A perverse reality of this moment: journalism is more essential and more widely-read than ever; yet the primary way most news outlets make money—advertising—is flatlining. We’ve already seen large-scale layoffs at local newsrooms and digital outlets across the country as the industry faces the bleak economic reality. Vox Media, one of the better positioned new media outlets, is trying something different. Today, Vox.com, the network’s flagship site, launched a donations page, a first for the company and likely a sign of things to come.
Currently, Vox’s donation program is very bare-bones. The page allows a monthly contribution of $7, $18, $50, or $100 a month, or a one-time donation of up to $250. (Remember, Vox Media attracts some of the most affluent readers around.) But unlike other programs like The Daily Beast’s Beast Insider or Slate’s Slate Plus, there aren’t any benefits to signing up for Vox’s plan. In that way, Vox’s program is more akin to Buzzfeed News’ donation page. (Although Buzzfeed donors at least get exclusive emails and a tote bag.)
So its all very slap-dash and desperate, but that’s sorta the point. Vox acknowledges that its hand has been forced by the coronavirus depression. Here’s Vox EIC Lauren Williams in a post announcing the program:
Even with record audience growth, the media business is not immune to the effects of economic downturns. In fact, right now, when audiences need quality, accessible journalism the most, ad revenue is on the decline as companies move to save money and shrink their marketing budgets.
Since a merger with New York Media last year, Vox has essentially divided its publishing team into two halves. There’s the New York sites, like Vulture, New York Magazine, and The Cut, which all rely on a subscription model and have a strict paywall. On the other side are the Vox Media Network sites, which are free to view and make their money through advertising and content deals with Netflix, Youtube, and others. Vox’s donation program seems like an attempt by the company to retain that free-to-view model. “Our dedicated team of journalists has boundless ambitions — and feels a great sense of responsibility — to bring you more of our distinctive coverage, in new and different ways, and to continue doing so for free,” Williams writes.
Eagle-eyed Vox watchers like myself will remember that Vox has been planning some kind of subscription program for their network sites for a while. The idea was to create some kind of additional product for highly-engaged readers. This is not that, clearly. It’s more instructive to think of it as a way to hedge off an expected dip in advertising, event, and commerce revenue.
Nonetheless, its the first indication we’ve gotten that Vox is under the same pressure as the rest of digital media. Hopefully, this program helps them stabilize.