Vox Media’s Chorus

As co-founder and publisher of De Correspondent, a Dutch journalism platform that broke the world record in journalism crowdfunding and now has 28,000 paying subscribers (€60 p/y), I’m spending a lot of my time working on our content management system called Respondens. On this blog I’m publicly researching our competitors and inspirations. Here’s my research on Chorus, the much applauded ‘modern media stack’ developed by Vox Media. For my research on other content management systems, head to this collection page.

Vox Media owns Chorus

In 2003 Vox Media (then called Sports Blogs Inc) started by launching a few sport blogs on a shared platform. Within seven years they’ve built an audience of nearly 90 million monthly users.

Vox Media’s sites – like The Verge and Vox.com – are well-known for their visual impact and the original ways they’re organizing their content, like Vox.com’s Stack Cards (more on that later).

These sites run on Chorus. This is Vox Media’s proprietary publishing platform. Although they rather call it a  ‘modern media stack’. The CMS – ‘content publishing’ – is just a part of technology:

An explanation of Chorus. Screenshot taken from Voxmedia.com. Click for larger version.
An explanation of Chorus. Screenshot taken from Voxmedia.com. Click for larger version.

Chorus finds its roots in the first websites has launched: sports blogs. Under the leadership of Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett they developed tools like word-recognition software that would help police comments and a livestream tool that combined tweets, commentary and reporting.

It’s now a vital part of the company. “I have a very deeply held belief that technology has to propel a media company”, said Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff, who joined the company in January 2009. Here’s how he described Chorus’s mission at a conference in June 2014:

“The notion was: let’s go after these topical points of passion for people. But to do that at scale, [we] needed a product platform…So, we developed one – it’s called ‘Chorus’. And Chorus really became the company’s primary asset. If you think of the great platforms of our time: Facebook, which is a platform for self-expression. Or Amazon, which is a platform for e-commerce. Or Nextflix, which is a platform for film entertainment. We aspire to be a platform for creating professional media brands at scale and also for brand advertising at scale.

“For this generation of talent, which grew up digitally, having the proper tools to ply their craft is essential”, Bankoff said. He seems right, because when wunderkind Ezra Klein left The Washington Post, he chose Vox Media as home for his new website because of Chorus. “They had the technology we thought we were inventing”, he told The New York Times. In the same article, the newspaper reported:

[Chorus] is credited with having a tool set that allows journalists to edit and illustrate their copy in dramatic fashion, promote their work on social media, and interact with readers — all seamlessly and intuitively.

At Vox Media, they seem to know the core reason for why their platform is so great: “Unlike many media companies that delegated the web publishing problem to the IT department, we built a platform from the ground up by iterating with bloggers who knew how to tell stories and build communities on the web,” Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett wrote on Vox Media’s product blog.

Vox Media has 65 engineers, product managers, designers, support managers and operations engineers working on Chorus.

Funding & Valuation:

Mother company Vox Media has raised $154.1 Million in eight rounds from six investors

In December 2014, Vox Media raised $46.5 million in a round led by General Atlantic. The funding gave Vox a post-money valuation of about $380 million, technology blog Recode reported. Here’s a memo by Vox’s CEO on this impressive round.

It’s unknown how much of the funding Vox Media spends on Chorus.

Can other publishers use Chorus?

There’s a chance Chorus will become available to the public. In August 2014,  Vox Media editorial director Lockhart Steele wrote in a blog post titled ‘The retro-futuristic future of blogging‘:

These days at Vox, we’re doing a lot of thinking about where Chorus itself is heading. Built as a platform for the best digital talent, it’s grown to become the best thing going for the creation of digital brands. Here now, the buried lede: perhaps Chorus should become a tool for more than just those of us employed at Vox Media, and a platform that transcends words in the ways that Vox Media has long since transcended just being a collection of websites?

Steele also mentioned that Vox Media acqui-hired Editorially founders Mandy Brown, David Yee and Jason Santa Maria to focus on getting Chorus to the public. Three months later, CEO Jim Bankoff elaborated about Lockhart Steele remarks in an interview with AdAge:

We haven’t announced anything specific. It was a little bit of a tease. First of all it starts with working with marketers. Marketers looking for more efficient ways to produce and distribute branded content. Our technology solutions can help them there. So that will be our starting point, and we’ll have more to talk about there. Beyond that, I think there are ways to work with other publishers. More broadly we’ve developed these great product capabilities that we use internally and they’re really robust. Our challenge over 2015 is to leverage those product capabilities in service of our various marketing and maybe publishing partners too. That’s a 2015 goal.

So an alpha program in 2015 looks like a safe bet.

How Chorus looks:

A screenshot of Sb Nation's backend, running Chorus. Published in May 2012 by TechCrunch.
A screenshot of Sb Nation’s backend, running Chorus. Published in May 2012 by TechCrunch. Click for a larger version.

This is a collection of icons made for Chorus by Cory Schmitz:

Chorus icons designed by Cory Schmitz
Chorus icons designed by Cory Schmitz

Sites running on Chorus

When Vox Media acquires a new site, they merged the content into Chorus. Here’s a blog post from one of their employees about how they’ve done this with Eater. Its editor-in-chief points out that Chorus allows them to focus on sustainable content:

“Chorus gives us the tool to publish reviews that can evolve, be updated frequently or annotated.”

These two Vox Media sites haven’t migrated to Chorus yet:

The advantages of Chorus

  • It’s built by bloggers, based on years of experience, experiments and data;
  • Vox.com, The Verge, Eater and other Vox Media sites prove you can build a hell of a site with Chorus;
  • Vox tries to figure out how to get past the format of an ‘article’. They rather update a page than churning out new articles all the time. They want to new information to live within its context.  As Vox.com’s editor Ezra Klein said: ‘We’re competing with Wikipedia’. The best example so far are the Vox.com’s Card Stacks. I assume these technologies are part of Chorus.
  • In May 2012, Vox Media offered a peek behind the screens to TechCrunch. In a raving review, TechCrunch noted these ‘stand-out features’:
    • full-fledged forums;
    • an editorial workflow system – the writer can start with just an idea and use Chorus to work on the draft with his colleagues;
    • a streamlined article page that automatically includes some links and other metadata for the journalist;
    • a variety of options for laying out posts;
    • a community  identity system that works throughout every site running on Chorus;
    • a promotion section for deciding whether to share with Twitter, Facebook, Google News and other sites;
    • advanced stats tracking features, which also suggests the best time for publishing your story.
  • It has a solid and fast liveblogging system called Syllabus, which Vox Media built in 3 months for The Verge and Polygon to host insanely popular liveblogs for major industry events. Read more about Syllabus in this blog on Idea Lab and this behind the screens post on their own product blog.

The disadvantages of Chorus

  • It’s unclear when other media outlets will be able to use Chorus;
  • If so, you’ll never be their most important client (their own sites will take that place for you);
  • “In Chorus, there are sometimes a lot of bugs and a lot of new tools consistently being built, tested and deployed”, says support manager Elite Truong;
  • Chorus is not just a tool for journalists, it also helps marketers to create unique content for its clients. The head of marketing team at Vox Media pointed out Chorus as a good tool for advertisers. I’m not a fan of native advertising and the blurred lines between journalism and advertising. In fact, I co-founded an ad-free (and world record-breaking) publication. For those who are also skeptical of the ‘ads race to the bottom’, Chorus probably isn’t a fit.

Interesting reads

  • The Vox product team regularly writes updates about their big projects, acquisitions and hack weeks. A bit jubilant here and there, but often packed with interesting specifics. Some highlights:
    • Their intro blog from May 2012 in which Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett explains their mission.
    • In this blog post VP of Engineering Michael Lovitt explains how they’ve built the first version of Vox.com in only nine weeks.
    • And here’s one about the migration of Eater.com from Movable Type to Chorus.
  • When The Verge launched in November 2011, Nieman Lab summarized what makes the site so great (and you could easily project this on Vox Media’s other sites).
  • In May 2012, TechCrunch’s Eric Eldon wrote an enthusiastic review about Chorus: ‘the rest of us have been stuck turning screwdrivers’. As far as I know, he’s the only journalist who has gotten an on the record sneak peek of the publishing platform.
  • In April 2014, The Washington Post named CEO Jim Bankoff the ‘Media Mogul No One Knows‘. It’s an insightful profile about a man who used to build media brands for AOL and it’s commonly known as a ‘very good leader’.
  • Chorus is mostly a single Ruby on Rails app, read more about the technical background on their product site.
  • Read about the design process of a typical Vox Media site and the role of Chorus in it.
Mobile screenshots of Polygon, Vox Media's gaming site.
Mobile screenshots of Polygon, Vox Media’s gaming site.

And here’s a video of Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett talking about Chorus and how it facilitates communities:

The end

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Chorus research! I’ll keep updating this page. Last time I did was on December 4th, 2014. Let me know through Twitter or the comments form if you have any questions or suggestions and subscribe to the RSS feed for further updates.

19 thoughts on “Vox Media’s Chorus”

  1. Thank you, a good research. I think Vox is on the right track: people search for good content served nicely on every device – and the whole thing is made for the people who operate the CMS to work fluently.

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