Last night, I learned that Vox Media, my employer, is buying New York Media, the publisher behind New York magazine and sites like Vulture and the Cut.
This morning, I interviewed Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff and New York Media CEO Pam Wasserstein for our Recode Media podcast.
And I learned that interviewing your boss, on the record and in a public forum, is just as fraught as I had imagined. You aren’t any more likely to get a frank answer to an uncomfortable question than someone who doesn’t work for your boss. And you don’t really get points for asking that uncomfortable question.
Still, it’s my job to ask these kinds of questions. Like: Why did Bankoff and Wasserstein decide to link up now instead of in 2018 when Wasserstein had hired bankers to look at selling her family business? And: Since the two companies own various sites with overlapping subject matters and audiences, doesn’t it make sense to merge some of them instead of keeping them separate, as Bankoff has pledged to do?
For the record, Bankoff and Wasserstein say they did the deal now instead of earlier because both companies are healthier than they have been in the past. And Bankoff and Wasserstein say they already operate sites with overlapping coverage areas — Vox/Recode, for instance, covers tech and so does Vox Media-owned The Verge — and that it’s no problem at all.
You can hear our full conversation below, or listen to it via Apple Podcast here:
Meanwhile, in lieu of any inside information about the deal — figuring out when to write about your employer and when not to has been an interesting experience for me — I do have some thoughts.
- There is at least some merit to Bankoff and Wasserstein’s argument — which they have repeated to multiple outlets — that they are in better shape today than they have been in the past. Wasserstein says her business has improved over the last year for several reasons as it has found new ways to make money besides display advertising, such as its affiliate link business. Vox Media has also been able to diversify its revenue via some TV programming deals as well as podcasts. (Hooray for podcasts!) And while Vox, like many other publishers, made a big bet on Facebook’s ability to help it build an audience and business, it never fully committed to Mark Zuckerberg’s platform, which made its eventual decision to pull back less painful than it was for other publishers.
- And, as Bankoff and I discussed on the podcast, many of the digital consolidations we have seen in the past couple years have been desperate fire sales (see: Mic, Mashable, and Gizmodo). This isn’t one of those, though since it is an all-stock deal between two private companies, we won’t know the true value of the linkup for some time. I do think we will see other combinations along the lines of the kind BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti called for last year. Vice and Refinery29, for starters, are still working on a deal that kicked off earlier this year.
- Bankoff has pledged not to cut any editorial jobs when the two companies combine, which leaves open the very real possibility that Vox will consolidate other parts of the business, like tech or sales operations. He told me the deal is not premised on cost-cutting, but that’s different from saying he won’t be cutting some costs.
- It’s still very reasonable to ask why New York Media and Vox Media wouldn’t want to merge some of their editorial properties, since some of them do indeed overlap, like New York’s Grub Street and Vox’s Eater. Even if you didn’t want to do it to save money, you’d think there would be a commercial reason to promote, say, a single food-centric property instead of two food-centric properties. Wasserstein and Bankoff insist that won’t happen. If you’re not convinced by that, you’re not alone.
- That said, as a Vox Media employee, I feel much better that we’re linking up with a publisher that does great work and does lots of work that we don’t do than I would if we had combined with a publisher with more overlap. I also know that this combination doesn’t preclude others down the road so I don’t take anything for granted.
- Speaking of not taking things for granted, I’m quite glad I work for a place that lets me write about my employer. Which I like doing much more than interviewing my employer.