I recently discovered the news publication, Vox.com. On Facebook it introduces itself very simply — as a “general interest news site for the 21st century”. Targeted to Millennials (ages 25-34), it launched in April of this year, after only a nine week development period. There’s an interesting content management system underneath Vox, but that’s not what makes Vox cool. For a younger audience, its biggest selling point is that it does not look like a traditional Web-based news publication.
When Kent Anderson wrote in May about the NY Times Innovation Report, his point was that digital innovation might require the abandoning of traditional presentations. Vox does exactly that. From its inception, Vox presentation and navigation of information were designed for a tablet (recognizing the potential user distraction inherent to the device). The site relies as heavily on video content as it does on textual content. To a great extent, Vox doesn’t employ search, although it permits major search engines to crawl the content. (Translation: It’s easier to find an old Vox story by searching Google than it is to find the same story on Vox itself.) That shows certain assumptions about how the targeted audience is assumed to understand and absorb content. The first is that Vox readers recognize that news content is fluid rather than static. The second is that they are comfortable with that fluidity.
Vox uses an interesting feature — card stacks — for presenting information that might be a bit less changeable in nature. Card stacks represent a navigable presentation of clarifying background information, chunked up for rapid ingestion and comprehension. The role of the cards is clear from the titles used — “ Nine Myths About _______” or “Everything You Need to Know About ______”, whether the fill-in-the-blank story is an Ebola outbreak, genetically modified foods, or racial unrest. These aren’t dumbed-down Buzzfeed-style “listsicles”. The cards tend to be non-visual explanations of facts, definitions, or data. Readers are shown the updates made to a set of card stacks. Vox allows readers to choose whether to pick up or ignore this background information as he or she moves through the news. If a reader wants to share with others in the interests of collaborative learning (as Millennials were trained to do in school), cards within a stack may individually be shared on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Google+.
The site emphasizes engaging visuals. There are economic maps (38 Maps that Explain the Global Economy), factoid maps (Who is the Wealthiest Person in Your Favorite European Country), explanatory maps (How does the Napa Earthquake Differ From the Big One in 1989), and historical maps, including the curiously popular 40 Maps That Explain the Roman Empire. This is in addition to other visual formats, whether brief two or three minute videos or the lengthier 10 minute expert interviews characterized on the site as Conversations.
How does Vox compare with publications found in our own sector? Compare coverage of the possible eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Bardarbungu. Both Vox and Nature covered this story and I found it interesting to see how each approached the task, given that one was intended for a general audience and the other for a scholarly one.
Vox positioned its coverage by referencing the air travel disruption caused by a 2010 eruption of a (different) Icelandic volcano when an ash cloud grounded air traffic in and out of Europe for a full six days. Nature’s coverage differs a bit in that it provides a bit more of the seismological background expected in a science publication. It is however still comprehensible by an educated reader. Vox’s coverage was initially dated August 20, but updated their over the course of the five days following its initial publication as seismic activity heightened and then slowly abated. Nature’s news story was also dated August 20 but updates due to the earthquake were relegated to the Nature blog. The blog linked back to the original coverage but the original story did not point to the updates on the blog, and without reciprocal links between news narrative and blog entry. Vox’s coverage includes a link to a cool tool for visualizing volcanic activity through a 3D graph but neither it nor Nature made me aware of the Icelandic webcam aimed at Bardarbungu. (I had to resort to Google to find that.)
What do I think Vox might suggest to content providers seeking to appeal to a rising population of students and scholars?
● Nothing on Vox is entirely static. There is an unspoken emphasis on the idea that one can always learn more, that information changes over time, and that there is value in being able to immediately grasp just what has changed.
● There’s an emphasis on visual clues even as the site tries to avoid overwhelming the new arrival by minimizing choices. The initial screen presented to the viewer shows just five main stories with attention-grabbing images, a line-up that changes gradually over the day. A headline and snippet caption suggest the scope of the text. A gentle scroll downward transitions the reader from visuals to older stories where now the emphasis changes to text as the primary form of delivery.
● Moving gifs and videos are allotted larger blocks of space on screen than static bar charts or timed slide shows, such as those common to the New York Times.
● There aren’t the broad topical divisions of content (US News, World News, Culture, Technology, etc.). There are five break-outs which appear (at least in the eyes of this non-Millenial reader) to correlate to the time available to the reader for consuming the content — In-Depth Stories on the initial screen, shorter Xpress stories, videos, and conversations (interviews with a single expert).
Vox approaches the reading experience, not as one of leisurely ease, but rather as a fast-moving rhythm of staccato consumption — a two-minute video here or a rapid swiping through serial explanations there. Naturally, one understands that scholarly journals and monographs represent a different form of reading , but even so, I have to believe that those more traditional forms may be due for an upgrade soon.