Cleo Abram (00:06):
My desire to make huge, if true was a response to me feeling like I wasn’t getting the deep explanation with an optimistic future looking lens that I was looking for from journalism. And so I decided to make it. I’m speaking to the choir, but I think a lot of the time if you build something for yourself, whether in entrepreneurship or in journalism, like you can see if there are other people out there like you and maybe you’ve identified something. And I think that with huge, if true, we really have seems like a lot of people were feeling the same way that I was feeling. So I’m excited about that.
Ben Grynol (00:45):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is a whole new level.
After having a storied career telling you stories, Cleo Abram left Vox that being January of 2022. She had a career as a journalist working on very meaningful projects like Explained, the Netflix series that Fox put out, as well as being influential in helping Fox to not only start but scale their TikTok account, their YouTube channel, the list goes on. She had a lot of deep production experience and she decided to go off on her own last year. She started a YouTube channel called Huge If True, very much focused on long-form storytelling and journalistic integrity.
Simultaneously, she was growing her audience on TikTok where she would do the same thing, telling stories with integrity, talking about deeply researched content that very much had a lens of curiosity. The format was a lot shorter, but it was still engaging. And her goal with it was to spread information that could help people learn as she was learning, too. So Cleo and I sat down and we talked about everything from content creation to journalistic integrity to even things like how people can avoid misinformation and disinformation. It was really fun to sit down with Cleo and jam on everything. Anyway, no need to wait. Here’s where we kick things off.
Well, thought it would be awesome to dive into your experience, talk about everything from content creation on digital platforms to even things like journalistic integrity, because it’s something that is near and dear to your heart and you do so well. So this is going to be exploring your background and how you got to where you are, but also more of the curiosity lens when you’re making some of the decisions around when you’re going to double down and spend time on something like long-form on YouTube versus, “Hey, let’s go hard and fast to get a bunch of TikTok vids out because there’s very different engagement mechanisms. So we have to frame this. You’ve done some amazing things very early in your career. You worked at Vox as a producer on Glad You Asked. And then you worked as a producer on Explained, and then eventually you somewhat to some people’s surprise I’m sure, left Fox and went independent. So I think that was January of last year.
Cleo Abram (03:28):
Ben Grynol (03:29):
When you made the big announcement, but now you’ve got your main channel, Huge If True on YouTube. And then you’ve got tons of engagement over a million followers on TikTok and you’re constantly putting up this educational content that is derivative in some way, shape, or form of all these other things you’ve done. So why don’t we take it all the way back because you are a storyteller. So why don’t we tell your story of how you exactly got into journalism and content creation.
Cleo Abram (03:58):
I’d love to. I think that’s a wonderful framing of the way to tell this story. So let’s see. It was about six years ago. I was working at Vox as a development person. So that meant that I was the person who was in charge of figuring out how to tell the story of Vox to other people who might want to work with us, how to set up new projects for Vox, how to build the business of Vox into something bigger. And a lot of that work was taking creative ideas that the team had, whether that’s the video team or the text journalism side, and sort of summarizing what the mission was and bringing someone in to work with us. So for example, we launched Today, Explained, which is Vox’s first-ever daily podcast. I love that show deeply and was involved in packaging and creating that at the beginning and then Future Perfect is a text example where we wanted to have a category of Vox’s journalism that was about a different specific topic. And so we brought in a grant to help work with that and sort of brand that.
And then the example that most stands out to me and most changed my personal life was Explained on Netflix was the bigger, flashier, more in-depth version of a lot of the work that Vox had already been doing on YouTube. So that’s a pike, that’s an audio example, a text example, a video example. And I love this job deeply. I thought it was so fascinating. If we rewind just a little bit further now it’s a flashback in this story. When I was in college, had never considered working in journalism. It was just like it didn’t occur to me that I could get paid to do that writing. I don’t know why I thought that that was something that somebody else could do, but I couldn’t do.
And so I got a job first in political consulting and then at Vox on the business side, trying to be in as close proximity to people doing this policy-thinking and explanatory work and how could I use the skills that I felt were available to me to support that. So by the time we sold the Netflix show, that was a huge victory both for Vox and for me and my job. It was so exciting that we got to make this show. It was Vox’s first ever streaming show and it was the sort of peak of what I was supposed to be doing in my job. And I remember being so excited and so happy for the first five minutes after we sold that show. And then after that sixth minute, I was just so sad that I wouldn’t get to make it, that my job had been done because I had been on the business side and I didn’t actually get to do the creative work of making that show.
So I took that lesson, I started going to night classes, I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York to learn how to edit an anime to try and develop my skill of making my own videos. And if you had asked me at the time, I would’ve said that I was trying to become a video producer maybe, but I would’ve been really bashful about it. I still didn’t really think that this was something that I could do professionally. Again, I think that for some reason I didn’t think that I could build a creative career for myself. And I started making videos for Vox on nights and weekends because I was able to sort of prove that I had built up this skill of editing and to some degree animating, although I’m not, I would never consider myself a professional animator now.
