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Todd VanDerWerff Talks the Future of Vox's Culture Coverage

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by Sam Adams
June 19, 2014 3:26 PM
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Todd VanDerWerff, right, cooks with Martha Stewart in 2012 Rahoul Ghose/PBS
Following today's announcement that Todd VanDerWerff would be leaving the A.V. Club to join Vox as its new Culture Editor, Criticwire reached out to talk to him about his vision for the new site and how cultural criticism meshes with Vox's dedication to data journalism. These are his responses.

So why the switch? And will you be moving to Washington, D.C.?

Honestly, I probably could have spent the rest of my days reviewing weird TV shows at The A.V. Club and whiling away my hours arguing about "True Detective" with Sonia Saraiya. But the second I read about Vox, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of, and my conversations with Ezra Klein and Melissa Bell in the interview process only made me more convinced that this was something I needed to do. I love what Vox is trying to do, and I am really excited to figure out just what "explain the news" means in the context of cultural coverage and criticism (because, yes, we will be doing criticism, in the form of both more traditional reviews and longer-form essays). Vox is the first thing I've looked at since I joined the AVC that really excited me, and I think it's going to allow for some great things.

As far as DC, the plan right now is to leave me in Los Angeles, because there are certain advantages to covering the cultural beat from there. I will be spending some time in DC getting to know everybody and figuring out some of the big picture questions about the section, though.

You're an expert on TV. How do you plan to handle areas outside that expertise? Do you have a sense of what you want the mix to be in terms of TV, movies, music, etc.?

I plan to still do the bulk of my actual writing on television. I think people have come to trust my voice, at least a little bit, in that arena. But I'm also really excited to write about film, something I haven't gotten much of a chance to do at the AV Club (because we've always had such great specialists in that area) but something I've always felt very passionately about. And I'm hoping to devote some of my time to the other areas of culture, even beyond traditional pop culture, into looking at things like Internet culture or web video. (Vox also has a couple of really great culture writers already working there in Alex Abad-Santos and Kelsey McKinney, and I'm excited to work with them as well and figure out how we can all complement each other.) As far as the mix goes, I imagine that will be an organic thing that we'll figure out over the course of my first few months there. My first concern, though, is going to be not letting TV take over. It's easy for that to happen (because there's so much of it), but I want there to be a good mix of everything, so readers will always find something worth looking at, even if they're not into, say, the latest blockbuster movie or what's happening this week on "Game of Thrones." Kelsey had a great piece on Lana Del Rey the other day, and that's the kind of thing I want to continue finding a place for as I join the publication.

You've been a consistent advocate of long-form criticism at the A.V. Club. How does that jibe with Vox's "17 Reasons Not to Trust Dick Cheney on Iraq"?

I'm a firm believer that pieces should be as long as they should be. I do not think any particular form -- even the much-dreaded "listicle" (which, really, the AVC has been doing for years in the form of Inventories) -- is necessarily a bad thing, so long as it's conveying useful information. Vox is terrific at this already, and I think there are areas where some of these approaches will benefit culture coverage. For instance, one of the first articles I'd like to write is a rough explanation of how the Nielsen ratings work, because this is a thing lots of people who read about TV are assumed to understand, but also something that can be incredibly confusing, thanks to being based on data architecture from decades ago. Areas like this are places where we can take the idea of explaining the culture around you and implement it in ways that will hopefully be helpful to readers.

But when I pitched my vision for the section to Vox, it wasn't about explaining the nuts and bolts of the industry to readers all of the time. That's useful, and that's helpful, but my sense is that readers, more than ever, want a guide or map to the culture at large, which can often seem bewildering or overwhelming. I take as our mission to "explain the culture" the idea that what people will want, more than anything, is a collection of voices they can trust, who will steer them correctly, then provide context for the culture they're consuming. That, in other words, sounds a lot like traditional criticism to me. And criticism can take many, many forms. Some of those will be long-form essays. Some will be quick hits or collections of GIFs. That cultural coverage right now is so malleable is exciting to me, and I want to exploit that as much as possible. 

Is there any mandate for the culture coverage to mesh with Vox's focus on "data journalism" (not that anyone actually knows what that means)?

So far, nope. This is very much a work in progress, but my pitch document didn't have anything about so-called "data journalism" in it, and it didn't come up in my interviews either. As I said above, there are places where using that approach makes sense for cultural coverage, but we will be doing lots of stuff that doesn't fit under that umbrella.

Vox has gotten as much attention for its customized publishing platform as its content. What plans do you have for your new set of tools?

If I've had a consistent complaint at the A.V. Club, it's that presentation of longer articles could often be swallowed up in walls of text. The new design has improved this somewhat -- it's easier to break articles up with images or videos -- but I still think the site lags a bit behind what the Vox Media family of sites is capable of. (Even before Vox launched, I was an avid reader of Polygon, SB Nation, and The Verge for this very reason.) I don't yet know everything the Vox back-end is capable of, but I'm itching to figure out ways to present articles in the most graphically appealing fashion possible.

Any final thoughts on what you've built at T.V. Club, and where it might be heading next?

If everything I do from here on out flops, I will still be incredibly proud for my five years with TV Club. When I joined, it was this thing that the editors knew could be awesome but also something that would require so much time that it essentially needed somebody dumb enough to organize it pretty much for free for a while. I don't precisely know why I took on that task as a freelancer, but I loved getting to figure out the scope and breadth of the section over those first few years. The day that Keith Phipps called me to offer me a full-time job as TV editor remains one of the happiest days of my life, and I will almost certainly look back on the hectic pace and constant stream of work that TV Club offered with fondness when I'm an old guy waxing philosophical. For as excited as I am to be joining Vox, I'm sad to leave The A.V. Club. They're good people, and even if I know they'll be all right without me around, I'm still going to be sad to not be a part of it.

But, ultimately, I'm someone who loves building things, and Vox offers me that opportunity, where TV Club is at a point where it's time for someone else to offer their spin on it. I have no doubts that Erik [Adams] will take the section in new and interesting directions, while I know that the world is going to be amazed at how smart and insightful Sonia is when she gets the increased exposure on her work. TV coverage is at an interesting time of flux right now. Episodic reviews are popular, but there's too much TV to cover all of it in that fashion, leaving the question of how you cover the shows that are great but maybe don't deserve a review every single week (something we've wrestled with all spring, with shows like Review). Answering that question will be the big task for TV Club going forward, and I'm excited, as a reader, to see what Erik and Sonia come up with. Whatever it is, it will be great.
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