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July 28, 2016, 12:42 p.m.
Audience & Social
Reporting & Production

How Vox Media’s new Storytelling Studio thinks of stories as products

Vox wants to move beyond the web page to tell compelling stories.

When Hillary Clinton takes the stage in Philadelphia tonight to accept the Democratic nomination for president, it will be the peak of a lifetime spent in politics. And over that lifetime, she’s been the subject of an almost incalculable amount of media coverage.

When wanted to add to that mountain with a Clinton interview and profile by editor-in-chief Ezra Klein, it wanted to build something different — something that felt more digitally native than straightforward longform.

“We had the interview, which was great, but we also had Ezra, who not only conducted the interview but with his reporting, took that interview and brought a completely different context,” said Kainaz Amaria, design director of storytelling at Vox Media. “Where [the storytelling team] added value in the room was convincing folks that the interview wasn’t the only story we had.”

That Clinton package was the first public product of the Vox Storytelling Studio, which was officially introduced with a blog post this morning, by the company’s Lauren Rabaino, Amaria, and Ryan Mark:

We’re living in a truly distributed world, where our own websites are less and less likely to be the place where a user will read or watch our journalism. We’re leaning into that concept hard as part of our Storytelling Studio approach. That could manifest in more traditional communication (email newsletters?) or new, but increasingly important partner platforms (Instant Articles? Google AMP?) or completely emerging ways of storytelling (Bots? Something else?). There are a lot of question marks in those parentheticals because we don’t know yet. Every story will be different, and every platform is ever-changing.

But the idea for the Storytelling Studio came nearly three years ago from Vox’s product team, and it’s launching on the premise of hypercharging the concept of the story, using all resources available to transform the story into a experiential entity. “The product team has always had a very strong belief that you have a tight unity between product and editorial to build a great brand,” said Melissa Bell, who today was named publisher of Vox Media. “We want this group to really be focused on telling the best stories at Vox Media and helping make sure that we’re delivering that.”

As part of that effort, as today’s launch post notes, the studio doesn’t live in the product wing of the company, where it might elsewhere, but in editorial:

Another marked change is that this group will not live within Product; Storytelling Studio is part of our Growth and Development department, which lives with Editorial. Our team is still made up of product thinkers who put the user first, are metrics-informed, go through a product development cycle, test our work with users, and constantly iterate. But in the ethos of being “close to the story,” we need to apply that to our placement in the company. We’re thrilled to be even closer to our partners, the editors, reporters, photographers and videographers who know the stories best.

The Clinton project became a digital, multi-platform package. Optimized for Facebook Instant Articles, the 6,300-word-plus piece, complete with video and archival photographs, loads in under a second flat. Alongside the essay, Vox published the full transcript of the 41-minute interview complete with annotations and visualized data. Going beyond the website component, the interview was filmed and annotated for YouTube, allowing users to search and watch exactly what they want Hillary to answer, whether it’s her stance on immigration’s economic impact or what’s on her bookshelf. And considering the hands-free user, Vox published the audio of the interview as the July 12 episode of Klein’s podcast, The Ezra Klein Show.

“Ezra sent out a note to the entire company after [the story] went out. He was so thankful and grateful that he had the opportunity to push that out and how big we could make it,” said Rabaino, director of editorial products. “I think that’s really telling of how we helped own the story and make it into something bigger than it was originally.”

The story was a tall order, but it was well received by Vox readers.

Don’t expect to see the full studio treatment on every story. “We have to be really smart about it. We could have spent another six weeks on the Hillary project building out a different version for every different platform, so we’re trying to be selective about where we can have the most reach,” said Rabaino. “We’ve already learned a ton from how we’ve built out the Facebook version for Hillary so that, the next big project that comes along, we have a framework for automating that a little bit more so that we can continue to iterate on the story and reaching more platforms.”

How the Storytelling Studio differs from Vox’s many past multimedia projects is the bridging of teams — teams that may not always speak a shared language, but are willing to collaborate to build a scalable, powerful story while setting a precedent for the brands’ next moves. “A shared language is not only really important, but what we’re getting to is creating a safe environment — an environment where people can trust each other,” said Amaria:

I’ve been in a lot of newsrooms and situations where stories haven’t succeeded because the people that were making them didn’t trust each other to be able to trust each other to be to go into places where they were uncomfortable. Creating that environment is what we have, what we can grow, and what we can make bigger. It’s really trusting each other and saying, “We’re actually not totally sure where this is gonna go, but we’re gonna put our heads together and we’re gonna take it somewhere.” That level of collaboration is what’s gonna set us apart.

A few multimedia projects from Vox Media’s past include a 360-degree interview with Michelle Obama for The Verge and Eater’s annotated NYC restaurant inspection generator with chief food critic Ryan Sutton. Rabaino has a different vision of how the latter project would have panned out under the Storytelling Studio:

We probably would have done something like a Slack bot, where you integrate it as part of your workplace, because that’s probably more often where you’re at when searching for place. You can say “Eater, get me Chick-Fil-A,” or “Eater, get me Roberta’s Pizza,” and the information is contextually delivered to you in the place where you’re already at, where your mind is already at, where you’re thinking about getting that kind of information.

The Storytelling Studio is establishing that publications and media companies must continue to move beyond the idea of web-page-as-central-hub and instead apply product thinking at the story level to engage readers.

Rabaino said the Clinton piece was a good place to start — “Profiles were an easy bet because they were well reported, they tend to have a lot of assets” — but that the story mix will broaden. “[We want] stories that are more enterprising, stories where we’re doing our own data collection, talking to new sources that no one’s ever talked to, an enterprising sort of journalism that other people don’t have easy access to.”

The Storytelling Studio’s latest project, “Reign, Supreme” for fashion site Racked, creates a magazine-style experience for the reader, using code to produce a near-encyclopedic look at an iconic streetwear staple. More projects are on the way. “We’re thinking about stuff like bots — messaging bots, text messaging bots — and even the more old school stuff like newsletters,” said Rabaino. “We’re learning about things that are emerging, and we’re trying to connect the platform to the story to make a decision.”

POSTED     July 28, 2016, 12:42 p.m.
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