Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: How did you end up at Vox Media working on producing podcasts?

Erica Anderson: It has been an interesting career. Going to Vox Media and now New York Magazine was a happy accident.

Well, getting into podcasts was a bit of an accident. I left Google to run really both the business and editorial side for Kara Swisher and to help her take her next step and improve the shows that she had and really just to, I guess, bolster her.

But the reality is, the reason, after being at Google and Twitter for almost a decade, I mean, you have to take a step back and say, the reason I went to Twitter in 2010 was because I was very focused on the future of journalism. I was teaching journalists, specifically Katie Couric here in the United States how to use Twitter at a time when it was really rare for definitely journalists of her calibre to be engaging in social media. And I was kind of on the tip of the sphere in terms of understanding how social media would impact news and journalism.

You were the first person there in that sort of role, weren’t you?

Yeah, I was. I was the employee 300, at Twitter, and there were four people on the media team; Chloe Sladden, Adam Sharp, Omid Ashtari and then myself. I was hired to come up with creative editorial ideas like the White House Townhall that we did with Barak Obama, getting him to tweet for the first time.

But honestly, what became really clear to me – I’m a systems thinker – is once I got to Twitter, it was like, oh, no one’s answering this email from the BBC Bureau Chief in Asia, who’s got a critical issue. No one’s helping, like, we’re not thinking through this use case of journalists enough.

So I became really focused on that, and I worked cross functionally with the trust and safety team, the support team, the product team, the business development team, identifying needs for journalists and the news organisations and advocating and working on those.

There’s so much to say there, but just to fast forward, when you’re inside of a tech company with a subject matter expertise like I was, which was journalism and news, it had been a long time since I had actually been in a newsroom. I was working with journalists and newsrooms around the world, I was inside of newsrooms visiting. But it had been a long time since I’d actually been back on the editorial side understanding intimately the challenges that they’re facing.

And so, leaving Google was actually really a hard decision. It really is an incredible place to work. But I felt like the work I was doing, I don’t know, I felt like I wasn’t needed for it in the same way that I felt in the beginning.

So I ended up at Vox Media, I took this role on, kind of a creative strategy role working with their top talent and learned so much. It’s been a great business to be within. And then getting into podcasting, there was an opportunity to improve the production operations of the shows, Recode Decode and Pivot, there was an opportunity to improve the relationships with talent, and the organisations, there was opportunities to improve the marketing of the shows. And so I just got in there and I would say fixed and collaborated with people on all of that.

It’s quite interesting, especially the last four or five years, there’s been this real tension that’s grown up between newsrooms and tech platforms. What’s your perspective on that, given that you’ve worked both in the tech platforms, and they’re not necessarily evil, they’re not trying to deliberately destroy newsrooms, but then you’ve got newsrooms on the other side that are really struggling because of some of the decisions tech platforms have made?

Well, I think that platforms and news organisations have more in common than they think. It’s really the internet, largely, that’s disrupted journalism. But there are three major platforms that have a much larger role to play in the disruption of journalism.

I mean, whatever, we know all the challenges that journalists in the newsrooms are experiencing; changes in monetization, an ultimate all time low trust in journalism and the institution of journalism. You have partisan outlets, pretending to be news organisations, which makes it worse and really confuses consumers. And then you have people saying they get their news from Facebook or Twitter, which they don’t really get their news from Facebook or Twitter, they see headlines on Facebook and Twitter, but they’re getting news from those sources.

So it’s really a confusing time. I think there’s still such an opportunity to fix it.

Twitter in particular has made some real editorial decisions over what it considers to be true, what it’s going to allow on the platform. And that’s something that five years ago, a lot of them said they would never do. I’m just interested in your perspective as somebody who’s worked there, and I can imagine the people within those teams are trying to be a force for good in the world, but then they can’t do that without making an editorial decision.

Yeah. I think that editorial was something that the platforms largely shied away from, I think some of that might have been a lack of understanding as to what editorial is. There’s a lot of actually similarities; engineers make decisions on what code they’re going to write, and what weights they’re going to give to certain queries or information. And in a certain sense, this could be construed as editorial decisions. They’re mathematically based, but they’re based on a set of values that we believe that speed is more important than relevance, for example.

