of the teachers in their neighborhood classrooms — these are matters decided locally. Most of the journalism that impacts the quality of daily life, and that holds public agencies accountable, is local. And not even metro local. Small local. Good journalism, Vox-style explainer journalism, is needed here perhaps more urgently than anywhere.

    Find me even a medium-market editor who’s able to provide the resources necessary to regularly produce transcripts of all interviews conducted daily by the news staff, so they can be published side-by-side with the news stories (or even dump all staff interviews into a SoundCloud bin, which at least eliminates transcription time). Then we’ll have a lesson that every newsroom, not just those playing to a national/global stage, can learn from.