Vox.com and The Upshot: new ways to spread the news

Two new websites seek to interpret the news rather than just report it – but will it be profitable?

by Ahmad Hammoud/Creative Commons
(Image credit: Ahmad Hammoud/Creative Commons)

THE complaint most often levelled against digital journalism by old-school print reporters is that websites apply lower standards of reporting, writing and fact-checking than their offline predecessors.

The charge is not unfounded, but it tells only part of the story. Print journalism, at its best, imposes great responsibility before publication, but allows for next to none afterwards. Once the presses start rolling, the newsroom’s work is done.

And since so much has been invested in getting the story right in the first place, reporters and editors may be unwilling to concede mistakes. Requests for corrections and clarifications are resisted, and contradictory stories often ignored. Online journalism, by contrast, devotes less time and money to pre-publication checks, but takes more responsibility for revisions and updates once a story is live. The always-on nature of the medium allows for rapid amendments, and the constraints of time and resources under which it operates mean that corrections are more frequently required - and accepted more readily within the newsroom.

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Even so, publishers have made only tentative use of the web’s potential for continually updated reporting. Most online newsrooms have inherited their staff and culture from print or broadcast operations, and have therefore also adopted many of their rhythms.

More often than not, articles are still abandoned as soon as they are published. Developing stories may be updated for 24 hours, but on day two a new article will be published and the old one left to gather virtual dust.

Live blogs, which tell stories using a series of short posts published every few minutes, appear at first glance to represent a step towards continual reporting, but in fact they merely accelerate the pace of obsolescence. They’re good if you want to know what’s happening right now, but an inefficient way to learn anything else.

As live blogs, and the news sites that host them, compete to post more information more frequently, too little thought is given to the poor reader who has to make sense of it all.

Yesterday, for example, The Guardian website published 322,000 words. How many of them are out of date by now? And how many have already been forgotten by the writer and editor responsible for producing them?

Two web ventures launched this month have made it their aim not to add to the stream of information, but to interpret it. “You have no shortage of excellent news sources - sources that expertly report and analyse news as it happens,” writes the editor of The Upshot, a new site "to help people understand the news” launched by the New York Times on Tuesday.

Two weeks previously another new site, Vox.com, had set out its stall in even more explicit terms.

“The media is excellent at reporting the news and pretty good at adding commentary atop the news,” said its inaugural post. “What’s lacking is an organisation genuinely dedicated to explaining the news. That is to say, our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened.”

Of the two, Vox is the more radical. It does away with the conventional story format, opting instead for a series of “cards”, each of which attempts to explain a bite-sized chunk of a larger story.

Its treatment of the Middle East peace process, for example, consists of 24 cards addressing questions ranging from the concrete (“What is Hamas?”) to the nebulous (“How does the world feel about Israel/Palestine?”). Cards will be added, updated or deleted as the story develops.

The format will no doubt evolve and improve, but what’s groundbreaking about it is the principle that the site will publish just one story on Israel and Palestine - and will then keep revising that story, day in, day out, until hell freezes over and peace descends upon the Middle East.

And there’s the rub: keeping all those cards accurate and up to date is a rather open-ended commitment. It will be expensive too, with no obvious economies of scale. Maintaining twice the number of cards will require twice the number of editors - and a corresponding rise in the editorial budget.

Vox Media, a private company with $70m of venture capital to burn, has time yet to establish a business model, but sooner or later it will have to bring in readers and revenue. That may prove difficult, as incremental updates are likely to generate less of a traffic spike than new articles, even if the new article in question tells only a fraction of the story - or perhaps even because the new article tells only a fraction of the story, and that’s what readers have come to expect.

It’s a paradox of the news business that while few believe the existing model can be sustained in the long term, the simplest way of getting money through the door in the short term is to keep on doing the same old thing, and doing more of it, more quickly and more cheaply.

That explains why so much digital journalism amounts to a race between hundreds or even thousands of sites all trying to replicate the same story.

Type “Ukraine” into Google News and it returns 6,711 stories, all published in the last few hours and the vast majority based on reports from a handful of old-school media companies - Reuters, AP, the BBC and a few newspapers with reporters on the ground.

What looks at first glance like a vast diversity of reporting is nothing of the sort. Faced with low margins and an uncertain business model, mass-market digital journalism has turned into an undignified scramble for cheap clicks.

Vox.com won’t change that overnight, but it has certainly broken from the pack. Even if it stumbles, it may well inspire others looking for a genuinely different approach to reporting the news.

Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been TheTimes.co.uk’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.