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Exit Interview: Ed O’Keefe

Pop! goes the disruptor
July 1, 2014

(Allison Davis O’Keefe)

After 12 years at ABC News, working his way up from a desk assistant to executive producer of ABC News Digital, Ed O’Keefe plunged into the world of startups as editor in chief of NowThis News, a video-news site for the social-media generation. O’Keefe experimented with content, tailoring videos to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat, and bringing news to audiences more at home with smartphones than print. Now he’s taken his digital know-how to CNN in the brand-new role of vice president of CNNMoney and Politics, overseeing online content for the two beats as the network invests more heavily in social media and Web videos. CJR’s Edirin Oputu spoke to O’Keefe in late May.

What attracted you to NowThis News? The sense of innovation. We were going to create the first mobile social news network. If it were 1980, it would be the disruptive force of CNN. If it were 2005, it would be akin to The Huffington Post. In 2012, we looked out at the landscape and saw that mobile social video was the next big thing.

How do you break up a news story into something that’s six seconds and still have it make sense? There were two main components we asked of any piece: Is it shareable and is it watchable on a mobile device? The overarching strategy was to make the complex simple. Obviously, there isn’t a lot of room for exposition, but that forces the producer to think about one take from the story.

What did you learn about creating content for mobile? The most important lesson is to understand that the content has to cater to the audience and the platform. You wouldn’t find a good journalist who would say that how you do a piece for 60 Minutes is exactly how you do it for Vice news. The same is true for mobile and social. If you grew up with YouTube and Google at your disposal, each of these social-mobile platforms is going to mean something a little bit different to you.

Why are you leaving NowThis News? CNN, the original news disruptor, is disrupting news again. This is one of the first times you have a digital-news executive reverse engineering Web content for TV–not a TV executive who happens to make Web content. I have not seen it in my career. On NowThis News, we had two people in Washington, DC, and we were able to do smart, fun politics content. Not only did we make the complex simple, but we engaged some of the most unpopular people in the country–meaning the members of Congress–and did things that people shared and enjoyed watching. It’s possible to make politics fun and interesting, and it’s possible to make it authentic and smart without talking down to the audience.

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You’ve said the new venture will make “politics pop.” How? If you look at what we did in the run up to the 2012 election, and what we did in a very brief period in Washington, you’ll see some of the things we’ll be experimenting with at CNN Politics. When we did “DC Mean Tweets,” we had members of Congress acknowledging that there are lots of people saying nasty things about them. It humanizes the politicians. It connects them to a generation of people who are largely disengaged. So that’s what we need to do at CNN. When Senator John McCain wrote his op-ed lambasting Vladimir Putin in The Wall Street Journal, it wasn’t necessarily something that the users of Vine were going to see. So we asked McCain to summarize his editorial in a six-second Vine. He said, “When I look in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, I see the letters KGB.” Obviously, that’s not the same as reading the entire op-ed. But the point was to reach people who would otherwise not even know the op-ed exists.

My experience with NowThis tells me that the audiences for mobile and social are no less interested in real news than any other audience. They’re just getting it in different ways. So you have to find ways to go where the audience is and deliver content that they want to watch and share.

Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu