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Episode 1: Joss Fong

A monthly dive into nonfiction video's new frontier

Nikita Mandhani

BBC News February 15th, 2022
Episode 1: Joss Fong

Our first guest is Joss Fong, one of the founding members of the Vox video team. If you’re a video journalist, you are probably already a big fan of Vox videos. Joss is an inspiration — not just for the extraordinary videos she produces but also for her out-of-the-box thinking.

I talked to her about Vox’s video series, Glad You Asked, in which a team of explainer journalists get together to find answers to questions about the world around us. So, let’s begin!

Nikita: It’s so nice to see you after all these years, Joss. Thanks for talking to us. Let’s jump straight in. First of all, I’d love to know how you got started in video journalism and filmmaking.

Joss: I kind of fell into it in grad school after concluding that writing is a miserable pursuit. I had gone to NYU for science journalism, thinking I would become a more traditional science writer. During that program, I was just drawn to something that was more multimedia that felt a little bit more playful, and maybe the skills for which might be a little bit rarer.

So, I made the transition from writing to video when I was in that program just by doing a few internships that were more video focused. I had one short job after grad school before I got the job at Vox, which was a crazy good luck sort of thing. I really, really wanted it and I was the first person to email them when I heard that Vox was starting. I had been a fan of some of the people who were involved in creating Vox and was really excited about the mission that they were talking about in the press — even before the website launched. This was in 2014, and I just sent them an email and said, “If you ever need anybody here's me, you know my background, this is my background, and I would love to help out. “ And, you know, they didn't have a ton of reasons to hire me because I basically had a handful of clips from those internships. But they did, and I haven't left.

Nikita: That's amazing. So, obviously, you've done some incredible work, but these days, you’re spending your time on the series Glad You Asked. Tell me its origin story.

Joss: It's interesting because I think most of our competitors in the news space were very used to having journalists on camera. Obviously that's what Vice has always done. But for us it was new because when we first started Vox, we were more interested in trying out formats that didn't rely on on-camera talent and we thought: we're going to do it differently, we're going to lean into motion graphics and we're going to lean into narration. We’ve been perfecting that format for the past six years and developing it into basically what our Netflix show Explained is.

So, I think there was an interest in seeing if we could come up with a show that was going to be different from that and that a different platform might be interested in funding, and that platform ended up being YouTube Originals. After the success of Explained, a lot of platforms have reached out to us and they don't want exactly what's happening on Netflix but they want something that has the same Vox sensibility. So, we thought, what if we had a team of explainer journalists on camera and you sort of follow their journey as they tackle a topic. It's evolved a lot since the original pitch.

We originally envisioned all of these topics to be motivated by a question that came from a specific audience member, and we did this huge outreach, collected tons of really interesting questions from people, and we were really excited about moving forward with those but it just didn't survive the process of getting everything greenlit through the team at YouTube. It was also logistically complicated. I would still love to try it, and I hope that we can still have a chance to give that our best shot, but it ended up being not part of it, which is a little awkward because our name is Glad you Asked. It's like no one asked.

But, essentially, that was the idea - exploring how else we can explain things. Glad you Asked offers a little bit more space for pacing and breathers and some more emotional moments or reflection and is less about really jamming in every fact about a topic. I hope that we've been able to come up with a format that is maybe memorable, that each episode has a moment that might stick in people's minds as opposed to offering so much information that almost nothing really sticks.

Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right
—Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company

Nikita: What I really find interesting about this series is how you use real life to visualize data. It adds an extra layer of creativity to each episode. What’s also different about this series is that you have four or five hosts. Tell me more about these decisions.

Joss: I think it was just sort of a question of “could we get a group together that might generate some interesting conversations?” It’s something that we're still struggling with. How to create the space for those conversations to be genuine because when you're making a TV show, things kind of have to keep moving in order to keep the viewer interested and when you're doing an explainer you have this added task of being able to really cover the bases in order to do the topic justice. One of our original questions was: can we have journalists talk really openly about the process of journalism and show them struggling with different aspects; should I interview this person when I don't know if they're totally legit or like this study seems good but it's a small sample size. I would love to see journalists grapple with those things. In the first season, we played around a little bit more with teaming up, so I worked with Cleo on an episode about beauty culture.

Nikita: That’s one of my favorite episodes. (Watch it, readers!)

Joss: Well, thank you. That was a big passion one for me and credit to YouTube for letting us talk about something that's taking place on its platform, which is a very algorithmically-driven trap for girls. But yeah, I think the idea of the host is new for Vox and it is exciting. I hope that we can continue to push it further, to make sure that it's there for a reason, as opposed to just like a crutch which is what TV journalism has always done.

