Thank you for a great 2014.
Damn. It was a helluva year.
We built and launched Vox in nine weeks, and nine months later, we have published over 7,000 articles, almost 100 videos, around 30 editorial apps, and 150 features. Our product team built over 30 tools to help us tell better stories and we grew our editorial team to 29 members. And you, our readers, visited Vox. Last month, around 14 million of you stopped by the site, according to the media tracking company ComScore (and that just counts U.S.-based readers). You followed us on Facebook, commented on our YouTube account, helped with our reporting, shared our stories with your friends, suggested stories and card stacks on Twitter, argued with us, agreed with us, critiqued us, and complimented us. Thank you.
We did some great work. We made some mistakes. We learned so much. And we've only just gotten started.
As the new year begins, I wanted to put together a list of some of my favorite work we did at Vox over the last nine months. Some are our top read stories; others are the ones you spent the most time reading or watching; others are a type of work I'm proud we're doing; and still others have some special feature that marked it to me as unique and valuable in its way.
It's my new year's resolution to post more often in 2015, to ask you questions, and to talk about our work, both the good and the not-so-good. Stick around some. We're excited for this new year to start and we're grateful to have you with us on the ride.
Here's hoping for a wonderful 2015,
P.S. And, please, always feel free to reach me at email@example.com with any questions or suggestions, any time.
Questioning Cuba, network neutrality, 4chan, and... furries
Internally, we refer to these posts as "9 questions," but the number is not as important as the aim: to help readers understand topics as wide-ranging as thawing U.S.-Cuba relations, the battle over network neutrality, the misdeeds of 4chan, and even, well, furries. As a reader, I've come to value these pieces a lot. I know I'll get a predictable number of answers about the subject I'm curious about, and the format gives me an entrance into stories I might otherwise avoid because I'm not caught up on the foundation. Plus, I'm always surprised and impressed by the depth of information I find – yes, even about furries.
Looking for answers on ISIS
When we launched Vox, we built card stacks as a new way to access context behind complicated topics. They were our first step toward building a resource for readers around major news stories. It takes a fair amount of work to build one out and more work to keep it updated. We've created a little over 100 card stacks so far, but early reader response has been promising enough that we're hard at work on making them even better for next year. One great example of the potential of the card stacks is the ISIS card stack we published in June, as ISIS expanded its conquests in Iraq and Syria. Over the summer, readers found their way to this extensive look at how ISIS had grown to compete in influence with al-Qaeda. But it wasn't until later in August, as the brutal attack on Yazidis continued and the devastating news broke of James Foley’s death that readers began to search in large numbers for answers as to who and what this group was. All in all, there have been more than 12 million page views of the cards in that stack. That's a decent metric, but, what makes me all the more proud is that most of those views came from people searching for an answer to "what is ISIS." Our goal was to help answer questions just like that and I'm happy to see signs that we are.
Not panicking about Ebola
This graphic gets a mention for many reasons – it was one of our most shared graphics of the year – but really it makes the list because of my mother (hi, Mom!). When Ebola panic was at an all-time high in the U.S., my mother told me she would send it to her friends if they made even the slightest comment worrying about any possible American outbreak. Sure, my mother is basically required to say nice stuff about Vox, but her actions fit with what I like so much about this graphic: it immediately put one part of a breaking news story into context, and hopefully allowed U.S. readers to focus on more important concerns: mainly, the devastation in West African countries.
Obsessing over Halbig
Some of the best work in journalism is done by reporters obsessed with a story, especially the stories slow to develop, but with huge potential impact. For Vox summer intern Adrianna McIntyre that story was Halbig v. Burwell, which challenged Obamacare's subsidies and took its time winding its way through the legal system. She had been watching the story since long before she came to Vox and, this summer, when a Washington DC appeals court tried the case, Adrianna was ready. Three minutes after the court ruled that the subsidies were illegal in 36 states, she published a phenomenal explainer on what the case meant and how it could affect Obamacare. Even after Adrianna returned to school, she continued to work on the story, particularly when the Supreme Court agreed to hear a similar case, King v. Burwell. She (and others on the Vox team) repeatedly updated her original explainer and card stack and relaunched it in response to each turn of the case. It was the perfect example of both the power of persistent content and the importance of hiring great, obsessive reporters.
