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Live from Web Summit: Jim Bankoff on leading in 2020

Vox Media’s CEO and Co-Founder speaks with Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell about industry trends, diversity, equity & inclusion, and planning for a post-pandemic future

On the virtual stage at Web Summit, traditionally held in Lisbon, Vox Media’s CEO, Chairman, and Co-Founder Jim Bankoff reflected on leading the modern media company as it both navigates and covers 2020’s biggest developments. In a conversation led by Alyson Shontell, Editor-in-Chief at Business Insider, Bankoff discussed the pandemic, protests for racial equity and justice, and the US presidential election — as well as his optimism for the media industry in 2021.

Here are some highlights of the conversation.

Leadership ethos as the pandemic began: prioritizing health, adjusting how we work, and empowering leaders to make their own calls

2019 was a banner year for Vox Media, marked by a merger with New York Magazine and two acquisitions: Epic, the Academy Award-winning nonfiction storytelling studio and creators of Little America, and Coral, the commenting platform that builds safer online communities. Though early 2020 held many of the same ambitious promises, by April 2020, Bankoff told Vox Media employees: “the expectations that we had just a few weeks ago for our lives and our businesses no longer apply.”

In conversation with Shontell, Bankoff outlined how he approached the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.

  • “First and foremost, we wanted to ensure the health of our employees, and that meant shutting down offices….we made a call to send people home and do our best to keep them safe, before there was any official or government communication about what was going on. Leaders had to make their own calls.”
  • “Second thing: well-being and mental health...with people suffering through not only a health pandemic but an economic crisis,” as well as social injustices. This includes supporting employees in unique situations — notably caregivers and parents.”
  • “The third thing is we’re still running a a journalistic, news-based enterprise, we need to serve our audiences — even while the first two things are going on.” This required adjusting how we work, as podcasts were recorded from closets; Vox and Vox Media Studios produced a show for Netflix on the pandemic, completely remotely; and New York Magazine never missed or delayed one print issue.”

Four industry trends that will last: subscriptions, e-commerce, streaming & web video, and consolidation

Bankoff has long referred to leading a modern media company as operating a Rubik’s Cube. In Vox Media’s case, he explains, he must consistently optimize three parts of the business (or planes of the cube): one plane is 13 editorial properties, from SB Nation to The Cut; the second plane is 7 diverse and varied businesses, from premium programmatic to podcasting; and the third is the platforms we program to, from YouTube to Netflix.

As media trends were accelerated by the 2020 pandemic and economic crisis, Shontell asks, “how do you readjust that Rubik’s Cube for the trends that will stay with media?”

Bankoff says he strives to “capture the big trends we see coming out of the pandemic.” Specifically, he highlights:

  1. Subscriptions. More people are willing to subscribe to things they care about. At Vox Media, “subscriptions grew at an all-time record pace,” says Bankoff, “helping to diversify our revenue and connecting us to our readers in a more profound way.”
  2. E-commerce. Some analysts say shifts from in-person to digital retail is accelerating by as much as 5 years. “For a media company like us, that means a real investment in curated, affiliate commerce,” he says, citing The Strategist and The Verge as prime examples of Vox Media’s approach. (Commerce revenue at the Strategist is up ~50% year-over-year.)
  3. Streaming and web video. The pandemic accelerated this trend and only enhanced Vox Media’s commitment to the space. “More so than any other web publisher, we’ve been successful [in this space],” Bankoff says, as he lists off recent projects such as “a big partnership with Hulu, where we just launched Eater’s Guide to the World,” “other shows with David Chang and Chrissy Teigen,” and Vox’s YouTube channel, “the largest web video channel in the news category on YouTube.”
  4. Consolidation. On a macro level, Bankoff adds that he expects to continue to see consolidation in the industry. “That will be an opportunity for Vox Media to continue to not only grow organically, as we have been, but to look for opportunistic acquisitions.”

Journalistic neutrality amid 2020’s cultural sea change: “There is moral clarity on certain issues.”

Shontell asks Bankoff about leadership during the cultural movements we’ve seen in 2020, including those brought on by the murder of George Floyd and an unprecedented election that impacted staff as both media professionals and individuals. “Our staff has felt it, I’m sure your staff has felt it,” Shontell shares, adding that it seems like attitudes of journalists are changing — no longer necessarily objective and neutral as journalists have historically been. “What do you expect from your staff as you navigate this?”

Bankoff first acknowledges Vox Media’s 13 newsrooms, full of leaders and “an empowered staff” with editorial independence and discretion to run their newsrooms. But, “that said, we as a company have a set of values,” he makes clear, adding that “all of our editors understand that there is right and wrong and there is moral clarity on certain issues: racism is evil, racism is wrong; in our newsrooms, there isn’t any debate about that.”

The societal racial reckoning — driven by the most recent injustices in the 401 years long state-sanctioned racism and violence against Black people in this country — also accelerated Vox Media’s steps to continue to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive company culture. To this effort, Bankoff describes four pillars of work: representation and access; reflecting values in our products and services; career progression; and transparency and communication.

Advice from a media entrepreneur: “Focus on quality *and* on something that can scale.”

Closing out the conversation, Shontell asks Bankoff for advice for entrepreneurs and founders today. As a 20+-year veteran of the media industry, Bankoff is quick to remind audiences that he’s still a media entrepreneur. Thinking about where to place bets and make smart investments “isn’t just a thought exercise, but something we act on every day,” he says. Specifically, for Vox Media, “we’re investing in podcasting.”

In taking a longer lens, Bankoff recalls “a lesson we’ve learned here is to focus on quality *and* to focus on something that can scale.”

“We’ve gotten here by not taking shortcuts. By using technology, by focusing on what’s new, but making sure there’s a quality product on the other side….Quality has been the guardrails to our growth.”