Jim Bankoff was already fascinated, even a bit obsessed, by the media when he was in the third grade. As a class project, he developed his own make-
believe TV network, complete with 24-hour program grid. “It had something for kids, something for adults and something about the Yankees,” he recalls.
Fast-forward about 35 years. Bankoff now sits atop a burgeoning media company that is gradually assembling the pieces of its own network of sorts, albeit a digital one. Bankoff’s privately held company, Washington-based Vox Media, is the proprietor of seven specialty sites, known in Web terms as “verticals.” There’s something for sports fans (the popular blog network SBNation.com) and sites focused on food (Eater.com), real estate (Curbed), technology and culture (the Verge), and gaming (Polygon.com), among other topics.
On Monday, Bankoff, 45, showed off what may be Vox’s most highly anticipated new info-property: Its entry into general news and news analysis. The site, called Vox.com, went live late Sunday. It is the brainchild of former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein and several of his colleagues, who decamped from the paper to Vox Media’s new-tech offices (foosball table, exposed concrete floors, freebie snack center) two months ago.
In analyzing and explaining what’s in the news, Vox.com occupies the broadest niche of all the company’s niche-y offerings. In TV terms, the site might be a potential mass-market vehicle for Vox Media, which raised $34 million in its last round of financing in 2013, giving it a projected valuation of $200 million.
“We think the biggest media companies of this generation are being built right now,” Bankoff says. “We want to be one of them.”
Outside of the chatty but insular world of digital media, Bankoff may be the Media Mogul No One Knows, which seems just fine by him.
Modest in manner, speech and dress, Bankoff oversees Vox’s expanding portfolio from a small office off the company’s sofa- and pillow-strewn newsroom. His portfolio is strategy, finance, the daily maintenance and management of a 330-employee company. Bankoff, who joined as CEO of Vox in 2009, used to be more actively involved in shaping content. No more. “As we grew, we’ve hired people who do it a lot better than me,” he says. “I don’t interfere whatsoever.”
The big idea, he says, is to work with “media hackers,” younger, ambitious people who grew up creating content for the Internet and aren’t steeped in “legacy” media storytelling techniques or technology.
Bankoff is easily one of the most senior people padding about Vox’s two main offices in Washington and New York. The stars are people like Klein, 29, and Josh Topolsky, 36, a technology editor and one-time Post tech columnist who founded the Verge in 2011.
“Jim is a great guy,” says Klein. “But I wouldn’t say we went with Jim [when considering offers for his new site]. We went with Vox. Jim has built a technology company that really makes new kinds of publishing possible.”
A self-described “media nerd,” Bankoff has been around, and involved in, some of the most formative developments in the media business for two decades.
In his senior year at Emory University in Atlanta, Bankoff got an internship at CNN just as the Gulf War established the cable network as a leading global news source. When he moved to a job as a production assistant at WETA-produced “Washington Week in Review,” Bankoff was assigned to monitor what was expected to be Clarence Thomas’s routine 1991 Supreme Court confirmation. “It was boring, boring, boring,” he remembers, “until someone said, ‘This woman named Anita Hill is coming to testify.’ ”
Bankoff’s decision to attend business school in 1994 coincided with the newfound public fascination with the Internet. Upon graduation, he turned down offers from Disney, the New York Times and a record company to join Dulles-based America Online, then a dominant company in the emerging digital world (looking over an anonymous list of all the starting salaries of his fellow MBA graduates, Bankoff recalls finding his salary “as the second-to-last dot” on the list).
Bankoff’s boss at AOL, Ted Leonsis, ran him through a gamut of positions — business development, product development, running AOL’s Netscape browser operation. He managed AOL’s portfolio of media brands, including MapQuest and MoviePhone, and helped found the tech site Engadget and TMZ.com, the gossip gargantuan. Two other start-ups incubated under Bankoff were the Motley Fool business and investing site and iVillage, the beauty and lifestyle vertical.
“I honestly thought he would become the next person to run the company from that generation,” said Leonsis, an early investor in Vox who converted much of his wealth from AOL into ownership of Washington’s NBA and NHL franchises.
“Jim is a way better leader-manager than I was,” adds Leonsis. “I’m a very good leader, but I’m not the world’s best manager. He’s a good leader and manager. He has a very high emotional quotient so he’s very calm. People end up trusting him.”
Even as AOL’s merger with Time Warner gradually soured (Leonsis and Bankoff left before it fell apart), the experience taught Bankoff that investing and building brands on the Internet was “a new craft in itself . . . that what worked in an old medium doesn’t necessarily work in the new one.”
How many people Vox Media reaches each month depends on whom you ask. The biggest number — and the one the company prefers to quote — is 80 million unique visitors per month, according to Google Analytics. Vox points to another Internet traffic counter, Quantcast, which pegs its collective audience at 65 million per month. Still a third, ComScore, said it reached 30 million in the United States in February, a less eye-popping but still impressive figure.
On the other hand, ComScore last year pegged Vox Media’s audience as the fastest growing among the 100 largest news and information sites on the Web.
Bankoff won’t reveal Vox’s profit and loss figures, but revenue exceeded $30 million last year, according to knowledgeable estimates. All of its brands (except for the day-old Vox.com) are in the black on an operating basis. However, the company, in total, will likely be at break even this year, given the costs of starting Vox.com.
That’s apparently fine with Vox’s investors, which include Accel Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that backed Facebook, and Comcast Ventures, an offshoot of the behemoth media company. Bankoff says his backers are nothing if not patient.
Despite raising $34 million last year, Vox has no big acquisitions in mind. Says Bankoff: “We’d prefer to provide resources to the seven sites we have as opposed to launching our eighth.”