And I was making videos for Vox and the second season of Explained got green-lit and there was an email that went out to everybody who was on this sort of email list of video logistics at Vox. And Joe Posner, the head of Vox video said, and Claire Gordon, who is the executive producer of Explained at the time, and showrunner said, “If you have an idea for an episode of Explained,” was each season was 20 episodes, individual episodes about different topics. “If you have an idea for an episode, you write up your pitch, you send it to us, and if it gets green-lit by Netflix then you can produce it.” And of course, I imagine that they expected they were talking to actual video producers, not me over in my corner trying to be one, but I pitched four episodes. One of them got green-lit and to Vox’s credit, they then turned around and they didn’t say, “Oh, this person isn’t a video journalist or producer, we’re going to give her idea to somebody else.” They said, “Oh ,cool, we’ll just make you a video journalist, we’ll make you a producer on Explained on Netflix.”
So that was actually my first ever paid job as a video producer. I loved it deeply. I felt I’d found what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And then I began to make other shows with Vox. So I’m made Glad You Asked. We made Answered, I made a bunch of YouTube videos, we launched Vox’s. TikTok, I launched my own TikTok, and that gets us up to January of last year where I launched Huge If True, which is I went independent to start this show. It’s an optimistic show about technology. So every episode much explained in the sense that every episode is a deep dive on a specific topic, but in Huge If True, I take you on a journey to try and understand one specific technology topic, how it works, why it’s fascinating, and then most importantly, why it could help make the future better. What is it about this thing that could help more people live easier or happier lives?
Ben Grynol (09:38):
Yeah. It is such a cool story and it’s one of those things where if people have a lens into content creation, the next layer being down video production, you can appreciate how much goes into what you are doing with Huge If True and just what you’re doing from a journalism perspective full stop. The amount of production that goes into creating deep docu content, these are teams of, I don’t know how many people were on Explained, but when people are actually on set doing shoots and they’re doing running guns and all these aspects, all of the pre-through production, through posts, I mean you’re talking about months and months of development, and you’re talking about really deep diligence and then there’s Cleo that’s doing this independently, which it really does seem mind-boggling because you’re producing content at that same level, right? And so that’s the amount of diligence that you’re putting in and rigor into that long-form content is incredible and I love to see it.
Cleo Abram (10:37):
Thank you very much. I will say that there are other people doing similar work that I take inspiration from myself. So Johnny and is Harris are a great example of this. Johnny worked at Vox before me and now similarly as an independent journalist, Vox itself does a wide-range of journalism from, as you say, the very large productions on Explained. But I also learned the skills of what it looks like when one person, that the expression that I learned at Vox was that the head in the hands were as close together as possible. That the people who were actually doing the putting-together of the creative asset could also be the people who were pitching those stories. I never did a story that I didn’t pitch. And that perspective that you can have this sort of scaled up and down model of doing documentary journalism, explainer journalism, video journalism became really important to me and is something that I use now.
So some of the shoots that I do, I’ll strategically decide, “Is this issue where I need to hire a DP because I want it to be beautiful?” Because I had an example of that last week, or is this something where actually the feeling of the episode would be improved or frankly, it’s just much, much easier and cheaper. And so I’m scrappily trying to build this show to go myself with just me and my camera to the Argonne National Laboratory and see all the cool research that they’re going on there. I didn’t bring a DP with me there. And the feeling that you get from that is that you’re sort of coming behind the scenes with me to this very cool place. Some of that is deliberate, some of that is sort of the fact of being an independent person.
And so you make these creative choices, that there was an audience member one time that was like, “Oh, I just love the behind-the-scenes feel of your shoots early on, it just feels like it’s just you and me there and we’re learning from the expert.” And I was like, “Yeah. That’s because I couldn’t hire a DP. It was my first shoot.” But the feeling that that results is like, “Oh, I’m here with you. This is scrappy, this is personal, this is like you’re taking me on a journalistic journey.” And I think that’s important even as you scale. So telling these stories in a wide-range of ways and learning from the people that are also doing this on the internet that I admire has been a really fun part of going independent and getting to make all those choices myself.
Ben Grynol (13:05):
So when you’re thinking about what you’re doing, right? I think there’s an analog with what we’re doing from an editorial perspective where the information we put out is deeply researched, it takes months to do blog posts, right? Because there’s a fact-checking process, because it’s editorial content. There’s this juxtaposition though between spending time and doing work that has a lot of journalistic integrity and the fast-moving world that we live in, which is the complete opposite of scrappy underproduced, “Let’s just get it out the door.” There’s almost these two different worlds. So how do you balance that?
Especially with the way that you put out content is on two distinctly different video distribution platforms, one leans into fast algo hits, that being TikTok, and the other leans into long-form perennial, it’s going to grow over time. When you’re thinking about how you divide up your time, given this juxtaposition, how do you think about maintaining journalistic and integrity without compromising your own values? Because it’s so easy to get addicted to the dopamine hits of TikTok, go, go, go, just put out lots of content, but you never want to breach your own values and say, “I didn’t spend enough time truly doing this storytelling that deserves.” So how do you think about that aspect of leaning into each of those platforms?
Cleo Abram (14:34):
I would describe the landscape slightly differently, although I agree that there’s that massive tension between the quality of the work and the time that you spend on the work and the speed with which you publish. And I think as people scale, one of the biggest challenges that people like me have is, “Okay. You know this thing is working. You feel that people are interested in what you’re doing, you want to make more of it. How do you make more stuff and at a faster rate, but also maintain the quality of what you were doing before?” So I agree that that’s a massive challenge for most people who do what I do. And frankly for media companies, these are the same challenges that large groups of people used to face. It’s just you see it much more clearly when it’s in individual struggling with that same problem.
