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IN SYNC

Episode 10: Joe Posner

A monthly dive into nonfiction video's new frontier.

Nikita Mandhani

BBC News
February 13th, 2023
Episode 10: Joe Posner

My 10th (!!!) guest for In Sync is Joe Posner – the founder and former head of Vox video. In the summer of 2022, Joe left Vox to help start the video team at Semafor. In our conversation, we discuss Joe’s experiences founding video units at news startups, the use of AI in filmmaking and the importance of embracing our curiosity.


Nikita Mandhani: Hi Joe! Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you start out in the video industry?

Joe Posner: I started out in the industry doing animation for feature documentaries. But, it actually goes back to learning Photoshop with my friend when I was in sixth grade. I was always into making things. I remember trying really hard to get a digital camera when they were invented, and always wanting to learn the tech around storytelling and image making. All of that was paired with a love for journalism. When I was in high school, I was the editor of our newspaper. I've just been following the question of, “How can I use this really broad set of crafty inclinations with my desire to make something of use for people?” And it's led me in this insane, fun path that I could never have foreseen and I think my parents at several points thought this was not a career.

Nikita: That’s so true for many of us. How did Vox happen? How did it become what it is now?

Joe: I was lucky enough to meet Ezra Klein, the co-founder of Vox, at the first conference I got invited to and we really hit it off because I had been working on explanatory type videos that he had seen, and he liked them.

The main critique that Ezra, Matt, and Melissa had of the news media at the time was that stories were hard to follow and fully comprehend. They were interested in the idea of making the news more accessible by starting at the beginning of the story. I was hired to set up Vox video and experiment in this space. The Vox that you know today has since evolved.

I feel very happy that Joss Fong was your first interview for this series. When Joss joined Vox a few months after me, we were experimenting together. She started the most incredible projects that led to the present-day Vox format. I feel that way about everybody else that joined during those early days. We had the right amount of freedom and support to create things that were previously inconceivable.

Nikita: I think true format innovation doesn’t often happen in the news space because everyone's running after the same thing. Vox was such a breath of fresh air. Even now, when I talk to people working on video, they say, “Oh, we want to make videos like Vox.”

Joe: It's just overwhelming because people say that to me too but you can only make videos like you, right? We were incredibly lucky to have the freedom to experiment because I don't think we were more talented than other people. People that I knew working in other news organisations had very restrictive processes and there is a time and a place for that. But that's tough when you’re trying to come up with something new. What worked for us was really based on the kind of weird, specific set of skills and obsessions that we all had and it being a match for what wasn't being served to audiences.

Nikita: What made you want to leave Vox and dip your toes into this new media start-up – Semafor?

Joe: I think Vox is an incredible place to work. But I want to continue learning. I have tried to put myself in the position of making something new and then building a system for it to continue. I saw Semafor as an incredible opportunity for that.

I love roller coasters and Vox is on a great path. But it's not a roller coaster anymore. It's an amazing machine. I still think that anyone who gets the chance to work there absolutely should. But after eight years, I was ready to keep learning, and keep hopefully building new things.

I've just been following the question of, “How can I use this really broad set of crafty inclinations with my desire to make something of use for people?”
—Joe Posner

Nikita: What made you want to leave Vox and dip your toes into this new media start-up – Semafor?

Joe: I think Vox is an incredible place to work. But I want to continue learning. I have tried to put myself in the position of making something new and then building a system for it to continue. I saw Semafor as an incredible opportunity for that.

I love roller coasters and Vox is on a great path. But it's not a roller coaster anymore. It's an amazing machine. I still think that anyone who gets the chance to work there absolutely should. But after eight years, I was ready to keep learning, and keep hopefully building new things.

What worked for us was really based on the kind of weird, specific set of skills and obsessions that we all had and it being a match for what wasn't being served to audiences.
—Joe Posner
Turning the Map Room in the White House into a black box studio for President Obama’s interview. (Image by Charles Pulliam-Moore in 2015)

Nikita: For people who don't know much about Semafor, how is it different from other news organisations?

