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18 Conference Report #techonomy2018

Manoush Zomorodi on Saving Journalism From Fake News

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  • Manoush Zomorodi at Techonomy 2018 Sunday, November 11, 2018. (Paul Sakuma Photography)

Speaker

Manoush Zomorodi
Co-Founder, Stable Genius Productions

Interviewer

Dan Costa
Editor-in-Chief, PCMag


Description: Manoush Zomorodi had a popular podcast at WNYC but left to work with Civil, a blockchain-oriented media company. What does that even mean? Now her podcast chronicles the intersection of media and cryptocurrency.

 

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.

Speaker: Manoush Zomorodi, Stable Genius Productions

Interviewer: Dan Costa, PCMag

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: Now, Dan Costa is going to talk, who is an editor-and-chief of PCMag.com and is going to talk to Manoush Zomorodi, who is a wonderful journalist who has, herself, been deeply engaged with many of these issues. And also, is an expert in blockchain and how blockchain can help journalism.

Zomorodi: Hey, everybody.

Costa: So, we’ve got 15 minutes on the clock.

Zomorodi: Go.

Costa: We have to solve fake news, eradicate it, and come up with a sustainable business model for journalism.

Zomorodi: Great. Can we also use blockchain to fix everything in 15 minutes?

Costa: I don’t see—well, 14:46 right now.

Zomorodi: Okay, let’s go.

Costa: I think we’re up to the task. So, you’ve actually had—as we were prepping for this call, I realized you’ve actually worked for a variety of different types of media companies with different business models. Reuters has a very traditional ad-based model, private company, you worked for BBC which is sort of a private company but a little help from the British government.

Zomorodi: Just a little.

Costa: WNYC, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, you’ve got some public radio experience.

Zomorodi: Yes.

Costa: And then you left all that behind and decided to have blockchain fund your business. Talk to me about what was the problem you were hoping blockchain would solve.

Zomorodi: Okay. So, what my bag is is looking at how tech and society are changing from a very human perspective. So, from the consumer’s point of view, I mean, they don’t necessarily care about upgrades or IPOs or valuations. What they care about is the fact that technology is changing the way that they parent, or the way that they meet someone and fall in love, or it’s changing the way they work, or don’t work, as the case may be. So that has been my real focus. I created a podcast called, “Note to Self.” I wrote a book about the attention economy called, “Bored and Brilliant,” and then the beginning of last year, my executive producer and I sort of had a moment, thanks in part to Cambridge Analytica which really just made us realize all the things we had been reporting on had finally gone mainstream. And there was also a Me Too situation at our public radio station which was a huge bummer and we just thought, you know what, it’s time to go out on our own. And our first funding came in the form of half real money, half tokens. We had no idea what these people were talking about, they said, “We want to create a new kind of economy for journalists, we’re going to be using the Ethereum blockchain to build it, think of it as like Facebook but without the advertising or the creepy data collection.” And we were like, “We don’t get it.” And they were like, “And we’re going to give you a grant with no strings attached to be part of our thing.” And we were like, “We will get it. We will get it.”

And so, we did get it. And what we decided actually was this was the story we needed to tell was these two moms who quit their very stable public radio jobs to join a blockchain startup to save journalism which we didn’t even know what that meant. And that was the podcast, is the podcast, it’s called ZigZag and I brought a clip. Is that cool if I play a clip?

Costa: Yes, let’s play it.

Zomorodi: All right.

[CLIP]

Blockchain is complicated. There is no denying it. But we can do better. Breaking down big ideas is what we do. So, you ready? Here are three things that you need to know about blockchain. We’re going to build on them but let’s just start with these three things. And, actually, let’s add some music to get you in the right mode. Oh, I like that guitar. All right, this is good. Okay, here we go. Number one, something you need to know about blockchain, blockchain is related to something you probably have heard of: Bitcoin. [SINGING] Bitcoin is blockchain’s baby. Bitcoin is blockchain’s baby. Right. Cool, okay, good. Got number one.

Zomorodi: I’ll spare you the rest of it but, like, to me, that is what we need to do with tech. We need to make it fun and educational, we need to make it palatable, and we need to make consumers feel a little bit more empowered about the very human decisions that go into building these tools that change their lives every day.

Costa: So, this was through Civil, you had tokens.

Zomorodi: Yes, Civil was the name of the company, is the name.

Costa: You had a token sale.

Zomorodi: There was a token sale.

Costa: How did that go?

Zomorodi: That did not go well. It failed spectacularly as you may have read in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and many other outlets.

Costa: PCMag?