So the way that I think about this now is that there is one axis, which is how much stuff are you creating? Is it anywhere from one video a month on YouTube all the way up to a video a day on TikTok? And then how much work goes into that video? Of course is the other access. But the thing that you can think about is the same body of work can result in a lot of different kinds of content and you can get leverage on the same initial research and expert interviews and ways that you’re approaching your animations and all of that. It doesn’t have to be that you have to reduce the amount of work that you do per video in order to publish more. I think that’s a common way that people sort of, I don’t want to say get lazy, but misunderstand how they can get more leverage out of what they’re actually doing.
The way that I think about this is when I’m approaching something journalistically, the bulk of the work that I do, imagine a brick wall all across the bottom of this screen or imagine a brick wall in front of you. The work that you’re doing as a journalist is building that brick wall. So you’re reading eight different books that you ordered. You’re interviewing three different experts on background. You’re finding one expert to speak to you on the record and you’re taking the transcript of that interview and choosing selects, and then you’re creating sort of diagrams or animations based on that. And then you’re going on a field shoot, which can be very time-intensive, and then you’re incorporating that footage back into the edit and then the edit takes on all of that. Everything’s short of the actual editing I would call the underlying brick wall of your journalism.
And the thing that I think people mistake is that they try and build up a bunch of separate walls and then the walls are smaller and weaker, where instead you just build one big wall and then I imagine the video content has little stacks on top of it. So instead of creating a little stack of bricks over here that’s like eight different TikToks and they’re all eight different stacks of bricks, you build a whole wall of them and you say, “Okay. I went on this shoot and I did this expert interview and I’m creating this video with these animations. Maybe one of those charts becomes its own TikTok, but it also becomes part of the YouTube video.” So it’s building on the work that you’ve already done. It’s not trying to repeat the same work to create multiple videos. And I think that’s a strategic choice.
It helps you get better quality videos out of the same amount of the 70% work that isn’t the actual editing and animation. I do, for example, rerecord the directed camera parts for TikTok as compared to YouTube and make the videos specifically for those vertical platforms. Because what you don’t want to do is say, “Okay. I’ve built this brick wall, I’ve done all of this work, I’m now just going to recut it for every platform.” That just doesn’t work. Nobody wants that. So I don’t actually think about it as I am creating one final asset that then gets published. That’s the way I used to think about it for Netflix. That’s the way I think most people think about this for television. I think about creating sort of clusters or walls of content that you then build on top of and that helps me make sure that the work that I’m doing has that underlying support. I’ve done the work to interview somebody. I’ve read the book, I’ve thought about this deeply and then it becomes many different kinds of videos.
The other way to go about this and some of what I do on TikTok and in short-form generally is testing out ideas that might then become a YouTube video. So it makes sense for me to invest in doing a bunch of research on the new Vera Rubin Telescope. That’s a very, very basic TikTok. It’s like, “This telescope exists, it has this capacity.” This is very basic fact-checking that I can do really, really quickly. But if I become interested in that topic, if other people are interested in that topic, that will become part of the brick wall that I described. I will have already done a little bit of research. I will build on it by doing an interview with somebody associated with that telescope. I will make some animations and then it will become something, so it’s worth me investing in early on. I think that the place where people get stuck is they try to do a little mini-journalistic process for every individual video and then that process just gets worse because if you want to make more videos, you have to spend less time on each video.
Ben Grynol (20:15):
That is a super interesting approach because it’s bottom-up derivative as opposed to 99%, and I’m just being hyperbolic about it, but the majority of derivative cuts are top-down derivative, meaning you produce the thing, let’s just use Huge If True. You go produce a thing and that becomes all your subs. You’re trying to find the subs and you’re not just cutting randomly, you’re trying to find the best bites to hit the right audience on the right platform. Sure. But it’s so different, because let’s say you take the F1 video, right? You take that and then you put it into 20 vids and you’re trying to hit your IG audience separate from your Tok audience and all of a sudden you’ve got this content. But the bottom-up approach is telling that story as it’s being formed or as you’re researching it.
And so it gives you that foundation of the content for the other platforms as though having to force it so that you don’t have these lulls of such huge oscillation, especially in you could go a very different direction with your channel and just do daily vlogs, because that’s what people do to get the cadence high and the output high. And you’re trying to lean into the algo that way. It’s a very different approach where you’re saying, “No, I’m going to take the time that I need to do whatever cadence it is for that platform and the other platforms I’m creating bottom-up derivative.” It’s such a cool-
Cleo Abram (21:36):
I like the distinction between bottom-up and top-down. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but I agree. I think that people try to recut the things that they make the biggest block. And I get that, it’s like you put the biggest stone into the bucket first and then you fill up everything else around it. I get the instinct to make the largest thing and to some degree I do work that way. I think about it as, “Oh, this is going to become a long-form video someday.” But really, I have tried to reframe that in my head of just like, “I am working toward a greater and greater understanding of this topic so that I can make more and more complex videos.” And probably the maximum that I will choose to go to at this point in my career is a 15 to 20-minute YouTube horizontal sort of big explainer.
