"[Josh is] the sun at the center at The Verge's editorial solar system," says Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff.
Anyone who's ever clicked around the Internet looking for a suggestion for the best smartphone or a good digital camera for under $500 knows that there's a glut of gadget blogs offering an endless scroll of product reviews, pro tips, rumors, and above all else, hype.
Sites like Gizmodo, Engadget, CNet, The New York Times' newly revamped Bits blog, Wired's Gadget Lab and countless others compete minute-by-minute to cover the vast consumer electronics waterfront, posting squibs on every new humanoid robot, toilet of tomorrow, or cardboard vacuum cleaner that comes on the market.
In the last few months, two new sites, The Verge and The Wirecutter, have entered this crowded, noisy category and shaken it up. Each site is the product of veteran tech bloggers and reflects what their founders learned while blogging about gadgets and geek culture at the highest levels of the web. But aside from serious authority and deep knowledge of their shared areas of expertise, the two sites couldn't be more different from one another in philosophy and execution.
Launched just under a month ago, The Verge is a partnership between Joshua Topolsky, the 34-year-old former editor of AOL's Engadget, and Vox Media (formerly SBNation), the massive clearinghouse of sports blogs launched in 2009. Topolsky, a well-known figure outside of the gadget ghetto (he appears regularly as a guest on NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and has written accessible consumer guides for The Washington Post), left Engadget this past spring after three years as a freelance contributor and then editor-in-chief. The timing of Topolsky's resignation—he left shortly after AOL acquired The Huffington Post for $315 million—lead some to wonder if the move was a protest against editorial changes at AOL, but at the time, Topolsky was quick to say he'd been planning to leave AOL for a while. Many of his Engadget colleagues joined him at his next venture, This Is My Next, which eventually morphed into The Verge.
Topolsky says The Verge is meant to be nothing less than the go-to destination for everyone curious about technology, from the most beta-hungry early adopter to retro-futurists to your mom. The site serves up granular updates on the tiniest iterations in tech as well as longform articles and essays. "Right before launch, I talked to a bunch of journalists who asked, 'Why does the world need another gadget blog?'" Topolsky tells Fast Company. "I don't consider us to be a gadget blog at all. We're a hybrid of traditional media and something new. We're speaking to this new kind of mainstream of people who love new things. The edge is now the center, the fringe is now mainstream."
Marty Moe, Vox Media's Chief Creative Officer (and Topolsky's former boss at AOL, where Moe was SVP of News & Information until leaving in August 2010) thinks this new mainstream will only grow. "It's a category of almost unending, expanding interest and growth… It's about as robust a category as you can imagine."
"Robust" is definitely one way to describe the Verge, which employs 27 people on its editorial staff and is still growing. The Verge has already been tapped as the official technology news partner for CES 2012, the annual consumer technology trade show/media scrum in Las Vegas. (This may not be that surprising, considering Engadget played that part this year.) According to Moe, the site will serve over a hundred posts a day during the event.
Looking at The Verge, you might wonder where those posts will go. The first impression one gets is that the site is already dense: Designed as a series of modular tiles (not the vertically scroll of reverse chronological posts found on a traditional blog), The Verge is packed with constantly updating news, reviews, features, podcasts, and videos, including On The Verge, a streaming hour-long talk show in which Topolsky channels his own inner Fallon in front of a live studio audience at BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan.
"No one had pulled all the pieces together from community to blogging to reviews and done it with the heft and the talent of an all-star team," Moe says. "We saw a big opportunity for a new entrant to come in and do things differently."
About a month before the launch of The Verge, Brian Lam, the former editor-in-chief of Gawker Media's Gizmodo, launched The Wirecutter in partnership with The Awl, a boutique blog network created by Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, two other Gawker Media veterans.
After years on the tech scene, Lam, 34, had begun to despair at the pace and general purpose of gadget blogging. Noting the insanely high post quotas on many blogs, Lam tells Fast Company, "We're not working on a human pace, we're working on a pace for robots."
"On top of this, a lot of people aren't really adding value, they're just keeping up. I wasn't interested in linking to three-paragraph stories with a three-paragraph write-up."
With The Wirecutter, Lam has reduced the number of posts dramatically, focusing instead of providing readers with essential knowledge about the technology they might buy—and actually use—without the second-by-second updates and breathless hype.
In an interview, Lam praised Topolsky's site ("The Verge is wonderful. It's like what any of us would want to build without the constraints of Gawker or AOL"), but was quick to point out that while they both cover tech, they're in completely different businesses.
"There are two ways to have a publication," he says. "Highly curated and exhaustive. Exhaustive is wonderful, but that's just not how I want to go."
The way Lam did want to go was slower and more service-oriented, taking a big step back from the pace and encyclopedic scope of Gizmodo so as to provide clear, concise reviews.
So far the approaches taken by both new sites seem to be resonating with readers. Topolsky says This Is My Next had 3 million unique visitors in October, and Moe says that in November The Verge was "blowing that away." Initially that should be enough to please the site's advertisers, which include BMW, Ford, Sony, and Dell. For his part, Lam is reluctant to detail traffic stats, but will say that The Wirecutter "surpassed our three-month quota in like three weeks."
Felix Salmon, a blogger for Reuters and a longtime observer of the tech and blog scene, sees plenty of space for both sites. "There's always room for more blogs," he tells Fast Company. "No blog lasts forever, and the new will replace the old at some point. Both of these blogs are well designed, using state-of-the-art CMS, they're cloud-native, and run by very smart people. There's no reason both of them can't be a huge success."
Hugeness may not be Lam's ultimate goal with The Wirecutter. To launch the site, which is sponsored by Intel during its first quarter, Lam significantly scaled back his lifestyle in an effort to get back to what matters to him. A profile by Good's Tim Fernholz noted that the San Francisco-based editor has cut his cost of living 70% since leaving Gizmodo, even renting out his house and sleeping in a van.
"I don't expect to get rich on this site," Lam tells Fast Company. "I'm trying to avoid making it an overpriced hipster indulgence."
While The Verge seeks the biggest audience possible, Lam has a narrower readership in mind: "I want to write for someone with a rich life who reads a lot of books and goes to a bar at least once a week and gets drunk. They just want to get a phone and get it done and get on with their life."
[Image courtesy of The Verge]