“I’m so proud of Vox.com,” says Melissa Bell, welling up slightly. “They’re just so talented and they’re doing such incredible work and it’s so different from what we pictured it to be in so many different ways.” Bell helped co-found the news vertical of the Vox Media empire 2 years ago, and now works as Publisher across all of its 8 digital properties which include SB Nation, The Verge, Eater, and Curbed. When she joined Vox Media, there were 150 employees. Now there are 750.
As Publisher, a role she took up earlier this year that had stood vacant since January 2014, her job is to create structures so that ideas can take flight. Vox is very focused not only on the cross-pollination of best practices between verticals, but on building systems that support experimentation across teams and disciplines. How, Bell asks herself and her editors, can their publications provide a service to readers, create context (one of the reasons why she started Vox.com was to “explain the news to people” overwhelmed with too much information to understand), keep a sense of brand, and embrace a multi-platform world?
During her time at the Vox Media, she’s seen its clutch of individual websites with their own dedicated communities have to adapt to a new reality: there are now dozens and dozens of ways to reach an audience. So what does the company, and each of its verticals, look like in a multi-platform era, as a push notification, as a chatbot, as a TV show, as a live event?
Melissa Bell recently came into our NYC office for a fireside chat with Matter’s Managing Partner, Corey Ford, to mull over some of these questions and share her startup experience with our entrepreneurs.
Once upon a time, Melissa Bell wanted to be a lawyer. Then 9/11 happened. She was working as a legal assistant at a firm overlooking ground and found the experience incredibly traumatic. “I was 21, young, dumb,” she says. Most of all, she felt helpless, “like such a cog in the larger machine.” She stayed a year, then “quit and became a vagabond, wandering aimlessly trying to work out what to do with my life.” She tried being a waitress in California and Colorado. She backpacked round Mexico and Eastern Europe. Eventually she applied to Journalism School at Northwestern to “calm her [mother’s] nerves.”
Her time on the magazine program at Medill had a deep impact. “The first day they sent us out on the street and told us to go ask questions of people,” she says. “I was like, ‘this is the coolest job ever. I get to be nosy for a living.’ It was amazing.” She had the chance to participate in the equivalent of her first startup, a trade publication for the burgeoning green architecture field. That whet her appetite for nascent team collaboration and creating a brand identity. “There’s something about forming something up together that creates bonds like nothing else,” she says. It was being incredibly raw and honest, and “fighting well” with her startup mates, that forged those bonds: “I think it took me a long time to realize that people can contradict and not believe your ideas but that doesn’t mean that they are distrusting you or that they think less of you.” Her advice? “Put people who question your ideas around you.”
“You could feel this collective excitement about a new stage of their growth”
Bell’s next startup experience was half a world away, in India. As part of Medill’s internship program, she had spent 3 months with a New Delhi newspaper going on “ridiculous assignments” to places like Kashmir. She then returned to India to work with Raju Narisetti, then Managing Editor at the Wall Street Journal (now CEO of Gizmodo Media Group), who was moving there to start a new business paper, later called Mint. The team Narisetti hired built out the newsroom and created a brand identity from scratch, both of which became cornerstones of Bell’s role at Vox.com. It was a heady time to be in India as it made its debut on the world stage, and she got to see a golden age of media empire-building while avoiding the recession back home. “Every single major US magazine wanted to move into India at the time,” she says. “The cities were changing in the way that really felt like an incredible startup vibe.”
Something that’s been common to all of her startup experiences is marrying media and technology together as closely as possible. That began in India, where she became a “super-user” of the new CMS the newsroom was implementing, and she carried her hybrid role as media-technologist with her to her next gig, as a blogger at The Washington Post. At the time the paper was trying to combine digital and print operations, hire journalists with additional skills, and get people with different backgrounds to collaborate. Identifying that there were major infrastructure problems for bloggers, she petitioned to become Director of Blogs, migrate to WordPress, and w0rk with the dev team to remake the platform. It was in that role that she met Ezra Klein, founder of Wonkblog and later her Vox.com co-founder, and they became great partners in experimentation: “I used him as my guinea pig.”
“[Vox Media] was asking the same questions that we were asking.”
