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5 years of Vox, explained by our staff

You know that look new parents get: equal parts terrified and overflowing with pride, all mixed with acute sleep deprivation. That’s the only way to describe what Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and I looked like in June 2014 when we sat down with Lauren Williams to convince her to be our managing editor. I have to blame the sleep deprivation on the fact that we decided to woo a candidate that we were desperate to land by taking her to a shitty dive bar that smelled like piss.

But crammed into that little booth over cheap beers, I will never forget the way we spoke about building Vox. Matt talked about the home we’d found in Vox Media and how they built our website in nine weeks and were letting us play with new formats and ways of displaying information. Melissa talked about the culture we were creating, one of making collaboration easy and rewarding weird and wild ideas. And Ezra talked about his early experience as a news consumer feeling embarrassed when he would come to an article and not understand the backstory — and how we wanted to build a space for curious people to engage with the most important news stories of the day.

I honestly don’t remember what I said, but I remember thinking that it felt so good to be part of a place with such a strong mission and clear vision for the problems we wanted to solve. I didn’t know if we would make it a year, or if Lauren would join us (Thankfully, we did! And she did! Today, Lauren is our fearless editor-in-chief), but I knew I was so proud to be involved in it, regardless of how it all turned out.

And now our baby is 5, and we’re still tired, really, really tired, but so proud.

Here are some recollections from our staff, including Vox’s co-founders, Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and Melissa Bell. —Allison Rockey, executive editor and director of editorial strategy (5 years with Vox)

The hardest part of starting Vox was that for the first few months, everything we did defined what the publication was. If a writer somewhere else had a typo, that was just something a writer did. But when I did it, that meant Vox was the publication with lots of typos, because there was no other history to fall back on. And conversely, the best part about watching it grow is that we’re now all doing such different but complementary things that Vox can be only defined by what we have in common: a desire to explain this waking nightmare we call life. —Dylan Matthews, senior correspondent and lead writer, Future Perfect (5 years with Vox)

I remember coming down to DC for the first time after accepting the job, right around Valentine’s Day in 2014. I’d met Ezra in person once before, and there were a few others already on board whom I also looked up to. I was so anxious, walking into a place where people I’d been reading for quite a while would now be my colleagues. Ezra had mercifully set up a sort of “getting to know you” dinner at a pizza place, and I gave up my deep anxiety immediately: I pulled a bottle of Purell out of my pocket, put it on my hands, and then left it on the table.

I thought it made perfect sense — in two weeks we’d be launching our first video, with a tight schedule unlike anything I’d made before, and with a spotlight that felt so much brighter with the media attention the nascent project had. Given I’d been feeling sick, did I really want to risk getting anyone else sick? The others looked at me like I was nuts. Shudder.

But the next day, everything changed. Much to my surprise, people who I’d looked up to, that I felt an instinctive need to protect from my sullied presence, were just as in awe of the kind of experience I’d been picking up along the way. And since we all were pretty much true believers in the mission of this place — to help give people understanding, rather than the latest — it quickly created the most genuine, open, exciting spirit of collaboration that I’ve ever been a part of.

Everybody believed and trusted the power of individual, obsessed people to create useful work and to lean on collaborations of opportunity rather than of necessity. That means rather than assigning me something, people trusted me, fully, in a way I’d never been trusted before. And I trusted them.

With this trust, we quickly kept getting better and better, pushing each other to new levels, so much so that what people know as the “Vox video” style couldn’t plausibly be claimed by any one person. But it exists now, and it keeps growing and changing — we started out spending most of our time making two-minute explainers, but now we’re also making 20-minute Netflix shows and 30-minute YouTube videos. It’s incredible to see how much we’ve evolved, and I hope we evolve just as much in the next five years. —Joe Posner, head of video (5 years with Vox)

One thing that strikes me looking back is how much the internet and the news have changed, and how much that’s changed us.

The early years of Vox were a weird time, after social media fully took over and before Donald Trump gave everyone something to talk about all the time. This was the era of the tan suit, the llamas, and the dress, and we wrote a lot of short posts to keep the site lively that were somewhere between whimsical and just silly (did you know Alaska is very big?).

The best parts of that instinct survive in some much more polished and valuable Vox work today — we just ran a whole story about poop on the moon — and I don’t think anyone would rank those early posts among our proudest moments. But it’s hard to even remember a time when something could be written on the internet just to be delightful. That, more than anything, drives home how long five years can really be.

One moment that felt like a turning point, though, a few months into that first year, was the Ferguson protests, which began to define how Vox covered breaking news. Some news outlets likely had a team on the ground that was bigger than our entire staff, which numbered maybe 20. So we had to really focus on how we could add value in other ways, and that meant helping people understand the underlying and longstanding issues that led these protests to break out.

