Tuesday, July 22, 2014

During April, our product team spent the month focused on a litany of small fixes, necessary improvements to the site, and different tools for the editorial team as they settled into telling stories every day.

In our second month, we were able to shift our focus back to site building and big picture planning. Today, you'll see the result of that work, and the first big addition to the site: our card stack hub and explore card.

If you visit Vox.com/cardstacks or go to any card stack and click to the final page, you'll find a search bar that will access any of the 81 card stacks the team has built out since launch, covering topics as wide ranging as Shakespeare, Medicaid, sexual assault on campuses and Obamacare. If we haven't written on a topic, you can submit your search term to the editorial team. We'll keep track of those submissions and work to tackle the topics you want to know about.

Vox_card_promo_3.2v4

This is just a mock. Go here to search. (Matthew Sullivan)

We took a gamble with the card stacks at launch. They were an idea we weren't sure people would respond to, in a style that went against the grain of the scroll layout design. But people are reading them, and moving from one card to the next in the stack. And Vox writers have done a great job of finding big topics to break down. I've learned a lot from them. I hope you have too.

What we didn't have at launch, though, was a great way of giving readers access to all our card stacks. Hence the idea for this explore hub. We want people to be able to pull up a topic they want to know about right now. And the work we put into it will inform other future plans, of which there are many.

One personal plan: I will be updating this story stream more regularly, and having more of the discussions I had yesterday with readers about homepage design. We've gotten some great insight from our readers. Thank you for helping us shape this site.

It's been a busy two months, and it'll keep being busy, but it's starting to feel like we're settling into a groove. It's a good feeling.

Time to update the version tracking: let's call this Vox 1.2.

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A few weeks ago, a grainy, black-and-white graph made the rounds on media sites and gave rise to a favorite digital media refrain: the homepage is dying, dead, breathing its last gasp, or in some other state of imminent doom (early sightings of the refrain harken back to at least 2005).

The graph had been scanned from the New York Times’ Innovation report and it shows how much the traffic to NYTimes.com declined between 2011 and 2013 — nearly by half, from a high of 160 million visitors to 60 million visitors.

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From the New York Times Innovation Report, via Buzzfeed.

It's a similar story with other landing pages, particularly in the journalism sphere, and the collective internet hive mind most often blames social media for the decline, though there are plenty of suspects. Facebook may be the cause, or it’s possibly Google, or maybe it’s your mobile phone’s home screen. Or, as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has long contended, the article page is now the new homepage.

Whatever the new homepage is, and despite the warnings in that grainy graph, we still want one.

When we launched Vox, we built it on the same code base as SB Nation, the sports site in our Vox Media family. We did this to save time and get our site up and running in just nine weeks. To develop and design a different homepage that works across multiple platforms, and with all sorts of content would have taken much, much longer.

If you go check out SB Nation, you’ll see similarities in structure to Vox’s current homepage, though we invested time in a whole new look and feel (and our designers pulled it off; letting the two sites feel wholly independent despite the shared backbone).

It's a good design, but we can ride on our sporting compatriots' coattails for only so long. It’s time to start on our own homepage. We’ve got some good ideas cooking, but I asked to hear yours. I’ll prattle on a bit more about some of what I’m thinking about our homepage, but you can skip my thoughts and jump down to the comments to see what other readers recommended.

As a reward for sticking around, here's some more homepage thoughts. This project is not so much about making some beautiful design that pulls in readers (though that’s always nice). But I already think we have that. I love the impact of our single story view when there's major breaking news, as seen in the photo above when the scandal at the VA was unfolding.

But we have a problem with the lack of organization on the site. Readers come to Vox and have plenty of places to go, but not a lot of guidance on where and how to get there.

That’s on purpose. I made a decision during our fast launch to not add many organizational cues to our site. There would be no navigation bar, like you see on many news sites; there are no set sections; and there are very few "breadcrumbs," which is digital-speak for clickable items that lead readers to similar content on websites.

I did this for two reasons. One, to save time. The mere hint of organizing principles can send media folk into long, philosophical debates about word choice and metadata necessities. These conversations spiral into meetings that end in the same place they started, only everyone is a little more frustrated. I thought it would be better to save those conversations until after we had the site up and running.

The second reason was this: we did not want to impose order on theories alone. We had ideas about the topics we’d be covering. We hired one of the best higher education reporters in the country. We found a rising star on the immigration beat. But this entire endeavor was new to all of us. What if, when we started publishing, it turned out our immigration reporter shone at Shakespeare analysis and our education reporter asked to switch to the birthday beat?

We agreed to wait to see what we would be organizing before we set about organizing it. Two months in, we have some answers. Now we just need to figure out how to go about doing it.

