Dylan Byers, who covers the media for Politico, wrote an article entitled Vox not living up to the hype, explained.
The title sums up the gist of the article.
In the beginning paragraphs Byers presents opinions critical of Vox from a host of unnamed sources within the news industry. Beginning the article with a stream of anonymous individuals made the article weak from the outset.
An article of this nature should not need to be peppered with phrases like "many journalists and news editors", "some say", and "industry sources say". Byers is a journalist, writing about the opinions of other journalists. Certainly he could find a few sources willing to talk on the record.
Here's one of the oddest examples:
Some argue that, far from a radical reinvention of journalism, it's closer to a redeployment of the old models: three parts Wonkblog — the blog he had at The Post, which explained current events and policy debates through charts and data — and one part Wikipedia, with “explainers” on big issues like ISIS and the Ebola outbreak.
I have no reason to believe that Byers is making up the "Some" who have arrived at this very specific proportional formula. Vox does have critics. I've read a number of critiques of Vox by journalists, most notably Roy Peter Clark's article A new explanatory journalism can be built on a strong foundation.
I generally enjoy stories by Byers, so I don't have an ax to grind, but I think he could have turned this from a weak set of criticisms into a very good article with a few changes of emphasis.
One of the topics this article hints at without explicitly mentioning is traditional print journalism vs. web-only news sites. The entire news industry is going through a revenue crisis, but newspapers and news magazines have been hit particularly hard. Pew Research's annual report The State of the Media has been a depressing read for the past few years.
Traditional outlets are learning how to effectively use digital media, but print publications have enormous expenses that web-only publications don't. In specialized media aimed at journalists (Poynter.com, Columbia Journalism Review, etc) the undercurrent of tension between people with backgrounds in traditional journalism and those who grew up within internet culture is palpable.
From a practical standpoint I would consider anyone crazy who launched a news startup which included a print edition. But existing publications don't have the option of divesting themselves of that expense. I suspect some of the unnamed sources in the Byers article are reacting as much to anxiety over industry changes as they are to Vox.
Another issue is the form of writing known as the "inverted pyramid", in which you cram the "who what when where why" of the story into the first few lines. Traditional reporters chased their story, then constructed an opening "lede" of the following form:
"Monday evening the city council voted to require that all dogs be controlled on a leash while in public. This was in response to a recent string of attacks by dogs."
Journalists who began their careers writing on the web can't see the point of maintaining a form which was a necessity in the 19th Century because of the expense of sending long articles via telegraph. And it isn't an issue of concise versus lengthy articles. The web creates the potential for many possible forms of news delivery beyond the traditional format.
I suspect that the unnamed journalists and editors in the article miss the point of Vox. Novelty is a red herring. I doubt that Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, Matt Yglesias, Sara Kliff, or any of the other Vox writers are under the illusion that they've invented a unique genre. What they have created is a web-only publication featuring a number of excellent journalists, which explicitly practices explanatory journalism. It doesn't matter whether they use "cards", "slides", or "listicles". That's just a formatting issue.
Byers would have been better off framing this as as an issue of the tensions between web journalism and traditional hard copy journalism, rather than putting forth the weird notion that a heavily capitalized, well written publication with growing popularity has failed after five months.
FYI: I edited the first paragraph of this post for clarity about a week after I initially posted it. Nothing about my argument has changed. I merely cleaned up a few awkward sentences.