Joanna Drake Earl has checked nearly every box when it comes to building media companies. From strategy consulting to leading Hollywood media and Silicon Valley tech giants, to overseeing product and marketing teams in the earliest media tech start-ups, to holding executive roles in public mobile gaming companies, she has been at the center of media tech innovation . We spoke to Joanna about her time as a founding executive of Current TV, why journalism needs digital technology to survive, and where traditional media is headed, and what companies in the Core Ventures Group portfolio are helping traditional media companies better navigate the digital, social mobile waters.
Hi Joanna — thanks for chatting with us.
Joanna: Glad to be here!
In terms of digital trends and audience behavior, in my mind Current TV was ahead of its time. Along with former Vice President Al Gore and Joe Hyatt, you were a founding executive there. What did Current get right?
Joanna: Current was ahead of its time in many regards. It was the world’s first user-generated content channel, debuting via cable and satellite television in 2005 — even before YouTube had taken off, and way before their was a category called social media. What we did right was correctly predict the powerful storytelling capability of a young adult audience.
We started by creating the world’s first online video collaborative – a kind of virtual studio, from which we ran competitions and published open assignments, offered production training and free digital music to empower an audience that had stories to tell, but hadn’t been professionally trained by traditional media. When we flipped the ‘on’ switch in August of 2005, 30% of our content was generated by our online community, out of the gate we were fulfilling our charter to deliver a powerful platform for voices that were not being heard.
When we debuted, media critics couldn’t distinguish between some of the content generated from Current TV’s online community versus our professionally produced programming. We learned that that production quality was not nearly as important for our audience as fascinating personal stories, told authentically and shared with passion and a strong POV. A powerful example of this presented itself the same month we debuted. As hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a young citizen journalist went out on a flat bottom boat to rescue stranded citizens and chronicled his journey with a digital camera. We aired the remarkable footage he sent us before the major outlets could get their reporters on the ground.
That’s fascinating. You must have been aspirational to YouTube and Vice with regards to the quality of your content. What do you see as the legacy of Current TV, and the transformation it brought to media?
Joanna: Yes indeed. Some of our best content came from a brilliant self-contained journalism group we called Vanguard. Vanguard was just a handful of young chroniclers traveling the world and exploring provocative topics – from waterboarding policies at home, to the Mexican border coyotes, to human trafficking cross-borders in Asia and modern day pirates in Malaysia. Stories that CNN and even 60 Minutes would later pick up and cover themselves. They won the most prestigious journalism awards year after year despite their being such a small, scrappy team because of the quality of their investigatory work and the authenticity of their experiential reporting. Their raw, in-depth and often dangerous style was a precursor to the programming around which Vice eventually built its brand. And their experimentation with distributed teams of citizen journalists in the field was later adapted by many local and national news organizations. I think we’re at an interesting inflection point in the media industry, as the business models behind traditional news outlets are quite challenged.
Current TV represented a new breed of Silicon Valley based entrepreneurs who were experimenting with technology in media and pioneering social media. By forging partnerships with the emerging new media tech titans we turned traditional media formats inside out. As early as 2005 we were partnering with Google to produce hourly news updates according to the most popular search topics. In 2008 we pioneered the first Tweets on with election coverage #HackTheDebate.
Today I’m very gratified to see so many tech titans stepping up to commit to journalism and to experiment with new digital formats and new business models. Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are two prominent examples of inspired individuals investing significant resources.
BuzzFeed comes to mind as another example. I feel like they were written off early on as frivolous, and now they are producing deep, important pieces of journalism. What are they doing right that propels them above traditional news media in terms of visibility and popularity?
Joanna: They’ve figured out how to acquire and engage audiences across the digital, social and mobile landscape, a marketing capability that has historically been more challenging for traditional media outlets who are still learning how to optimize their digital distribution footprints. As the latter build their strength here while continuing to evolve shorter form, high value content, there should be some promising combinations.
Would you say that digital is killing off industries like traditional news media, even as it gives rise to others?
Joanna: Not really. We are in a familiar period of healthy tension between massive digital distribution networks and traditional content owners and producers.
Even when we started Current TV in 2004 we experienced an entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley that felt at odds with the legal and publishing policies of traditional media. We faced a constant internal struggle between building an involved digital community at scale versus producing absolutely fascinating, high quality creative programming. It was an interesting tension, of creative programming vs. web teams competing for budgets and resources, often with opposing principles and policies. Ultimately, however, the combination under one brand generated award winning stories and break-through interactive formats powered by our audience.
In our Core Ventures Group portfolio, we have invested in several media tech start-ups that are squarely focused on helping traditional media companies leverage technology. In the case of Wizeline, to optimize their development efforts and resources. In the case of Feed Media, to enhance their digital experiences with legal streaming music. Meanwhile trueAnthem works with digital publishers to automate their social media promotions and Vidora delivers to them the best AI technology to enable 1:1 customer digital experiences.
There is still a sort of tolling of the bell for journalism. However, then you see tech players investing and committing to finding new business models for journalism. It’s promising.
Gotcha. As we’re coming up on the hour, I have a quick fun question. What would you say are your top three most-used mobile apps, ideally relevant to media?
Joanna: [Laughs] Okay, if I’m really honest, this summer I’ve been enjoying the health apps associated with a wearable that has nothing to do with media. It’s called Oura, from Helsinki, and it debuted at the Near Future conference in March. Another app we’ve been using for personal and professional events, is a new challenger to online invitation companies, it’s a mobile-first, easy to use invite company called Hob Nob.
Those are all awesome, and pretty unique. That about wraps up the questions from, I guess my last question was going to be —
Joanna: I made an angel investment in Hob Nob.
— aaaand, that was my question.