But in the meantime or after or in the preparation for making that big asset, I’ll make a bunch of, as you said, I’ll bubble-up a bunch of other little videos. I’m actually going to start experimenting with shorter horizontal videos. It’s not just long-form versus short-form, it’s sort of a cluster of content. I think that the thing that the reason why people might misunderstand this, it seems like more work because you have to plan. For example, I’m going to go do a big shoot in December. I have to be thinking now about not just what is the sort of objective from the footage that I need for the long-form video, but what little moments do I want to make sure to capture on my phone as opposed to on the big camera so that I can understand, “Okay. I’m showing this little thing and that’s doing this vlog in-person? I want to have a behind-the-scenes video so I’m going to turn the camera around and show the camera that I’m shooting.” All of those little moments require preparation.
But I think the thing that has become obvious to me is that it’s not actually more work, it’s more work on the front-end. But by the time I’m done with a long-form video, all of the other short-forms should be fairly obvious or they should be very easy to create. Sometimes I do create short-form after I’ve created a long scripts, but it’s like I’m taking this section of my script which has one chart and I’m just taking that chart, dropping it into a new doc and being like, “This is what this chart shows and sort of writes itself.” It’s not difficult to, “If you have that underlying foundation to create additional content that’s all related.”
But, yeah, I think the thing people most misunderstand about this is they try and repurpose the capital C, Content, that they have created. We use this word now so much, the content that you have made, without realizing that it’s much easier and I think much better for the audience to repurpose the content. Lowercase C, the content of the thing that you made, what’s in it? Just break it out into more pieces, show people the work, give people an additional piece of context that you hadn’t fit into the larger piece of content that you were making. All of those things. I think people… It does take work on the front-end, but it can save you a lot of time and it also ends up being much more fun for you and the audience. It’s not that I didn’t try to just cut up my long-form videos and post them on multiple channels. If you look at my channels, those exist, they just don’t work as well.
Ben Grynol (24:56):
Yeah. I wonder if people do it because they feel like that’s just what you do. We always hear that. Why are you doing the top-down thing where you just cut up derivatives?” Well, it’s what you do if you ask people, it’s almost like they might not have an answer other than, “Well, it’s just good to do it.” As opposed to flipping the model on its head and going, “Hey, what’s this bottom up idea?” It’s a very different thing as a side note to nerd out on video production, because it’s always fun too. BTS stuff, behind-the-scenes always lands and it’s always fun to do and when you’re on shoots, people are like, “You were there, why did you not just grab your phone and film anything?” And it’s to highlight your point of you have to put that into a shot list of-
Cleo Abram (25:38):
Ben Grynol (25:39):
… what the day is because things are so intense where everyone’s like, “Cleo, I don’t understand you were there, couldn’t you just pull out your phone?” You’re like, “No, my brain was in execution mode and I couldn’t think of anything other than get the wide shot of this thing that I need for this.” You’re framing it out and that’s how hard it is with a lot of that pre-production because you’re trying to get the shots to match the story that you’re trying to tell. So-
Cleo Abram (26:02):
Yeah. Absolutely. Exactly.
Ben Grynol (26:04):
Yeah. So interesting. But do you ever feel a need to grow, for the sake of growing, which comes down to the idea of posting cadence where it’s just you know we’re all incentivized as people, as content creators, and as brands, as anyone who’s putting out information on the internet on some digital platform, we’re incentivized to do more, because the algos, I’m generalizing, favor great content that gets engagement and consistency in output. And so do you ever feel that need of, “I know I got to keep doing this to grow my audience?” Or are you more focused on, “No, I’m going to tell the story that needs to be told and I will put it out whenever it gets out?”
Cleo Abram (26:54):
More the latter with an asterisk, which is a big part of my show. It’s like huge, Huge, asterisk, If True. So the asterisk cure for me is you don’t want to let your preconceived idea of perfection affect what will actually be good for the audience. And sometimes what is good for the audience and what feels like the best work that they can enjoy in their lives is some amount of reliability. They want to know, “How does this generally fit in?” I try and make one long-form video a month that is very, very long as a timeframe compared to many other people that make work on YouTube. And I’m actually trying to build the team so that I can make that faster. Not because I feel a pressure from the algorithm, but because I want to make more good work. I feel very ambitious about this work and I want to make more of it.
And I think that the audience is, I get a lot of comments in the third week when I haven’t posted something. It was something long-form, because I am trying to do more short-form when by the third week people will be like, “Okay. Where’s the next?” I can tell that there is a desire for that. So I’m trying to do what my audience is asking for and what would make them happy. I think that people get very in their own heads about the pressure to post consistently, when really, it’s less about the consistency of the actual video. No one cares whether you post every… Unless you really have a news-based audience or an audience that you’ve set up sort of a show every Wednesday or something. Whether or not I post once every two weeks or three weeks or a month, the audience isn’t really going to care that much. It’s much more about how do I develop a relationship with other people that understand the expectations and the bounds of our relationship.
It’s like I have very, very close friends that I talk to once a month and that I feel that we’re best friends and I have friends that the expectation is if I don’t talk to them once a week they would be like, “Oh, Claire, are you okay?” It’s just about setting expectations with people that are in your life and the audience is sort of a person in my life and now that I’m making things directly for them. So I think expectation setting is really important. I think I want to make more because I think there’s more to make, I feel called to do this type of storytelling. I think there’s so many more stories I want to be telling as many of those stories as possible. And I think the thing that I want to avoid even if I’m not sort of feeling an anxiety to post on a specific day or at a specific cadence is I don’t want to get so obsessed with the perfection of the animation or something.
