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Oct. 11, 2018, 6:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

A Chorus of publishers: Vox Media onboards the Chicago Sun-Times as its first licensee since launch

“The joke in the industry is everybody doesn’t like the CMS or they write in some other tool.” Vox Media aims to change that punchline for other publishers.

There are few things that can drive as much nerdy-media debate as the Microsoft Word versus Google Docs battle, circa October 2018.

Slate’s “Journalists Just Can’t Quit Microsoft Word. But Some Are Trying” (with the A+ “We’re not quite ready to Accept This Change” subhead) piece by Rachel Withers brought up some strong feelings. For Trei Brundrett, COO at Vox Media, it stirred pride — and maybe a little gloating.

“The joke in the industry is everybody doesn’t like the CMS or they write in some other tool,” Brundrett said. But seeing Vox Media writers post in defense of their CMS — “I can’t tell you how much pride I have in that, it’s hard to overstate, because that’s what we were trying to create. We really wanted people to love the environment for editing and telling stories.”

Since July, Vox Media has opened up that same publishing platform — Chorus — for others to license. The Ringer and Funny or Die started using Chorus in August 2017 and August 2018, respectively, as early partners, but Chorus is now bringing on its first new client since licensing began: the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Sun-Times, you might remember, was once part of Michael Ferro’s stomping grounds before his fiefdom moved to the Tribune Tower and havoc was wreaked. Now-CEO Edwin Eisendrath led the charge with the Chicago Federation of Labor to buy the Sun-Times, closing the deal in July 2017.

“We really have a strong sense of who we are and what we want to accomplish,” Eisdendrath said. “To do that, I need the best tools for our journalists — by best I mean the ones that don’t get in their way but give them the widest options for storytelling. I need the best experience for our readers — clean, fast, not cluttered, lets readers make choices they need to make. And I need the best value for our advertising and sponsor partners. Those are the things I thought about when we went through the process of looking for technology partners.”

Vox Media is being choosy about which publishers they sign on while building out the licensing offer, Brundrett said, but the Sun-Times fits their bill. (Plus, Eisendrath hired Matt Watson from Vox Media’s growth team months after locking in the Sun-Times deal.)

The Wall Street Journal reported this summer that Chorus will be sold at varying price tiers based on the customer’s needs — “with fees in the six and seven-figure ranges.” Brundrett confirmed that number as well as “ranging even up from that as we talk to larger partners.”

All of this license-your-CMS talk might sound familiar. It’s what The Washington Post is doing — and succeeding at — with its Arc publishing platform. As Ken Doctor reported in these very webpages last month:

Arc is now used by more than 30 clients operating more than 100 sites on four continents. It’s not the industry standard, but it’s not too early to call it an industry standard. But its ambitions are still nowhere near met. Now the Post is moving Arc into a new phase, talking of a connective effect that could impact the face of the business formerly known as “newspapering.”

Arc wants to be more than a technology stack — it wants to be a network.

…If this story sounds familiar, it’s because this isn’t the first time a Jeff Bezos-led company has tried to pull this trick — becoming the infrastructural underpinnings of an industry by offering products both good enough and easy enough that they fade into the (highly profitable) background. That’s the path Amazon Web Services took to becoming a profit-producing machine. And AWS followed the same path Arc wants to head down: a technology stack built first for internal use (running Amazon’s servers, running the Post’s digital publishing), developed for a “first and best customer,” and then licensed out to the world.

A staff of 110 at the Post directly support Arc, and publishers like Tro—er, Tribune Publishing, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more are adopting it. The team is also developing an ad network around Arc clients…which is similar to what Vox Media has been doing with Concert, its publisher-focused ad marketplace with 40 staffers which launched a year ago.

Concert was a significant selling point for the Sun-Times: “When somebody comes to our site, I want them to like it and stay and explore it. I don’t want them offended by lots of the kinds of programmatic ads you see all over the country, and sometimes that happens on the Sun-Times today,” Eisendrath said.

Not all publishers who use Concert have to be on Chorus, but Chorus users are simultaneously introduced to Concert. The system is already a pool of Vox Media-friendly organizations that might be able to get more bang for their buck with the duo. (Calling dibs on naming the next Vox Media publishing tool Cacophony.)

POSTED     Oct. 11, 2018, 6:30 a.m.
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