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How Vox built a YouTube channel with 10 million subscribers

Hint: We had help.

When Vox launched a dedicated YouTube program seven years ago, it was a team of two, aiming to create a new type of explainer video for the internet. It’s now grown to 31 talented producers, animators, and story editors, who have produced over 1,335 videos, racked up 2.6 billion views, and helped launch shows like Glad You Asked on YouTube Originals, Explained on Netflix, and Level Playing Field on HBO. Vox videos are now watched in over 240 countries by students, educators, and policymakers and have helped bring clarity to everyday questions and the big challenges of the day.

This week, the YouTube channel reached a massive milestone: We officially hit 10 million subscribers on the channel.

To celebrate, we asked VP of Creative Development Joe Posner, Senior Producer Joss Fong, Editorial Director Mona Lalwani, and Managing Producer Valerie Lapinski to explain how we built it, the impact of the Vox video program, and where we’re going.

What has it been like to see Vox video grow over time?

Joe Posner, VP, Creative Development: It’s been such a great adventure. When we started, most newsrooms were making work that was like cable news; some others were making short, character-driven documentaries that might be the kind of thing you’d see at a film festival. We, instead, were most inspired by and aiming for the kinds of things we loved most on YouTube, but making the most of the motion design and animation skills we all had and the journalistic institution we were a part of.

There was, and still is, just a really special culture of collaboration and good-spirited competition on the team. I’m almost constantly in awe of what my teammates make, and it’s their opinions I’m most nervous to hear when I’ve made something new — as the team grew, our standards grew higher, too.

Joss Fong, Senior Producer: In those early days, I truly never imagined that we’d have such a big, impressive team. We were just trying to figure out what a good internet video looked like. We hired people who seemed flexible and eager to learn, and from the very start, everyone who joined the team has shaped what a “Vox video” is, whether through their unique interests or their unique skills.

Mona Lalwani, Editorial Director: Our team has grown consistently, in both size and ability, and our channel reflects that growth. It’s been energizing for me to see our coverage, and our global viewership, expand over the years. Vox established a unique voice and visual format around US politics and policy in the first couple of years, and since then we’ve intentionally pushed our scope and abilities to cover international stories. We care deeply about global affairs, and I hope that we can continue to push ourselves to do more on that front.

What do you see as the driving mission of Vox Video? Has it changed over time?

Valerie Lapinski, Managing Producer: Our official mission has always been “Explain the News,” but I feel that the unspoken agreement we’ve always had with our video audience is “We answer the questions you never knew you had.” We try to home in on questions that are floating around about big issues, but we also take a lot of joy in covering the little mysteries about the world around us, and that extends to our coverage on culture, history, science, design, and everything in between.

I think our commitment to covering things like international affairs has deepened over time, but our major goal of empowering people with understanding remains consistent.

Lalwani: Our mission is to provide a better understanding of the world around us. That could be a news event, an overlooked chapter in history, the most feared song in jazz, or a mystery behind a photograph. We’re fully driven by our curiosity, and I’m glad that our ability to ask the right, and sometimes completely bizarre, questions hasn’t diminished over time. While our core mission hasn’t changed, our execution continues to evolve. We’re always looking for new ways to deliver explanations, and I think that’s the force that pushes us forward.

What kind of an impact have Vox videos had? Are there any examples you’re most proud of?

Lalwani: We’ve seen our videos reach far corners of the world, and it’s been very rewarding to receive feedback about our videos providing clarity during chaos. Through protests and the pandemic, we’ve seen evidence of our work informing large and diverse audiences. We were really surprised to see stranded travelers watching our Hong Kong protests explainer projected on a screen at an airport in Hong Kong. And more recently, when I was in India during the deadly second wave of Covid, I was shocked to see our video on vaccine efficacy go viral on WhatsApp. Our work had unexpectedly cut through the clutter of misinformation on the messaging app.

Lapinski: A recent impact that I’m so, so proud of is our coverage of the Covid-19 virus and the vaccine science. The international reach our videos have gotten is tremendous. We had health departments and organizations from all over the world asking to use and adapt our videos, from Italy to the Philippines. One of our freelancers spotted a Vox vaccine video being played at a vaccination site in Taiwan. To be helpful and relevant at such important moments is incredibly rewarding.

Posner: I married a public school teacher, which might be why one of my favorite pieces of feedback is from teachers, telling us they use our videos to help them do their work. It happens all the time. I met a math teacher on the sidewalk the other day, and she mentioned she used one of our new videos in class just the previous week. I think it was Maddie Marshall’s “How the rich avoid paying taxes.” But it happens for all types of topics, both for videos on our YouTube and elsewhere. Netflix released a bunch of the episodes of our Explained series on YouTube last year as schools were closing from the pandemic, for the same reason.

We’ve also had some real-world impact — one of my proudest moments as a video creator came a week after we released the “Misclassified” episode of Level Playing Field, where the lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board announced new policy that cited the show. We were one of many things it cited, but the policy clearly was — at least in part — inspired by the show’s story.

Vox has become incredibly well-known for its explainer video format. How do you feel about that legacy?

Fong: Our explainer video format mixing narration, archive, and informative graphics is truly a potent form of communication (and a fairly efficient production style that tolerates social distancing quite well). We have seen that plenty of other news organizations and independent video creators have adopted the format over the years, so I do feel the urge to keep innovating. That’s the biggest challenge: trying something new when you’re already well-known for a particular style and voice.

What’s coming next? What are you most excited for?

Lalwani: Honestly, I’m excited to be here every day. The team constantly surprises us with their story ideas and visual skills, and that keeps our work and our channel interesting — and unpredictable. On any given day, we could be working on a video about the climate crisis, bird calls, taxes, or fluffy tennis balls. So the plan is to continue to be a creative space where our journalism isn’t limited to hard news. We’ll keep polishing the range of explainers that we’re known for, but we’re also excited about finding new visual ways to provide explanations. As a team, we’re always having conversations about pushing our journalistic voice and visual identity in new directions, and I can’t wait for our viewers to see that evolution in the coming year.

Lapinski: I’m really excited for our team to go back out into the world to shoot and report as Covid wanes and it becomes safer (crosses fingers). There’s so much energy right now around “What do we do next?” We’re great at explainers and have expanded to so many new outlets — what else can we do to push our creativity and leadership in the video space? I don’t want to reveal too many plans, but there are several things coming in 2022 that I’m excited for.

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