I wasn’t deeply involved with that coverage, but I was inspired by Lauren Williams, German Lopez, and Dara Lind, who basically didn’t sleep so they could explain what was going on. And when I look at our approach to everything that’s happened since — from mass shootings to political movements, and including some coverage I’ve directed — I see the lessons we learned then, including how a handful of people can swarm to do the work of a much bigger team. —Libby Nelson, deputy policy editor (5 years with Vox)

My first day at Vox was June 30, 2014. My title was lead editor, and I had been hired in part to bring more editorial structure and management to the nascent leadership team. Vox had been a live website for two and a half months, and although Vox Media, our parent company, had been around for much longer, it was rapidly expanding and was only just beginning to transition out of startup mode. The company had an HR department of one person, and there wasn’t much of an onboarding process.

I don’t know what I expected when I arrived, but it was surely more than I got. After I received my laptop and desk, I noticed a flurry of newsroom activity that I could only describe as a mad scramble — the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision had just come down. I remember sitting there (along with Todd VanDerWerff, Vox’s critic at large, who also started that day), with no ability to help and little contact with my new boss Ezra Klein, who was busy writing, or any of the other staff.

It was a crash course in the classic Vox newsroom swarm, an all-hands-on-deck, relentless, flood-the-zone approach to breaking news that allowed us then, as a tiny newsroom (and even now, as a larger newsroom that’s still so much smaller than our competitors) to punch above our weight and to add our special explanatory value to the stories of the day. The energy in the room was exhilarating, even if I was more of a bystander than a participant. All I could do in that moment was watch them go.

If the same events happened today, of course, there would be a lot less scrambling from our writers and editors and little downtime for our new hires: Our politics editors would have already had prewrites and pending assignments on deck. Vox Media’s robust People and Culture team would have occupied my day with introductions to the company, and Vox’s internal editorial operations team would have filled in any free time with trainings and meet-and-greets.

Our newsroom and company have professionalized remarkably in the past five years. But I’m so grateful that some things have stayed the same: The mission focus, the teamwork, the spirit of the swarm — these elements are the foundation of Vox’s culture and success. And five years later, I still find myself looking up from my desk in awe as I watch my team members go. —Lauren Williams, editor-in-chief (4 years with Vox)

In my line of work — digital storytelling and growing communities around reporting — there’s no better place to be than Vox. Vox understands that audience engagement is crucial to building loyalty and trust. Connecting audiences with our newsroom, whether by tweeting updates of a breaking news story or asking for their voices to help our reporting, is work I’m incredibly proud to do.

The world needs explaining now more than ever. Yes, the news cycle is faster than it was a few years ago. Yes, I’m tired. But at the same time, I’m energized knowing that people have questions and they’re looking to Vox to answer them. —Lauren Katz, senior engagement manager (4 years with Vox)

When I joined Vox in June 2014, the video department doubled from one to two, and when I think back on that time, I’m struck by how much freedom our tiny team was given to define what would eventually become a sizable slice of Vox’s brand.

I can’t overstate how grateful I am that when we looked for a boss to tell us what kind of videos to make, we didn’t find one. The higher-ups were focused on their own innovations in text and technology, so they didn’t have the time (or expertise) to dictate a video approach. More importantly, they didn’t tell us to mimic any of the already successful formats pioneered by Vice or BuzzFeed or cable TV.

And as we began to define Vox videos, they didn’t intervene when our experiments were bizarre or awkward. They didn’t blink when we empowered video producers to report and write their own stories, instead of solely relying on work by our colleagues in the newsroom. And they didn’t force us to cater to every whim of Facebook’s executives or neglect hungry audiences who came with low ad rates. It would have been understandable for Vox’s leadership to do any of those things, but they did not, and so we have thrived.

Five years later, I’m beginning to understand just how unusual it is to be given both a sandbox and a platform. I only hope that we can prevent our own innovations from hardening into rules and continue to give newer hires that same feeling that we’re counting on their creativity, because we absolutely are. —Joss Fong, senior editorial producer (4 years with Vox)

One of the best things about Vox is that while it’s grown immensely from when I started, just under a year after launch, it’s retained the scrappy, experimental, collaborative mindset that was its driving spirit from the get-go. I have never worked at a place where everyone is so willing to share knowledge, to look at every story as an opportunity to draw on their colleagues’ skills and expertise, and to roll up their sleeves and pitch in whenever and however they can. A big story isn’t just big for the politics team, or the science team, or the culture team — it’s newsroom-wide. And that’s what gives our coverage the depth and texture that keeps readers coming back. —Tanya Pai, copy chief (4 years with Vox)

I think my best moment at Vox is one that many will have forgotten. For a while, we were on Snapchat’s Discover platform. And to do that, we spun up a new team to create a new version of our work that would live on a platform unlike any other we’d tried. And I remember seeing the first mockups of those stories: They were visually rich, vertically aligned topic explainers. There was this one about gun violence that just took my breath away. There was nothing else like them.

I was editor-in-chief then, and no one was more critical of all the places we fell short, or aware of all the ways we needed to grow, than me. But that was a moment when I could also see that we had developed a unique way of approaching explanatory journalism. We had created a journalistic culture with a distinct set of ideas, values, and approaches, and we could use it to build things that were new and valuable almost wherever we chose. And so we have — Explained on Netflix, Today, Explained with Stitcher, The Goods, Future Perfect, Earworm, and there are so many more, and so many more coming.

