Vox Media has had disclosure problems in the past (FAIR.org, 9/9/15), but a survey of its overlapping interests—and some strangely PR-sounding articles—highlights how glaring and extensive these conflicts have become.
One of Vox’s major investors—second only to Comcast—is General Atlantic. The New York–based private equity firm invested $46.5 million in Vox Media in December 2014, roughly six months after the flagship website Vox.com launched. As part of the deal, General Atlantic VP Zachary Kaplan got a seat on Vox Media’s corporate board (as is common in large investment rounds). General Atlantic also invests in several technology and media companies Vox Media covers, without Vox disclosing this fact.
For example, General Atlantic was one investor in a recent $1.8 billion fundraising round for Snap, Inc., the company formerly known as SnapChat that makes the popular social media photo app by the same name. Vox’s coverage of Snapchat since General Atlantic’s May 2016 investment has been glossy and favorable, primarily in its New Money section launched in October:
- Snapchat’s $25 Billion Initial Public Offering, Explained for People Over 30 (10/6/16)
- The Snapchat Spectacles Craze, Explained (12/14/16)
Nowhere in these flattering articles is it mentioned that Vox Media shares a sizable investor and board member with a private equity firm invested in Snap, Inc. The October article is an explainer on why Snapchat’s large IPO is justified, and the December post is indistinguishable from a Snap, Inc. press release:
With each holiday season comes a new hard-to-get item. This year Snapchat’s spectacles hold that crown…
Getting my hands on a pair of Snapchat Spectacles last month wasn’t easy. The glasses are made available in random locations at any given moment. Luckily for me and the rest of New York City, Snapchat’s opened a store in the Big Apple for the holidays. Still, I had to wait in line for five hours to get my pair.
Why are people so excited?…
Activities in which Spectacles make sense are numerous: rock-climbing, concert-going, playing with a baby, etc.
The same day, Vox Media’s tech vertical, The Verge, also ran something that read like an ad with no disclosure:
- You Can Get Prescription Lenses for Your Spectacles for as Little as $29 (12/14/16)
It’s common for tech websites to run puff copy for products, but in the context of a shared investor and Vox’s corresponding post, the lack of clear disclosure does a disservice to Vox’s readers.
General Atlantic was also one of three lead investors in a $1.5 billion fundraising round for AirBnb in December 2015. While Vox has been critical of AirBnb’s high-profile problems with racist users, the New Money vertical was quick to defend the San Fransisco room-sharing giant after New York state passed restrictive legislation—again, without any disclosure of General Atlantic’s investment: “New York’s Crackdown on ‘Commercial’ Airbnb Listings Is Misguided” (11/18/16).
When asked for comment on their disclosure policy, Vox managing editor Lauren Williams wrote back, “That’s something we’ve been thinking about, and we plan to post one in the new year.” A follow-up email asking whether Vox covering companies owned by its major investors was a potential problem has had no response so far.
Vox Media also shares a major investor, Comcast (via the cable giant’s NBCUniversal subsidiary), with BuzzFeed. The cable giant gave both companies $200 million in August 2015, and gave Buzzfeed another $200 million in October 2016. On Monday, Vox Media’s ReCode (12/19/16) published what was literally a press release from BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti without disclosing this shared investor.
Vox has also frequently written directly on Comcast without any disclosure that it is its primary investor. One explainer from last year (4/24/15) detailing the failed Comcast/Time Warner merger didn’t mention this fact at all—a stark omission even by the most liberal standards of disclosure.
While it’s not as journalistically problematic, Vox’s television writers frequently give fawning reviews of NBC shows (e.g., “NBC Is the Internet’s TV Network Punching Bag. But Its Fall Schedule Is Its Best in Years,” 8/16/16) without disclosing NBCUniversal is its primary investor (though, it should be noted, Vox did pan NBC’s Olympics coverage).
Curious how Vox got such a scoop? Probably because SeeSo is a subscription service owned by NBCUniversal—a fact not disclosed in these puff pieces, or any of Vox’s television coverage.
Indeed, the closest one can get to disclosure guidelines comes from a rather defensive post last year (10/27/15) from TV and culture writer Todd VanDerWerff after Zaid Jilani (AlterNet, 10/26/15) and others brought up the fact that VanDerWerff wrote a glowing endorsement of Hulu without disclosing that the video streaming service and Vox shared an investor in NBCUniversal. Basically, VanDerWerff insisted that NBCUniversal is a “minority shareholder” in Vox Media (and therefore beneath mention), despite the fact that two-thirds of the cash Vox has raised to date has come from the media giant. Because Vox Media is a private company, shareholder breakdown is impossible to determine, but insisting it’s “minor” is misleading to the average SEC-illiterate reader.
While Vox coverage of its corporate parents, siblings and cousins isn’t uniformly positive, all too often it is. Even in stories that aren’t more or less verbatim PR copy, disclosures ought to be mandatory—especially when it’s as direct as covering Comcast and NBC corporate. For startups, major investors are tantamount to ownership in every sense of the word, and since traditional media companies disclose ownership, there’s no reason why this same standard wouldn’t apply to venture capital and private equity-backed New Media outfits.
Complexity is no excuse for not disclosing obvious conflicts, nor does it justify running a major media site for two-and-a-half years without a public, clearly worded code of ethics. Vox Media has raised over $300 million and has a staff reportedly of over 400 people. With all those resources, perhaps they can take a week off and hash out a coherent ethics guide that reflects the economic realities of PE- and corporate-backed “disruptive” media.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.