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Jan. 6, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
Audience & Social

Built on passion: How Vox Media grew from its roots as an Oakland A’s blog into one of the Internet’s biggest publishers

In a Q&A, Vox Media co-founder Tyler Bleszinski reflects on his time at the company.

Vox Media is now a vast digital publishing network with eight individual sites that averaged more than 160 million monthly unique visitors last year.

But it didn’t start out that way. The company’s origins trace back to 2003 when Tyler Bleszinski launched Athletics Nation, a blog covering the Oakland Athletics that would eventually grow to become SB Nation. In 2015, SB Nation averaged 83 million unique visitors across its more than 300 team-specific sites.

Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff joined the company then known as SportsBlogs in 2008, and The Verge was launched in 2011. Today, Vox Media has eight editorial brands and a custom advertising division.

bleszinski_400x400 Bleszinski decided to start Athletics Nation after being disappointed with the level of the coverage the team was getting from more traditional sources.

“There was nobody out there covering the A’s the way I wanted them covered,” he told me. “So my solution was that I was just going to make this myself.”

Bleszinski stepped down from his full-time position at SB Nation last month to spend more time with his family, though he will remain with the company in an advisory role.

Bleszinki and I spoke late last month (before he stepped down) and discussed his work at Vox Media, the company’s growth, and the state of digital media in general. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our interview.

Joseph Lichterman: You founded the site, but what’s your current role at SB Nation?

Tyler Bleszinski: [Until the end of 2015, I was involved on] the team blog side, which makes sense because that’s how the company started and that’s what my expertise was. I managed a crew of about seven league managers who oversaw the growth of our team blog side on the sports site. That really was my focus, and what I did on a day-to-day basis.

Lichterman: What’s it been like to watch Vox Media grow into a large digital publisher with eight sites?

Bleszinski: It’s been a bit surreal watching it all happen, and at times a little bit unbelievable. It takes my breath away at times, but in a lot of ways it makes sense because [the sites] all have a commonality to them, and that is the fiercely passionate people who cover whatever the topic happens to be. Ezra Klein is as fiercely passionate about the news as I am about the Oakland Athletics. Nilay Patel, who runs The Verge, is just as passionate about consumer tech and everything that The Verge covers and the digital lifestyle that he embraces. No matter who it is, they all have that similar common passion and also the commitment to quality that I founded the company with.

Lichterman: You wrote recently that those early days were terrifying. You mentioned your previous work as a journalist and wanting to cover the A’s in a different way, but why did you think that it was the right time for this kind of experiment?

Bleszinski: A lot of people have said, “Thank you for starting this,” but honestly, I did it from a selfish perspective. I thought that as an A’s fan, there was nobody out there covering the A’s the way I wanted them covered. So my solution was that I was just going to make this myself. I started it as more of a hobby than anything and then saw the fact that there were other people around me running baseball blogs that were similar to mine, and I thought that we’d be stronger as a collective as opposed to running things alone on individual little islands.

I really wanted to solve my problem of not having any place covering the A’s the way I wanted, but to me there’s not necessarily any such thing as objectivity in journalism. As human beings, we’re very subjective, and as hard as you want to try, there’s no way we can be 100 percent objective about things. I was lifting that veil of objectivity off and being an outright fan, but covering it from a quality perspective and a quality viewpoint, which didn’t really exist back then.

Lichterman: Do you think that having multiple verticals focused on individual passions is a better way to organize a publication, as opposed to a big, traditional cover-it-all news strategy? Is it a better way to reach an audience and engage with readers?

Bleszinski: In my opinion it’s the way that we consume things as humans. If you’re into video games, maybe you play them all the time, and it’s sort of what you think about. For me, I went to bed thinking about the A’s and I got up thinking about the A’s. My wife, for a long time, has done a parenting website focused on mothers. Maybe you go to bed thinking about nothing but your kids and wake up thinking about nothing except your kids. There are things in our lives that we’re extremely passionate about, and that’s the way we want to consume things in the media these days.

That’s why we’re seeing so much cordcutting right now, because people want to consume what they want to consume and they don’t want all the extra stuff along with it. I’m a huge cycling fan, so if someone had a dedicated cycling channel, I’d probably have that on my TV 24/7. The beauty is that we now have an MLB dedicated channel, so if the baseball season is going on I can watch that all the time, and the chances of getting news on the Oakland A’s or some discussion with someone like Susan Slusser, who covers the A’s regularly, is pretty high. The more segmented you can make these things toward people’s passions — you might end up getting a smaller audience per segment, but on the whole it ends up being a bigger audience because of the passion people feel for any of these particular topics.

