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Jim Bankoff is the chairman and chief executive officer of Vox Media, operator of seven digital brands including The Verge, SB Nation and Vox.com. In this edited transcript of our interview for the RJI Futures Lab update, Bankoff explains how Vox Media integrates functions that are often separated in traditional news organizations. He also provides ideas about managing failure, building proprietary technology, and maintaining editorial integrity.

How is Vox Media structured?

We really can think of us in three parts: One part is we produce seven big consumer brands, consumer titles across seven big content verticals. So that's one part of the business. The second part is how we make money, which is around premium brand advertising, digital advertising and branded content, so we create content for our marketing partners and then we help them find an audience for that content as well and that's our business model. And then the third part is the technology and the product platform that underlies all of it. It's called Chorus.

How do those pieces fit together inside the organization?

It's really important that those three pieces are tightly integrated from our kind of cultural and a workflow perspective. We really value a culture that is interdisciplinary. We think that gets the best results for our audiences and for our advertisers. So on any given day, you'll see our technologists, our designers working really closely with our storytellers, our journalists, to help them figure out how to express their ideas in the most compelling way, whether that's visually, whether that's with video, whether that's in a new format like the card stacks. And those same people will also have a role in working with the marketing side of the house to make sure that those same innovations are leveraged on behalf of our advertisers as well.

News people get a little worried when you start talking about blending all that together. How do you handle it?

First and foremost, we recognize that integrity is the most important thing that we can offer our audience, so we take that as seriously as anyone, perhaps moreso. And so, you know, we're very careful about that. Having said that, we're also careful to understand well what is a risk and what isn't a risk and asking those questions and answering them truthfully and not just pretending; for instance, if a technologist works with a journalist to tell a story, is that a conflict of interest? Because the technologist has been involved in the template of a design to help tell a story. If a designer decides with an editor where an ad is placed, is that a conflict? And you have to ask yourself the question each time along the way and make sure the editors are able to confidently answer those questions. So we take consumer trust, audience trust, as the most important thing that we can do. And then we're honest about answering those things. We don't we don't create boogeymen either, and we're very careful about that. And I'd say the result speaks for itself. I mean we have an outstanding track record and, having said that, it’s something you have to be eternally vigilant about.

How does the idea of “product” fit into what you’re doing?

Product is foundational to everything that we're doing, and it's not just about the 1s and 0s of the code that we create. It's about design as well. But it's more fundamentally about the culture that we're creating — understanding that the experience in its totality is the product. And so how do we create the best possible experience? That experience is a combination of the reporting but also the design. Also, how is the ad placed and does the ad work? And so in that sense, advertising is part of the experience. Now, to my previous point, that's different than saying advertising should influence the journalism. Of course it doesn't. If that happens, you're dead and you don't have a business, let alone an audience. But, you know, having said that, you would also be negligent to think that a consumer who is looking at a phone is not impacted by the advertisement there. So, to your question, product is foundational, fundamental to everything and product is as much a culture and kind of a state of mind as it is like anything particular technological advancement.

You have built your own technology platform. Could you describe how that works and what it enables you to do?

Chorus is our media stack, our platform for publishing and distributing content, and it has a lot of different layers to it. But first and foremost, as opposed to any particular feature, Chorus is almost as much an idea and a way of doing things, which is to say that we really think in a holistic manner and how to make best possible stories and how to make those stories come to life, how to make sure that those stories find their audiences wherever those audiences might be, either in our websites or on social platforms or in search or wherever an audience is. We want to make sure to find them, so that thought process is incorporated into the actual technology and the product stack that our writers and our content-creators use to tell their stories. Specifically, it allows us to collaborate as a newsroom. It allows us to, when necessary, collaborate on an editorial chain. But first and foremost, it allows a talented individual to create a story in a very efficient manner, in a very engaging and compelling manner. And then it allows an individual or team to make sure that that story is distributed to an audience that might care about that story. It provides metrics and analytics on that; it provides community and the ability to have an audience discuss or enter the conversation where it's called for; and then the ability to moderate that conversation as well so that there's a quality conversation that comes out of it. So a lot of different layers of the stack: the publishing and presentation, the collaboration, the analytical piece that's informed by data, the community layer. So there's a lot that goes into it.

What does it take to have your own proprietary technology? How many people are involved in that, and what management challenges does that present?

We have a product team that currently is about 60 people, a combination of really talented designers, developers, product and project managers and support for them as well. There are extraordinarily talented people. We compete with other great technology companies to attract and retain them, and we try to create a culture that celebrates them as well. From a management perspective, it's about making sure that those functions and those people are not only part of the company but vocal parts, leaders of the company; and our culture is structured as such. Maybe to contrast us against organizations that have been around longer: I've been involved in certain organizations where the newsroom dictates everything about the company, and I've been in other organizations where the advertising team drives everything in the company. In our company we try to have three seats at the table that incorporates the people who are the storytellers, the people who have to make money to support the organization and then the people who are technologists and product innovators. It's really the synthesis and the harmony that defines our culture.

How many employees do you have?

Overall the company, we have about 350 employees.

So about a sixth of them are technology and product people?

Yes.

In terms of bringing them all to the table together, how did you unite them? What’s the shared ethos that everybody at Vox has?