Joe: One of the biggest goals of Semafor is to try to build something that doesn't start with the idea that we're going to focus on one country or one market. Instead, our focus is on multiple different markets. We also seek to be transparent in a way that most news organisations are not. It's not baked into the structure and the formats that they use.

On the text side, Semafor has sort of deconstructed the news article in order to clarify which part is news and which part is opinion. With video, I have been more likely to go on camera in my pieces. I’m trying to make that be either an analogue for the audience or just a way to highlight that this is my opinion. The third thing is that Semafor is setting up individual, very deep, very narrow little spikes into niches. These are sets of issues and problems that we just wouldn't have covered at Vox. So yes, Semafor seeks to address a few different big opportunities. I'm also eager to see how we evolve based on the people that are involved.

Nikita: How do you start a whole new department? You've done it with Vox and you’re doing it with Semafor. How do you figure out your identity and find your space in a crowded media market?

Joe: It’s a mystery that everybody solves for themselves. It was really important that we were able to indulge our curiosity at Vox because that ended up sort of changing the identity of Vox. Tag lines are ridiculous but our tagline changed from “Understand the news” to “Be curious,” and that was definitely inspired by what was working in our videos, what we were known for and what people loved. I was immensely proud of the fact that you didn't really know what was going to come next on our channel. What you did know was it would be worth your time and it would be really interesting.

I think it's going to be like that at Semafor as well. We know our mission statement, and we're going to find out from the audience what we're good at. That’s the best we can do – approach it more like a science experiment while not giving up our North Star.

Nikita: It’s so interesting that you talked about indulging your curiosities at Vox. I was at Vox for three months after college and I still remember those pitching meetings where people could pitch anything – the culture didn’t make you feel like any idea would be a stupid idea. Everyone embraced each other’s curiosity and that resulted in some of the best work that Vox produced.

Joe: I am so glad that it felt that way. I was really happy that there was more of an open pitching process. So, if Phil came with an idea, he would then go off and make that basically by himself. That is something that was super different about Vox at the time. We had to eventually professionalise our processes a little bit more but I really appreciate that way of creating because it's so much easier to experiment when you're not like, “Well, I have to put all seven people on one video to make this happen.”

I was immensely proud of the fact that you didn't really know what was going to come next on our channel. What you did know was it would be worth your time and it would be really interesting.
—Joe Posner
Joe pictured with his guitar amp and Vox Media's synth, set up for an interviewee to play during an interview for Explained. (2018)

Nikita: That individual ownership of the whole process is so rare to see.

Joe: I talked about the importance of wearing multiple hats all the time, and I believe that the need still exists. But I don't know if it's scalable. There’s a lot of concern about the ways in which AI is going to affect creative jobs, and I think that my rejoinder to that is that AI is like any other new tech that gives us even more space to continue to experiment and wear multiple hats. That is what allows new formats to happen. I’m not calling up a printer to print out each letter. I'm not trying to scan each cell of a video.

If you can understand how to work across lots of things, not only can you pivot as the world changes, you can be more effective. You can make more work. You can make a story by yourself. That is the most powerful thing and that's what we were trying to foster at Vox. Obviously there has to be some green light process but we found a good balance that allowed more creativity.

Nikita: I’m glad you mentioned AI because I was going to talk to you about the AI art videos that Semafor has been doing. I'd love to understand how that idea came to light, and came together.

Joe: I brought AI up because I am bullish about these new tools, and I feel for the people who are very concerned about it. Like any tool – you can use a hammer in a way that really helps your house out or it doesn't.

There's a huge need in documentary film to help people experience something that was not captured on camera or can't be captured on camera. So, when I heard about this technology, I was just like, “Oh, my God, it's happening!” And then I was scrolling through TikTok, specifically trying to teach TikTok that I was really interested in AI art and looking through Instagram, and just searching for who was doing the most interesting stuff. That’s how I came across Kier Spilsbury – this amazing artist who had figured out how to use stable diffusion to do text to animation with no reference video whatsoever. I reached out to her and she started making stuff for us.

The thing that really got me excited about it is when we're gathering individual stories, we can use their actual words in this process since it's going straight from text to animation. Kier is essentially an illustrator that has a new tool. So, we'll write out a script like usual and start with that. We've gotten much more specific at figuring out what kind of scenes we want and knowing what's been tending to work but I also think it's still very early days.

