In May of 2000 The Washington Post published a feature on two standout seniors soon to graduate from The University of Virginia. Anna Robertson was one of the “Campus Jewels” profiled. Little did she know how prescient her comment from the article would be:
While aspiring to make a mark in TV news, Robertson believes that the dramatic changes in her life are likely the harbingers of other shifts that she can’t foresee. “It’s hard to be sure what will happen,” she says. “I’m looking toward TV, but the Internet is merging into TV, so everything could be different. . . . Actually, I’m kind of disillusioned by the way entertainment is taking over news. But I think there’s a way there of doing the news through strong stories.”
Eighteen years later Anna’s media experience runs deep as a journalist, producer, media executive, and entrepreneur. In past roles, she’s worked as Diane Sawyer’s producer, been an Emmy-award winning producer for ABC News’ Good Morning America, and built Yahoo Studios while acting as VP, head of video. Today Anna acts as a strategic consultant to Disney/ABC TV Group and several startups, and is the founder of recipe swapping platform TasteTrades.
In the following interview Anna Robertson shares some observations on her successes and failures after nearly two decades on the forefront of the media business.
How old were you when you had your first paying job?
When I was sixteen, I was a sleep-away camp counselor at Camp Varsity in Madison, Virginia. In terms of media jobs, my first paying job was with what was then called WashingtonPostNewsweekInteractive (WPNI) as an associate producer when I was in my senior year of college, and then as an overnight desk assistant at ABC News in New York after graduation.
While you were an undergrad at UVA in the mid 1990s, you launched theangle.com, a monthly online magazine that combined news with interactive discussion, photos, animation, and first-person news accounts. That was forward-thinking. Tell me about that.
I had a difficult time my second year of college. I channeled my frustrations into my passion for journalism, but I wanted to create something new instead of working for the Cavalier Daily, the traditional student newspaper. It was truly the beginning of online – we were still plugging cell phones into car chargers back then! I had a vision for an online news magazine that could go deep on issues that mattered in new and different ways, and I was able to attract great talent across the university to build it with me. The Washington Post agreed to help support the project, and ended up hiring some of the students who were a part of it.
What has surprised you about your career path and experiences?
Honestly, everything about my career has surprised me! It has been very non-linear, in a good way! I never could have predicted that I would have the good fortune to be working alongside so many world-class journalists and reporting from some of the biggest global stories of the beginning of the 21st Century. Many people thought I was crazy when I left an incredible job working with Diane Sawyer at ABC News in New York to run social media and digital video at Yahoo News in 2010, but in addition to wanting to live in a new city, I knew that I needed to immerse myself in a digital-first company. Getting my “Digital MBA” at Yahoo turned out to be a great complement to my traditional media training. I always thought I’d be the on-camera talent or the producer behind the story, so I’m surprised that now my career has evolved far beyond storytelling to focus more on strategy, business, and management.
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One often hears that it is important in publishing to stay ahead of what the world thinks. You seem to have been able to accomplish this throughout your career. What do you attribute this to?
Endless curiosity. I am a voracious consumer of content, from email newsletters to magazines, books, and podcasts. Many of these focus on the media industry– favorites include Fast Company, Recode (especially Peter Kafka’s RecodeMedia podcast), Digiday, MediaREDEF, Axios, Stratechery, The Hollywood Reporter, Nieman Lab). I also expose myself to perspectives from other industries to get new thinking into the mix, and I spend a lot of time networking and connecting with people in and out of the industry, whether through events and conferences, phone calls, or in-person meetings.
What questions do you ask most often when launching a new initiative?
What does the consumer want? What insights and research do we have about how to serve their needs, create an excellent product or experience or tell a story we think they want to hear? It may seem obvious, but [I ask] what are the goals and measurements of the initiative? Too often we launch projects without clear objectives and a North Star that can help us stay on track towards success.
A few months ago on Twitter you shared a McKinsey report “Culture for a Digital Age.” The report focused on three digital cultural deficiencies: risk aversion, weak customer focus, and siloe’d mindsets. And these cultural obstacles often correlate with negative economic performance. What about this article caught your attention and why?
I believe organizational innovation is highly underrated. Too often our focus is on creating a breakthrough, innovative product, but without the right foundation in the culture, leadership and mindset, we can’t come up with great ideas or execute on them. In this period of tremendous disruption, traditional media brands are beginning to transform and modernize their organizations towards a customer-first mindset, informed risk-taking, and cross-functional collaboration. And likewise, digital-first companies are learning that they may need more of the rigor, structure, and brand identity that are more common in established companies.
I read somewhere that “Disclosure is a constant fixation of traditional journalism. Where is the content coming from and who is paying for it?” With branded content blurring the lines more than ever before and the term “fake news” part of the national conversation, what is the impact on journalism?
While branded content and fake news are really two separate issues, they both land in consumer trust with a brand. It’s more important than ever for media companies to double down on quality journalism and (re)establishing trust with their consumers. With branded content, this comes through appropriate disclosure and elegant integration of a sponsor’s brand within content, and for fake news, it comes with simply getting the facts right, over and over, and being transparent when you get something wrong. Done well, branded content can be a much more appealing consumer experience than traditional advertising, particularly if it’s relevant and useful to the viewer or reader. Personally, I’d rather get a super relevant native ad in my Instagram feed than watch a generic 30-second pre-roll before a three-minute video. And I’m hopeful that the conversation around “fake news” will make great news brands even more diligent, given the weight of responsibility they have for getting it right.
You have successfully forged numerous partnerships with media and brands. I am curious to learn your thoughts are about what Ev Williams, founder of Medium, said during an interview, “In almost every case, the best media is supported by those who consume it.” (Medium accepts no advertising, not even native which they did at one time, so he is referring to some type of subscription model.)
It’s exciting to see a shift towards consumers paying for quality content, which validates the creation of good storytelling. Whether it be The Information or Patreon or the New York Times, subscription is opening up new opportunities and viability for content creators and companies that may not be able to survive on advertising alone. However, there are many people that can’t afford to pay those subscriptions, and I don’t believe that they should be shut out from consuming quality content because they can’t afford it. I don’t think subscription is the only answer.
What are the criteria you follow when creating impactful partnerships?
Two things: Partnerships where both parties bring something to the table. And second, it’s all in the execution.
In terms of branded content, the critical piece is staying authentic to your brand and creating an asset that is valuable for your audience and for your sponsor.
In terms of strategic partnerships, I always look for places where adjacent partnerships can enhance the relevancy of each individual brand. When I was at GMA 10 years ago, we created a partnership with YouTube before they were bought by Google – our “YouTube Video of the Week” segment brought new, fresh content onto a traditional television morning show and helped YouTube get exposure with a national audience before they were a big deal (if you can believe it!).
If failing is learning, what have you “learned?”
Fail fast and fail forward. Digital cultures are more comfortable with failing as long as the investment is not so severe. More established brands are trying to get in the habit of doing that. It’s such a rapidly evolving time for media– what may have worked in the past may not work now. It used to be that you could create great content and your audience could find it. But now, if you don’t have the right strategy around that content, it could fail even though it’s great. You must align your resources to succeed.