In an increasingly crowded field, US-based news website Vox has become arguably the most successful English language news publisher on Youtube.
While it is fourth in Press Gazette’s league table for most subscribers, its 10.7 million putting it behind The BBC, ABC News and CNN, it’s when you look at views that you realise just how dominant the US news outlet is.
Vox’s average views per Youtube video figure sits at well over two million – for context, the next closest publisher, The Economist, averages just over 500,000 views per video.
Vox was an early mover on Youtube
Part of the reason for the success of Vox on Youtube goes back to the outlet’s founding values, says Mona Lalwani, the editorial director of Vox’s video arm.
Vox was founded in 2014 by Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias and Melissa Bell (Klein and Yglesias have since left), with the founding aim to do “explanatory journalism”.
Its Youtube channel launched in tandem with the brand’s main site and focused on using visuals to explain and break down the biggest topics and questions its audience might have.
“We're not trying to rush information out the door, but we're always very prepared to be the best place for explanations that include a lot of clarity and context for people,” Lalwani explains. “And the way that Vox video, in particular, executes on that is through visual clarity, that is just such a big part of like what we do… The way that news comes at us is hard and fast and splintered. And I think Vox does a really good job of like glueing that information together,”
Starting so early allowed Vox to cement its place as a leading spot for news explainers, something many news outlets are still trying to expand their output on.
The team at Vox video now stands at 20, 12 of those are reporter-producers, who do the reporting and editing for pieces, while the others are made up of researchers, designers and story editors.
Vox declined to go into specifics on the amount of income it produced for the wider Vox business, but Lalwani said it “contributes really meaningfully to our revenue portfolio”.
Vox makes money from Youtube via: advertising revenue shared directly with them by the platform and a membership programme called Video Lab whereby subscribers pay from £5 per month, or $5 in the US, for "loyalty badges, customer emojis and our unending gratitude".
How to make journalism work on Youtube the Vox way
Vox’s success on Youtube goes much further than just being the first on the explainer scene.
Former Vox contributor Johnny Harris explained the Vox video style as being about how you balance visual evidence and explanation.
While traditional broadcast news segments often feature long periods of anchors explaining a topic, Harris said he relies on frequent first-hand visual anchors that show the topic being discussed, before succinctly and quickly trying to explain it.
“I think that our emphasis at Vox is both on style and substance,” explains Lalwani. “I think a lot of places can tend to be very heavy on style, or their priority is to get information and substantive journalism up there, but often visuals and style aren't accompanying that.”
Lalwani refers to the Vox video team's staffers as “creator-journalists”. While some our journalists trained in visual production, video editing and others come from an artistic or social media background and are trained in journalistic skills by Vox.
Lalwani says video journalists can learn from creators and the “visual thinking” that makes internet content compelling.
Vox covers a diverse range of topics. Its most recent pieces have included how researchers discovered lost cities in the Amazon rainforest, the impact of abortion bans on inequality and even explaining why roller coaster loops aren’t circular.
“I think it's the culture of the place where a lot of ideas are just respected but very open-minded about just our own curiosities and as creators and journalists what we want to know more about,” says Lalwani.
“Honestly, some of our most meaningful and exciting brainstorms are just a lot of us bringing questions to the table. Not answers at the moment, but just questions. Like what do you want to know about?
“And I do think that that is still I think, what a lot of our competitors haven't quite figured out, because like you said, it's often just like a simple question and explanation. But I think we go a lot deeper than that."
Vox videos: Best is better than first
Vox videos are rarely pegged around an urgent news story. If they do focus on an ongoing major event, like the war in Ukraine, the piece will be released a week or two after the news breaks.
Lalwani says this is a deliberate choice. Vox’s video explainers aim to “over-deliver” context and important information and to make their videos visually have a “memorability factor”, and that takes time and research.
“At Vox we aren’t expected to or want to be the first to get something out, we always want to be the place that gets the most important and meaningful piece about a news event out,” she adds. “We're okay with not churning out videos.”
Staff departures and the future
But the last few years haven’t been without challenges, particularly as many of the outlet’s leading talent has departed (an issue that has also impacted Vox’s main website too).
Johnny Harris, who was the host of one of Vox's most popular series Borders, says he left after the company pulled funding for the series.
It’s also worth acknowledging that only one of the outlet’s top fifty most viewed videos on Youtube is from the last 12 months.
Going forward, Lalwani tells Press Gazette Vox video wants to add to the medium form (five to 15 minute videos) that she says the outlet has “perfected” and moved into shorter and longer-form videos.
Vox first posted on its Tiktok account a year ago and has since amassed over 100,000 followers and nearly 500,000 likes. Meanwhile, in May the outlet posted a nearly 30-minute investigation on its Youtube page into some mysterious stone circles found deep in the Sahara desert.
Lalwani acknowledges that while those kinds of long-form investigations are a priority, they take a lot of time. For the stone circles piece the team spent months speaking to experts, gathering satellite imagery and exploring almost completely inaccessible parts of the desert.
The key is to never stop trying new things. “For us,” Lalwani says, “experimenting is just such a big piece of who we are and our direction.”
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