Making Sense of Vox Media’s New Org Chart
After years of growing through acquisitions, the publisher recently created a new tier of group publishers who oversee both editorial and business operations of its titles
When Vox Media president Pam Wasserstein announced the company was reorganizing its brands under five group publishers in March, one might have expected Melissa Bell to sit at the head of the table. After co-founding Vox.com in 2014, she was promoted to publisher of all of Vox Media in 2016 and given a remit of overseeing all of the company’s brands. Reporting on the move, The New York Times’s Sydney Ember wrote that Vox Media had taken “another step in its evolution from startup to mature business and embraced a more traditional executive role.” But, of course, Vox Media is a lot bigger now than it was six years ago, having absorbed, among others, New York magazine and its digital brands and, in a merger that closed in February, Group Nine’s titles Popsugar, Thrillist, The Dodo, and NowThis. When Vox Media redrew its org chart to reflect the new additions, Bell took on a smaller role as group publisher for Vox and NowThis. Was there ever a question of her taking on the role of overseeing the group publishers that Wasserstein is now filling?
“No,” she said, after a good deal of nervous-sounding laughter. Bell explained that she’d taken on bigger and bigger roles as the company has expanded because somebody needed to do it, not necessarily because it was what she wanted to do most. “It was a lot of context switching. I’d be in a meeting about what we should do with our golf coverage on SB Nation, and then I would switch to a meeting about our HR best practices. I always felt like I was jumping from thing to thing so quickly that I could never go deep on anything,” she said.
“I’m really glad I did it. I feel so thrilled that I got to help build Vox Media to where it’s at now, but the last two years confirmed to me that we are figuring it out, we know what we’re doing with our business, we know what we’re doing with our company.” That feeling of overall stability allowed her to relinquish the larger responsibilities and go back to working with just two publications. “It could keep going on, and I could choose to do something that would get me back to the journalism a little bit more deeply,” she said.
Others in Vox’s newly minted class of group publishers had almost the exact opposite experience. When Amanda Kludt accepted the Ellie for lifestyle journalism at the National Magazine Awards on April 5, she was announced as Eater’s editor-in-chief even though she’d already moved up to group publisher for Eater, Punch (a site Vox acquired in 2021 and folded into Eater), as well as Group Nine additions Popsugar and Thrillist. “I think they announce what your title was when the thing was published,” she guessed after the ceremony. The expansion of her scope has been exciting for her. “I’ve been in food for 14 years,” she said, “so to get to cover lifestyle and women’s media is new for me, and I’m learning a lot.”
For YuJung Kim, previously president of The Dodo and now group publisher for The Dodo and SB Nation, adding the sports site to her responsibilities has represented a return to an earlier passion. Before joining the animal lovers site, she was director of global digital media for the NBA. But just because she cares about animals and sports doesn’t mean working on both publications together made immediate intuitive sense. “I was thinking about that a lot when I was approached with this opportunity,” Kim said.
Most of the common ground she’s found involves how people interact with online sports and animal communities. “Very few people actually say, ‘I’m a sports fan,’ and very few people, these days more and more, say, ‘I love animals’ or ‘I love dogs.’ They say, ‘I’m a corgi person,’ just like you would say, ‘I’m an Eagles fan,’ or ‘I love LeBron.’ So I think both of these really get to the heart of how people identify themselves and the communities that they choose to associate themselves with. So, having that niche within a niche, layers of the onion across both means that when it comes to building these communities, there are a lot of parallels.”
For others of the group publishers, very little has changed. Polygon and The Verge group publisher Chris Grant and New York editor-in-chief David Haskell still have largely the same remits as before the reorg. “Polygon came from The Verge and was like a sister brand from the very beginning,” Bell said. “They worked previously as our ur-example of this. They were the first group that had the two side by side, so that’s how we thought about the rest of the models that it was similar to what the Verge and Polygon were doing. They’ve learned a lot working closely together under Chris.”
Haskell, too, is technically a group publisher, overseeing all of New York’s verticals, though he’s kept editor-in-chief as his public-facing title. “Functionally, he’s in a similar role as the rest of us,” Bell said. “He worked in a role prior to becoming editor-in-chief of thinking about new business opportunities for New Yorkmagazine when Adam Moss was still there. He was instrumental in building out The Strategist and came up with that plan. So he’s a great example of somebody that is deeply curious about the business model, but I think in a magazine world externally, he should be the editor-in-chief of New York magazine. But internally, he functions in the same role.”
Though Haskell’s the only one clinging to an editor title, all of the group publishers meld two traditional roles, publisher and editor-in-chief, straddling both business and editorial. “Every group publisher is very different and comes from a pretty different background,” said Kim, whose experience has been on the business side. “When it comes to the group publisher role, sitting at the intersection of creative and business is a large part of the role, if not the role, because there is equally that component of managing your business as a largely self-sustaining business, while of course, overseeing an entire team of creatives. So it is very much a blend of the two and requires wearing both hats.”
It’s a melding that’s far from unprecedented at Vox Media, with Bell, a former Washington Post reporter, as a prime example. “I think more journalists should move into the business side and be curious about the business side, because it’s fascinating, it’s complicated,” she said. “I think that bringing our background as journalists and our curiosity as journalists to the business side is actually a real way for us to get more creative about how we are building businesses around journalism in general.”
And yet, fusing the roles and publications is easier announced than done. Kim has been trying to figure out how to reallocate her time between The Dodo and SB Nation. “Despite what I said about the common points of passion and all that, at the operational level, there aren’t that many synergies, at least at the outset, when you’re just trying to get your head around this whole second brand,” she said. “With The Dodo, I’m deep into it. Whereas with SB Nation, I’m really in that listening-learning phase. So, from a time perspective, I don’t know how it all nets out, but with The Dodo I am doing and with SB Nation I haven’t done anything yet. I’ve really just been listening.”
The two publications haven’t talked too much about sharing content yet, but some ideas are floating around. “We’ve jokingly, not jokingly talked about the content collaboration opportunity because so many athletes are animal lovers themselves, so that’s something I’d love to personally explore,” Kim said, “and I think our respective audiences would get a kick out of it.”
Bell, too, is still adjusting to her new role and figuring out how to juggle her publications. She left Vox, the publication, for the bigger job at Vox Media six years ago, and since then, there’s been a large amount of turnover, including Swati Sharma taking over as editor-in-chief in 2021. So, Bell knows most of the people there, but she hasn’t worked this closely with them before. “It totally feels like a new job, but a new job where you know all of the people and they know you,” she said.
NowThis, on the other hand, is a former competitor. “When I was thinking about starting Vox, I visited the NowThis offices, and I was really impressed with this team that was stating that they could do great journalism, but in a very different format than journalism was being made at the time,” Bell recalled. “I was inspired, that you could create a startup in the news space that could break boundaries and do something real. So it’s really fun to now full circle get to work with them.”
For the most part, her work with NowThis at this point involves helping them understand how to fit into Vox Media. “While we’re merging and creating a new company, it does feel, I think, to Group Nine, a little bit more like they’re moving into Vox Media,” she said. “We’re a very big company now. I mean, we’re over 2000 employees — it’s wild to think that — but I do think that there’s a part of my role that’s helping them navigate the organization.”