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Sep 26, 2019 19:45

New York Media and Vox desperately want you to think their merger is different

Vox Media had their first Succession moment on Monday night, when it was announced they would purchase New York Magazine publisher New York Media. The initial facts around the deal has all the makings of another Nightmare Year story in media: an all-stock deal, New York Magazine’s quarters of unprofitability, and a bunch of shocked employees on Twitter.

But, PLEASE, Vox and New York Magazine begs: it’s not like that! Every single bit of messaging around this deal from the new Vox Media desperately screams that this is not like all of those other media deals. This is not a fire sale, there will be no editorial layoffs. New York Magazine will continue to publish in print, and its newsroom will operate separately from the rest of its new sibling verticals. The news broke in an exclusive New York Times story, led with a photo of a smiling Jim Bankoff, Vox’s CEO, next to a similarly joyous Pam Wassermann, New York Media’s CEO and soon to be Vox’s new President. The next day, Wassermann sat down for a literally four question interview with AdAge, and appeared with Bankoff on a Vox Media podcast. CONTROL. THE. NARRATIVE. (No disrespect meant to Peter Kafka, who conducted the interview and is an excellent media reporter.)

What is this deal, then, if not another nightmarish culling in a miserable year for digital media? Vox wants you to believe it’s a marriage built on complimenting talents; “no one had to do this”, Wasserstein told the Times, “it’s a brilliant, in our view, opportunity, so that’s why we leaned into it. It’s not out of need. It’s out of ambition.”

There is validity to this point. Recent media sales—Vice’s rumored purchase of Refinary29, Bustle Media Purchase of various failing properties—have come from a place of desperation, a slightly more successful media operation buying a smaller, dying brand out of a frenzied need for increased scale to be able to compete for ad dollars with Big Tech. Vox, while not immune to industry headwinds, is generally regarded as the most stable of the digital media titans. They’ve expanded their core brands, made smart and lucrative investments in events and podcasts, and built a prolific television studio. Meanwhile, New York Media has flirted with sales over the past year, brought on by sagging circulation and falling profits. Yet, by investing heavily in online brands like Vulture and The Cut, it’s managed the transition online while retaining its journalistic cred and audience, arguably sustaining its prestige as a national news magazine better than any of the actual national news magazines. (As I type this, somewhere fifteen unpaid interns at Newsweek hurriedly are reading the Wikipedia page for “impeachment” in preparation of their next cover story.) Last year, New York Media launched a dedicated e-commerce site called The Strategist and implemented a paywall, which has led to somewhat of a turnaround financially. They likely weren’t looking for a lifeline.

Together, Vox and New York’s strengths compliment each other surprisingly well and fill in blind spots. Vox can help New York Media expand into multimedia production, while New York Media can help Vox experiment with paywalls and e-commerce. And while it’s kinda silly to imagine a digital-first organization like Vox publishing a biweekly magazine, Bankoff is reportedly a big fan of the medium, and Vox’s name comes up in media circles pretty consistently when a magazine is on the market. With New York Magazine, he now will lead one of the country’s most prolific sources of print journalism.

In other words, there is reason to believe Vox’s narrative around this deal. However, their obsession with secrecy shows just how insecure this entire industry is, and how that lack of confidence often runs hand in hand with disregard for their employees. Both New York Magazine and Vox’s employees found out about the deal after the story on the Times went up. While both newsrooms are unionized, neither side’s union representatives were consulted in the process of the sale. No one seems too happy about that in the newsroom. And while Vox is quick to emphasize that there will be no editorial layoffs, they’ve been quiet about cut in Human Resources, legal, and other administrative departments. (Spoiler alert: there totally will be and that’s part of the point of this deal.)

There’s also the question of Vox’s spotty track record with acquisitions. Editorially, Vox’s major buys up until now are the Curbed Network and Recode. Curbed’s acquisition doubled Vox’s number of brands when it closed in 2013; yet it also led to a culture of downsizing and editorial retreat according to accounts of former employees. In the months after the Curbed deal, Polygon shuttered its award-winning features section and The Verge’s original editor-in-chief left amidst disagreements over editorial direction. The likely catalyst of these changes, Lockhart Steele, the Curbed Network founder who became Vox Media’s editorial director, left the company altogether in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and fostering a culture of mistreatment at Vox. Recode’s acquisition went smoother in 2015, although the site was eventually folded into Vox earlier this year. (Same deal with Racked, Curbed’s fashion site.)

I say all of this to convey that this deal is more complicated than both Vox’s flowery narrative and the knee jerk negativity. Ultimately, little changes. New York Media’s employees will continue going to work with the same sense of uncertainty that they’ve had for months (if mitigated slightly by the fact they know the sky isn’t completely falling), and Vox remains the digital media industry’s best shot at building a sustainable venture-funded business. Hopefully they will be more transparent with their newsroom in the future.