Issue 228,  published October 1, 2019

New Vox Media

Know what’s wild? It’s only been a week since news broke that Vox Media is moving to acquire New York Media, a significant Media development with tremendous thematic weight, and already it feels like it’s been… oh, I don’t know, six months. A testament, perhaps, to the bonkers news pace of last week, and of the last few years more generally.

Chances are, you’ve probably already heard about this deal and its various details. But just in case: here’s the Wall Street Journal reporting on New York Media’s valuation at the time of the deal, said to be around $105 million; here’s Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo going over the context and lead-up; here’s the dude Joshua Benton with the most comprehensive analysis I’ve seen on what to track with the integration of the two orgs; and here’s NYMag’s Brian Feldman, most pressingly, on the grim Slack implications.

This being Hot Pod, we’re here to kick around the podcast angle. And there is most definitely one, given Vox Media’s increasingly prolific audio operation.

Before I get into all that, though, I should start with some disclosures: as you may or may not know, I’m a contributor to Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment vertical. In fact, when the deal was announced, I had been assigned to work on a series of pieces for a podcast package that Vulture is rolling out this wee… wait, I should do this properly.

A Brief History of Now. For Vulture, I tried to cram an abridged version of the podcast history along with an evaluation of Where Things Stand Today into a ~2000 word essay. It’s part of a bigger package about podcasts that the site is rolling out today. I mostly wrote it for people who aren’t particularly deep in the pod weeds — people like my parents — and I hope you find it useful. And if you don’t, well, fill out a complaint form and send it to your local congressperson.

With that out of the way…

New Vox Media, Cont’d. … Okay, so, despite my contractual relationship with Vulture, I can’t say I have much insight into the organization beyond what I read in the trades. Part of this has to do with the general outsider positioning of writers on contract, but most of this has to do with the fact that New York Media hasn’t built out a significant enough audio operation for me to focus on them as a reporting subject.

Which is all to say: I found out about this acquisition the same way many others did (including, it seems, the workers of New York Media and Vox Media). And I am well-aware that, moving forward, I will inevitably be writing columns about a major media company that now owns a site to which I am a contributor. It’s a tricky spaghetti bowl situation, one that I take seriously, and I plan to continue covering the newly integrated Vox Media in much the same way as I’d cover just about anybody else.

Anyway, with all that established, let’s talk about the podcast angle here. Now, at this writing, the deal is expected to officially close later this year, which means the two companies haven’t actually technically come together just yet. It also means that it’s probably super early days for actual nuts-and-bolts strategy, which in turn means that it’s all but certain that nobody’s sat down with quill and paper to ponder, “What about the pods, tho.” Which is completely understandable, because there are a million other things to figure out beforehand.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t sit down and game out a possible trajectory here. To wit: I think there’s a good deal of meat on this bone. in a nutshell, Vox Media gives New York Magazine a few things the latter hasn’t yet cultivated — namely, a developed audio strategy, along with an accompanying audio business infrastructure.

New York Magazine first dabbled in podcasting a few years ago via partnership with Panoply, back when the Graham Holdings-owned Slate spin-off was still very much in the content business. Like many other Panoply-powered shows, those early NY Mag audio products largely took the form of round-table affairs, a la Slate Political Gabfest. They eventually folded, presumably due to a lack of traction, but the publisher ultimately re-engaged with podcasting in the past year via two very different kinds of projects: The Cut on Tuesdays, a weekly show produced in partnership with Gimlet, and Tabloid, a limited-run series published as a Luminary exclusive. (There was also a third, smaller project, the Intelligencer’s 2038, which dropped last fall and appears to be a one-off.)

TCOT and Tabloid strike me as twin expressions of the same strategic idea, in that both can be viewed as risk-controlled learning campaigns. Partnering with Gimlet affords a general audience and quality cushion that’s further supported by an active ad sales operation, while partnering with Luminary means upfront cash and the possibility of benefiting from a broader platform-oriented advertising campaign. Either way, as the operating publisher and content supplier, you won’t lose money on these experiments, you have quite a bit of upside if either show becomes a hit, and the experience and lessons you’d get from these projects will be useful in future attempts to build out in-house audio operations.

With Vox Media in the mix, though, the learning timeline can now be dramatically revised. Because NY Mag no longer has to build out audio expertise and infrastructure on its own, the risk calculus is radically different. They can now move to develop future audio projects with knowledgeable guides in-house.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should expect either the Gimlet or Luminary relationships to be on the chopping block in the medium-to-long term, of course. After all, the Vox Media Podcast Network still uses outside partnerships, most notably with Stitcher around the Today, Explained and Reset productions. But it does mean that NY Mag doesn’t strictly need outside partnerships to put together audio projects moving forward.

Meanwhile, in the other direction, NY Mag gives Vox Media more valuable raw material that can be plugged into the latter’s podcast network. This, of course, includes more talent and media brands to build new shows around, perhaps in the style of existing Vox Media podcasts. (What may a future collaboration with Stitcher look like?)

But more intriguingly, NY Mag also brings a fairly reliable pipeline of stories (and, more crudely, ~intellectual property~) that can be used to fuel bigger-swing projects. We’ve seen traces of interest in this broad area already: New York Media getting signed by WME for, as The Hollywood Reporter puts it, “help in developing opportunities to adapt its content across all mediums, including film, scripted and non-scripted television, podcasts and live events,” and Vox Media with the acquisition of Epic, a production and publishing company that specializes in developing editorial projects with an eye towards cross-media adaptation. (Epic, by the way, sits within Vox Media Studios in the organizational chart, which is the same division that houses the Vox Media Podcast Network.)

But this is how you can put the two pieces together: New York Magazine, I believe, are really good at delivering… for lack of better word, moments. The best examples of these can be found in the various mania-inducing long-form whoppers dropped by The Cut, stuff like The Watcher and the Caroline Calloway saga. (Can you imagine a limited-run podcast follow-up to the latter story? My goodness.) These are stories that would likely go on to be adapted into television and film — you know, like Hustlers — but you could also split the impact up and direct some that adaptation upside back in-house.

For Vox Media, with a 175+ show-strong podcast network that indexes almost completely on persistent personality-anchored programming, this pipeline offers something that wasn’t there before: the opportunity for its audio operations to create similar moments, and seize cultural ownership over the space more broadly.

… that is, if the company is interested in pursuing this, of course. Narrative podcasts may be popular, but they’re also harder to make cost-effective, given the tricky balance that must be handled between the format’s resource-intensiveness and relative difficulty to sell advertising against. That said, they are — and this is a super-soft metric, feel free to slap me for it — in some corners considered to be a little more ~prestigious~, which may or may not be unfair, but could nonetheless be reason enough to invest in the format.

Anyway, that’s all I got on this. It’ll probably be another six months before we see any inkling of development on this front, but hey, at least it’ll pass quickly, right? Right?