The Verge turns five on November 1st, and we’re in the process of refreshing our entire brand for the next five years. In Refreshing The Verge, we’ll be looking at how that refresh process works, and what it’s like to adapt a brand like The Verge to a world where media platforms have become dominant.
One of the biggest advantages The Verge has always had is Vox Media’s own proprietary publishing platform, Chorus. As we think about building The Verge for a future where other media platforms command more and more of our audience’s attention, the needs and demands of Chorus have also changed — what started as an efficient tool for writing articles and publishing a website now needs to become a system for creating a wide range of formats and managing distribution to multiple platforms. In this installment, I’ve asked Mandy Brown, Vox Media’s Director of Publishing, to talk about the future of our platform — and really, the future of publishing tech.
In writing a new mission statement for The Verge, Nilay notes that the core difference in media between today and five years ago is the preponderance of platforms: we are no longer building a single platform where our audience will find us, but must instead populate content across many platforms, each with their own unique proclivities. That doesn’t mean that The Verge’s website no longer matters, it means it’s now only one among many platforms that we have to attend to.
With Google AMP among the fastest growing of those platforms, Nilay is understandably skeptical about the open web’s future. I’m sympathetic to that — and as the one leading a redesign of the publishing tools on Vox Media’s platform, Chorus, I have to make publishing to AMP and other platforms one of my highest priorities. But I also believe that The Verge (and indeed all of Vox Media’s brands, as well as many other publishers) will find opportunities to experiment on the open web such that it remains a compelling component of the overall platform ecosystem.
Our website is where we have the biggest opportunity to develop new ways of telling stories, independent of the constraints of other platforms. So while it’s very likely that many members of our audience will find that the primary way they read or watch The Verge is via Google AMP or Facebook video, our own platform will inform those experiences, and will continue to be core to everything we do.
our stories have to be resilient
What does that mean for a publishing platform like Chorus? To start, our stories have to be resilient. A single story may present one way on our own site, another way in the AMP version, and yet other ways in a Facebook Instant Article or on Apple News. Each of these platforms has a lot in common as far as basic storytelling components go, but they also diverge in non-trivial ways: interactions, typographical systems, the presentation and behavior of ads, and the elements we have to play with to express our brand’s identities may all differ from platform to platform.
Perhaps ironically, we’ve found that the best way to create that resiliency is by harking back to the web principle of progressive enhancement: each story created in Chorus begins as a platform-neutral collection of text, images, and video. That foundation ensures that we can publish that story as easily to our own platform as to, say, AMP or Apple News, and be confident that our audience will experience that story in a way that fits whichever platform they are using. On our own platform, we’re then free to enhance up, adding stylistic or experiential flairs that elevate the experience of the story. This practice — which I refer to unoriginally as progressively enhanced storytelling — also has the added benefit of helping us make our content more accessible to more kinds of users, especially those with disabilities. (It wouldn’t be inaccurate to consider speaking browsers one among the many platforms we must publish to.)
There’s another core change in media over the past five years, which Nilay has also noted: our audience is spending as much time watching content as reading it, if not more. The explosive growth of Facebook video has many in the news business sobbing over the death of text, but I am again unconvinced: I think video growth is expanding the ways we can reach our audience, not cannibalizing time spent reading. Words will always have the benefit of speed, both in terms of time spent composing and time spent reading. That said, we still produce an order of magnitude more text content than video, and it’s past time for video to do some catching up.
we have to remix stories instead of enhancing them
In addition to prioritizing tools for video creators alongside other editorial needs in the months ahead, we’re also facing a shift in how we think of content creation overall. We can progressively enhance stories for platforms like AMP and Instant Articles which take as their core assumption something shaped more or less like an "article." But that breaks down for Facebook video, Instagram, Snapchat, or any number of other platforms. Even video has many different outlets: what makes a Facebook video successful is different from what makes a good YouTube video or an especially shareable Vine. Here we need a different tactic: we have to remix stories instead of enhancing them, expressing a common message across different media while reusing words, images, video, and brand elements in both coherent and delightful ways. This means a new set of tools and mental models and best practices not only for composing and distributing content, but also for reusing it and reimagining it into different forms. That makes the work of publishing more complex, more generative, and more exciting.
And yet it still needs to be fast. The speed of publishing is like one of those famed startup growth charts — a hockey stick shape showing a rapid, even exponential, increase. As The Verge relaunches, we’re also about to take a newly redesigned and refactored Chorus publishing tool out of beta. That beta has many new features to support the new universe of platforms: version control, simultaneous editing, an entirely new data model, platform-agnostic design tools, and more. But our biggest challenge in the months ahead is to simultaneously empower our editorial teams to create more content, across more platforms, without slowing down or losing any of the verve and personality that have made The Verge (and our other editorial brands) so popular. As the platform ecosystem becomes more complex, Chorus has to be simultaneously more expressive and easier for our teams to use. (In case it’s not already clear, this is a huge fucking challenge, and I love my job.)
More platforms means more places to reach our community
And there’s yet another big shift underway, one which we are still evolving to address: that of community in a multi-platform, multi-device world. A site on Chorus is actually referred to as a "community," and collections of communities are known as "networks." That was intentional, and reflects core beliefs going back to the early days of SB Nation and The Verge about how a brand (née publisher) was expected to operate. We weren’t — we aren’t — designing systems where an audience passively consumes our content, but are inviting them in to talk and share and push back and expand. More platforms means more places to publish; it also means more places to reach that community, more places for those discussions to happen, more opportunities for amazing connections to be made. And, alas, many more vectors for abuse.
Neither The Verge nor Vox Media generally are the only ones facing this problem, of course, but given that our own platform’s foundation takes community as a critical ingredient, we have an obligation to face it head-on. Even more importantly, the very concept of "community" has changed dramatically in recent years, both with the arrival of significant numbers of orchestrated and persistent harassment campaigns across every platform, and with a seemingly unending election cycle that has made public expressions of white supremacy and misogyny commonplace. This, maybe more than anything, is why our own platform remains so important to what we do: it’s where we have the biggest opportunity to really connect with our audience, to build relationships that go deeper than likes, and to cultivate a space where more people can safely talk about the news or tech or sports.
As we continue to evolve Chorus, no other challenge we face is harder than this one. But then no other challenge is more important either.