By Felipe Ossa January 12, 2015
If you’re a financial journalist, particularly one working in New York, getting a frequent dose of Felix Salmon has been part of the job for many years. With over 140,000 followers on Twitter, and a facility for translating the arcane in economics and high finance into the accessible, he’s also familiar to legions of people outside of finance and media. His voice is one that’s particularly well suited to the web — irreverent, gregarious and fluent in data.
Last April, after working as a Reuters blogger for many years, Salmon hopped over to Fusion, a media company that is just over one year old and targeted at millennials. At Fusion he will focus on digital storytelling, including the newly minted genre of so-called “explainers,” sufficiently popular to have been spoofed by The Awl. In addition to his work for Fusion, Salmon continues to host the weekly Money podcast for Slate. Before joining Reuters, Salmon was blogging for the now defunct Portfolio.com, and before that he was a content strategist at Roubini Global Economics, run by economist Nouriel Roubini, famous for predicting the 2008 financial crisis.
In late December, I chatted with Felix about the digital, mobile-focused work he’s doing at Fusion, the rise of explainer journalism — and his own accent on the genre with his upcoming video series “Let Me Tell You” — as well as what legacy journalism still gets wrong about the web. Felix has been a friendly acquaintance for a few years. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Ossa: You recently moved from Reuters to Fusion, a joint venture between Univision and the Disney/ABC Television Network that calls itself a news, pop culture and satire TV and digital network. Can you talk about why you made that move?
Salmon: Basically to get myself out of my comfort zone and try and learn what the best ways are of communicating to a new generation of news consumers—to be mobile first and to really think in terms of what works on a phone rather than what works on a terminal.
Fusion has substantial resources to do ambitious projects…like my college costs and lifetime earnings interactive calculator. It was hugely difficult to do. We had to get a whole bunch of developers in Seattle and various places using D3, this very sophisticated programming language. We had designers in Miami. We had a producer. We had me. It was probably a dozen people altogether involved in building this thing. It took months and a serious five figures. It’s kind of awesome actually. The idea that you can call on a whole team of developers, a whole team of video people, the video resources of Univision and ABC and have a mandate to experiment and fail and try things.
Ossa: You’re also doing video explainers, which you said should launch late in January. Can you, well, explain these to me?
Salmon: Yeah, I’m doing newsish, short 90-second videos about topics in the news or outside the news. Sort of like comment stuff. We’re calling it “Let Me Tell You.”
That was, again, a massive thing. We used the ABC Studios. There was a director, there was an assistant director, there was a stage manager, there was a writer, there was another writer, there was a guy operating the teleprompter machine. These things are team efforts. They’re one take, but they’re funny and they’re very heavily produced.
Ossa: How do you come up with the ideas? The target audience, I’m sure that matters. It’s millennials, not necessarily middle-aged businessmen.
Salmon: Right. So we haven’t entirely worked it out, it’s just any topic that we want to make funny. Nothing is off limits really. Because I know about finance and I care about finance I feel like that’s my little niche, but I don’t think I’m going to wind up explaining the swaps push out.
I mean if I could find a way of making it funny maybe I would do the swaps push out, but in general I’m doing things like why do people drink so much cabernet sauvignon or that kind of thing, a little bit simpler. They don’t have to be short, but the ones we’re making right now are quite short. Somewhere between 45 seconds and two minutes in the first instance. That has to include a bunch of jokes, so the actual meat of it, you have to be able to explain pretty quickly.
Ossa: Explainers are kind of fashionable right now. Will they become a permanent part of the media landscape?
Salmon: You only do good journalism if you’re interested in finding out something. Explainers are no different. Explainers are just another form of exactly the same thing, which is I have a dumb question, what’s the answer. In general, all the best journalism is answers to dumb questions. Mostly, explainers are like I’m going to phone up the next person and find out what the answer is and then write it up. They’re reported. It’s just a slightly different flavor of reporting.