Nikita: What's your process like when you're working on an episode for the series?

Joss: It's kind of chaos because I don't think a show like this exists anywhere else in terms of the puzzle pieces that it takes to put it together. And it was particularly difficult during the pandemic where we really lost this element of travel. So, we think about: is this a topic that YouTube is interested in us covering? Once we have that, it's a mix of which voices do we really want to bring in and which scenes can we build out that will involve multiple hosts and which sort of scenes can we build out that are really going to walk through some data in a very physical way. We played around with the idea of standardizing the episodes, but it just didn't work out because every story has its own needs and challenges and opportunities. It ended up being something where we think: ok, we'll have maybe one or two field shoots per episode, we'll have one studio shoot that's really creative and then maybe an expert interview. But, in terms of how we weave in and out of those and how we transition and what the balance is for each episode — it's very sort of case by case.

Nikita: Do you have a target audience for this series?

Joss: Originally the idea was that the audience might be a little bit younger than our typical audience but I don't know if that actually is the case. So, no, I wouldn't say I have a target audience. I think I was excited about the opportunity to maybe tap into some topics that would be more appealing to young girls and to give them the opportunity to see female journalists working through their process on camera and I haven't checked the data in a while, but I know, specifically for that beauty episode that we made a lot of progress on our audience balance for that one.

Nikita: That’s great to hear. I've been working on this for more than a year now: I’ve been studying female engagement across newsrooms, especially for the BBC. And there’s so much that we’re really trying to understand: how do you do things differently or whether it's about topics or is it about certain formats. So often, when folks are working within big news publications that are constantly catering to a news audience, they don’t include some context or they don't put in as much time as what’s required for a story — and Vox does that really well. It’s quite interesting that even Vox is struggling with reaching young women.

Joss: Yeah, it's really hard because you're right, the whole mission of Vox is that you don't need to be a news junkie to get these stories. And yet, you know we continue to struggle and we've done a little bit of analysis and it's been somewhat disheartening to see the stereotypes of what stories attract girls are true. If you put a baby on the thumbnail, we see a better balance in our audience. I don't know how much of that is just the interest of women versus the way that these algorithms work. Almost everyone is reaching our content through some sort of automated recommendation system so it's a little bit hard to untangle, but I know personally as a consumer of Instagram and YouTube and now TikTok that there are very clear patterns of how they increase engagement for girls, and I think there is this dynamic of getting trapped in a bubble that you didn't necessarily want or ask for. Especially on Instagram, my explorer feed is full of beauty, diet, food and botox content and I didn't ask for that. Some parts of YouTube are so heavily female that it's an easy bet for their algorithm to funnel people in there and not necessarily show them a lot of news content, because I know girls are interested in this stuff. Most of the people who I hear from, whether through emails or who just come up to me on the street and say hey I watched your video —they're mostly women so they're out there.

Nikita: I agree. We’ve been struggling with this and constantly trying to understand this pattern for languages around the world. Many people come back to me and say that women are not interested in politics, women are not interested in serious news stories. So, to attract female audiences, many people keep doing stories around beauty or menstruation or pregnancy. I just find it so difficult to kind of change that thought process in the newsroom, and, like you said, sometimes the analytics can also be disheartening because, actually, when we do a story about menstruation that does reach 45% or 60% women.

Joss: Yeah, it's very disheartening and part of our problem was that we originally seeded our YouTube Channel with Reddit users because, at the time, it was like a big place for discovery of new videos and they skew heavily male and there's not really a female equivalent to that kind of web recommendation site so it's been hard to know where girls are congregating online and how to port them over to our channel, but we will continue to work on that.

Nikita: The entire news industry needs to continue to work on that. Coming back to Glad you Asked, how do you measure success for this format of video storytelling?

Joss: It's been really hard to tell because it's not like YouTube has ever been a pure meritocracy. Particularly, with this show, it is funded by YouTube, and they have all of these buttons they press for promoting YouTube Originals content that makes it really hard to understand the data. So, with a typical video on our channel we get really clear feedback in terms of the views, the retention, the engagement in terms of comments and likes and shares and things like that.

Regardless, one of the nice pieces of feedback on the beauty piece was sort of looking at Twitter and the amount of discussion that I was seeing in lots of different languages from lots of different countries.

After making explainer videos for six years, I’m really focused on, can we keep trying new things so that our channel and our general video identity doesn't become stagnant over time? So for every episode, I'm like, I’ve never done this before, but we're going to try this thing.

