Politico's media reporter Dylan Byers is out with a strange piece describing how “many journalists and news executives find themselves in need of an explanation” of how Vox.com is actually changing journalism. The start-up, founded by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and my former colleague Matthew Yglesias, has attracted brickbats and mockery from the word "go." There was the launch video, in which a then-29 Klein analyzed the “problem in journalism” of old formats not being ideal for storytelling and context, and Bell promising to change the site if the creators were wrong about what people might read. There was the suit jacket Yglesias wore in the launch video. And there was all the chatter, in this self-important beltway community of which I am a time-sharing member, of how the Washington Post had let its most promising star and his team of reporters walk away—just like how it had let some Bush-era reporting stars walk away and start Politico. Some people wanted the rebels to win; some people thought the Empire was right all along.
Byers' piece seems to side with the Vox critics, but in the least convincing way. I expected some mention of the site's mistakes. (A thinly-sourced mention of a "bridge" connecting Gaza to the West Bank will live in infamy, especially because the bridge does not exist.) There's none of that. “Some media observers,” quoted by Byers, say the site is doing well. Some do not. One anonymous editor disagrees with Klein that anyone refers to “the spinach” or “the vegetables” of journalism. (Some people do.) There is a long parenthical about a 2010 piece Klein wrote about vegetables, and the assertion that Vox has posed “little threat” to old media institutions.
Is there any #datajournalism that can back this up? Byers:
With all the big news stories this summer — racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Iraq, Ukraine, and Gaza — a site like Vox seemed destined for success. Those stories cry out for explanation, context, perspective. Vox does its best to offer that, and it has seen some promising traffic numbers... More people are reading Vox than Silver’s “FiveThirtyEight,” another analytical, data-driven site that re-launched last year under ESPN — which is impressive, given the mega-platform that is ESPN. Klein said Vox.com had over 9 million unique visitors in July, and would surpass that in August.
Curiously, these are the only traffic numbers mentioned in the piece, and they are not corroborated by a traffic meter like Quantcast. Since Quantcast is free and easy to use, I popped over to check its measure of Vox's traffic. In July, according to Quantcast, Vox had 8.2 million unique visitors.
The problem: We don't know what to compare this to. Is 8.2 million or 9 million any good? Let's compare it to Politico, launched in 2007. Here's a chart of the two sites' unique visitors over the last three months.
In a very short time, Vox has tied then passed Politico for unique visitors. A big factor has to be this month's coverage of the protests in Ferguson, which Vox has churned out posts and stories about. After I posted this chart on Twitter, a few people suggested that beating Politico in a recess month of a midterm year was no big deal. For context, here's Quantcast's full history of Politico's monthly traffic.
Since 2009, Politico has maintained pretty stable readership with a big spike during the presidential election. Clearly, Politico isn't failing to “change journalism.” It brought an attitude and obsessiveness to journalism that forced other organizations to catch up; Ben Smith, who edits BuzzFeed, spent his first years as a national reporter at Politico.
Yet Politico has not been a traffic monster; nor has it tried to be. In 2011, it launched a "Pro" shop that produces stories for people who subscribe at a fee of $3,295 per year. It sends out multiple newsletters that are sponsored by advertisers. (Klein started a newsletter when he was at the Post, and it continues without him. There is no Vox newsletter.) Vox's advertising is much, much more spare. Like Slate (specifically, like my interview podcast) it partnered with GE for a series of thinky #Pressing videos. It's now running sponsored content from Goldman Sachs (sidenote: Really? “Some editors say” was a better criticism hook than “sponsored by Goldman Sachs”?) that borrows the formatting and design of Vox content, much the way BuzzFeed's sponsored posts look just like the posts designed by its editorial team. This is not the “new journalism model” people like to think about, but there it is.
So: How can we assess Politico's lead story, and its claim that Vox is not living up to the hype? It's not suffering for traffic. It has not obviously changed the way older media outlets work, in that other outlets have not copied the Vox “cards” or the other innovations. But Vox, like Slate, is a product of an Internet that reads less by Googling or checking homepages, and more by checking social media. The early pioneers in this Internet were Business Insider (with its endless “here's what you need to know” or “here's what matters” headlines), BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and Klein's old Wonkblog. The New York Times reacted to the WonkBlog phenom with a new vertical, The Upshot. The Wonkblog ethos have permeated the Post, which employs a large number of people who quickly run buzzy memes or graphs without bothering to write long pieces about them. There's not much room in this Internet for some say/others say, premise-first pieces—except, I guess, to make fun of them with charts. Thanks for reading!