Lichterman: It seems like it’s all about scale. I imagine that capturing those fan bases, but then also having the network of SB Nation sites and the larger Vox Media properties, enables you to take that passion and monetize it by pitching that larger audience to advertisers.

Bleszinski: Exactly. You wind up creating scale by having these really passionate audiences who spend so much of their time on these sites and thinking about any of these given things, so it’s very easy to know exactly who you’re reaching. In a way, it then becomes easier to monetize it.

Lichterman: This past summer, NBCUniversal made a pretty significant investment in Vox Media. You mentioned TV, and I’m curious if you can imagine SB Nation or Vox Media on traditional TV or other platforms.

Bleszinski: Vox is already making a huge video push because video is — not the future, it’s already here. NBCUniversal is a pretty natural partner for us because as we grow, they reach out to passionate audiences the same way we do. They can certainly share expertise with us and we can share expertise with them.

Lichterman: The Internet has changed so much over the time you’ve been involved with SB Nation. We’ve gone from more basic blogs to social and distributed content. I know Vox just got onto Snapchat Discover and there are things like the @SBNationGIF Twitter account, where you’re pushing onto other people’s platforms. How does that impact how you think about SB Nation’s coverage?

Bleszinski: Things have radically changed over the years in terms of where people are consuming things. From the very beginning, we thought of our blogs as their own individual brands. So, for example, Athletics Nation was a brand unto itself. Whether that was just on the website or on Facebook, or Twitter, or Snapchat, or wherever, you know what you’ll be getting the Athletics Nation brand. That goes for all of the Vox Media brands. We set them up in a certain way that no matter where you’re consuming it, you’re going to get the same level of quality and the same level of engagement.

Lichterman: I know you’re stepping away from your day-to-day role, but I’m curious about how you see Vox Media growing from here.

Bleszinski: It’s hard to walk away because I think the best is yet to come. The people who are still involved and engaged on a day-to-day basis are incredibly smart and are going to make wise choices in terms of growing this product and reaching out to people. In some ways it feels like a natural time for me to step away, because of the NBC investment, but in a lot of ways it feels like we are just now hitting our stride, and about to launch into a whole new stratosphere based on the partnership and some of the potential that’s there for that. I’m very bullish on how things are going to go with this company in the near future.

My kids are young, and they’re only young once. They still like me right now. My daughter is going to be 11 in January, so she’s not that far away from being a teenager, when she probably will hate me. I want to be there for those few remaining years while I’m still an important part of their lives and I can be more engaged as a father.

I’ve worked from home since I started this company, basically. A lot of people who work in offices are going to say, “Oh, cry me a river, you work from home.” But the truth is that when you work from home, you end up working 24-7 and you don’t really ever step away from it 100 percent. I got tired of telling my five-year-old boy “not now” when he wanted to play or watch a movie with me. The company is going to reach incredible heights, and I look forward to still being able to advise and help them get there, but the most important thing I’m ever going to do on this planet is what I instill in my children, so it’s a good time for me to prioritize that.

Lichterman: That makes total sense, and it’s pretty amazing that you’re able to do that. Looking at the company, though, you mentioned that you see Vox reaching new heights. What will those heights look like?

Bleszinski: We have to remain true to the core mission of engaging the passionate audiences and empowering incredible digital talent, like Ezra Klein and Nilay Patel and Walt Mossberg and all those people who are native to the Web. If we continue to empower them and enable them to reach even greater audiences, that’s where you’re going to see it take off into the stratosphere. Video is a big component of that. The partnership with NBC is a big component of that. All of those are things that you will see in the near future.

Jim Bankoff is always thinking on a whole other level than I am, and he was a perfect partner for me. I’m way more of a content and editorial person, and he’s way more of the business-forward thinking individual, so he was a perfect partner for me to balance out some of my shortcomings. Jim is like Game of Thrones-style, three or four moves ahead on the chess board from where any of us are.

Lichterman: Looking at digital media in general, people only limited attention spans, and there is so much competition for our attention. There are other publications, and there are people’s baby pictures on Facebook. How do you stay competitive in an environment like that?

Bleszinski:As long as people are passionate about certain things — sports, news, video games, digital lifestyle, Star Wars, Game of Thrones — there will be something that will be able to reach these people. I say this as someone who is a Star Wars geek and who is a Game of Thrones fanatic: You can never consume too much of that media. The web is a perfect vehicle with engaging with those passionate audiences.

Thanks especially to Jim, Vox has been incredibly responsive and dynamic with advertising partners, thinking about creative ways to reach audiences without annoying them, offering a good alternative on how to engage with brands in a non-invasive way. I’m pretty excited to see where the digital landscape goes in the future.

Photo of the Oakland Athletics by Keith Allison used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 6, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
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