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Vox Media Tries Something Old on Something New

Jim Bankoff, chief executive of Vox Media
Daniel Rosenbaum | The New York Times
Jim Bankoff, chief executive of Vox Media

Vox Media, the ambitious online news start-up that runs Vox, a politics site; SB Nation, a network of sports sites; and The Verge, a site about technology, says its next new project will be reviving something old.

First, the new: A new outlet, called Circuit Breaker, will begin publishing on Monday, primarily as a Facebook page, not a separate website, a first for Vox Media.

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Now the old: Circuit Breaker will be, in the words of The Verge's editor, Nilay Patel, a "classic gadget blog," one that publishes news and gossip about technology products at a frenetic pace.

For years, starting in the early 2000s, such sites, like Engadget and Gizmodo, were irreverent in tone but deeply reverent in spirit. They were written for and by gadget fans, with an obsessive focus on televisions, game consoles and, most of all, cellphones.

As smartphones became ubiquitous, however, their focus broadened. Tech publications became culture publications, and many culture sites incorporated writing about technology. While both Engadget and Gizmodo remain, they are far different than they were just a few years ago.

Circuit Breaker will be edited by Paul Miller, a former employee of The Verge who is returning to the company. Mr. Miller said the new page would reach for a "core audience" of hard-core gadget fans. The Verge offers some popular gadget coverage, but Mr. Miller said many of those gadget fans "feel neglected when we're talking about Netflix" and technology's role in the broader culture.

The page will also steer clear of covering the business of tech, leaving industry stories to The Verge or ReCode, the tech news site founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg that Vox Media acquired last year. (Some articles and reviews from The Verge, where Mr. Mossberg publishes a column, will appear on Circuit Breaker.)

Instead, Mr. Miller said, he plans to focus on physical products that have yet to mature, or might never. He includes in this group virtual reality headsets, drones, home automation gear, hoverboards and offbeat projects.

Circuit Breaker's stated mission is an acknowledgment of just how powerful the smartphone has become, including for publications. Not only are people spending huge amounts of time on the devices, the programs on the phones, and social media apps like Facebook in particular, wield huge influence over people's digital lives.

In a way, the gadget bloggers and their readers almost saw the future, only to end up as surprised as everyone else. They were the millions obsessed with their phones; next came the billions obsessed less with the devices than with what was on them. Now, this change has become impossible for media executives to ignore.

"We started out, a few years ago, building media brands on websites, because that's where we thought the growth was, and we were right about that," said Jim Bankoff, Vox Media's chief executive. Eventually, he said, "people started concentrating around a few specific apps" — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube. "We invest based on where we see potential."

If Circuit Breaker is an ode to a simpler time in consumer technology, it also offers a clear audience to advertisers: people who are explicitly interested in buying things.

"It's a high-demand category," Mr. Bankoff said.

Vox Media will not be the first major media company to tailor a publication to a social platform. Vox, the politics site, alongside 19 other publishers, operates a channel on Snapchat, with which it shares ad revenue. BuzzFeed has invested in Facebook-centric brands, and countless news sites have dabbled with Instagram accounts and YouTube channels.

But media companies are still charting their courses carefully. Advertising arrangements with platforms are in flux, and major tech companies, which operate at a different scale than most publications, make for intimidating — and unpredictable — negotiators.

Circuit Breaker will also exist, in blog form, in a section on The Verge's website. But the primary focus of the editors is on Facebook. The page will be at facebook.com/circuitbreaker, and visitors will find a dense feed of videos and news updates.

The page, Mr. Patel said, will also broadcast a lot of live video on Facebook, something the social network has pushed hard in recent months. It will use Facebook's Instant Articles, which are hosted directly on the service, negating the need for links to an external website.

The editors said they do not expect people to frequently check Circuit Breaker's Facebook page for updates. Instead, readers will experience the site primarily through their Facebook news feeds, where Circuit Breaker videos, posts and broadcasts will appear alongside updates from friends, family and the countless other organizations vying for attention on the platform.

"We're going to be playing the News Feed game like everyone else," said Helen Havlak, who oversees social media distribution for The Verge and will work on the new site. "From a distribution perspective, we're probably going to be changing, like, every 48 hours."

(Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media.)