Zomorodi: PCMag, thanks for that, Dan. However, what I found so fascinating was of the 3,000 people who did sign up to be part of buying Civil tokens, the majority of them were ZigZag listeners. I don’t know whether I’m happy about taking responsibility for that or not, because we were very, very careful throughout our podcast to say, “We are merely documenting this experiment, we do not know if this is going to work. We have not actually seen the blockchain plugins, we have not seen in action all the promises of impermanence on Ethereum, of creating a cryptocurrency that will act as a voting mechanism. I mean, lots of big, big ideas but we don’t know. Theoretically we’re stoked but we don’t know if it’s going to work.”

The other problem is, as the Civil founders learned, was that crypto is not ready for prime time. Mainstream consumers had—“What, a hot wallet, a cold wallet?”

Costa: Well, even the signup process. When—I think John Keefe documented just how complicated it was to buy a token, the process was extraordinarily complicated and a lot of people just gave up.

Zomorodi: 44 steps to be exact. I finally did purchase my Civil tokens. But keep in mind, my entire full-time job was documenting this entire thing and trying to understand it. But I think, to me, it doesn’t matter, right? In many ways the token failure, Civil is doing a reset right now. I don’t know what that includes. They’re supposed to announce it in the next couple of weeks. But what we got people talking about was why journalism has a funding problem, why the business models are indeed broken. And I think also got people excited about technology in a way that maybe they didn’t when Sir Tim was creating the World Wide Web. By the time I got to the web, a lot of the sort of centralized processes and companies were kind of set in stone and we see people giving up when it comes to their privacy. Whereas, if we can get them excited to understand the very building blocks of a new technology, I just think that’s a good thing generally, whether or not it actually ends up saving journalism.

Costa: I think one of the things that people were buying tokens for is they thought they were going to be members of something, they were going to participate in the community. And I think that’s a pretty powerful thing. And, obviously, public radio works that way. Do you think that you’re going to go back to that well and try and recruit members?

Zomorodi: I think we’re at a very interesting juncture and I’m sure you think so too, in that the subscription model is taking off. I’m sure you’ve noticed like every day you probably hit a paywall somewhere new, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I have to pay for the Washington Post now?” And Tony Haile, of course, who was the guy behind Chartbeat, has a new company where they’re going to be—you pay $5 dollars a month and you get an ad-free experience across a portfolio of media websites. So, there’s all different ways that people are trying to gain traction in terms of, as you know, paying for the journalism. To me, I think that it has to be all of those things. You have to go for the members who are with you because they just love you and your journey. You have to go for—we didn’t have sponsorship, I talk about shoes that I’m wearing on the show. Is it my favorite thing? No. But we try to be very meta about it in the podcast, in that we’re explaining to people, here are the problems with how we’re paying for journalism and here are the ways that we’re experimenting with trying to fix it. We want you to be in on it. Let’s break through the fourth wall, let’s stop pretending. We’re in a place now where everything is up for grabs. Can I play you another clip?

Costa: You may.

Zomorodi: So, early on financially, we were feeling pretty stressed out but we wanted to tell people. So, I’ll play you a clip from the show as well.

[CLIP]

In a minute, Roman Mars, co-founder of Radiotopia, the man with the most soothing voice in your podcast app. Host of 99% Invisible and potentially our financial advisor.
Mars: I mean, do you have a year saved? Can you live without making any money?
Zomorodi: I definitely cannot. I have like two months maybe left.
Mars: Okay.
ZigZag will be right back.

Zomorodi: Okay. So, we had hundreds of people emailing us, listeners and were like, “Are you guys okay? Are you okay?” And we started getting checks in the mail. And I think it’s because our story really resonated with people. And I will also say, like, blockchain and women, they are two hot stories. We got a ton of press coverage for this whole thing too. So, all in all for us, even if the podcast doesn’t make us tons of money, to us we really see the podcast as being a lab, a place where we can test different narratives and see what resonates with people and then make things beyond that. So, Sir Tim, for example, was part of another project we did called “The Privacy Paradox,” and this was pre-Cambridge Analytica. We had 50,000 people sign up to do a week-long bootcamp about where their personal data goes. Like, people will do really weird things if they trust you, if they feel like they know you, and if they know you have their best interest to heart.

Costa: I think that brings up an interesting point which goes to sort of the fake news problem is that I think people are trying to figure out where to put their trust. And historically we’ve put our trust in brands, you know what you’re going to get from the New York Times. People put their trust in Fox News, I mean, they know what they’re going to get from Fox News and many people like it. With your journalism, it almost seems like people are putting their trust in you and they’re willing to pay you directly. Is that a model that other journalists can follow? Is that something we should aspire to?