And so I remember at Google having the opportunity to bring an ethicist, a journalism ethicist to speak to a group of engineers, which my idea was like, let’s bring her here and have her give a talk about how journalism ethics work. Not because I believe that these engineers need to be journalists, but I believe it’s always helpful when you’re having tension with someone or something, it’s always helpful to understand their perspective.

And so we brought this professor in, and she did a really great presentation, and she did some work in groups. And she asked these scenarios. I remember she said, ‘Okay, so break up into groups of two and review this scenario, and then tell me how you would handle it.’

One of the scenarios I remember was, there’s been a school shooting, and this video has appeared online, it’s purportedly from the school from the inside, it shows bodies on the ground, what do you do? And people raised their hands, and go, ‘I would let it run, let people decide if it’s real or not.’ Other people were more cautious, but didn’t have quite the right language as to why they would maybe not run it.

And really what the point that she was making is, okay, so there’s a series of questions that an editor would ask. Have we verified the provenance of this? Do we know it’s from the school? Who’s that body? Have parents and families been notified? Just a variety of questions that the engineers weren’t asking.

And so there’s just this importance, when you asked the question about platforms making editorial decisions, when I was at Twitter from 2010 to 2015, the most important department in my mind was always Trust and Safety, because they are the most principled group of individuals who are using really ethical frameworks to decide what stays and what goes on the platform. And they are the ones who are in the crosshairs of these decisions right now.

I mean, there’s a piece yesterday in the New Yorker from Andrew Marantz about the early frameworks that were created at Facebook. My point being, this is the right group to be asking these questions and making these decisions. But their frameworks have to get more sophisticated, and probably embrace new values, like values that are a bit broader, a bit [less] specific than what they’ve been doing.

Are there lessons you took from your time at the platforms that you now apply working actually publishing side?

I try to help the publishing companies be more courageous, more innovative, think outside the box. Tech platforms, Google and Twitter specifically, were exceptional at moving fast, at coming up with new frameworks for solving problems.

One of the things that I think about at Vox is, how do you handle individual journalists who are becoming quite popular? I know you just had Casey Newton on the show who’s decided to go do his own thing. And I’ve known a few YouTubers in my life who have been quite successful financially in terms of building a community on their own.

So I think it’s really important for news organisations to be really smart and proactive about how to create a good ecosystem for this talent. And I don’t mean like treating them much different, but creating incentives for them to want to stay within their ecosystem, being realistic about the power that they have, in terms of creating community and audience and driving people to their content.

I think that you could probably borrow some of the tactics and strategies that platforms use to invent new ways of doing things.

Actually, one of the things I’ve always found quite interesting about Vox is that there’s quite a few of the podcasts – and I know you said you were brought on to work on Kara Swisher’s podcasts – but a lot of them are built around individual hosts, not necessarily just hers. Is there a bit of a danger in this that if they leave or move on, you’ve built this ecosystem around them?

Yeah, definitely. There is a danger and I think it’s important to have quarterly, if not more frequent check-ins about the relationship and how the show is going and what the organisation is putting into it. It’s also though a massive upside. When I think of some of the most popular podcasts in the world today, I think of people-driven content, individual personality-driven shows.

But I would say, with great intent, The New York Times came up with The Daily and Michael Barbaro is very well known as the host, but I think you could imagine The Daily with another host. I think they’ve created a situation where you can switch in someone else. I would say, his audience and the audience might not like that, but there’s a difference in creating a show that is a platform for an idea, and for a theme, and that can have a revolving set of hosts, and then there are shows that just get so big based on a personality.

If you’ve got the gift of talent that can, Ezra Klein is a good example, he has Matt Yglesias on the Vox side, they have huge fan bases, I think it’s a good thing, honestly, to build that and to create that experience around them.

You implied at the beginning that your role has evolved a bit since you’ve actually joined Vox. So what is it you’re working on now?