And in terms of the business, it's great for us to have a funder for our work because, as everyone in news knows, publishing videos on YouTube is not a profit-making enterprise. Shows like this are really important for the sustainability of our video team.

Nikita: A big part of the series is inserting yourself in the stories you’re telling, from the beauty episode to, one of my favorites, the one about tackling our own implicit biases. How does it feel to be at the centre of the story where you're also asking yourself these questions? Is it enlightening? Embarrassing?

Joss: From the beginning, I just really believed that we could do something more creative than having a talking head. It's also always been a little bit uncomfortable, just with my personality, which is not particularly attention seeking, I don’t enjoy being seen that much. It's been sort of a psychological challenge to watch yourself and learn things. Like, I blink way more than most people. Something I’m still working on. But the trade-off is that people like people and they are drawn in by hearing personal stories. I think the traditional journalism norm that you aren't supposed to put yourself in a story has led to an assumption that all content just comes from some sort of objective, magical, rational brain floating in a jar somewhere.

I think it's a much more honest approach to say, here's who I am and here's where I come from, which Cleo did a lot in a piece about implicit bias. She also asked us to confess our own incidences of bias. In that shoot I was just shaking because it's a really scary thing to do, and you don't know how people are going to react to it. But we just did our best. I’m still struggling with how personal to be, who really cares, and how interested people are in us versus in the story itself. But, in general, I've gotten good feedback about doing this — and just doing my best to be as real as possible.

Nikita: When I watched that episode, I sat down and started thinking about all the implicit biases that were inside of me and, I think, not a lot of content makes you do that. I felt the same with the beauty piece and the one exploring the idea of having kids. I feel like it lands quite well, perhaps because you’re seeing people being so authentic and real, which isn’t always the case for shows with hosts.

Joss: I’m so glad because these topics are real and sometimes when you watch TV news or read an article it feels so removed from everyday life. And I just know from being a human being and the varied challenges that I face that these things are really felt, and the question over whether to have children, the question of how to deal with beauty standards and such, especially in women, are very present and relevant at all times. If there's some way that we can channel that and help people have a little bit of that connection then I think we've really done our jobs.

Nikita: As a video storyteller, outside of this series or even as part of it, if you had to pick one film you've made that's the closest to your heart, which would that be?

Joss: I think the beauty one was the one where I was just venting. I continue to struggle and continue to feel so much pain for every girl that I know. Not just girls, but every person that I know is struggling with the way the society values us in a world that's just flooded with images at all times. There are other videos I've done for Vox in the past year that I feel strongly about — one being a piece about people who died from Covid. It was in the heat of when people were dying in huge numbers in New York City. No one really understood the magnitude of what was happening at the time but I sort of channelled a lot of that energy and confusion and uncertainty into a piece that I actually got to work on with my boyfriend. It was basically how to understand mortality statistics around Covid, and we created what ended up being like a memorial museum exhibit with a bunch of images from Americans who had passed.

Nikita: What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give to people who work in nonfiction video?

Joss: I would say try to recognize when you're emulating something that already exists. And not that that is a bad thing. It can be a good way to start, to just try and reverse engineer content that you like. But there's a lot of things that exists for no good reason except for the fact that it's the way it was done before or the person who was in charge happened to come from this legacy thing or had this sort of bias or skill set that led to this product. The medium of video is so much more flexible and creative and weird than the news industry has explored. You see a lot of it on YouTube and increasingly on TikTok, how weird and fun and cool it can get, and so it would be a tragedy if new people taking up video journalism today were copying Vox or NBC or anything that's already been out there because there's just so much more you can do with the combination of images and sound — what a crazy opportunity and the things that we can do with it...I think we've only begun to scratch the surface.

Nikita: I love that! As we wrap up, I’d love to know what inspires you. If you had to pick one video made by someone else, something that you think everyone should watch, what would that be?

Joss: I love to watch Jared Owen’s YouTube channel. It's basically a one-man version of the Discovery Channel classic "How it's Made," but even better because 3D animation takes us inside these objects. I'm quite interested in how nonfiction videos are processed by the brain of an audience member and I believe the perfect correspondence between what you’re seeing in these animations and what you're hearing tends to boost comprehension and retention of the material. It's what I strive for in my videos too, but of course when you're covering topics that are less literal and physical, it can be quite a challenge — but one I enjoy.

Nikita: Any last words you’d like to add?

Joss: Glad you Asked is still a work in progress, and I think when you're making a format that's new, you can't really anticipate what you're going to learn from just working on it, so I encourage people to try new things — but don't be discouraged if it doesn't always line up exactly how you plan, because it can always evolve into something else.

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