Since the homepage is really for you the reader, I opened the comments for a few hours to hear what you think. I wanted to know why folks go to a homepage? To scan the news? To see the newest things that have been published? Or something else entirely? Readers offered up a bunch of great suggestions and thoughts. If I shut the comments down before you could make one, but you want to add your thoughts to the homepage discussion, feel free to email me at editors@vox.com. Thanks!

Correction: Joshua Benton from Nieman Labs points out the Y-axis is mislabeled on the New York Times' graph. The number is actually 60 million, an even worse decline than I previously wrote...

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Over on the Vox Media Product blogMichael Lovitt, the vice president of engineering, wrote an article on how we got this site up and running in nine weeks.

It all started January 27, when Lovitt sent an email to the product directors at Vox Media:

Email

Lovitt was proposing a pretty radical notion: he wanted to take a hack-week approach to launching what-would-become Vox. It meant gathering a big team of developers, getting them all in a room for a week and having them develop a site as fast as possible. It also meant getting everyone to agree to forego many months of building, developing, and designing a site before readers could get a look at it.

On February 3, Trei Brundrett, the chief product officer at Vox Media asked me to come by Vox headquarters in Washington, DC. I, and my partners, had signed the contract papers just days earlier.

I assumed Trei wanted to prepare me for at least a year of work before our site would ever see a reader clicking on a page. Vox Media had plenty of different initiatives in an already busy year. We had already discussed setting up a WordPress blog in the interim, much like our sister site did at The Verge while they prepared for their launch.

But Trei wanted to discuss Lovitt's idea.

If we committed to a fast and furious launch schedule, we could get something up in a few months. It wouldn't be perfect, and it wouldn't be fully built. But we wouldn't have to wait a year to start producing journalism. And we could start testing our hypotheses right away.

Trei and I talked late into the night. If we wanted to build a digital startup journalism entity, we would behave like the technology company Vox Media truly is: launch fast and tweak often.

Within the week, everyone else had signed off. We agreed: Lovitt's crazy plan just might work.

If you're interested in the nitty-gritty of just how the product team made it happen, take a look at Lovitt's article. It's a great read, and it was a great time.

It also reminds me: there's still much work to do. More on that soon.

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It’s been three weeks since we started publishing on Vox full time  — and they’ve been a pretty incredible three weeks. We talked to Thomas Piketty and Michael Pollan. We traveled to Vermont to understand their single-payer system; we asked porn stars about their families; and we explored the necrophiliac nature of otters. We worked hard to explain the Common CoreUkraineObamacare, and Bitcoin. We asked why "basic" became an insult and what a broken political system means for the future of the internet.

At the end of each day, we felt amazed by how much we learned — about the world and about how you, our readers, feel about our site. We watched how you’re finding our stories, which ones you’re reading, and what you’re doing once you get to Vox. We’ve heard from you on Facebook and on Twitter and by email.

On Monday, we opened comments on this story and asked what you thought about our site and asked what more would you would like to see. We spent the day answering as many questions as we could. It was a great discussion, with lots of good ideas about site improvements, story ideas and a healthy dose of constructive criticism. You can read the questions and answers down below. And here are answers to three questions I’ve been getting with some regularity.

Where are the comments?

We’ve watched sites open their comments and what should be a community devolves into an endless series of flame wars. We’ve also all seen sites with great communities, and how much they can add to the experience.

We’re particularly conscious of that because great communities are at the core of every Vox Media site (check Polygon and The Verge's forums, or SB Nation’s 308 networked blogs, or SB Nation's gif oracle — yes, gif oracle). We want communities at the core of ours, too. But we’re still figuring out exactly what approach to take and, whatever we do, we know we need a full-time staffer (or possibly a few of them!) to help build the community. This is something we’re excited about, and we hope to start rolling it out over the summer.

T-shirt-square

Can I search the site?

Not yet. This was a miscalculation on our part. We prioritized site search lower on the list of needs in part because so many people know how to use Google (or Bing, or DuckDuckGo, etc). However, it takes time for a new site to be recognized and to build authority within the algorithms that power these search engines. So, for the moment, searching the site externally doesn’t work that well. For that reason, we’ve moved up building a search function on our list of priorities.

Do you have a card stack on (fill in the blank)?

We just might, and we're adding more every day. We’re seeing that the cards are proving a good reading experience for people, and we’ve started getting requests for particular ones. We’re hoping to add a card stack request form on our site soon. And we’re hoping to make it easier for you to find card stacks on our site, so you can find topics that matter to you.

There’s so much still for us to build and so many new ideas to test. It’s exciting and daunting in equal measures. Each day our product team has been making big and small improvements. Over the last few weeks, we worked through some launch bugs, we added a much-requested print button (hack tip: if you want to read all the cards in a card stack in a single view, hit the print button and scroll away. We’ll work to give you a non-hack option soon.). And there’s a bunch of changes you won’t see on the site, but will help the reporters file, edit and maintain the growing database of card stacks, which should make it easier for us to build more of them, and do it faster.