That I miss the part that the audience really likes, which is, “I want this to feel scrappy, I want to feel like I know I want you to be going out in the world and bringing back a story for me.” And actually at a certain point, 98% of the way to my perfect video posting more regularly might be, as long as it is the story that I want to tell, as long as I’m like just the end polish might actually be hurting me, the end polish might not be what my audience wants. So I think the expectation setting and the pressure to meet the expectations you have decided to set with your audience can help you avoid this perfectionist like, “Oh, I’m not going to care about the timing that I post at all,” and then I’m just going to go on and on forever making the perfect video. So I think it’s the balance of those things.
Ben Grynol (30:31):
Was there anything that you learned when there are two camps here, the wide distribution with Vox and then what you’re doing independently, but you had this opportunity, it’s how much of it you could control is hard to say, but around arced and serialized content versus dripping it out, right? Do you have any feelings or did you learn anything through that lens of working on things explained where there is a strategy? Absolutely serial, does it incredible where they’re just like, “Hey, this is great content.” You decide, on-demand, you decide we’re not going to do the drip thing. It’s not going to be week-over-week cliffhanger, if you want to when S-Town came out, there’s a reason Brian Reid was on Jimmy Fallon. There’s a reason why he did the circuit because it became popular because it caught on so quick and people could binge it if they wanted to.
But do you have any strong thoughts or feelings or any learnings around the idea of arc/serialized content and how you would go about distributing it? Go for the blast, put it out, people can consume at their own pace or, “Nope, let’s stretch this arced,” let’s say, it’s six episodes, “Let’s stretch this over six weeks because we can and we’ll keep people engaged.” What are your thoughts or learnings around that?
Cleo Abram (31:49):
So my content right now is Star Trek, basically. There is a continuity of character like Old Star Trek: The Next Generation vibe both in its technological optimism, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Here, what I’m talking about is there is a continuity of character. I am a character, I am growing, I am learning on camera. You can see my perspective shift. I bring up things that I learned in past videos in a new video, but each episode of Huge If True each episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is an individual story that you could follow by itself. You generally know that they’re bopping around the galaxy learning about different things, but it’s not the same as later seasons of Star Trek like Voyager where the whole plot line is they’ve, they’ve gotten thrown out into space and they’re finding their way home.
And so if you watched an episode in the middle, it wouldn’t make as much sense as an older Star Trek. You can watch those independently. So for me right now, I am making the journalistic equivalent of old episode standalone content and then there was this massive transition, you can see it actually across seasons of Star Trek where television went the opposite direction from that. Everything is this massive arc. This is like if you dropped down a new audience into the middle of Game of Thrones, they would have absolutely no idea what was going on. And so it becomes very important that you build a habit to watch that every week. And so there’s a distinction here between is the content itself episodic or is it a long and complicated character arc or plot arc across many episodes and is it bingeable or is it drip? And those are two actually different.
You could have in theory and we did have maybe Explained was drip always, I think it was drip always, but you could in theory have an episodic show that dropped all at once so people could binge the episodes or you could have an arc show that was a two-by-two. So what I do right now is episodic drip that is the vast majority. I can’t really think of video journalism that isn’t that way. And the reason for that is that I work on this constantly. I make a video, I put it out, I make a video, I put it out, that is the other option for doing a set of episodes that drop all at once, a full season of Huge If True that you could binge would be like, “I work for six months, I make six episodes, I put them out all at once.”
Number one, the business model is sponsorships. So that would be very tricky. You’d get your business would be much more lump sum. And number two, every time I put out a video I’m learning something either about the audience, about my production process, about the literal content so that I can learn something about batteries in an electric planes video and apply it in a rocket video, all that, maybe not batteries and rocket video. And so if I don’t have those iteration cycles, if those iteration cycles are every six months spoke with lots more content, it’s just less helpful for me creatively.
I have a relationship with the audience and they’re teaching me things and I’m teaching myself things when my process breaks down and I have to fix something. Long-term, I would be very interested in creating a docu-series show that has an arc and I don’t know what that is yet. Maybe it’s the obvious answer is you personally could be the arc, you could have a development of your knowledge and go from place-to-place learning more. I don’t really think that’s enough. I think the story itself should for some reason have a why you needed to watch episode one, before episode two, before episode three. But I haven’t figured out that out yet. Maybe that’s a show that I’ll make in three or four years.
Ben Grynol (35:54):
Yeah. Content is so interesting because there’s this bias, I think, that sometimes, we, society, we might have towards, “It gets better with age. I’m going to hold onto it until I can distribute it when it’s,” back to what you were saying before, “When it’s perfect.” And the reality is, it doesn’t get better at with age. It’s just you’re actually not allowing yourself to have the engagement from your audience to see if it resonates with them to learn from it. And so getting the key is figuring out what the right cycle is, given format, given all the other inputs. But it’s always a balance to figure out exactly what is going to be the mechanism to make sure that your audience is getting important information and you are able to put out content at a reasonable cadence, not go into a hole for six months and come out the other side, “Ta-da, here’s the reveal,” and everyone’s like, “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” Right?