I mentioned some of that shared ethos already. We all feel like there is an opportunity to create quality brands and quality content and quality advertising at scale, meaning create a big enterprise that is still a quality enterprise. So, specifically, we take pride in the fact that we're in it for the longer term. We're not just trying to game the system. I think if you look at the history of content on the Internet, you can almost define it in three phases: The first phase was when a lot of the traditional brands just took their stuff, their content and put it on the Web. Great newspapers, great magazines, even great TV shows, they like literally took the article and they put it on the Web. And they were disappointed in the economics of that, which generally weren't the same and often inferior to their existing economics, and so they retreated and they kinda got scared off and they stopped innovating in some regards. And the medium itself wasn't taken to its full advantage. The second phase was more of a race to the bottom, where a lot of the engineers and algorithmists came in and said, If we architect our system like this, we'll get a lot of Google search traffic. Or if we create slideshows, we'll get a lot of extra page views. Or if we create popup ads, we'll make extra money. Or if we have a lot of unpaid interns, the cost of content will come down. A lot of gimmicks and a lot of things that were more or less scalable in the economic sense of that word, but not sustainable. Now I think we're in a third phase, which combines the best of the first two phases, which is quality brands -- in our case brands for a new generation of audiences -- but also quality design and engineering to make sure that we do take advantage of mobile platforms and we do take advantage of social platforms, which are a great way of sharing intelligent, smart content as well as sharing fluffier, lighter things as well. We believe that substance is viral as well, so we believe that you can merge a lot of what's great about the Internet in terms of rich storytelling formats, ubiquitous social distribution, mobile platforms that make sure that people have access to content all day long as opposed to those people who just happen to work at a desk. So now you have ubiquitous access. It's a great phase right now and it's a great phase for people who believe in quality and who believe in brand-building.

How might the next phase look? I don't have a strong sense other than to say it's going to continue to evolve. Just take the past couple months, for instance. We had big announcements about wearables with Apple and the watch, so like what does that mean? We have Facebook buying Oculus, so what does virtual reality mean? Today we sit here and we kind of kid about it because we just don't know, but we kid just as though we kidded about some of the technologies that are core to our everyday behavior today. So we all can go back to when I was a kid watching the Jetsons and most of the things, except for the flying cars, have come to pass now. So I can't say what it is but I can say it will be different and I can say if we're going to succeed, we have to be prepared to embrace it.

One thing that comes up a lot in technology is the ethos of “fail often.” What does it actually look like to embrace failure inside of an organization?

It's a delicate balance of trying things, but then testing, measuring and then ultimately making the decision that it is a failure, as opposed to making the decision that “Oh, if we just give it some more time…” Because you can always give something more time. You can also always make the mistake of not giving something enough time, and you're never going to have among smart people broad consensus. If you have unanimous consensus on something, that probably means you should have killed it a while ago. So it's about looking at the data, understanding and being honest. I think risk is as much about taking the risk to sunset something as it is about taking the risk to launch something.                                   

How do you motivate employees to take risks?

I think if a project is sanctioned and supported and if it's managed properly, and if it's treated with intellectual honesty, then yes, failure can and should be rewarded. Failure with reckless abandon clearly isn't. So you can take that statement and parse it out and come out with, like, “failure is a great thing!” Failure is great when you learn something and you take away from it something that you can apply to the next thing or to something down the road, and I think in our case we're pretty good at doing that.

What is the Vox Media business model?

Simply put, our business model is around advertising, and it's around premium advertising, which is to say we try to create high-quality audiences and serve those audiences with high-quality advertising. We do that not only by serving up the best content to create the best audiences, but then we work with partners to both create and distribute their content as well, the advertising content. And we have a separate unit of our company called Vox Creative that helps to do that. So a marketer will approach us with an objective, and we use our know-how in creating content to help them reach that objective. We'll help them create it using our method, which produces a quality result at an efficient price, and then we'll help make sure that they can grow an audience around that content through our ability to understand how to target audiences and how to make content social and good at the same time.

How do you make content that’s good and social and spread at the same time?

It's a combination of a whole lot of things. Technology and data play a role, but talent plays a role as much. And the technology and the data can help empower talented people. So we really look at our company as How do we use data technology to unlock and create potential for creativity? Creativity of the people who work for us, whether that's in advertising or in editorial capacity; but also creativity of our audience as well, in terms of allowing them to contribute to the conversation where that makes sense, but also making sure they have the best consumption experience. So, it's that and a million different things that we do each day to try to further that goal. How do you measure success and failure? In terms of measuring success, every initiative has its own metrics by which you can say whether something has traction or not. So it's not always one size fits all. But generally speaking you want to understand is it finding its audience and is it finding its audience in a in a real way, as opposed to it being supported by another initiative or riding the back of another initiative or being subsidized by another initiative. In general for us, as a company that aspires to grow large numbers, we want to make sure that the audience metrics are there, whether that's measured by a combination of audience size or audience engagement. Generally we look at those things, but for different size projects, for different types of initiatives, you need to look at those relative to their consideration sets and so the data may vary. But it's important that you define what the objectives are that you have as you go into it and benchmark against those objectives.

Vox is one of several organizations going against the tide of traditional news outlets who are putting up paywalls. Why did you decide against charging for content?

I don't know if we decided against it, we just never decided for it We have a model that works for us, that provides us the business model that we need to sustain and grow our business. We're an advertising model that requires scale, that requires size in order to make that work financially and economically. So we believe that's right for our model. I don't think that's necessarily right for everyone though. Different models will work in different instances, and there are examples of successful subscription businesses out there. There are examples of businesses that are supported with conferences. There are examples of businesses that are supported with paid newsletters and free websites and everything in between. What works for us isn't going to work for everyone, but we're very comfortable where we are with ours.  

Reuben Stern  
 
Deputy Director of the RJI Futures Lab

Rachel Wise  
 
Video Editor


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