Joe hand painted a Semafor flag for the launch and mounted a 360-degree camera above it. (October 2022)

Nikita: Can you tell me more about what you're doing at Semafor and what you're trying to build there, especially in terms of video?

Joe: I really want people to see how we know something and how we find out something.

I think that TV news and TV documentaries are usually re-enacting the news and they have been because they grew out of the radio. And all these old white guys turn the camera on themselves. They're like all we need to do is just set up a camera over here and keep doing our thing. We’ll tell people what happened.

But we are able to do so much more than that now and my hope is that there is some way to systematise capturing real time journalism – what it actually looks like. One of the reasons I wanted to work at Semafor is because most of the reporters here are focused on getting scoops. Vox is very much a secondary source. It's analysis and cutting signal out of the noise. But at Semafor, most of my colleagues are focused on finding new primary sources, convincing anonymous sources to give them information, and to give them documents.

I just feel like in the age where we're surrounded by cameras, can we be a little bit more present in what that process feels like? I think people distrust journalists and journalism for whatever reason so it could be helpful to take viewers on the journey and the adventure with you. There's going to be a little less opinion and a little bit more asking questions. But in order to do that, we need a process that allows people the time to do that work and the tools to capture it all within the economics of the platform. Let's check back in a year and half to see if that’s possible.

Nikita: Who is your primary audience for Semafor videos?

Joe: I think that our audience is also going to change and evolve over time. The biggest audience for Semafor right now is for our newsletters. They are in general very worldly, influential people. But I always think, can I make something that really means something to that person and to a teenager in New Delhi who is curious about the world? There’s this Ezra Klein line that I will repeat all the time, “Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, and never overestimate the information they have.” I think that is a really wise thing because we're all people, and we're tapping into people when they're curious and feel like they need to understand the world a little bit better.

Vox video team meeting. (December 2016)

Nikita: After working at Vox video, which was about analysis and feeding people’s curiosity, how does it feel to jump back into time-sensitive news coverage?

Joe: We're figuring it out. We all know that nothing will be the speed of text and audio. But I don't ever want to give up on doing bigger, longer, tougher videos. My hope is that you can do something that lasts a little bit longer within the period that it's still relevant to people. The role of YouTube or any streaming service is to hit the things that are really important this month, or this year. It is really hard to do that for same day coverage. Although, maybe we'll get a chance to try that. We definitely took a crack at Vox. We had a short lived Quibi show every day where we did a daily explainer. I'd be eager to try something like that again because I think that there's got to be a way to make it work. Think of the Daily from the New York Times – that podcast is a really good example of how producing an excellent piece of content for the day is not as much of a dichotomy as we often make it out to be.

Nikita: I see that a lot of Semafor videos use remote interviews. Is that intentional?

Joe: I fully believe that the main value that expert interviews, or sometimes even personal interviews, bring depends on how well the subject tells the story and not how great they look. Think about the blurring-of-the-background style. I love it. I think it looks a lot better. But would I spend an extra $3,000 for it? We should use the best tools that we have available to us and this tool is amazing – to be able to call up any expert in the world, and get them on video that very day. I haven't built a system to do it this quickly. But I really want to.

I feel when people call a video high quality within our filmmaking community, it often means something pretty different from what the video watching community says. It's true that you can have aesthetics be the number one reason to watch a video. As an animator, I have certainly made lots of those. But the audience is actually much smarter than we often give them credit for. You can't bell and whistle your way out of getting an incredible story. And so, in that situation, you should just be trying to get the most incredible story.

You can't bell and whistle your way out of getting an incredible story. And so, in that situation, you should just be trying to get the most incredible story.
—Joe Posner
Semafor team meeting. (2022)

Nikita: What are the key platforms Semafor is making videos for?

Joe: The two primary modes that I’m thinking about are basically 10-minute videos and one-minute videos. The platforms might change but these modes are distinct. I used to say this about Vox too. At first, we were asking for a smoke break with someone, and then after that it was like a lunch break, and then we ended up maybe even getting invited over for dinner. So, I’m thinking about smoke break and lunch right now, and we're about to be doing more smoke-break videos.