I’m working right now to develop a new slate of shows for 2021. So looking at and working with the New York Magazine ecosystem, specifically. They’ve got a few shows, The Cut, they’ve got Tabloid, which is a Luminary product, they’ve got Good One, which is a comedy podcast, and then they have Pivot, which is a show that I’ve run up until recently, and we moved it over to the New York Magazine ecosystem.

And so I’m working right now just to think through, collaborate with other people they’ve brought on to figure out what the audio version of New York Magazine looks like. And really, Hanna Rosin is leading that. And so I’m helping her to figure that out.

How have you managed to do that, because I don’t know whether you’re still remote, but a lot of newsrooms ended up being spread far and wide this year. So how’s that collaborative process actually been with everybody, and presumably studios and things actually remote?

Well, we’ve built a lot of at home studios, we’ve relied heavily on this central team called Media Production Technology team at Vox, they go into the office once or twice a week, and they ship out gear to us and our hosts as needed. And so it’s a lot of coordination with them.

But it’s really been like about building a new set of best practices and working really hard to create the same quality of content that we’ve made in the past, in these new circumstances. But there was definitely a slowdown in the beginning of COVID, as we figured out how to do this, but now it just requires a lot of Zoom calls and phone calls and team chats, but it’s definitely possible.

Vox is one of the few places that has got what I’d term a ‘proper’ Podcast Network. What’s the benefit of that rather than just having brands develop their own thing and go their own way on podcasts?

Podcast networks are so valuable, because you have listeners who might listen to the Ezra Klein show, but also be interested in Switched On Pop, a pop show that Vox Media Podcast Network has, or Switched On Pop listeners might be interested in The Cut or Pivot. And so you get the benefit of moving these listeners throughout the ecosystem of shows and helping them to discover shows they otherwise wouldn’t have found that have a similar editorial ethos.

So I think the network is a critical part of growing shows and helping to make shows more popular.

And then when it comes to actually developing the shows, I’m just curious about what comes first, is it the editorial first focus? Or do the people at the top want to see the revenue potential of a show before they sign off on it?

Well, I’d say that it’s a good question. I mean, I think Vox is in a position where it’s making editorial-first decisions. So there’s also branded content that’s being created, but I know in the ideation that’s happening right now, on the New York side, it’s really about the story and what’s the right story to tell?

With creating any editorial product today, though, you have to think about what’s the potential of growth? Or what’s the potential size? Or what genre does this content sit in?

Some advertisers are more excited to be connected to, let’s say business content than they are political content, and that’s just known by anyone in any sales department. But that definitely does not drive the reason for creating content at Vox Media.

When you’re looking to launch a podcast, are there things particularly that you’ve got in place that help it stand out? The podcast market is incredibly crowded, and you could be launching 10, 15 new shows, and they just kind of disappear into the ether.

Yeah. I would say that my advice, I was thinking about this recently, that marketing is such an undervalued department inside of news organisations. I think marketing is so essential, strategic marketing, really understanding how to find audience and give them a very honest, earnest value proposition. We really think you’re going to like this, because… we’re not trying to dupe you, but we think this is going to add value to your life. And it takes work to do that.

But we have a really, really incredible marketing team led by Meredith Webster and Brandon Santos, who came over from American Public Media, and they have built out a team that has a playbook to launch new shows. The first week is the most important period of time for a new show, kind of a critical moment. So they know that, I’ve learned a lot from them.

But I would just say I think news organisations need to triple or quadruple their marketing budget, is one of my key takeaways of working inside of media. It’s such an important muscle in this reality of competing with content, and just hoping that someone hears it or sees something that you’ve spent a lot of time on oftentimes I think can lead to, like less than exciting results.

A lot of people speculate about the future of podcasts. Spotify especially, goodness knows how much money they spent this year on really trying to grab that pie. What’s your take on where podcasting is heading, especially given Spotify seem to be trying to wall everything off?

I don’t know. I wonder if Spotify is akin to Facebook 5, 10 years ago, creating – and I don’t mean that, you know, I like Spotify. I’m a Spotify user, I pay for Spotify. Spotify is something that I’ve tried to cancel, and then I pay for it again. So that’s a testament to it’s a really incredible service.

