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Nov. 8, 2021, 2:54 p.m.

Vox is revamping its editorial strategy to redefine what ‘Voxxy’ means

Vox’s mission, as Sharma and her team redefined it, is to still explain the news, but in a way that empowers people with the information and insight they need to understand the world around them.

Last month, Vox.com eliminated its Identities section, which covered a range of topics, including criminal justice, race, religion, gender, and drugs.

An odd move, I thought, given the news industry’s heightened consciousness of social issues over the last year and a half.

I reached out to Vox’s editor-in-chief of six months, Swati Sharma, and she told me that eliminating the section was actually part of refining Vox’s editorial strategy so that all of its stories across sections are told through an intersectional lens, rather than siloing race and identity-related stories under one catch-all section.

That made more sense to me. If you look at the current Identities page on Vox’s website, stories range from Supreme Court rulings, gun control, Monica Lewinsky, R. Kelly, voter suppression, pandemic-induced insomnia, natural disasters, vaccine skepticism, and kids returning to school.

Those are… a lot of topics, and those are just ones I pulled from headlines since this past August. Most, if not all, have a home at Vox, but not necessarily in an identity-focused section.

“I have seen a lot of editorial strategies and I don’t really see people lay this out,” Sharma said. “The thing that we’re doing differently is we’re putting this in the mission of what we do, but even more than that, we’re really helping people get there. We’re helping people feel [comfortable saying if] it’s not their lived experience, how do I write about this? Some newsrooms maybe do trainings and things like that, but that extra effort of being so open about what we’re trying to do, I think, is something that is new.”

Vox’s mission, as Sharma and her team redefined it, is to still explain the news, but in a way that empowers people with the information and insight they need to understand the world around them, Sharma told me. It aims to do that by providing clarity and context in easy-to-digest language. And that isn’t to say that Vox wasn’t doing those things before, but part of redoing the editorial strategy is to have that guideline clearly laid out for staff to refer back to, and to make sure every story fits that bill.

“We met with editors, we went section by section, and we really looked at hundreds of stories [to come up with] what the best stories are,” Sharma said. “We didn’t do it by metrics, but we looked for patterns among all of these stories, and this is what we determined to be Vox’s mission.”

Sharma found that oftentimes the term “Voxxy” would be used without a clear definition of what that meant. In talking with editors, they came up with the six types of stories that Vox writers do well. Going forward, a Vox story is one that either brings clarity to chaos; dissects complicated policies or ideas; connects something to the larger stakes; explores solutions or emerging ideas to solve problems; helps readers make decisions; or surfaces something hidden in plain sight.

“Distinctive” is the word Sharma uses a lot. She wants writers and editors to look at issues of race, gender, and identity as central to many of the stories they tell. The stories should also give readers the big picture and offer nuance.

“Most news organizations, even the big newspapers, actually need to know what they’re about and know what will make them distinctive,” she said. “The public is at the center of what we do. We’re not writing for the people in power. If they want to listen to us, that’s great. But really, our goal is to reach the people.”

Sharma said the editorial strategy is and should always be evolving, and the internal changes are an ongoing process. A lot of the onus is on the middle managers and editors (the ones editing and publishing everyday) to be in constant conversation with writers about their stories and the approaches they’re taking from the beginning of the reporting process.

“When we made this Identities [section] decision, people did come to me and say, ‘How do I do this? How do we report on things that aren’t my lived experience? How do I edit those stories?’,” Sharma said. “I love that because we can deal with that. I haven’t been in that many newsrooms where people openly say that, especially to the editor-in-chief, but that’s what I’ve been dealing with. And it’s a gift.”

Over the next few months, Vox writers and editors will host panels internally for their colleagues on a range of topics, from how to include more diverse sources in stories to how to do sensitivity reads. The benefit of having current staffers lead these types of discussions — as opposed to hiring an outside consultant — is that these staffers have already mastered the skills that they’ll be teaching their colleagues about at Vox, and can be asked questions as they go forward in their work.

“We can say all the right things, but how do you make sure it happens day to day? That’s when the editors have to feel super comfortable talking to the reporters and leading them in that way,” Sharma said.

POSTED     Nov. 8, 2021, 2:54 p.m.
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