“When you think about the lessons we’ve learned over time, these are the questions that for digital media companies – even legacy media companies – are hard to answer,” Sharma said of the questions in the above image, during a presentation at WAN-IFRA’s World News Media Congress in Taipei.
Vox, which is probably most famous for its explanatory style of journalism, has become so well known it might come as a surprise to some that the company is still less than 10 years old.
Founded by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Jim Bankoff, the trio saw an opportunity for a new kind of journalism that was more approachable and less reliant on the typical legacy media formats, Sharma said. Both Bell and Klein had been working at The Washington Post.
Nine years on, Vox has 110 journalists, and publishes its explanatory journalism across audio, video and text.
Sharma, after stints at major traditional news publishers, including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, joined Vox as its editor in chief two years ago.
Taking stock with an eye to the future
As she started her job, Sharma began thinking about where Vox was at that point in time, what the company stood for, and what they needed to do in order to succeed going forward.
“I came in and thought, ‘How do we move forward? What’s next for us? Do we move away from explanatory journalism? Do we move away from explainers? Or do we double-down?’ ” she said.
To answer those questions, she first considered her own legacy media background.
Having worked at several large news organisations, Sharma said she realised that each of them had very different identities.
“With each one, if I went in and tried to create The Washington Post at The Atlantic, I would fail,” Sharma said.
She then set out to find what made Vox distinctive.
“What I wanted to do is go beyond and really study all of our competitors and what makes them distinctive and how do we still stand out?” Sharma said.
She did this in part by having a lot of conversations with people both inside and outside the company that were focused on the traits that distinguish Vox.
Focus on ‘people’ rather than ‘audience’
“People are at the centre of what we do. I use ‘people’ here instead of ‘audience’ because Vox is very human. And that’s something that is really important to everyone who works there,” Sharma said.
Likewise, she said, race, identity and gender are central to what they do.
“We don’t have a separate team that’s just about race. It really is part of our journalism, and we help people live better lives,” she said.
“If you read a Vox explainer, they’re sometimes short, sometimes long, but they really do get at all the nuance and context that is needed to understand a topic. This is in spirit with what Ezra and Mel created nine years ago. This is just moving it forward,” she said.
“It’s important to have a north star that you can point to because it helps motivate the newsroom, it helps keep people on track,” she added.
They then created a mission statement. After that came the really difficult part, she said.
Staying on point story by story
“So many organisations can say that they have a mission, that they have a north star. But how do you make sure that each piece of journalism actually lives up to that? That is the hardest part in all of this,” Sharma said.
“I really wanted to figure out that we could scale Vox, and so if we keep growing, will still be able to stay who we are. And to do this, I again went story by story with different groups of people,” she said.
They looked at vital questions, such as does the story provide clarity, does it meet the company’s standards, if so, how?
“After doing this with thousands of stories, we created editorial approaches,” Sharma said.
Staying nimble is one of the key things to getting this strategy, she added.
“It’s so incredibly important to know who you are. To know what you’re doing. To make sure that you have that north star. But if you don’t adapt with the times, you’re really not going to stay ahead,” she said.
Likewise, in terms of revenues, Sharma said while traditional advertising is still vital for Vox, so are more modern revenue streams such as sponsorships and grants and contributions, “which is where you really need that direct relationship with your audience.”
Culture: The most important thing you can build in your newsroom
“If there’s one takeaway that I want you all to take, it’s not really the editorial strategy or the north star, it’s this: The culture is the most important thing you can build in your newsroom,” Sharma said.
While culture is often an afterthought for many companies, she believes the culture of the newsroom is directly related to the journalism that is produced. “In today’s world, you can’t do one without the other,” she said.
Having strong leaders and strong managers is also essential to culture.
“The culture often comes from middle managers, so it’s crucial to give them the training and attention they need,” Sharma said.
In addition, providing journalists with regular feedback is a crucial component, she said.
“Give clarity and really engage with the people in your newsroom. Diversity and having an inclusive newsroom is so key to all of this. You can’t succeed without that,” she said.
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