Everyone who’s been here a while knows that building Vox was, and is, hard. To make all that work worth it, we had to be building something that didn’t already exist, something that wouldn’t be here if we weren’t here. My favorite moments at Vox have been all the moments in which it’s been clear that we have done that. —Ezra Klein, editor-at-large, co-founder (5 years with Vox)

Election night 2016, I stood in front of the Vox newsroom and asked everyone to prepare for Donald Trump to be announced the winner of the presidential election. I watched as shock spread across a sea of faces. I don’t know what my final words were, but I remember the split second where reality set in. Vox writers, video producers, social media managers, editors (who became writers again in that very moment), and data and visual journalists paused. Then they got to work.

Vox is a website. It’s a YouTube channel. It’s a Netflix show. It’s a podcast powerhouse. But more fundamentally, Vox is a team committed to contributing our talents, our expertise, and our empathy to the mission of explaining the news. Election night 2016 captured that version of Vox in a way I’ll never forget. —Laura McGann, politics editor (4 years with Vox)

The two most rewarding experiences at Vox were the phone call I got on December 1, 2017, telling me that a judge had approved Phil Parhamovich’s appeal to get back the $91,800 police had wrongly taken away from him, and then the call several months later that state lawmakers in Wyoming had changed the law to ensure a case like Parhamovich’s can never happen again. I got into journalism to help make people’s lives better — and my initial story about Parhamovich proved that Vox can do that, and I can play a role in it. —German Lopez, senior correspondent (5 years with Vox)

Vox has given me the opportunity to do the most impactful journalism of my career. Our newsroom has grown a lot over the past five years, but what hasn’t changed — and what I love — is the openness to trying new things and seeing if they work. Because of Vox, I’ve had the chance to try my hand at podcasting, interview a sitting president, and even create a crowdsourced database of emergency room bills that has inspired new legislation in Congress. Nobody at Vox has ever told me, “That’s not how we do things here.” Instead, the answer is usually, “Let’s give it a try!” —Sarah Kliff, senior correspondent (5 years with Vox)

It is quite rare to find a truly digital-first news media brand that is both pursuing a sustainable business model in a smart way and treats its people well. It is quite rare to find a company anywhere that treats its people well. And it’s rare to find a newsroom whose leadership is primarily women. Which is all to say that it’s difficult for me to even imagine working somewhere else in media besides Vox. —Blair Hickman, director of audience (2 years with Vox)

I love Ezra Klein, and we’ve been internet buddies ever since we were college bloggers in George W. Bush’s first term. But the biggest thing that’s changed about Vox is that a few months before we turned 5 years old, he moved to Oakland and had a baby and took a while off — and the site went on. The Weeds podcast went on, the video program kept kicking ass, we launched The Highlight, and the takes stayed hot and fresh every day. Even The Ezra Klein Show kept putting out great episodes.

That’s what we always wanted Vox to be — a set of solid ideas about journalism executed by a big, deep, talented team — and that’s what it is.

But it’s not necessarily how we were perceived externally when we launched, and the people bold enough to sign on to “Project X” way at the beginning couldn’t possibly have had any guarantee that we were going to be able to deliver on that vision. But we did.

The sheer range of things that are happening — from a daily podcast to a television show to a digital magazine to a consumer culture section — are so far beyond what anyone would have imagined from looking at that little group we started with five years ago.

Vox is too big and too good now for any one person’s absence to stop us, and that’s awesome. —Matthew Yglesias, senior correspondent, co-founder (5 years with Vox)

The best moments at Vox are when you look around the DC office and see everyone so focused on doing the next, best, right thing. —Jane Coaston, senior reporter (1 year with Vox)

Vox really gave us the freedom to create something new.

Like composing parody songs and making Andrew Prokop the star of a detective noir about Michael Cohen. Some of my favorite moments are when our whole pod team is really flowing — like Noam is inspired to make a song about that day’s news, and he and Sean madly script lyrics together, then he grabs Christina Animashaun and runs into a studio to sing with her, and Efim is sound designing a montage with Donald Duck talking about income taxes, and Brigid’s making us laugh with the bizarre snippets of tape she’s found relating to Roger Stone, and we’re yelling back and forth to each other over our cubicles about last-minute edits and fact checks ... and amid all the chaos, we’re feeling frantic and our blood is pumping to meet the deadline, but there’s also this shared thrill running through all of us: “We’re doing this. We’re making a show where everything happened to align just right, and it’s going to sound amazing.”

And that’s a feeling I haven’t found anywhere else. Vox gives us a lot of freedom, and I feel lucky that I get to explore that on Today, Explained with these amazing, talented people. —Irene Noguchi, executive producer, Today, Explained (1 year with Vox)

Five years? Five years! Vox is just getting started. —Melissa Bell, publisher, co-founder (5 years with Vox)


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