Cleo Abram (36:49):
Ben Grynol (36:50):
When you think about misinformation and disinformation, it’s something that, especially when you’re doing the type of content that you are, where you become a source of truth, people trust you, they know that you are doing your homework on it, but not everyone does. How many videos exist or pieces of content exist in the world that are misinformation or disinformation? It’s absurd. Some of it is obviously on purpose and other is just out of people being naive and not maybe having the full context on things. But what advice do you have for people as far as them being able to decipher between content that is deeply reported and valuable? Because you can also trick people if something’s highly produced. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily, it has integrity or it has the DD behind it to make sure it’s good. But what can people do to decipher between this, given that we live in an ever-flowing stream of information just coming to eyes or ears or from every avenue around the world at all times, what can people do to really understand that?
Cleo Abram (38:04):
Yeah. I think there are two different levers here that people should understand that that might be pulled. The first is people might be misrepresenting actual facts. So is this fact accurate? And by how many sources has this fact been verified? And how recent is this fact, of course? There are things that become inaccurate over time. So actual accuracy of the factual information is one lever that people should be aware of. The other is what is the compilation of facts and what story are those facts telling? I can tell you a false story with a list of accurate facts because I can draw correlations between them. I can imply causation even if I don’t literally say it. I can create a story that is false out of facts that are accurate. I hope I never do, but people should be aware that that can be done. So there are two different things that you have to assess in terms of factual accuracy, very basic things that people can look at.
Obviously, checking the source is something people understand in media literacy classes, but checking dates, checking axes on charts to make sure that they’re not cutting off a huge section of the bottom and being set. And then deciding between if this is a cutoff graph, is it cut off to zoom in on a part of a detail that is important or is it deceptively cut off to tell a story that I think is inaccurate? There’s a really wonderful book called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information that I recommend anybody read who’s interested in data viz. It’s beautiful. And then on the other hand, I think there’s this idea that what I’m about to talk about, I’m not sure what to call this. I’m not an expert in disinformation or misinformation. I think there’s a category of information that basically goes, I Wikipedia-ed had something and then I put together a list of facts and I’m pretty sure that each of these facts is accurate, but together I am misleading the people that I am following. And I think that’s harder for people to see through because every individual fact might check out.
This might be from the World Economic Forum and I know that’s a reputable source. And this one is from Our World in Data, and I know that’s a reputable source and this pretty recent, but together, the story might be false. Again, I’m not an expert here and there are people that are media literacy professors could probably give you a list of really great ways to decipher misinformation. I personally check whether this is something that fits too cleanly into my own worldview. If I feel too satisfied by watching something, if I feel that nothing has challenged the way that I think and nothing has surprised me, the world has really complicated. That might be a flag that this story has been two neatly put together. And that’s something that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s false, but it’s something that if I feel too good after watching something, basically I’ll sort of check the sources on it.
Ben Grynol (41:33):
When you’re watching those docus and you go, “It seems pretty heavily weighted.”
Cleo Abram (41:38):
Ben Grynol (41:38):
And so people are trying to be persuasive in a documentary, like that right There is a flag that goes, “Oh, I understand, it’s fine it’s okay to have a docu, but this is very much a position. This is not a documentary that is being reported based on telling the story of all inputs that make it come together.” It’s hard though, because we want to trust the source. That’s sort of the default, trust the source, right? And especially when you think about power and influence and sources can get things wrong from time-to-time. Sources can also be one degree of separation away from us. Well, I trust my best friend and my best friend said this. And it’s really easy to fall into that trap of trusting information that you might not have a foundation around, and then all of a sudden, you start to tell other people, and that’s where it gets really hard.
Gosh, I’ll get the timeline wrong, it was probably around 10 years ago when This American Life had that reporting. I think it was around that Apple story. They did some story, I’m going to get it wrong, so do not quote me on this. Both you Cleo and anybody listening, but I think it was a story around Apple and somebody that was involved in sourcing for Apple overseas. I’m pretty sure that’s what the foundation was. But anyway, they got it wrong. And through all the fact-checking, this is This American Life, the source, the one that we always say, “Yes, the team has done their homework,” and sometimes we get information wrong.
So Ira Campbell out and he said, “Hey, we apologize. This is not something that we do and we take this very seriously.” But it’s one of those things where it’s even when you have trusted sources to keep making sure that you are broadening your horizon, and I love the way you framed it a boat, if this makes me feel too warm and fuzzy, maybe I should check myself on this, maybe I should explore it further. But they’re good takeaways because it’s too easy if you find yourself nodding your head. There are other views out there. And so probably looking in to say, “I wonder what the other side thinks.”
Cleo Abram (43:50):
Yeah. I think, for me, a lot of the reason I started Huge If True comes from my own personal dissatisfaction from the kinds of stories that I was seeing. So the feeling that I was having in the year leading up to starting Huge if True was I was reading a lot of tech journalism, I was reading a lot of climate and energy journalism and I was watching a lot of sci-fi. I deeply love sci-fi. And all of it together was painting a picture of a world in my mind in the future, lots of different worlds, people don’t agree. But there was this very strong sense, and I’ll just speak for myself. I personally had this very strong sense that I was getting visions of the world that were worse than the world that we were living in now. And that hasn’t been the 100-year history that we’ve been on. We’ve reduced the enormous amount of human suffering in the last 100 years.