In the meantime, send an email to editors@vox.com or tweet at us @voxdotcom if you want to read a card stack about a specific topic.

Oh, and thanks for coming on this weird, wonderful journey with us!

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New York Magazine's Joe Coscarelli interviewed Ezra Klein about the philosophy behind Vox. Here Ezra explains that it's good for journalists to write pieces about what time the Super Bowl is on because many people would like to know what time the Super Bowl is on, so someone should create a resource that tells them:

Is there an SEO play involved here? The web seems to have moved away from the Huffington Post "What time is the Super Bowl?" stuff in favor of social and sharing ...

People always bring up that Huffington Post article. What I think is missed in that discussion is that that article is super useful. Every year I need to know when the Super Bowl is. I always forget. I often find that article. It tells me exactly what time the Super Bowl is.

Sometimes I think in the media there can be a weird condescension toward the idea of providing people simple useful info they need in a simple format.We shouldn't be laughing at the idea that Huffington Post managed to provide a service that people all over the internet needed provided. That's something to learn from.

Read the whole thing here.

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Our card stacks on persistent news concepts are inevitably going to change over time. Some of that will be because of new developments in the world. Some of it will be because we've made mistakes. And some of it will be simply that we thought of ways to make the content better. For example, after hearing back from readers I decided to redo this chart with a clearer color scheme.

This leaves us with a quandary: how to be transparent with the audience about changes will still creating a great card experience.

What we decided is that rather than clutter cards up with lots of special marks and a whole bunch of extra text at the bottom of the page, we would add a whole changes card to a stack once it's modified. That way curious readers can get a rundown of all substantive alterations that have been made, while people who are just looking for a clear presentation of information will have it.

In the longer run, we'd like to create a somewhat more technologically elegant solution to this problem but this seems like a good enough approach for now.

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Several people have asked why some of our charts have what looks like a little clickable link saying "get the data" but then you can't actually click on anything. See Libby Nelson's beautiful and telling chart from this article for an example:

Graduation_rates_for_final_four_teams

We build it with the help of a fantastic chart tool called Datawrapper that allows our reporters to enter in complicated data sets and structures them in easy-to-read graphs and charts. The tool creates interactive charts that lets readers mouse over the results and dive deeper into the data. But when we loaded the charts up on our site, it turned out it was difficult to make Datawrapper's embedding function play nicely with Vox.com's responsive design. It didn't work on mobile devices, in other words. So we opted to usestatic images of Datawrapper charts rather than embed interactive charts.

Nobody on the editorial or product teams is satisfied with this as the ultimate way to visually present quantitative information, and we are at work on both a really good solution and on creating a better interim solution. But in line with the overall spirit of the launch we didn't think it made sense to hold everything back until we could fully solve the problem.

In the short term, we will get rid of those "get data" fake links in the static image. We still want to give credit to Datawrapper for their great tool, but we don't need to confuse people with non-functioning links. We'll be going over the site today to clean up our charts.

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Welcome to Vox.com! Again!

On March 9, we launched Vox.com, which included our first videos, and we started talking to readers on our Facebook page and on our Twitter feed. Today marks phase two of Vox’s launch: the beginning of our effort to build the vast repository of information that will make it possible for us to explain the news in real time.

At the core of this phase are the Vox Cards. They’re inspired by the highlighters and index cards that some of us used in school to remember important information. You’ll find them attached to articles, where they add crucial context; behind highlighted words, where they allow us to offer deeper explanations of key concepts; and in their stacks, where they combine into detailed — and continuously updated — guides to ongoing news stories. We’re incredibly excited about them.

But we're just starting to learn how to use them. We have been employees of Vox Media for less than 65 days. The product team began work on the site seven weeks ago. Most of our staff started three or four weeks ago. Some people haven’t even been here a full week. Several key positions remain unfilled. But we didn’t want to wait a day longer than necessary to launch the site.

We’re launching this fast for one simple reason: there is no better way to figure out the best way to do explanatory journalism on the web than to do explanatory journalism on the web.

We have some exciting ideas about how to do a better job explaining the news. But right now, those ideas are untested with the audience. And that's the only test that matters. Our theory is simple: the quicker we can launch, the quicker we can start learning — and start improving.

The site we have today isn't perfect, and it isn't anywhere near complete — not editorially, and not technologically. Poking around this evening, or this week, or this month, you may notice a few things seem missing. We don't have commenting features on most articles. We don't have a menu bar. We're woefully lacking in snazzy data visualizations. We have some card stacks on key topics in the news, but there are many, many more left to build.

That's not because community or navigation or graphics or context aren't important to us. It's because they're important enough to us that we don't want to do them badly. We’re working on them and when we feel comfortable that we're delivering a certain level of quality, we’ll release our ideas into the wild and test, refine, and improve them.

