The new economics/politics/news website, Vox.com, launched a week ago. It is one of many independent ventures cropping up that are well financed and are attempting to give us the future of the news media. What I have been particular interested in is where it will be in this space. And here are my thoughts based on a week of experience thusfar.
First of all, where does it sit in my media attention? I know this may not be relevant to anyone but me but at the moment it is all I have to go on. For me, media attention is allocated across these categories: each defined on the basis of how the media reaches me.
- The morning tab dump: This is a long-standing practice of mine, of sitting in front of the computer while having my breakfast, and opening up a list of websites. The current list involves: CNN, Globe and Mail, Slate, ABC News Australia, Guardian (Australia) and also the Yahoo News Digest which is opened on my phone. The purpose of this is to bring me up to date with the broad news over-night and takes approximately 10 minutes of my time each day. For others, the New York Times or Financial Times would fall in this class but as I am not willing to pay, I stick with free. Basically, I want to know superficially what is going on and that is it.
- Facebook and Twitter Referrals: These are also part of my morning routine but they also occur throughout the day, constantly. These are news and other articles that I go to, “as they happen” but, importantly, are referred to be people I follow on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes, Google+ has a role here but that is something I can go days before I look at it so it doesn’t really count.
- RSS Reader: I used to use Google Reader and now use Feedly to scan hundreds of blogs and news sites throughout the day. Most of this happens in the morning but there is a good, ‘after-lunch’ consumption as well and, depending on how busy I am, this is similar to Facebook and Twitter. However, these are generally not referrals but things that I might read. The important feature of this is that when I have scanned past an item, I never see it again. That means I can manage my attention and consumption efficiently. Some people use Flipboard and the like for this. The sheer volume of my consumption prevents that.
That’s actually it, although it is quite a lot. Note that from an advertising-based media perspective, 1 makes me the most valuable, 2 and 3 less so except that 3 often leads to me sharing articles and, thus, feeding 2 for other people.
So, after a week, where is Vox? Vox appears to be in category 2 (I am referred to it from Twitter) although it has been in 3 as well but that usually comes later. But it will end up in 3 because, I generally do not want to read the articles right away. In other words, I am likely to send them to Instapaper to read later — not much later — but later. Things on Twitter tend to be things that are on sites I don’t want to follow all of their content (eg., FiveThirtyEight and Grantland) and things I want to read right away (so they must be short). Vox articles are too long for that.
But why hasn’t Vox made it to category 1 (as Slate has done for a decade)? The reason is simple, its webpage is embryonic and it is hard to see what is new over the course of the day. That is true of Slate you would think but they have a column in the top right that makes that easy. Moreover, the articles highlighted are smaller and they do sometimes point me to things I missed. For Vox, it is too sparse and confusing but it may evolve. I want to load a page and see alot without scrolling. Vox requires scrolling and doesn’t have time linearity so I don’t really know what I am seeing.
That is the demand situation, what about supply? This is where Vox has actually been most innovative. My sense of journalism and blogging and what-have-you is that it is reactive rather than prepatory. That is, a news story breaks, there are some quick reports but no one really knows what is going on and the expert journalists don’t have time to explain it at the time. Then it evolves, more features get done and we reach some state of knowledge a few days later.
Vox seems to be evolving towards a different model. Its ‘explaining cards’ are a form of preparation. They are things the journalists make and manage to keep up to date so that when a story or development breaks, they can easily refer to them. That means that when a reader becomes interested, the background information that is trusted is at hand. The cards themselves are pretty dry but, in the right place, at the right time can potentially help people understand what is going on a little better. Gaps in knowledge are filled and we can be brought up to speed.
Now some, like Andrew Sullivan, asked whether we need these when we have Wikipedia. Would it be that Wikipedia (a) was so trusted and (b) was clearly written. Neither is actually the case. Wikipedia is great for its coverage but isn’t necessarily enough to get away from confusion and to clarity quickly. To aspire to be better than Wikipedia is a good thing. Wait a few years and Vox.com will have a formidable set of cards and preparation. (Of course, if Vox were sensible they would be paying experts to get them started on issues right now). That said, the card resource is public. They can be referred to be journalists anywhere armed with Google and a CMS that allows hyperlinks.
The main issue I have with cards is that they will be more difficult to generate when the issues are contentious. Already with Quantum Computers, I thought the explanation was one-sided because it relied on an expert on one side of the debate only and didn’t link to really useful neutral views. But I’m sure everyone will be a critic.
Vox’s place in the media attention system is still being worked out but if they are right and prepatory journalism does accelerate informed news breaking, this is going to be an interesting ride.