Vox logoI 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.

Jill O'Neill

Jill O'Neill

Jill O'Neill is the Educational Programs Manager for NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. Over the past twenty-five years, she has held positions with commercial publishing firms Elsevier, ThomsonReuters and John Wiley & Sons followed by more than a decade of serving as Director of Planning & Communication for the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS). Outside of working hours, she manages one spouse and two book discussions groups for her local library.

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11 Thoughts on "Have You Looked At This? Vox.com"

It is refreshing to see hypertext that does not use sprawling web pages. Home pages with a hundred out links have become depressingly common. In fact Vox reminds me of the original Mac HyperCard approach, which makes use of the fine granularity of information. This is what my issue trees are all about.

Reading scholarly content is just as granular, such that reading an entire article front to back is the exception. This is why we have abstracts, summaries and standard formats. But it would be laborious to add this kind of hypertext superstructure to the literature at the article level.

David, my thinking in this post has more to do with the need to create a visually active and engaging information environment. I think there is a certain expectation building and content providers need to be aware of that. I don’t want the scholarly journal to emulate Vox in all its particulars. As I noted, it’s a general news site rather than a scholarly one, but I do think that, in this sector, the presentation of content has been calcified to such an extent by print practice that providers may be missing an opportunity by not looking at emerging publication models like Vox. The challenge is to constantly ask ourselves how might a piece of content be made more serviceable to the researcher, more usable by the research community. And given that there is increasing emphasis on assessing the reach of an individual’s research into the broader community, are there ways of supporting that reach by leveraging YouTube or some other visual tool. Wouldn’t it be exciting if something went viral beyond your average Internet kitten?

I too do not think journals should look like Vox. But Vox is exploiting features of the underlying structure if information that journals might also make use of. (The structure of information has been my research field for 40 years, see my http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/07/10/the-issue-tree-structure-of-expressed-thought/.)

For example, look at Science magazine. Information about the same research may appears multiple times in a single issue, in increasing level of detail, hence size. The title in the TOC, followed by a paragraph in the content overview, followed by a Perspective, followed by the abstract and then the entire article (which has its own internal structure), followed by supplemental online materials, which may have their own structure as well, including one or more videos. As it is now these are just loose hunks lying about, with virtually no integration.

In my view the original vision of hypertext has been lost, wherein the structure was supposed to be important. Instead the Web decided to emulate the print magazine, an unfortunate choice in my view. Vox has wandered back to the basic vision and it may just work after all. Video may or may not be useful, depending on the context. What is important is working the underlying structure of the information.

Hi David

I don’t understand why such extensions might not be provided. Years ago, some data heavy journals made, for example, crystallographic data, available as a supplement. In a digital world, articles could link to Youtube or blogs, etc. How could academic journals exploit those options?

The main obstacles, Tom, are that this stuff is laborious and not easy to do well. Writing is a long linear string of words, hence the simplest possible structure. The hardest part is grouping the words into sentences. When you add hypertext links you go into a realm of two or three dimensional structures. You have to then figure out how the thoughts actually fit together, which is time consuming and not easy to do well. We probably do not want to double or more the time it takes to write each article, because that time comes out of the research.

For background materials, Vox might usefully link to the AAUP’s online bibliography “Books for Understanding.”

Good idea, Sandy! Let’s hope somebody at Vox sees this post and realizes that book content can also be built into news coverage.

Thanks for this post Jill, it finally made me realize the superbly annoying “linkbaiting” phenomenon that has taken over even the most esteemed new sources is actually there by design, not just because newsrooms apparently no longer have educated journalists as editors to curb the literary idiocy of unpaid millenial trainees.

I mean the “11 things you should know about __” or “7 ways to ___” or “Read this to know why ___” titles. Vox is full of these, but they are not rare in places like CNN either.

Instead of leading to the content, the designers have decided that a title must assure the drowning reader that there will be imminent closure to this story, offer the comfort of a shore in sight before the journey even begins. The modern reader is evidently assumed to run away from any indeterminancy, to fear the risk that the story might be long, or not have final answers, or worst of all, leave him thinking.

I get it. But I still hate it, and fear that the designers might have judged the median millenial correctly. I hope not.

Janne, I agree that linkbaiting is annoying and I wouldn’t want scholarly publishers to follow that particular example. As I noted however, the emphasis at Vox (at least in my view) is making it possible to absorb content in short and highly visual chunks. Some of that might spill over into scholarly publishing but I’d rather see content providers in this space work more on the idea of amplification. How can we amplify understanding of substantive research? Content providers can aid institutions in publicizing the value of scientific research in ways that go far beyond the standard (and incredibly dreary) press release.

In reply to myself, I also hate when old curmudgeons like me (I’m 38) are so far behind the curve they even get the terms wrong.

Sorry. The term for the phenomenon in question is “clickbaiting“, not “linkbaiting”. The latter implies many readers are expected to consider the content interesting enough to share, which is a property most clickbaits distinctively lack.

I like the idea of Vox a lot ,but it seems to me that there is always a problem with the “short and highly visual chunk” approach to complex subjects. It’s my experience that complex content not of the “four proven ways to get your dog into the bathtub” ilk– takes a serious hit with this method.

For instance, in one of the “cards” providing background on the Ukraine, the Serbian-Kosovo war gets described as one in which the Serbs committed “major abuses.” This makes it sound as if the Kosovo Liberation Army didn’t, which just is not accurate even though when it comes to attempting genocide, the Serbs were definitely the more horrific of the two. (Truthfully, I am not even comfortable with attempted genocide being tucked into the hopelessly vague “major abuses” phrase.)

Since I deal with a student body that desperately needs background knowledge in “short and highly visual chunks” (thanks for the phrase Jill), I hope Vox can become a website that actually pulls it off.
But right now, I still believe that there is a problem with the “chunking” of complex topics, and the method all too often ends up producing reductive and even misleading explanations.

Still, Vox is the best attempt I have seen so far, and I’m impressed with the amount of thought that clearly went into the design of the site. I hope the creators know an equal amount of thought has to go into the content.

As an aside, maybe it’s because I have an old, relatively speaking, iPad but many of the cards in the card stack did not fit my particular tablet and were at the same time not scrollable, which was frustrating. This surprised me since Vox was allegedly designed for a tablet. I guess it has to be a new tablet.

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