Nikita: How do you measure success for your videos?

Joe: As we’re still starting out, most of our videos have very low view counts. It's so important to have a strong sense of what you think is working because the algorithm can be picking up on things that are unrelated to whether it's working or not. One of the things that I’m most proud of is the feedback I get. It means the most when teachers use videos that I've made to explain things to students. I married a teacher and we've often joked with each other that we're kind of doing the same thing in different places.

It's going to be different at Semafor because the average age will be older than high school, I would imagine, but hearing about high school and college teachers using our work to start a conversation always meant so much to me. A version of this happened when Christina Thornton and others at Vox made an incredible video about the Hong Kong protests from a few years ago. The protesters thought it captured what was going on so well that they projected it in an airport that they were occupying. That was like the most dramatic version of impact but that's really cool. A view count won’t get you that.

Joe recording improv narration while filming a piece for Semafor in El Paso. (January 2023)

Nikita: If you had to give one piece of advice to people making videos, what would it be?

Joe: If you can find something that you are so uniquely obsessed with, or if you have a really unique skill, or an unusual combination of those things, you shouldn't be afraid of that or hide it in your work. You should try to find a way to make use of it because it will often lead to your best work. I'm reminded of conversations I had with Joss, my co-founder of Vox video. She kept a spreadsheet of all the times that she cried and when she told me about this, I was just shocked, and I was like, “You should do something with that. That's amazing!” And she eventually did, for Vox’s series, Glad You Asked. It was so meaningful and beautiful. I don't know anybody else who would do that – both make that spreadsheet and know how to make it meaningful for other people.

Nikita: If you had to pick one video made by a different publication or filmmaker that you think everyone should watch, what would that be?

Joe: There was this video that Casey Neistat did for The New York Times about New York's proposed soda ban in 2012. It was like a DIY explainer. I think you'll see how that inspired some of the stuff that Vox did. Second is an easy one, because it won an Oscar – a short guacamole video from PES that uses stop-motion animation.

Joe’s daughter Frankie’s name wall. The background is their chalkboard wall with a ton of rejects and one winner. (January 2019)

Nikita: What do you think is the future of non-fiction storytelling?

Joe: The future is better capturing the process of learning new things and helping other people more quickly understand the world. I think it applies to the news category especially. More people will be able to document news and quickly get it out and that will hopefully help because the scores of people on TikTok who will be “source” won't do that anymore. It will be obvious from watching the video what the source was.

Also, I personally believe that we need to embrace creator culture and find ways to help it in the non-fiction and news industry. Most people can only afford to do takes and opinions. And if we can help power actual, primary source journalism from creators, from people at Semafor, from wherever – that is something that I believe will be part of the future. I've seen it myself. Independent YouTubers were and are bigger competitors to Vox video than The New York Times. And I'm so proud that Johnny Harris and Cleo Abram have made really, really big audiences independently after moving on from Vox. The future is in embracing this creator culture rather than running away from it, and coming up with a way to give it institutional support.

Below is the In Sync Spotify playlist that now includes some of Joe's picks as well!

Joe's tracks:

I heard Doja Cat's re-interpretation of Hound Dog "Vegas" on the radio and it's now in Spotify rotation. It's apparently from the Elvis movie I missed, but I can't imagine the movie being as good as this song.

My four-year-old daughter Frankie frequently yells "HEY GOOGLE, PLAY POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS!!!!!" So that's in rotation regardless of my opinion. I've grown a new appreciation for Ursula. Sure, she's untrustworthy and her services overpriced, but at least she's helping empower Ariel with – what do you call them? – feet.

My wife Amy is a poet and principal, and I've made some songs out of her poems including this one, Color Me Dead, inspired by Murder She Wrote – RIP Angela Lansbury. I don't usually sing lead in my band, Lame Drivers, but I did here.

When I was looking for a sort of theme song for Level Playing Field that we made at Vox for HBO, my friend Rob Hatch-Miller recommended God Bless America For What by Swamp Dogg and I remain obsessed with it. It's such an amazing song, and Swamp was kind enough to let us use his music all over the series.


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