A song to read by: "Reese," by Big Red Machine
What I’m reading: "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," by David Graeber
Vox flirts with reader revenue
My girlfriend is a journalist at Vox, and I am often jealous of her. Not just because she gets insider restaurant recommendations from the Eater staff and can exchange Slack messages with Lindsay Peoples Wagner, but because Vox has absolutely no paywall.
When she writes an article, everyone on the internet can see it, read it and share it as many times as they want, meaning her work gets far more exposure than mine ever could. (It also helps that she is a great journalist.)
Not that I am alone in my envy — just about every reporter who writes behind a paywall has, at one point or another, begrudged the meter responsible for throttling their writing's reach. But paywalls bring in recurring revenue, and recurring revenue keeps publishers’ bottom lines afloat, so a pragmatic journalist will likely see the situation as a tradeoff: Fewer people see your writing, but you get to have a job.
But while Vox is unencumbered by a paywall, Vox Media is not.
Vox Media owns Vox, as well as 13 other brands. These brands can be split into two neat groups: We’ll call them Vox properties and New York Magazine properties. The two groups joined forces in 2019 when Vox Media acquired New York Magazine.
The Vox titles include: Vox, SB Nation, Recode, Polygon, Eater, The Verge and, since August, Punch. The New York Magazine properties include New York Magazine, Grub Street, The Intelligencer, Vulture, The Cut and The Strategist.
If you knew nothing about their ownership history, one factor would quickly differentiate the two groups from each other: All the New York Magazine brands are paywalled, while none of the Vox brands are. New York Magazine instituted a paywall in 2018, but no Vox property has ever charged a reader a dime for access to its articles.
In April 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, Vox introduced its audience support program, the closest thing the publisher has to a paywall. Following the model of The Guardian, Vox began including a note at the bottom of its articles asking readers to donate if they had found its journalism useful.
In August 2020, the man behind A Media Operator, Jacob Donnelly, wrote a great examination of the strategy in which he called attention to some of the design flaws in its call to action.
He also suggested the writing might be on the wall for Vox as we know it, pointing to the diminishing number of for-profit, ad-supported publishers without a paywall of any sort.
Most other major publishers have shifted to a paywall strategy; the debate about whether readers will pay has largely been settled, and the revenue line has come to usurp advertising in many prominent newsrooms, including The New York Times, as the primary breadwinner. Donnelly also pointed to the fact that, due to its acquisition of New York Magazine, Vox certainly has the technology to launch a paywall.
Still, Vox and its titles have resisted a paywall. However, a small footnote in a recent acquisition suggests that they might be rethinking that strategy.
The Hot Pod nod
On Tuesday, The Verge, a Vox title covering technology, announced that it had acquired Hot Pod, an influential newsletter run by Nicholas Quah that details the business of the podcasting world.
Started in 2014, Hot Pod has become the divining rod of the podcast world, a must-read for anyone in need of insider knowledge on what has become a billion-dollar industry. Like other, similar products, Quah offered much of Hot Pod for free, but access to its premium reporting cost $7 per month.
When announcing the acquisition, The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel said Hot Pod would remain a paid product, making it the first such product in the Vox universe. Variety also reported that Verge executives are interested in seeing if they can offer a broader portfolio of similar editorial concepts in months to come.
“The Verge has in ten years amassed a huge audience, and we have never made anybody pay for anything. We are interested and excited about what that looks like,” Patel told Variety.
It is entirely possible that Hot Pod will be the only paid product amongst all the Vox titles. It is also possible — I would suggest more likely — that Vox Media is using Hot Pod as a test case.
If the newsletter, which will now benefit from much more exposure under Vox ownership, begins racking up paying subscribers, it could send a signal to Vox executives that its readers are willing to pay for access to its content.
If nothing else, such a revelation could lead to a roster of newly paywalled newsletters, supplemental add-ons to the free Vox experience. On the other end of the spectrum, if Hot Pod amasses a substantial paying audience, it could serve as proof that Vox has been leaving money on the table by eschewing a paywall.
In short order, more and more Vox titles could soon begin charging for content, either wholesale or a la mode.
Why Vox might paywall
A few years ago, only a handful of publishers had paywalls and they were pilloried for it, criticized as elitist and out of touch. Now, the opposite is true: Virtually every major publisher employs a paywall. Outside of Axios, Politico, search-based publishers like Verywell and non-profits like The Texas Tribune, Vox and its sister titles are some of the last major holdouts.
A few factors might be nudging them to reconsider.
First, the money. As Donnelly noted, by August 2020, the Vox membership program had reported somewhat anemic numbers. Since April it had generated 20,000 donations, meaning only a fraction of its 30 million monthly readers had given money in the first four months. What’s more: We have no idea how much money the donors were pledging or whether the pledges were recurring or one-time payments.
The Vox titles have held out on paywalls thus far, mostly for ideological reasons. But Vox Media is working toward an acquisition itself, and potential investors could see its disavowal of subscription revenue as a missed opportunity. Regardless of whether the Vox properties are thriving or flailing, they would be making more money with a paywall.
Second, the New York Magazine properties are paywalled and loving it. I just subscribed to New York Magazine myself! They have the technology, and I wonder if some element of “Lord I have seen what you have done for New York Magazine, and I want that for me” type thought might be spreading through the Vox camp.
It certainly makes sense from an operational standpoint. Why paywall half your properties and not the other half? It is confusing.
Plus, imagine how much juicier of a value proposition Vox Media could offer readers if, for $10 per month, readers got access to all 14 titles. Right now, I’m shelling out for access to just seven. For double the content, they could charge more for a subscription or make up the difference by bundling everything into one subscription and charging the same rate. As the rest of the industry bundles and consolidates, Vox Media has an opportunity to double its value proposition without spending a dime.
Finally, the digital advertising universe is undergoing a massive change. As cookies are phased out, publishers and media buyers are scrambling to figure out how to identify readers without some other invasive substitute. New York Magazine requires even non-subscribers to register their emails to read articles, so those properties can track readers whether they subscribe or not.
Currently, none of the Vox titles require any kind of sign-on, a fact I did not realize until I began writing this article. Frankly, that is kind of insane. With such a limited bank of first-party data, the Vox properties seem pretty ill-prepared for the coming cookie-pocalypse. I am sure I am missing something here — Vox uses its own ad system, called Chorus, whose intricacies I am unfamiliar with — but all signs point to the need for some sort of change in the near future.
These factors, combined with the fact that Vox Media wants to go public, would suggest that it is closer to considering sources of reader revenue than ever before. These products could just be one-off newsletters and paywalled podcasts, for now, but it seems like only a matter of time before Vox joins its New York Magazine siblings behind a paywall.
Some good readin'
— If your job ever feels stressful, read this! (The New Yorker)
— Russia will benefit from global warming ... because why not? (The New York Times)
— Sports media is being eaten by sports-betting. I wonder if history has anything to tell us about how this might go ... (Columbia Journalism Review)
— Defector Media is one year old, and I am going to its birthday party on Thursday. Life ain't half bad! (Defector Media)
Cover image: "The Pilgrim," by Rene Magritte