Jul 18, 2023 - Economy

Scoop: Vox Media drops its own CMS

Illustration of a cursor arrow drooping downward

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Vox Media, the parent company to websites such as New York Magazine, Eater and SB Nation, will no longer use Chorus — its proprietary content management system — to power its own websites, sources told Axios.

Why it matters: CMS licensing was once seen as a lucrative opportunity for publishers looking to grow revenue beyond ad dollars. But WordPress' continued dominance in the space has made it harder to compete.

Catch up quick: Vox Media began licensing its proprietary CMS to other publishers in 2018.

  • It stopped licensing Chorus to external publishers last year, per Adweek, but continued to use it to power its own network of over a dozen digital media sites.
  • The company still owns other tech products, including Concert, its advertising platform, and Coral, the commenting platform it acquired in 2019. But moving forward, monetizing its own audience engagement will become a bigger focus.

Details: Vox Media will move its own websites off of Chorus and into WordPress VIP, the enterprise arm of the 20-year-old CMS company.

  • The migration is part of a broader strategic partnership that will allow Vox Media to extend the reach of Concert and Coral, while focusing on its core revenue streams, like advertising and subscriptions.
  • Concert and Coral will both soon become part of a new tool set for publishers that will be made available to WordPress VIP clients.
  • Vox Media will still use its internal front-end publishing platform, Duet, to power most of its audience experiences. The company launched Duet last year as a part of the redesign of its flagship tech publication, The Verge.

Between the lines: Vox Media decided to focus on its "core" business in advertising and subscriptions when the pandemic hit, CEO Jim Bankoff told Axios at Cannes last month when asked about the move away from licensing tech.

  • "Chorus is an amazing platform. But when the pandemic came, it just became a harder market," Bankoff said.
  • "It is an entirely different market going out and servicing SaaS clients — one that we were succeeding in but one that we said, 'All right, if we're going to focus as a company, let's focus on our audience-based businesses.'"

Zoom out: For years, publishers have tried to build and license their own CMS, only to find that tech firms, like WordPress, are hard to compete with, due to their focus and resources.

  • In 2015, Gawker stopped licensing its tech platform Kinja to other media companies. Then-CEO Nick Denton attributed the decision to "competition that exists from technology companies devoted entirely to that challenge."
  • The Washington Post has pivoted its CMS licensing strategy to focus more on enterprise clients, although media remains a large client base.
  • Like Vox Media, it too has partially transitioned off of its own CMS, Arc XP. Its engineers were forced to create a separate version of its CMS to power its own site as it grew more complex, Axios reported.
  • The Post also discontinued its ad tech arm, Zeus, as a stand-alone business last year, due in part to growing competition from other ad tech firms.

Our thought bubble: Tech licensing businesses can work, but they require long-term focus and differentiation from solutions that WordPress and other Big Tech firms already offer.

  • Minute Media, the parent company to sites like Players' Tribune and The Big Lead, makes roughly half of its revenue from licensing its video tech platform, Voltax, and ad tech.
  • Axios spun off its email publishing software arm, Axios HQ, when it sold to Cox Enterprises last year. The spinoff allowed it to raise money independently of Axios.

Be smart: WordPress' continued commitment to the publishing space, and specifically for news publishers, makes its products cheaper in many cases than for publishers trying to rely on their own technology.

  • In 2019, WordPress launched Newspack, a publishing solution built specifically for smaller, mostly local, publishers. Today, more than 200 news sites rely on Newspack for open-source publishing and revenue-generating tools.
  • Merrill Brown, editorial director at G/O Media, has a long history of building and licensing CMS businesses. Speaking of WordPress, he told Axios, "You can't minimize the fact that they figured out a lot about customer revenue at WordPress. ... And that didn't used to be the case."
  • Brown launched The News Project, a publishing platform specifically built for digital news publishers, with a six-figure investment from WordPress VIP in 2019. He folded it when he joined G/O Media earlier this year.

The bottom line: "If you're not a tech company, it's really hard to do this," Brown told Axios. "It's really hard to service it. It's really hard to maintain it."

Go deeper