The Feature Creatures of Vox
How is Vox Media making sure its bevy of longform editorial units, now including ones at New York, Epic, The Verge, Vox, Eater, and Polygon, get along?
The longform feature is treated as a kind of rare orchid at most media companies: cherished and nurtured as an extravagant frivolity prized mostly by purists and eccentrics. But while many publishers have shrunk the resources they invest in narrative deep dives, Vox Media has somehow accumulated a hothouse full of editorial units producing this much-revered form of journalism.
Its digital titles, including The Verge, Vox, Eater, and Polygon, have long aspired to produce work with a longer shelf life than the usual gadget review, explainer, or restaurant rating. Then, in April 2019, Vox announced it was acquiring Epic, a narrative nonfiction shop based in L.A. that, armed with deals with studios, partnered with magazines on stories that it hoped would turn into Hollywood IP. Later that year, Vox acquired the bastion of Clay Felker and Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, New York Magazine, and its shelves full of feature writing awards.
The confluence has left Vox Media with a kind of conundrum: what do you do with all these far-flung units on the org chart, largely operating separately from each other while chasing similar cultural territory? Recently, the answer seems to be: make them find a way to work together. Readers of Vox sites have increasingly been confronted with tags like “a collaboration between New York Magazine and The Verge” and “produced in partnership with Epic.”
“The strategy is simply,” New York editor-in-chief David Haskell told The Fine Print, “that we look for situations where we have shared appetite — when all editorial parties are excited about doing something none of us could do as easily on our own — and in those situations let our creative ambition dictate what the collaboration looks like.”
A sampling of those collaborations so far: The Highlight, a section of Vox launched in 2019 as a “premium editorial product” for Apple’s paid News+ service, has run a slew of stories carrying the Epic name, including features on Norman Rockwell’s ’60s countercultural awakening, a mysterious epidemic at a Catholic boarding school in Mexico, the first encounters Black people had with police, and, in July, a piece on the kidnapping of a bus full of children in California. New York also collaborated with Epic on a package about people navigating their romantic lives during the pandemic last May. (Disclosure: The Fine Print reporter Julia Black contributed to that package.) And earlier this month, New York ran their collaboration with The Verge, a story about New York city delivery workers fighting back against brutal working conditions, on its cover.
One of the most complex of these collaborations, “Last Resort”, was published in August on New York’s site Vulture “in partnership with Epic.” But the discussion on the piece went back to December 2019, when Vox brought together employees from across its newly acquired divisions for a meetup at its corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. That’s where Joshuah Bearman, co-founder of Epic, met Genevieve Smith, New York’s features director. Bearman told Smith that he was working on a story about a father and son from New Jersey — the Patrick Allocos, junior and senior, a heroin addict and a hustler fuckup, respectively — who’d tried to arrange a Nas concert on New Year’s Eve in Luanda, Angola, and found themselves arranging their escape from the country instead.
At the time, Smith was intrigued but didn’t make any commitments. Over the next year, Bearman wrapped up his reporting, put together an outline, and started writing. “I’m looking at this outline and I smell 13,000 words, which is just on the outer edge of publishable,” he recalled, “but then I was writing it and I was halfway through the outline and it was already that length.” As the story ballooned, Bearman began to feel like it was working. On December 22, 2020, he sent Smith his draft. “I thought it would be a good time,” he said, “but apparently it was a bad time.” Smith waited to respond to the roughly 30,000-word story until after the holidays.
In January, she came back with an intriguing proposal of her own. Since last fall, she’d been talking about a publishing partnership with Jason Tanz, a special projects editor at Apple News. “The scale made it pretty clear that [“Last Resort”] didn’t really make sense for print,” she said, but “it felt like the right kind of story to test out these different models.” Tanz had been looking for stories that could initially run exclusively on Apple News+, before being published on one of New York’s sites. Smith began thinking that “Last Resort” might suit that purpose, but she learned that Bearman and Tanz, who before joining Apple was an editor at Wired where Bearman had published the article that was adapted into the Ben Affleck film Argo, were already talking. “When we went to Apple and said, ‘Hey, this is the story we’d like to use,’” she recalled, “they said, ‘Oh, that’s really funny because we’ve also been talking with Epic about the same story.’”
Not every collaboration between the Vox feature divisions has started with such loose coordination. “The cooler cross-Vox collaboration is the one that we just did with The Verge about delivery workers,” Smith said. “[The Verge’s features editor] Kevin [Nguyen] brought that story to me, and said, ‘Hey, we have this one that just came in, it seems like it might be great.’ We were able to bring all of our magazine know-how to push the reporting further, to fact-check, to bring amazing art to it, to bring amazing video to it, and really give it a super classic magazine polish.”
“Last Resort” was complicated by the Apple element. “There was a lot of negotiation,” said Smith, “a lot of back and forth with Epic, with Vox’s contracting department, through the legal department, with Apple about how the deal would go.” What they eventually decided was that the gargantuan story would run in three parts, first on Apple News+ in June and then on Vulture in August. A schedule with so many contingencies meant that they had to send it to the fact-checker in March. “We had to bake in time for all of that, which is, in part, why to do this experiment, it was helpful to have a digital-only piece,” Smith said. “It’s pretty easy to be flexible with the date for publishing something online. It is much harder for print.”
While Smith led the negotiations with Apple, she brought on Nick Summers, a features editor who had come over to New York from The New York Times last December, to edit the piece. “What I loved about it from the first read,” Summers said, “is that you begin it thinking that it’s an adventure tale and it ends up being this really engrossing story of addiction and redemption and the world’s most improbable recovery. You’re almost tricked as a reader.”
Summers experienced a similar twist late in the edit when Bearman explained why he’d connected so deeply with the Allocos. “My brother died of an overdose while I was working on this,” Bearman told The Fine Print. “That’s why I stuck with the story. I felt some obligation to tell a story like that and get it out there.”
“I was floored,” Summers said.
Summers also noticed that a story with such strong sentimental aspects exposed the variety of approaches that make up Vox’s current iteration. “For a story that is so thick with emotion, where it’s about fathers and sons and second chances and really improbable salvation and epiphanies,” he said, “there are certain choices that I think you make one way for Epic and a different way for New York. They’re on the margins, but they do result in a slightly different piece.”
Those subtle differences in approach may be what keeps Vox from merging their longform units. After all, it takes a true orchid connoisseur to tell one’s Cypripedium calceolus from his Dendrophylax lindenii.