I’m very excited about explainers. I think there is a huge amount of potential there. I think that if you look at how journalism is done online a lot of it kind of unthinkingly adopts the workflows of legacy media where every day you have a blank 30 minutes that you need to fill in your newscast, or a blank 40 pages that you need to fill if you’re a newspaper. There’s a new week and there’s a magazine you need to put out and there’s nothing in it. You need to start from zero and create stuff to go in it. In that sense, people are obsessed with the flow. They’re like, “let’s find something new and create it and put it on the Internet.” But that’s not actually what the Internet is good at. The Internet is good at stock.
Salmon: Stock rather than flow. So once you put up something on the Internet it lives there forever.
It seems really stupid to write one story, instead of taking that story and making sure that that story evolves on the Internet to match what’s happening in the world. You say, “that story, which we’ve already printed, that story is done and we’re just kind of archiving it as a historical record. Now we’re going to start writing a whole new story from scratch, which has to explain the whole thing all over again.” It’s a waste of time and it’s a waste of effort and it’s not what the Internet is good at.
If you can create pages that explain what’s going on and then are updated as necessary — that’s explainers basically. It’s much more natural way for people to understand the world than this idea of “I need to read a story about what happened today, which I’m not going to understand because I don’t understand what happened yesterday.”
Ossa: So it seems like you can do this Fusion stuff anywhere. The idea is that it’s platform agnostic, right?
Salmon: Exactly. It’s platform agnostic so we have a huge following on Vine, we have a big following on Instagram. We are publishing on Facebook. We’ll publish anywhere, we have a TV channel, we have a website. We have a bunch of different places we can publish stuff and we want to get our content out to where our audience is. We don’t want to force the audience to come to us.
Ossa: You’ve said this is a “post-text” thing you’re doing at Fusion, for which you got ribbed and criticized on twitter and blogs.
Salmon: The phrase that’s going to be appended to my name wherever I move the rest of my life has been taken a little bit out of context. The core of what I do at Fusion is going to be post-text. This is may be evolving a little bit, but I’m going to be concentrating on mobile phones, creating interactive, creating videos, doing all manner of experimenting with new forms of storytelling. I mean, I love to write, I’m good at writing, I’m not going to stop writing, but I felt at the time, and I still do feel, that a lot of what I’m writing–there are better places to reach an audience for that. To take an example from this week, if I’m writing a prediction for 2015 in media it makes sense for me to publish that at Nieman Journalism Lab, who’s doing a whole bunch of predictions for 2015 in the media.
So, I had written a piece there, which people are talking about and linking to. So my point was that if I’m going to be writing things which are text heavy there are wonderful places to do that: Medium or Financial Times or anywhere, Bloomberg. Fusion neither needs nor desires to compete with those people for that audience.
Felipe Ossa is a reporter and playwright. As a reporter, he covers structured finance for SourceMedia (@StructuredFin). Much of his theaterical work is satire focused on economic themes, such as Monetizing Emma, about the securitization of teenagers, or The Ultimate Stimulus, about a renegade economist who proposes concubinage as a tool of socio-economic policy (@ConcubineEcon). You can read more about him at www.felipeossa.com; his twitter handle is @felipeossacourt.
 Swaps push out: A swap is a kind of derivative used as a hedge against, or a gamble on, the movements in any number of markets. A provision of the Dodd Frank Act would have forced the large banks that handle the overwhelming majority of swaps to “push out” that business to affiliates that don’t enjoy FIDC insurance (funded by taxpayer dollars). But that provision was gutted under the recently-passed spending bill. The push out requirement now covers only swaps linked to asset-backed securities.
This entry was posted on Monday, January 12th, 2015 at 6:00 am. It is filed under Q&As, Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with ABC Television Network, Disney, Felix Salmon, Fusion, Nieman Journalism Lab, Nouriel Roubini, The Awl, Univision. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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