But they definitely feel that this is mission critical to their business to diversify against music, licencing fees, and just music content. I mean Daniel Ek’s manifesto a year ago, who heads up Spotify audio, really using intentionally that word audio and talking about the untapped dollars in radio, it’s like they’ve thought about this, they see it as a strategic opportunity.

I think if I were to just take a step back and say this period also reminds me of blogging in the early days where, when I was coming up in the early 2000s, blogs were such an extraordinary way to learn, and to find new ideas, and to get connected, and to really build community. And gradually, they faded away. Google blog search went away, and the big news organisations figured out which blogs had real traffic and value and acquired them. And it became very difficult to be a blogger.

And I feel like we are moving into a new chapter of podcasting where, you know, anyone can still create a podcast. But to your point, it’s much harder to have a substantial audience to shape culture through a show.

As the big players, the big platforms recognise the importance of this content you obviously have Spotify, you have Amazon that’s begun to make product developments around first of all, Audible, which they own, is creating a lot of original content in the podcasting space. Amazon Music is doing a lot on the product side, I imagine to prepare for podcasts. You have Google’s Podcast app, didn’t do much, but YouTube is a massive place, a home for podcasts.

So I think the boutique podcasting organisations like Wondery, or even Vox Media Podcast Network, there’s going to be fewer of them. And the two that I just named, I think will last because they have created this reputation, and experience, and they have popular shows already. But I do think it’s going to change and it’s going to get easier for consumers to know what’s good. But I put good in quotation marks, to know what’s ‘good’, but it’s also going to help consumers find really well produced high quality content.

The New York Times’ acquisition of Serial earlier this year, I think this is really under reported or under appreciated, they paid something like 20, 25 million for Serial productions. New York Times alone understands that podcasting is a major force of growth and audience development for them. And so, you just didn’t see these moves happening three or four years ago.

So for me whether I work in podcasting for another 10 years or for another two months, I honestly don’t know, it’s like just more I think about it, the more I’ve been drawn to it, because it’s just this massive opportunity for growth for media companies and also platforms.

So given it’s on the brink of this change, where it could look very, very different, hopefully not in two months, but maybe in 10 years, what would your advice be to publishers that have either got podcasts or are looking to get into that space? Apart from a marketing budget?!

I would ask why. Number one, with any new editorial project, what’s the why? Why do we need to do it? Why is it audio? Is it because it’s a story that would be best told in audio, is it because you have a team with a really clear idea that’s differentiated?

I would say, thinking about making sure that you’ve got the time to devote to it, that you really talk to experts and understand just the time and energy that it takes. Narrative podcasts, feature podcasts, are very different than talk show podcasts, but they take a different type of energy and stamina and resourcing in different ways. So I would think that through.

And then I would just think about, what matches your organisation? What does your organisation need? Are you a smaller organisation, and covering a region and there are no podcasts, and there’s a great opportunity to create a twice weekly news show that doesn’t exist?

I guess, I think this is the marketer in me, look for the gap, look for the gap. Don’t try and go into a crowded space, unless you have just the most unbelievable crime thriller story and you’re sure it’s going to be a home run, I would say look for the opportunity and look for where it lines up with your assets and create something.

And then partnerships, partnerships are key. Partnerships with other podcasts, so getting ready to launch like, can that host go on that show to talk about it? Do you have the money to pay for ads on that show where you know audience would be interested? Do you want to partner with a Luminary or Spotify or Wondery? What’s the best way to get it done?

Yeah, a lot of things to think through, but it’s definitely worth the time to explore.

Is there anything that Vox’s Podcast Network is doing to prepare for the next couple years given there is likely to be quite a shake up?

Just create incredible content that is differentiated and stands out. I think when you have audience and you have high net promoter scores – NPS – people really will come to you no matter what. That’s the proof.

So you have to talk to Marty Moe who runs the Vox Media Podcast Network, but I would say the strategy is really just embolden the brands and give the brands with the best ideas the resources to create extraordinary podcasts.

I know, the folks are coming up with some really smart ideas, New York magazine is. Placing bets on those ideas and helping them to grow and incubate, I think is the only way to do it.

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