Zomorodi: I think it’s a weird sort of combination. Remember like a decade ago where it was like, “The brand is you, you have to be your own brand,” and that was kind of a new idea that the journalists had to be the brand. And now we sort of transitioned that to try and be like the New York Times, all of their big signs are like, “You should be able to trust,” or “Facts are trustworthy,” or there’s some sort of thing that you should be able to trust in our brand. Personally, I think it’s being very open with what your process is. I think pretending—the byline and just reporting the facts is over. People want to know how the sausage gets made and it’s not going to be pretty but I think that we have to be very upfront with, “Here are the struggles, here’s where we think we’re doing right by you. Here’s where we don’t have the answers and we need to bring you in to sort of guide us and tell us what works for you.” And it’s a long-term relationship, right? It’s not going to be clicks, clicks, clicks anymore. I think that’s over. What we’re talking about is a longer-term relationship with the consumer. I hate to use that word consumer, reader, audience.

Costa: It used to be readers or listeners.

Zomorodi: Yes.

Costa: So Civil sort of is reconstituting. They did sell a lot of tokens, they just didn’t get to the point where they needed to be sustainable. They’re going to reconfigure their business model. Do you think that that Civil model that they just need to change the way they did the math and maybe they’ll go at it again and build something that works? Are you confident now that you’ve been burned by it once?

Zomorodi: Burned. I wasn’t burned, thanks though, Dan.

[LAUGHTER]

Costa: You weren’t paid either.

Zomorodi: I was not paid, that is true. However, as people who were not crypto people, as you hear in the first season of ZigZag we’re like, “Oh, yeah, how are we going to pay our bills? Oh, there’s the tokens,” you know what I mean? It was like a punchline for us and it’s only like halfway through the season when you hear our mindset start to change and we’re like, “Oh, shit, these might actually be real.” We were looking at all the ICOs that are happening and millions of dollars are coming in and this just seems like—for a minute there, a very short, but hot minute we were like, “Oh, my God, we may be rich.” And then it was over for like another—like, for a second.

[LAUGHTER]

Zomorodi: I will also point out, the price of Bitcoin, Ether, all the rest of it has plunged precipitously, keeping in mind I wouldn’t have known what that sentence meant a year ago. I don’t know, there’s the people who are like, “It’s going to be Bitcoin, it’s going to be the only blockchain out there,” there are other people who say, “Ethereum is fascinating because it’s a utility, it’s a way of changing how we actually exchange information.” I love—I’m a tech journalist who loves to get idealistic but has seen what happens when you add the humans to the mix. We always ruin everything.

[LAUGHTER]

Costa: So, what advice do you have for journalists now who are working in traditional media, working online media, how do they prepare themselves for this new landscape if, perhaps, blockchain may not be the answer?

Zomorodi: Well, my experience is every single journalist needs to think of themselves as an entrepreneur. The days of showing up and getting your assignment and going out and doing it and then coming home and not thinking about it until the next day are so over. And it’s not just about building your brand, it’s thinking about different places where your content can live. I would also highly recommend covering a beat that you personally are vested in because this whole blockchain thing, it’s the best story of my life. I am on the front lines of this new technology and whether it works or not, I am learning so, so much and I kind of said that. Like, Jen and I looked at each other, I was like, “If this whole thing fails, that’s a great narrative anyway. And we’re going to learn something and we’re going to explore ideas and we’re going to be realistic about it.” Like, the two dudes in a garage in Silicon Valley, that always seems to end well. Two moms who have no idea what they’re doing, blockchain, terrible, but really interesting and really quite an opportunity to learn.

[LAUGHTER]

Costa: And I think there’s also something delightfully old-school about your approach too because you’re reporting the story but you’re also living the story.

Zomorodi: Oh, yes.

Costa: You definitely are the story. And it’s sort of classic literary journalism where you’re figuring it out along the way and you’re taking your audience along with it and I think that’s what really resonated with your listeners. And I say you didn’t get paid but you actually raised a lot of money. So, there was a lot of money on the table there.

Zomorodi: There was.

Costa: That shows that there’s definitely listeners that are passionate about your work.

Zomorodi: And can I just say, for us, leaving public radio, we had our first acquisition inquiry last week. We’re like, “What? What’s to acquire?” Oh, yes, us. We’re pretty good at this whole thing. We know how to tell stories, we know how to explain things, we know how to use audio, and not for nothing. That’s a huge—when you’ve been working in traditional systems where you are not given the power to make decisions, to make your own editorial choices or your business choices, that is extremely—it’s an amazing feeling.

Costa: That is the final word. That’s a great takeaway. Thanks, Manoush.

Zomorodi: Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

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