But all of a sudden I was watching a lot of science fiction and I was seeing a very dystopian view. I think many people would agree that we’re in a sort of science fiction era right now where everything seems like the matrix or some variation of the world going to shit. But then also in accurate technology journalism, it was very focused on calling out the specific abuses of current technology and the ways in which those abuses could get worse. All of which, again, is accurate. And in fact, I am very excited about and supportive of deep investigative journalism that calls those abuses out, calls those flaws out in current technology. But I think for me, what was missing in a sort of full meal, a full set of flavors that you might consume about the future is hopeful work that explores how a technology works so that you can paint a picture of a positive future that you could also build with that technology.
For example, I’m working on a story right now about electric planes, which are something that could go wrong in all kinds of ways. It’s very unlikely that we will have electric passenger planes, for example, huge passenger jets within the next, I don’t know, say 20 years. But we’re making an enormous amount of progress in battery size and small cargo planes and small passenger planes. So how can we begin to use this interesting technology to take away carbon emissions because we’re able to electrify a lot of short haul flights? I’m trying to take into account the real problems with technologies that exist, but not say like, “Oh, you have this dream of electric planes? That’s not possible because batteries are too heavy and they’ll always be too heavy and we can’t do that.” And there’s a world building exercise. It’s funny to take that from fantasy and sci-fi, but we build what we can imagine. And I think it’s very important for accurate technology journalism to both paint a picture of the flaws and existing technology and the ways that they can get worse if we don’t fix them.
But also, explain what the point of innovation is in that area in the first place. Why are people so obsessed with making batteries smaller and more efficient and better? What could we do with that? What are the dreams of the people that work on that? And why should we participate in that future? What are the flavors of futures that different people building different technologies might take us toward? And how can we participate in that? So all of that to say, my desire to make Huge If True was a response to me feeling like, “I wasn’t getting the sort of deep explanation with an optimistic future-looking lens that I was looking for from journalism.” And so I decided to make it. I think, I mean, I’m speaking to the choir, but I think a lot of the time if you build something for yourself, whether in entrepreneurship or in journalism, you can see if there are other people out there like you and maybe you’ve identified something.
And I think that with Huge If True, we really have, seems like a lot of people were feeling the same way that I was feeling. So I’m excited about that. And I think I want to make sure that the stories that we tell are accurate and everything that we do is very focused on making sure that that’s the first thing that we think about. What is this story? How do I not go in with any priors? What are people telling me about this story that are experts in this field? What does the data show me? How do I present that data most clearly? And then craft a story after that sort of accurate information has been laid out? What is the through line that helps people understand what’s going on here? You have to do some storytelling. It’s not just a list of facts, but I think one thing that’s been a real relief in building Huge If True, honestly, is I came from a media company where there was a very serious corrections’ policy. That’s awesome. Vox does a really good job of responding when a fact has been inaccurate.
And that happens in journalism, part of the deal. People are going to get stuff wrong. But for me, I really wanted to have a relationship with the audience where in one of my first episodes, I think I said, “I’m not an expert on this. Here’s what the top three reports that I’ve read tell me. But if you are an expert on this, please comment. I’d love to hear from you.” And I think some acknowledgement that journalists aren’t issue area experts, that our job is to learn and digest and then repeat back what the data or the experts have told us is really important. By not presenting myself as the final arbiter of this information, I hope, and I’m still cultivating this relationship with the audience, but I hope that if when… Not if, I will naturally get something wrong, I already have in small, I have issued small corrections on videos. Not ones that I think impact the overall story, but I’ve gotten individual facts wrong and I’ve talked to people in the comments about that. I’ve flagged things in videos. I think that’s great.
I think that’s a participatory relationship with the audience. And as long as you’re making sure that people understand that that’s what you’re doing. I’ve spent a month reading all these books. Here’s what I think as opposed to I’m an expert in electric planes, no one should confuse me for an engineer that is building electric planes. I feel more relaxed about that. As an independent journalist, I got to be honest, if people say, “Oh, hey. I see that you got this fact from that report, but there’s a newer report that you might not have seen and I’m an expert in this area, so I’ve seen it and here’s the report. And so your data is old or wrong or you misused something.” My response is to pin the comment to the top of the YouTube video and then issue a correction in the video and say, “Thank you.” I’m excited about the journalism that you can do and the transparency that you can have when you’re independent.
Ben Grynol (51:19):
The trusted source is such a hard position to be in because then you feel that you’re on the line, I am the source.
Cleo Abram (51:27):
Ben Grynol (51:28):
But if you start to reframe it in the way that you are, where you are source being, source material versus the source that they got it from, you will be a source, but trusted source of, “Hey, here’s the information. Take what I say as being the absolute truth.” And there’s nothing else that can change your mind. That’s a hard position to be in. But if you change it to exactly what you said where it’s people trust you for aggregation, curation, and synthesis of whatever information retelling this story, that’s a lot different position to be in because you’re saying, “Hey, I took all this input. I put it through the machine, my brain, and here’s the output of it.” And they’re trusting you because consistently you’re able to do this at a level that people go, “I trust Cleo, I know that she’s going to do her homework.”
And that’s an important thing, I think for anyone that is in this content creation game or anyone that’s a media company, right? It’s too hard with the amount of information being out there in the same and age. And there’s so many smart people working in the longest tail of the world on something that we don’t even know they’re working on right now where they have answers that haven’t been reported, right? And so then that comes up and you go, “Well, Bayesian update, that’s a new piece of information,” maybe not drastically changes my position, but it changes my framing of it a little bit.
