There is no doubt the media industry can be pretty cutthroat. Publishers are always looking for new ways to generate revenue and compete with big tech, which dominates the digital advertising market.
Increasingly, media companies are diversifying revenue through subscriptions. So, when news broke that Vox Media acquired the Hot Pod newsletter, many focused on the fact that this would be The Verge’s first paid-for product. But there’s more to it. This is a story of friendship, partnership, trust, and serendipity – all of which form a strong foundation for growth.
According to The Verge’s editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel, the idea to acquire Hot Pod came about because it’s founder Nicholas Quah decided it was time to move on. Quah took on a full-time position as a podcast critic on Vulture, a Vox Media title, and was ready to shut down the baby he’d birthed back in 2014. But Patel had other ideas.
“Rather than just shut down Hot Pod, I suggested Nick sell it to Vox,” explains Patel. “It was an ideal opportunity. We like Nick. We like Hot Pod. And Nick knows us, he knows our work, and he trusts us with the product that he built. It seemed like the natural home for Hot Pod. I’m not sure a paid product on Verge would have happened otherwise. The pieces just fell together.”
This new acquisition, which increases Vox Media’s growing arsenal of brands, wasn’t purely philanthropic – after all, they have a business to run. Patel says The Verge team had been thinking about moving into paid product for some time. It was all about finding the right product, at the right time.
“Nick’s legacy Is strong. So, we have the right product and the right audience” says Patel. “This will help us learn how to deal with a paid product, without the challenge of having to build the product as well and verify two things at once.
“We have a lot to learn, but we are looking at this as a test. When we have more experience in this area, we can create new paid products down the line.”
Another key piece in the puzzle was Ashley Carman, senior Verge reporter, who will take over as lead writer of Hot Pod. Carman is a respected name in the industry, thanks to her essential reportage of podcasting and audio.
“Ashley turns up in Hot Pod all the time, as she is one of the best podcast reporters,” says Patel. “Plus, she has worked with Nick in the past, so there is a lot of inbuilt trust and the audience know her. This means the transition should be seamless, which is another potential risk that is lowered. We wouldn’t have done this deal without her.”
Trust is a word that comes up time and time again when talking to Patel. It’s clear that this is one of the reasons The Verge has amassed a loyal audience of over 50 million. That and the fact it delivers award-winning content – for free. Content across all of Vox Media – including The Verge, Recode, Polygon and more – has been free to access since its launch a decade ago. (Though about a year and a half ago, they began soliciting reader contributions to help support their journalism.) The company merged with New York, which does have subscription-based brands, in 2019.
The combined media organization boasts a roster of fan favorites, reaching audiences obsessed with tech, gaming, music, food, lifestyle and – of course – the city that never sleeps. It has also been building up its roster of newsletters and a formidable slate of podcasts. The Hot Pod acquisition adds another brand with deep insider knowledge that fans trust, which the company believes they will pay for.
“We have a very large, free audience at The Verge. And we are proud of that” says Patel. “They will continue to be well served with free content. But in addition, we will offer Hot Pod, which is a great product.
Vox plans to keep the subscription price for the newsletter at $7 per month. However, it is offering paid current subscribers a three-month subscription to New York magazine, which Quah also works for. So, what does Patel think The Verge audience will make of this new paid-for product?
“We realize you can’t just charge for more stuff. You have to charge for content that is useful and valuable. We think Ashley can deliver a lot of value that is worth paying for.”
Patel says they have a load of new ideas for Hot Pod, such as reviews of software and services that the podcast industry runs on, more features, and a broader focus on technology – rather than just podcasting. But first they plan on managing the transition in a way that ensures the audience feels “cared for.”
“Over time we will make changes, with a focus on improving user experience,” he explains. “Hot Pod is already a must read. We want to make it a definitive must read.”
“Verge has a huge team, with 70-plus people in the newsroom behind us. So, we can bring new, exciting things to Hot Pod. But before we start instituting change, we are going to prove we deserve the audience and their money.”
After all, bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes taking an independent, trusted product and giving it big backing turns out to be the beginning of the end. Hot Pod’s new host, Carmen can attest to that. One of her recent investigations offered some insights into ways this can take shape. She took a look at how podcasting’s big bad boy Joe Rogan was faring after signing a $100 million exclusive deal with Spotify. Carmen cleverly tracked indicators on social platforms and found that Rogan’s influence has actually decreased since joining the podcasting giant.
Until now podcasting has largely been the domain of independents and creatives using open platforms to distribute and market their work. But the big tech companies know there’s money there and they have arrived in force.
“At The Verge we don’t actually think that dynamic is good, which is sympatico with the Hot Pod audience and what Nick’s ethos was,” says Patel. “There is a vibrant, open eco system of creators that makes the internet and our culture what it is.”
Once again, it’s all about building trust with your audience – and not just attracting big names or making changes for a fast buck. “So much of what is good about podcasting is the democratic access to distribution. And, as distribution channels become more tightly controlled, we will see aggressive ways of pushing back.”
“For us, the story is the push and pull between what people like and what the platform companies want to do, and how they do it. And Ashley is very focussed on that story.”
Meanwhile, the company will take its first crack at a subscription product amidst a newsletter (and podcasting) boom. And with its latest acquisition, Vox Media continues to experiment and innovate – while focusing on supporting creators, quality journalism, audience engagement – and trust all-around.