Erica Anderson: My media life
Erica Anderson is executive producer for podcasts at Vox and an advisor to Lesbians Who Tech. Her first job was as a reporter for the Northwest Indiana Times and career highlights include being chosen by MTV to cover the 2008 US election, acting as Katie Couric’s digital strategist during her tenure at CBS Evening News and joining a then nascent Twitter’s media team to help journalists make strategic use of the platform to spread news, engage with communities and correct misinformation.
In 2015 Erica moved to Google, where she helped bring together the tech giant and the global journalism community before helping to organise the Google walkout in November 2018. Her favourite quote is from the American poet June Jordan: “To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.”
I was the kind of kid who loved watching nightly news programmes. I wrote for my school newspaper and would read an article or two in my local paper just to have something to talk to my grandmother about. A gift from her of a subscription to Highlights, a news magazine for kids, got me really interested in the media.
The US invasion of Iraq interrogated the role of journalism and its failings. I was studying journalism at college at the time and I remember the CNN version made the invasion feel very far away, very safe, at least for the correspondent. But the BBC had a shaky camera and the journalist was on the ground, and it felt very dangerous and visceral. I felt like people weren’t being informed about the true cost of the war or the reasons for it. That was very impactful for me.
Pride in my career has come from knowing I’ve made a difference. When I was working for MTV News, I did a story on a veteran who was given deployment for his third tour in Iraq but, because he didn’t agree with the war, he went AWOL. I interviewed him in the military prison where he was sent to after turning himself in. That felt really important because I was telling a story that was not just his story, but a lot of people’s.
I was so lucky to have Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent, as my mentor. She covered 10 presidents, starting with President Kennedy and on to Obama, until she retired in 2010; she died in 2013. She was an extraordinary sponsor and advocate of me and of journalism. She’d say to me “Journalism is a lesson every day” – it was why she loved the business. She always reminded me you had to have courage and that the truth is our holy grail.
The real challenge journalists face is trust. The American people don’t have a lot of trust in journalists; that’s something we need to take really seriously. [Trump] has done something extraordinary, which has been to degrade the institution of the press and, for his gain, create suspicion around what journalists do. I don’t think the entire industry has done everything right and there have definitely been ethical transgressions in the last decade, with the pressure to produce more content than ever before, but a free press is essential to democracy.
Working for Katie Couric at CBS was a real privilege and a big moment in my career. I was given the opportunity to educate her on social media, to be really honest with her about what was happening, what was being said about her and how she could use it as a tool to connect and rebuild trust with audiences. I gained a better understanding of the deep historical legacy of journalism but I also experienced an extreme amount of resistance from certain pockets of the company – I got some battle wounds and there were some really intense moments but Katie and I were a great team, she had my back and so I felt emboldened to take some risks. The experience taught me so much, probably more than I taught her!
Being part of Twitter in the early years was fantastic. I joined when there were about 300 people. My beat was the journalism industry, so I got to work with engineers to develop satellite long codes so journalists and human rights activists could tweet from war zones like Libya. It was also my first experience of an IPO: there was a huge focus on growth and getting to be the size of Facebook. I never quite agreed with that; I’ve always been adamant that our influence was much more significant – I knew that everything that was happening in the global news system was happening first on Twitter.
Google was an incredible place to work. They treat their employees, for the most part, very well and the calibre of people they hire is extraordinary. My focus was Google News Lab. I worked with fact-checkers from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and learned about the disinformation they were fighting from their governments. It could be disheartening because the problem is so big and we were just a small team.
I never, ever considered myself an activist in the traditional sense but when I read the article about Google quietly providing a pay-out of $90m to Andy Rubin I thought it was so hypocritical, it was against the values the company espoused. It just felt so black and white to me that I needed to provide my skills to the cause, which ended up creating a 20,000-person walkout that started in Asia and ended at the Mountain View headquarters. I knew my career wouldn’t be the same after that!
Podcasting is a great place for storytelling. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was an immediate dip in listeners, but my shows specifically continued to do well because they were business shows and the business audience was very interested. I do think people are very interested in anything that can take you out of the moment we’re in; it’s why non-linear television is so popular. There’s such a plethora of incredible stories happening there, and podcasting is also in that space.
Not being available all the time is a really important skill. I think this 24/7 connection can be very detrimental to productivity and I have really learnt to create boundaries. There were times when I’d respond to texts at midnight that were not actually urgent. It’s about understanding what’s important and what can wait, and being really clear on that. I try to encourage getting a really good night’s sleep, taking care of yourself and spending time with your friends and family.
This has been a really hard year, especially for those who have kids and I think everyone should be gentler with themselves. However it also presents an opportunity for culture building and, for leaders who really have the appetite, to come up with new ways to connect with people virtually.
The best bit of advice I’ve ever received is to go out and tell the untold stories, the ones the mainstream media are missing. And from Helen Thomas: “Have courage.” Journalism is an awesome responsibility: we’re not just reporting for the people who live around us, but for the people we’re never going to meet.
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