At the same time, we didn't want to delay the parts of the site we had ready. We're launching today because three more weeks or three more months or 30 more months will not produce a perfect website. We’ll always be a work in progress.

But we're excited about what we have now, and we’re excited about what we’ll roll out in the weeks and months to come. Most of all, we’re eager for you to see what we do have so we can learn what’s useful to you and what isn’t. And then we can get better at explaining the news.

You can reach us at editors@vox.com.

Let’s get started.

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What is Vox?

Vox is a general interest news site for the 21st century. Its mission is simple: Explain the news.

Vox is published by Vox Media, a growing modern publishing house, with six other awesome sites you should already be reading: SB Nation, The Verge, Polygon, Curbed, Eater, and Racked. Each site is a distinct entity under Vox Media. Think: Time Inc. publishing Time, but also People, Sports Illustrated, and In Style.

What happened to Project X?

Project X was the pre-launch codename of Vox.

It was coincidentally the name of a 2012 movie, in which three friends throw an epic party that spirals out of control. Please enjoy this video splicing scenes from the film with DJ Gironic’s remix of "Heads Will Roll" from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Project X is also the name of a 1987 Matthew Broderick film about the military use of chimpanzees.

Neither movie is related to Vox, which is also not a mutant super-team. Yet.

What do you mean by "explain the news"?

Our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened.

The media is excellent at reporting the news and pretty good at adding commentary atop the news. What’s lacking is an organization genuinely dedicated to explaining the news. That is to say, our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened.

We're going to deliver a lot of contextual information that traditional news stories aren't designed to carry, and we're hiring journalists who really know the topics they cover. There’s no way we’ll be able to help readers understand issues if we haven’t done the work to understand them ourselves.

Can you give me an example?

This article is an example. It tries to identify the main questions you might have about Vox and answer them in a clear, logically structured way. At the beginning is the most obvious, most important thing people might want to know about Vox rather than the latest scoop. This article contains news — we’re announcing our name, Vox, when up until now, we’ve only called ourselves Project X — but the new information isn’t the point. The point is to leave you with a better understanding of what we’re trying to do with Vox.

Are you going to report?

Of course. Reporting is one of our primary tools for understanding the issues we cover. And reporting the news is the way we stay on top of changes in the topics we cover. But the way we’re going to judge our reporters is not based on whether they scoop their competition. It’ll be on how well they understand their beats, and how good of a job they do sharing that understanding with our audience.

Will Vox be a bunch of articles like this one?

Our commitment to explaining the news is a commitment to an outcome not a commitment to any particular article format. We do think, however, that the traditional article format is ripe for reinvention.

In journalism, you’ll sometimes hear articles about hard topics referred to as "vegetables" or "the spinach" — the idea being that readers don’t like those subjects but they should be reading about them anyway. Our view is that there’s no important topic that can’t be made interesting to the audience. If we’re writing about something important — something that matters in people’s lives — and we’ve made it boring then that failure is on us, not on our readers.

Vegetables can be cooked poorly. But they can also be roasted to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt. It’s our job to experiment with all kinds of preparations: Feature articles, traditional news articles, Q&As, FAQs, graphics, videos (you saw the one above, right?), visualizations, and even faux-conversations like this one. It means being willing to adopt a tone that isn’t intimidating and being honest that we’re also trying to figure this stuff out. It means developing some innovative new editorial products that let us deliver contextual information more cleanly, clearly, and regularly. Our only promise is that our goal in all cases will be to move people from curiosity to understanding.

Hagen_illo_sized

What will Vox cover?

Politics, public policy, world affairs, pop culture, science, business, food, sports, and everything else that matters are part of our editorial ambit.

We intend to be a general news site and "news" has always been defined broadly. Open up your favorite newspaper or news site and you’ll find some stories that are about things that literally just happened and some stories that are about more enduring, important subjects.

Our approach is similarly inclusive: Some of our topics will be about fast-breaking news stories and some will just be about important topics. For instance: An explanation of how other countries' health-care systems work — or even how our country’s health-care system works — probably won’t contain much new information but it’ll contain a lot of important information that’s new to most people. We’re not going to get caught up in talmudic debates about what does and doesn’t count as "news."

This sounds interesting. How can I participate?

Subscribe to our Facebook page. Follow us on Twitter. Connect with us on LinkedIn. Prefer visuals? Check us out on Instagram or YouTube. Submit your email address and we’ll notify you when we launch. And talk to us. Offer us tips, suggestions, advice, and chocolate.

This is a great chance for us to experiment with new formats, storytelling devices, and different technology all in the hopes of delivering the best information to you, when you need it. But we’ll need to know from you what’s not working (so we can change those things) and what is working (so we can keep doing those). We really do intend to listen.

When does Vox launch?

Now.

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