Bell says she and Klein were both interested in the “idea of the broken news of breaking news”. They came up with a business plan for what they called Project X, which contained the concept of explanatory, index-style “card stacks” that would give context to complex news topics in the tone of your “approachable, smart college friend.” After The Washington Post, newly sold to Jeff Bezos, passed on Project X, they started exploring other options: one of the companies was Vox Media, at the time, a small-ish startup that had 3 brands in its portfolio, and had raised funding to expand its digital media operations.
“Vox Media was this company that we felt a real affinity to, and we felt like they had solved some of the problems that we were already trying to solve for.”
Over the course of some months, Vox Media decided to acquihire Project X so Bell, Klein, and journalist Matthew Yglesias came on board to launch Vox.com as a startup within a larger media organization. Once they did, things moved at a supersonic pace. “We ended up launching Vox in nine weeks. It was fast and furious,” Bell says. Their goal was to take what they’d learned at The Washington Post — the value of quality journalism — and deliver it in a way that was more attuned to the digital age. On the eve of launch, Bell, as chief “product wrangler”, was in a panic, feeling like it was “all going to fail.” Parts of the card stack were broken, the launch sponsorship wasn’t ready. But when she stood back, she realized how much they had achieved, and she managed to relax as they hit the launch button and watched the Chartbeat stats soar.
“The culture of the place…makes us feel really passionate about the company.”
Leadership involves setting cultural norms, and with Vox.com, Bell’s team had to do that within the wider environment of Vox Media. Firstly, she was sure to make all her employees feel like stakeholders in building the publication. At the weekly editorial meetings where they discussed tone and values and direction, “everyone felt like they were a part of the same team and everybody had an equal voice in conversations and could ask questions and could raise concerns.”
She says the entire organization’s ethos “tends towards kindness” and that management seeks to reward curiosity, thoroughness, and experimentation: “We wanted to praise people’s [efforts], even if it wasn’t a huge success [according to] normal metrics, it was still something that was a risk to try to do something a little bit new.” Vox Media encourages its staff to cross over between editorial and technology, not to pick sides. Journalists don’t have to stick to one medium, but can move fluidly from text to original video production, for example.
“We want to allow for all of our team members to be sort of like their own centers of innovation and experimentation with this a centralized idea of how do you how do you provide more context?”
Maintaining that free spirit as the organization scales presents a major challenge. Vox.com alone has gone from 30 to almost 90 employees during its lifetime. Vox Media has gone from 3 to 8 properties during the same period, and as Publisher, Bell works to grow all of them. She’s palpably excited about the new avenues it’s expanding into, which include a television deal, and live events, like the recent Vox Conversations conference. But she also sees the challenge of being spread more thinly, of having to become expert storytellers on many new platforms. “We’re trying to wrap our arms around the multi-platform world”, she says.
“Build the product in a way that tries to present at least one solution.”
One of the secrets to the company’s success, Bell believes, has been getting product out into the world “very fast”, testing, and iterating — all key facets of the design thinking process that we at Matter teach our startups. And one of the learnings she has had about the process is that it’s important not to start it with a solution in mind. When she reflects on card stacks, which Vox.com recently rethought, she recalls how she and Klein “wanted to come up with a single product that would fix news everywhere” — and later realized that there’s no such thing as a single solution, no silver bullet. It would have been better “to put a lot of different threads out into the world”, gauge the user appetite, and see the problem as part of top down trends — the proliferation of platforms and a lack of trust in the news media — that need a million solutions, rather than in isolation.
She talks about how editors at Racked, Vox Media’s shopping and fashion brand, are thinking about what problem it’s solving, because it’s not enough to be a good fashion brand. And that involves paying very close attention to your audience. “I love reading reader emails, even comments,” says Bell. “It’s great to have testing platforms where you can get large data sets but it’s important to hear voices too.”
The Drunken Walk is a series of live fireside chats, blog posts, and podcasts (coming soon!) from Matter Ventures, the world’s only independent startup accelerator for media entrepreneurs. We dive into the personal stories of founders, experts, and innovators in media to uncover the moments in their careers that changed everything. Our goal is to inspire and empower the next generation of media entrepreneurs to get from A to B without a map.