Reporting on Ferguson
When news broke of civil unrest in a city near St. Louis, Missouri, writers from different groups at Vox banded together to start covering the news. Managing editor Lauren Williams had just joined the Vox team, and she quickly took the reins of our coverage, staying up late each night with the newly-formed group, distilling information from the many reports, making phone calls, analyzing documents and piecing together one strong story after another. They told the story of Michael Brown, shot and killed by a police officer, and Ferguson's reaction as the news unfolded; they told it with images; they told it with video; and they told it through first-person accounts. Even when the protests quieted in the streets of Ferguson, our coverage did not let up, nor did reader interest. Just last month, our top-read story of the month was an analysis editor-in-chief Ezra Klein wrote on police officer Darren Wilson's testimony.
Covering Israel and Palestine
There are no easy answers when it comes to Israel and Palestine. The story is not simple. The decades of tension and turmoil have left emotions raw and the subject ever contentious. I've admired our foreign team's willingness to be transparent with the challenges of the coverage. In June, foreign editor Max Fisher traveled through Israel and the West Bank and wrote about the conflict – and his conflicting feelings – in a seering essay titled "The End of 'Both Sides.'" It sticks with me still, months later.
Living through Ebola
This year, there has been so much incredible journalism on the fight against the devestating Ebola epidemic in Africa (notably the work done by my kind, courageous former colleague Michel duCille who died while on assignment in West Africa). Among Vox's coverage, Julia Belluz's series of first-person interviews continues to linger for me. Julia approached her news coverage of Ebola this summer in a measured manner, working to put new developments into context so as not to spread unnecessary fear. In a similar graceful and subtle way, Julia interviewed and reported the stories of people fighting firsthand with the disease: the daughter who lost her father; the former child solider who lived through a war only to grow up and watch his country ravished by disease; the scientist hunting for the virus in the rainforests of Africa; and many others. Each tale is an insistent reminder of the human toll taken by this disease.
Showing hard news on YouTube
One of the most exciting parts of Vox this past year has been watching the work of our very small video team. They've created a style that looks good, sounds amazing, and delivers a huge amount of information in a short time. The group puts out a range of videos, from explaining horror films to asking people why they run marathons (while running a marathon). But, what's impressed me most is how closely they work with Vox reporters to take big, complicated subjects, such as the child migrant crisis or body cams for police, and distill the subjects down to the most pertinent information for a visual audience. The numbers show viewers like it as much as I do. We reached 50,000 YouTube subscribers this year and our videos have been viewed more than 30 million times. And, of the top-viewed Vox videos on YouTube, a majority delved into deeply serious subjects.
Talking to porn stars
Before we launched Vox, we tested our premise for the site by brainstorming how to cover big news stories. Duke University freshman 'Belle Knox' had recently been identified as an adult film star and Vox editor Dylan Matthews had an idea about how we could add context to the story: focus on her moment of disclosure, the "coming out" to friends and family. He suggested we could ask other porn stars what their experiences had been like and how their loved ones reacted to the news. Dylan interviewed 15 former and current porn stars about their own coming out stories. Their tales were sometimes joyous, sometimes sad, sometimes sweet, sometimes mundane and sometimes very funny (just look for Stoya's grandmother's reaction to the news). We decided to edit a story together with their voices interwoven. But because there are no size limits on the internet, we also kept each interview on its own, letting readers choose how much, or how little, they wanted to see.
Mapping the Middle East... and the Midwest
There's no denying we love a good chart or map at Vox. And what's better than a map? 40 maps, obviously. We started with 40 Maps that explain the Middle East and the piece quickly became one of our most read articles. We assembled great visuals created by our team and collected from around the web, then paired the visuals with a paragraph of explanation. It proved to be a delicious mix. Since the Middle East, we've done the Midwest, the Midterm Elections and many, many more. The format worked so well, it became a template that any writer can use without development help. In fact, it's what I'm using right now.
Hearing from San Francisco's homeless
San Francisco is living in a gilded age. The offices are filled with toys, giant bubble gum dispensers stand guard in lobbies, and video game arcades are back in fashion. It almost feels as if the city has been remade by Tom Hanks' character in "Big." But the fun only extends to those who can afford it: the city has the second highest level of household income inequality in the country. And while homelessness has always been an issue in San Francisco, more and more families have struggled to keep a roof over their heads in recent years. Alongside a series of portraits – frank, black-and-white shots by Zackary Canepari – writer Tracey Lien captured the voices of the men and women struggling to get by while homeless in San Francisco. It's incredibly powerful to listen to their voices staring straight into their eyes.
Monitoring marijuana and marriage changes
Over the last nine months, Vox writing fellow German Lopez found himself covering two major policy changes in the U.S.: the rapid growth in support of same-sex marriage across the country, and the smaller, but gaining-in-momentum movement to legalize marijuana. German found inspiration to bring the two threads together after seeing politics writer Phil Bump compare the two policies at the Washington Post. With the visuals team, German created a chart comparing medical marijuana laws, full marijuana legalization, and same-sex marriage rights around the country. The end result: a playful chart that shows where you can legally get high at a same-sex wedding. It's simple, it's fun, and, yet, it delivers so much information about the state of affairs in the U.S. right now.
