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How Vox got it right behind the scenes

Vox’s use of the Chorus content management system shows that new media plays need to think about and invest in the right technology

Entering a brave new world: Vox's use of Chorus is a lesson in getting things right from the start

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 09:32


Warning: excessive media nerdery ahead. It’s a rare day when a new media website on the block receives cheers and compliments from its competitors. But such a things happened the other day when Techcrunch was effusive in its praise of Vox, the news and news analysis site from editor-in-chief and former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein and several of his colleagues. It’s part of a suite of sites from Vox Media overseen by Jim Bankoff, AKA “the Media Mogul No One Knows”.

These media plays are ten-a-penny at the moment as star writers jump ship from legacy print ops to go elsewhere. We’ve seen it with Nate Silver, for instance, as he moved his FiveThirtyEight set-up from the New York Times to ESPN. It’s the meme of the moment as individual journalists and commentators seek to use their heft and name recognition for a new deal in the brave new media world. To date, it’s largely a Stateside phenomenon but there are sure to be hacks on this side of the pond contemplating a similar move. They’ll also be hoping that the meme’s cross-Atlantic trip will be more successful than exporting American football and strange spellings.

But the reason why Vox is getting high fives from its competitors has nothing to do with the content or those writing the content. What Vox has got right from the get-go is the engine behind the site. Instead of cobbling together a number of existing content management systems, which is the norm in the legacy media world, Vox worked out all the kinks from the get-go with Chorus. Instead of journalists and editors having to wrestle with systems which were never designed for the uses into which they were pressed, Chorus was built with those very purposes in mind. Chorus appears to have solved all the problems that other systems usually create.

Techchrunch is not the only ones to be wowed by Chorus: the New York Times also said ‘hell yeah’. Leslie Kaufman’s actual words are that Chorus “is credited with having a toolset that allows journalists to edit and illustrate their copy in dramatic fashion, promote their work on social media, and interact with readers — all seamlessly and intuitively.”

To journalists who have to struggle with terrible, badly thought-out and counterintuitive content management systems, this sounds like a dream. To give you an example of what we’re on about, this blog, like all the Irish Times’ blogs, is produced on a WordPress template, while the comment moderation work is now done by Viafoura (the unwieldy RealTidBits’ system for doing the latter job has thankfully been binned).

But there’s a need to integrate WordPress and Viafoura with the existing Irish Times’ system which is a job of work yet to be done. At present, the only way a blogger knows who is saying what about their posts is to go into each post one by one. There is no dashboard with the new system (yet) which allows the blogger to manage and oversee the posts and comments because it hasn’t been implemented. Don’t get us started with using social media to promote these posts. Other bloggers will now be going ‘WTF?’ at this and you can’t blame them.

And that’s just blogs: don’t get journalists from any media outlet ranting about the everyday CMS they have to use to file their copy unless you’ve a spare half-hour (which is usually how long it takes for a hack to use that CMS system to file a 300 word story). No-one actually bothered to ask the people who have to use the system what they wanted before the system went live. No-one figured that emailing the story would be easier and less time-consiming than dealing with a cumbersome, awkward system which just does not do what it’s supposed to do. Faxing the copy would be quicker, though going back to 1991 to find a fax machine might take the same length of time as using the existing CMS.

Which is where Chorus comes in. Here, by the sound of things, is a system which was put together by taking the time to work out what was actually needed in the first place. Usually what happens is that completely unsuitable and probably quite expensive off-the-shelf products are thrown at the problem. When they don’t work, the solution is to go off and buy more off-the-shelf products to try to fix that. The result is a muddle of different systems, none of which was ever intended to be used in this manner in the first place.

The New York Times’ piece is well worth reading in this regard, especially when it comes to the frustration felt by many journalists about the truly awful systems they have to use. The piece quotes Vox Media CEO Bankoff on the attraction of Chorus: “for this generation of talent, which grew up digitally, having the proper tools to ply their craft is essential. Being able to offer them the best possible platform to achieve their goals is a great advantage.”

It also shows that spending time and money getting the right system in place from the get-go, a system which will be used day in and day out and hour in and hour out after all, is a far better use of resources than going mad with the superfluous bells and whistles which many media orgs think they now need to have. When you look at Vox, it’s the cool, clean, sharp, instinctive look and feel of the site which catches your eye rather than the fur-coat-no-knickers features which are often bolted on by other sites in a desperate attempt to keep up with the Joneses.

After all, what the reader wants is not always what the reader gets so you can understand why a certain slew of readers are becoming Vox fans. Back to the Times again, which notes that Vox is pulling in a highly desirable audience with formats which attract attention directly. Inded, “the site does not have to turn to gimmicky features like quizzes, teasing headlines or lists to generate traffic through Facebook or Twitter”. By keeping readers and journalists happy, Vox and Chorus are doing things right. To paraphrase a line which used to be the norm in pre-internet death notices (I know, irony alert), other media organisations please copy.