Cleo Abram (52:51):
Ben Grynol (52:51):
So it’s always doing this ongoing cycle of saying, “What new things am I learning that are changing my lens?” And that’s tied into metabolic health. It’s exactly what you mentioned about reframing pessimism versus optimism. It’s very easy for the new cycle to be pessimistic and everything is doom and gloom. Look how much illness there is, and you can position it as that, or it’s basically the messaging of saying, “You have the opportunity to take your health into your own hands. You can go as far upstream as you can to learn about this, and then you can make your decisions.” It’s a very different framing, but it’s hard for us to not be consumed by this, we’ll call it this hype cycle of information where it’s just constant pessimism and it makes us all feel bad and feel stressed. And so deciphering between great sources being the aggregation, curation, synthesis, and then the actual source. That’s where it gets hard where sometimes, I think, everyone can relate in some way, shape, or form.
You just want to shut it down and shut your brain down and go, “Let me just be for a second, because it’s constantly flowing towards us.” If you had any advice for anyone who wants to get into content creation, what’s your advice so that people don’t fall into the trap of chasing vanity metrics and short-term dopamine hits? Because I think people sort of try this thing, “I’m going to be a content creator. I’m going to put out whatever stories, it doesn’t matter what platform they’re on.” And then it can be a little bit demotivating sometimes where you think like, “Oh, I didn’t get the answer,” and I know Gary Vee talks about it all the time like, “Just do the thing that you’re interested in and don’t worry about it and it all work itself out.” But do you have any advice for anybody thinking about either getting into journalism or wanting to tell more stories or put out more content in something that they’re interested in?
Cleo Abram (54:53):
I actually think there’s never been a better time to get into journalism and content creation and the combination between the two. I think there’s a lot of concern among legacy media about the reliability of jobs and journalism right now. I have a lot of friends that have been laid off from a lot of jobs. Like Vox itself while I was there, went through constrictions and growth and everything in between. And that feels very stressful. I think, especially if maybe there’s some kid out there that’s been interested in journalism but sees sort of the chatter about this moment and doesn’t feel like that’s a choice that they can make. I would challenge people to think about what the first principles of what they are excited about are. So for me, I was very, very excited about the Rubik’s Cube puzzle of writing a script. I love writing for video journalism.
I find it so fulfilling and so fascinating. I love the sort of combination of key visuals and writing around a visual, like a chart or a field shoot or something. And so for me, I wasn’t drawn to journalism. I was drawn to this specific combination of my skills, what I think people would benefit from, and how I could build a career. And that little tiny part of the Venn diagram was where I really found this career that feels like, “I would love to do it for the rest of my life.” So boiling it down to what is the specific thing that you want to do with your time every day? What thing could you get totally obsessed with and go all the way down the rabbit hole on that thing and follow that into whatever part of this crazy ever-changing industry is. Whether that’s let’s say that you’re really obsessed with a specific type of video editing.
Well, maybe you are actually quite flexible on what exactly category of thing you’re editing. You could end up editing horror films or YouTube challenge videos, but you just love the stylistic skill of editing or maybe you’re a DP or maybe whatever. And for me, I had to know that I was very excited about this particular writing and then be really flexible in terms of where the best opportunity would be to do this exact work that I wanted to do. First, it was on Netflix, and that was really exciting, and there was sort of a moment when that felt the frontier of video journalism and I was there and that felt so exciting. And all of these places are still doing incredible things, but then Vox on YouTube felt like this and still feels like this unbelievable opportunity to make work that millions and millions of people would enjoy.
And then I sort of saw this opportunity to be an independent journalist and it would offer new creative challenges, and that would be a way that I could do this specific skill. So for me, it’s all about identifying the specific combination of your Venn diagram like, “What is it that you are actually going for?” And then not getting too wed to media used to work a certain way, and then I’m going to get a job at a TV news operation and local journalism and work my way up. A lot of that stuff not only doesn’t exist right now in the way that it did five years ago, but also, it will look incredibly different from the way that it is now in 10 years. So I would just say there’s never been a better time, there’s never been more opportunity. It’s just really messy. And so being focused in terms of what you love and what you feel passionate about and what you can just totally obsess over and then find the places where that exists.
Ben Grynol (58:42):
The cross-section of interest to form a new long-tail, because if you are interested in it, there is a high probability that someone else in the world, in that times, at least a thousand people are going to be interested. So, yeah, it’s always fun to explore what the longest of long-tails can be, and you go, “There’s an audience for that?” And then you look and it’s like 10 million people have watched that video and you’re like, “I’ve never heard of that thing before, but clearly it resonates with people,” so very interesting. Well, where can people find you? Because you have lots of great information to put out?
Cleo Abram (59:17):
@cleoabram on YouTube, on TikTok, on Twitter, on Instagram, not so much on Facebook. Those are my platforms.
Ben Grynol (59:26):
What’s the next drop? Can you let us in on next?
Cleo Abram (59:28):
Yeah. There’s a video on electric planes coming up on YouTube, probably before the end of this month, which I’m really, really excited about. And then after that, I’ve got another fun video that I will only tease and that it’s going to be awesome in December before the end of the year. But then more generally, I’m always making a lot of smaller videos on Instagram, on TikTok especially, and on YouTube shorts.