Calling a threat a threat
When Emma Watson stood on stage at the UN Headquarters this September, she delivered a powerful message about the privilege she's been afforded in her life – privileges few other women in the world are afforded. And she called for men to participate more in the conversation and push for more women's rights around the world. But her message was quickly overshadowed by a threat by an anonymous group who claimed it would reveal nude photos of the actress. The story became more complicated with the revelation that the anonymous group was actually a marketing group attempting to gin up press. Writer Amanda Taub responded with a searing essay that kept sight of Watson's original point and connected the threat against Watson, whether by a marketing company or not, to threats against women worldwide: "Watson is not the only one being told to 'get back' by misogynists who wield sexual terror as a weapon. She is in the company of many other women, all over the world, who have made the decision to participate in public life and suffered the consequences. Writers on feminist issues, deluged with rape threats: get back. Activists from Syria, to Sudan, to the Congo, raped in prison: get back. South African lesbians, raped to 'correct' their sexuality: get back." Readers shared the essay more than 425,000 times on Facebook.
Searching for Tony Soprano
There's much to admire about this in-depth profile of writer and director David Chase. First, the story had a juicy scoop. Martha P. Nochimson, a freelance writer for Vox, became friends with Chase, and he opened up to her about one of the great enduring television mysteries: the fate of Tony Soprano. That scoop, however, was only part of her deep and beautiful depiction of Chase and his creative genius. She dove into his life, writing process, and career spending almost 5,000 words to piece together a full portrait of Chase. This story also showcased how Vox's designers can use the unique capabilities of the web to better tell a story. Martha's introduction discussed the end of the television series: "Inside, Tony raises his head, and — CUT TO BLACK. Millions of television sets across America went dark and silent suddenly. Is my television broken? we wondered, each in our individual homes. At THIS moment? Then the credits rolled, and all hell really broke loose. Are you kidding me? This is the end?" One of our news app interns, Nicole Zhu, worked with our designer Tyson Whiting to weave that moment, magically, into the presentation. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but click here to see what they did.
Summarizing in sentences
This summer, we began planning an evening email newsletter that had a simple premise: be a digest of the most important stories of the day, delivered through a series of bullet-point sentences. Each sentence would include a link to a story (not necessarily a Vox story) giving readers an option to go deeper into a subject if they had the time. But, the email would also be self-contained: a reader could open it, read through it, and walk away feeling satisfied with it. After two months in the wild: the newsletter seems to be working. We've got just over 25,000 people signed up for Vox Sentences and, as one reader wrote it, it's "very informative and also very enjoyable, which is pretty hard to say about any news delivery system ever." We've got even more plans for the newsletter in 2015; sign up for it here.
Diving deep on policy
For many of us who do not daily track the thorny world of domestic and international policy, reports about the European economic crisis or single-payer health care systems can come off as deeply opaque and, even, unapproachable. I know: I'm one of those readers. So, I am grateful to the clarity my colleagues bring to the ever-important coverage of policy. From Matt Yglesias' ongoing work on the Eurozone, to Sarah Kliff's brilliant health care coverage (just take a look at her quest to discover why teen birth rates have fallen so dramatically), to Brad Plumer's detailed explanation for how we've failed on climate change, to Timothy Lee's clear-eyed take on the network neutrality debate, and any other number of pieces on the site. I feel smarter thanks to their work.
The easier it is for a reporter to create a story, a visual image, a video, or any combination thereof, the more often great content will be created. Journalists flocked to Twitter because it gets out of the way of a writer's primary goal: to write. They just need to enter a few words into a text box, hit submit, and it's done. We're working to build tools that have a similar seamless feel for the users, but to build the best tools, you have to understand what problem you're trying to solve. Developer Yuri Victor sits in the middle of the Vox newsroom, and, therefore, has a front row seat to any frustrations from the newsroom team. For instance, our engagement editor Allison Rockey wanted better visuals to give our stories on social media more of an impact, but it was time-consuming for designers to create these images in Photoshop. So, over a weekend, Yuri built a tool (that's now open source) to allow anyone in the newsroom a quick way to layer text over photographs. It takes a little longer than typing out 140 characters, but it's been a huge success.
