Soledad O'Brien discusses media, race, and Starfish Media Group

Media star Soledad O'Brien stepped out of the spotlight of national cable TV to work on content projects relating to social issues. Sean Czarnecki finds out about her new life as a contractor.

Image courtesy of Starfish Media Group
Image courtesy of Starfish Media Group

How did Starfish Media Group come about?

We started a little bit before I left CNN and officially launched two and a half years ago. My first client was CNN, and we were immediately busy with projects before we had office space, which was great but overwhelming.

We’re interested in social issues. A lot more people are interested, whether they are foundations that underwrite our work, corporations focused on issues because they’re affecting their employees, or news organizations. That’s where we find our greatest partnerships — in great reporting and great storytelling. Somehow [those issues] get drowned out on a daily newscast because there’s a lot of noise, such as the Taylor Swift-Kim Kardashian feud, which is just noisy and fluffy and not necessarily a big American issue we should explore.

Does Starfish’s partnership with CNN continue? What other partnerships does it have?

We continue to pitch stories to CNN and HBO Real Sports, where I’m a correspondent. We also pitched stories to Al Jazeera America and made a couple documentaries before it went under. We have a bunch of corporate partners too. We’re a traditional production company, but I have a lot of flexibility in choosing to be in front of the camera or behind the scenes.

Do you seek out partnerships or do they find you?

We’ve done 40 different documentaries and it’s about 50/50. In many cases, they’ll say "We really like the work you did on project X. Can you come in and talk about what you can do for us?" And obviously we’re constantly shooting and finding great stories, and matching those to different platforms and news organizations.

We have partners interested in branded content, which means they get to control the editorial process, but I’m not part of that. Our team can [produce] that content, but I’m not reporting those stories.

Can our sound-bite media culture produce thoughtful discussions around race?

In [CNN documentary series] Black in America we had a frank, blunt, and sometimes uncomfortable conversation about race, and we didn’t try to squash everything into an eight-second sound-bite.

A documentary format is much better for that kind of conversation than, say, Twitter. Race is [steeped] in American history; you have to figure where the roots of these things lie. Then you have to listen to both sides to understand where people are coming from. I don’t know if you can do that story if you don’t get the time. I didn’t learn about [race] in high school or college. It was only until I started reporting on it that I began to understand.

During the Republican National Convention, Steve King, a sitting U.S. Congressman, literally laid out the White Supremacist version of America. That’s stunning — this idea only Europeans, or white people, created anything of value in the world. Not only is that horrifically wrong — clearly the educational system has failed him, or he just didn’t pay attention — a sitting U.S. Congressperson has rewritten history in a way white supremacists see the world. That’s terrifying.

Who handles PR for Starfish?

Roger & Cowan handles PR for Starfish Media; Tag Media handles PR for the Starfish Media Foundation. They’re different but high quality. You need people who get you and are willing to figure out how to connect the dots between what you work on and who you are, and make sure that story about you or your company is being told to the right audiences. A few years ago, I’d have said there’s value to a big or small company, but really there’s just a value to smart people who constantly bust their asses for you.

How does Starfish’s revenue break down?

It divides in thirds: talent we own and use; documentaries we produce and I report on; and documentaries through our production company that I’m not part of — branded content.

Does managing the company and reporting for it open up more opportunities and freedom than during your time at CNN?

It allows me to dig deeper into things I’m passionate about. Media has changed so dramatically it’s possible to do what I’m trying to do: pull off something entrepreneurial, leverage a lot of partners, and focus on issues that don’t get a lot of attention.

Five years ago, you worked for a company. Everything you did was on one platform for that company — period. Now we’re non-exclusive and I work across a number of platforms, such as my current project about veterans.

Shortly after this interview took place, Hearst Television announced O'Brien will anchor and produce "Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien," a weekly political magazine that will launch a second season September 10.

Meanwhile, Hearst Television will also co-produce national specials with Starfish Media Group.

"It’s a new media landscape, and through the creativity of Hearst, I’m also looking forward to a new distribution strategy that will allow the stories of the under-voiced to reach more of the American people where they are, through an effective network of stations and a unique prism," O’Brien said in a statement.

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