On The Verge of greatness

By Andrew McMurtry for Media News, 23/May/2012 16:27

The rise of US tech media website The Verge has been almost unprecedented, growing from nothing to a daily audience of 1.9 million unique daily browsers in not much more than six months. ITJourno tracked down editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky to pick his brain as to what has made The Verge so successful in such a short space of time.

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Born from a skeleton crew of the Engadget website and nurtured by Vox Media, The Verge has quickly become one of the most respected names in the global technology media. After launching the site in November 2011, the site has expanded to include a podcast called The Vergecast and an online talk show with some of the biggest names in technology called On The Verge. It’s a blend of formats that has worked well for the website, with editor-in-chief Joshua Topolsky not singling any one person out for special praise.

“The secret of our success comes down to hard work, great talent, and a team that works together — truly together — to make great things happen,” Topolsky stated. “There is really no accounting for hard work. Hard work, and surprisingly, being kind. I think it's easy to get caught up in the race to ‘win’, and forget that human beings are human beings, and that you have to treat people kindly.”

“I think a little personality and kindness goes a long way in establishing good relationships — relationships which will ultimately help you when you're out there trying to get something done. Of course, it never hurts to have a story or angle that no one else has.”

So far, it has been successful for the team, with sponsors such as BMW, Ford, Sony, and Dell and 3.7million page views from a daily audience of over 1.9 million unique browsers. Topolsky said that The Verge team was trying to be “as aggressive as possible in pursuing the things that we think are really cool and relevant and interesting”.

“I don't know if it's different than what other people are doing, but I've made it a really big point to follow what we truly believe is cool to us, and not rely on pageviews or math to decide what we are or who we are as a publication,” Topolsky commented. “That said, even though we know how to do a lot of what we do, there are also a lot of new things that we're experimenting with and exploring. I think exploration and fearlessness about trying new things is extremely important in making something that resonates with our audience (and beyond that audience).”

Leaving Engadget; creating The Verge

While The Verge is going well, the creation of the website came out of a rather ugly situation that led to the mass exodus from Engadget , after publishing house AOL made it clear they were planning to build a media empire off the back of their uber-popular tech title. Despite bringing only a third of the Engadget readership with them to The Verge, Topolsky said that The Verge offered greater freedom.

“There were many, many things we wanted to do at Engadget but couldn't accomplish for a variety of reasons — whether it was resources, money, or just being a part of a company that understood who we were and what we could be,” he said. “At some point it started becoming clear to me that the only way to do what I wanted to do was to start fresh somewhere else.”

One of the aspects of running a new site that seemed to appeal to Topolsky was the design freedoms that he was able to have. In most of the reviews of the site that came out around the launch, many commented on the layout and design of the site with blogger Ben Brooks even saying “puts to shame even larger sites like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal”.

“I believe that design should never come second to content,” Topolsky stated. “In fact, in our medium, there is such a connection between design and content that it would be foolish to downplay its importance. Look, where you read and how you read about technology is intimately connected to that technology — it's a weird relationship that doesn't exist anywhere outside of the online tech media space. When you're reading about the new iPad, you may be reading it on the new iPad. You have to think about design, you have to think about presentation.”

“In addition, there seems to be some invisible mandate that beauty must take a backseat to content, particularly online. This couldn't be further from the truth. Beauty is important, it creates connections, it imprints in a more ethereal way than content does. I firmly believe part of our continued success will centre on us continuing to make beautiful design a major component of our site.”

The future of publishing

“On a purely technical level, it's important to say that we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what's possible in online publishing,” Topolsky added. “We've been looking at ‘blogs’ for 10 years now. Nothing has changed and something has to change. The canvas of the web is wildly underused in publishing.”

If what Topolsky says is true, it is going to be an interesting time for the technology media as old and new outlets try to find their place in the ecosystem. However, Topolsky said that it will also allow media outlets the opportunity to work out different ways of reaching their audiences.

“I think we're experiencing a boom in terms of outlets right now,” he commented. “Yes, magazines and print publications are hurting, but we're also seeing some new properties emerge even in that space that are very exciting. The boom is going to be very chaotic, very confusing.”

“We're going to see a lot of sites and publications appear and disappear in the next five years, as the world of technology becomes part of mainstream culture, everyone is going to try and play a hand. The hard part, of course, is knowing how to play - and I think we'll see a lot of confusion about how you properly cover this space.”

For The Verge though, Topolsky said they were not planning to launch sites outside the US at this stage and that the site would try to continue to evolve with new sections and features, as they have done by currently housing Vox Media’s new gaming hub Polygon. He told ITJourno that he thinks of The Verge as “an app which should be updated and tweaked, and we're sticking to that plan”.

Social media and working with PR

Having launched to such massive numbers, Topolsky gives a lot of the credit for the site massive opening and continued success to social media.

Twitter has been enormously important for us,” he said. “I think the reason is actually quite simple — besides being a real-time source for readers to discover news, it also lowers barriers between editors and the reader. It's not just a broadcasting tool - it's a conversation tool. I think that we've managed to make connections for people on Twitter that are especially important because there is no wall.”

As for PR professionals, he offers a few universal hints that to work with media outlets that he says are important no matter where in the world you work.

“Don't be annoying. If you send two emails with no response, don't call. If we want to write the story, we will let you know,” Topolsky exclaimed. “Trust me, we're constantly looking for news. We're not going to ignore your emails and then suddenly decide to write the story because you called. PR people need to learn to take a hint. Also, and this is really important, know who you're talking to. Don't pitch to people if you don't know what they cover — it's insulting.”

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For more information on Joshua Topolsky or The Verge, please visit the website here.

For any tips or story ideas, please contact us at andrew@mediaconnect.com.au or (02) 9894 6277 or tweet me at @AndrewMcMurtry.  ​

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