Live blogging Taylor Swift
At Vox we try to get people with different skillsets together as often as possible in the hopes of sparking creativity. A writer may have a great story idea, but a video producer will be better able to see how it can be visualized. A developer may have an idea for a tool to solicit reader input, but a reporter can help choose the right questions to ask. Our newsroom is a mixture of designers sitting near editors and reporters typing on couches near our video producers. And everyone in the company communicates on Slack, a group messaging system. The banter in Slack chat rooms has spilled out onto Vox pages in peculiar and wonderful ways. One favorite? Our staff has a Taylor Swift obsession. Discussion in a Taylor Swift Slack room has produced great content for readers, and even better interactions for the Vox team. One example: when I asked the staff if anyone had ideas on how we could test our new live blog platform before the Midterm elections, music writer Kelsey McKinney volunteered to live blog the release of Swift's album. Her partner in crime for the endeavor? Vox Media's director of user experience, Ryan Gantz. It's not quite in Ryan's job description to write critiques of pop albums, but he and Kelsey's Slack dialogue made an easy leap to the live blog. And in the process we were able to work out kinks in the system before election day, report on a cultural moment, and bond over "Out of the Woods."
Toggling an interview
As Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias likes to remind me, we don't need to worry about paying for telegraph rates anymore. In other words, length is only an issue of clarity, not of economic necessity. We've been experimenting with showing more of the reporting work that goes into a piece. Interviews are a good place to start: we often write stories out of the interviews we've done, but we have often transcribed the questions and answers. Why not show that to the readers as well? We developed a toggle to do just that. If readers want, they can read a piece by one of our authors, for instance, here's Matt analyzing Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. And if they want to see Piketty's raw interview, they can click over to get a fuller picture. The toggle has possibilities beyond interviews (for instance presenting two sides to an argument a la Pie vs. Cake), and I'm excited to play with those more in the new year.
Watching a body decompose
The smell, according to writer Joseph Stromberg, was surprisingly not that bad. Surprising, because if you visit the world's largest body farm, where human bodies are left in the open to slowly decay, you might expect something of a more pungent odor. There is, though, the matter of how the farm looks: we ended up adding a special screen for the photographs so readers could choose whether or not they wanted to see what death was like on the farm. But while the senses may be assaulted to varying degrees, the story, the photographs, and an accompanying video made for a fascinating, albeit occasionally gruesome, look at human decomposition. And Joseph's piece, while based on death, focused instead on what lessons the bodies are teaching those still living. Scientists on the farm are using clues left behind in the decay to solve crimes and help connect families to the bodies of missing relatives.
Getting naked in an MRI machine
As I mentioned above, many of our most successful videos focus on hard news topics, but other top performers don't hinge on the news at all. Rather, these videos reveal some fascinating fact about the world around us. Our top performing video (at last check, it had around 16 million views on YouTube) offered us a glimpse inside ourselves – literally. It showed scenes of the human body from inside a MRI machine. A woman gives birth; a person plays the horn; a couple kisses, gets excited, and, yes, has sex. The visuals are fascinating and the music a seductive, playful mix, but it's video producer Joss Fong's smart, funny annotations that help you understand just what's happening on screen. The video is just over a minute long, and it's worth every second.
Reviewing the Fall TV lineup
Because the Vox Culture team is comprised of over-achieving, wonderfully crazy people, the team decided to review every single show in the Fall TV lineup, with accompanying graphic breakdowns depicting what to expect. The result: a six-page knockout of a package. It's insightful, concise (as much as any six-page article can be), and a perfect compendium for any television fan.
Reading great books
Instead of limiting ourselves to the best books of one year, Vox features editor Eleanor Barkhorn asked the team a different question: what's the one book in your area that helped you understand it better? From "And the Band Played On", for health care editor Sarah Kliff, to "Bowling Alone", chosen by finance writer Danielle Kurtzleban, the list grew into an amazing resource of great reads on important topics. The final product was such a success, Eleanor pushed the team to turn out one more book-review compilation. This time with a peg to the year: what was the best book we read this year? The result is another incredible tip-list of must-reads. Just learn from my mistake and don't go into a book store shortly after reading these pieces. I've got enough new books to last me through 2015.
Stating the facts about violence against women
In a year where a young woman won the Nobel Prize after being shot in the head for daring to get an education; a year when a man was, at first, suspended only two games of professional football after reportedly beating his fiancée on camera; and a year when countless women were harrassed online in big and small ways, this video was a sad ode to an awful reality. And it came together because of the work of a team of reporters and video producers and volunteers. Those volunteers, women from around Vox Media, turned their bodies into the canvas of the film, displaying the awful facts of violence against women on their own skin. I've watched this video dozens of times and those facts still bruise me every time.