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Transcript: Journalism's Role in a Crisis
The transcript of this week's interview with Ian Urbina, available to everyone
[00:00:00] Rachel: I greatly appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to speak with me today.
[00:00:04] Ian: My pleasure.
[00:00:05] Rachel: It's very cool to have a Pulitzer prize winning journalist on the show. Very, very, very cool. I'm a journalist myself, and I have had some incredible interviews with our ilk, let's say, but yeah, not a Pulitzer prize winner yet. So, thank you.
[00:00:23] Ian: You'll be underwhelmed. Just brace yourself.
[00:00:26] Rachel: I'm gonna have to cut that back bit out.
Just for people that maybe haven't come across your work, can you give a brief overview of your career and how it was the, you ended up, you know, focusing on the oceans.
[00:00:40] Ian: So I went to grad school from undergrad. I was in a doctoral program eventually in anthropology and history. And I was drawn to a sort of Jane Goodall fantasy of being out there in the yonder and seeing, you know, capital F foreign things, you know, really distant places that were exotic and different.
And that was sort of the engine that drove me into anthropology. And then I left the academic realm because I wanted to do a different kind of writing for a different type of audience, but I still had a hankering to explore. And I, uh, began working in the middle east for a couple of years. And then I got hired by the New York Times, uh, in a very lucky set of events, and was in a baptism by fire for several years, having never produced copy on deadline. And that was a painful experience. And, uh, and yeah, I mean I always aimed to do long form international investigative narrative magazine style journalism, and it took me a while to get there. But finally, my last 10 years at the New York times, I sort of had arrived and was doing that kind of stuff and was responsible for producing either single big stories that take a while to produce or series. The second- last series that I did for the paper was a series that was meant to look at, uh, human rights and environmental abuses at sea around the world called The outlaw Ocean.
[00:02:29] Rachel: And that's since sort of become one of your main focuses, right. You know, this final frontier.
[00:02:36] Ian: Yeah, the, the main focus for me, I sort of- I took two years off for a book project, went back out to sea, produced the book and went back to the Times for a year to produce a series about bullets and ammunition. And then I found myself hankering to get back out off shore. So I left the Times, created a nonprofit journalism organization that just focuses on these sorts of stories.
[00:03:02] Rachel: Was it that you felt that you had to leave the Times in order to, uh, invest the amount of time you wanted to into these stories? Or did you think that you could do more having an independent nonprofit newsroom?
[00:03:16] Ian: Both. The Times was incredible. I mean, it was a teaching hospital that took me in off the street and, and trained me to do this profession called journalism, and I have nothing but positive things to say about my 17 years there.
At the same time, it's a big, legacy organization and number one: normally an investigative reporter needs to switch topics every two years at longest, and I didn't want to switch topics. You know, I thought after the book, there were so many amazing stories out there and so few journalists doing that kind of reporting that it was just too important an opportunity, too urgent a topic to not. But I also just, I wanted to do some weird, perhaps crazy things that I didn't think I could manage at the time, such as finding innovative, half-baked ways to distribute journalism differently, uh, with help of music and podcasts and animation and, you know, stage acting and, you know, art and other ways to do things with journalism that I thought would be fun, but also have a bigger social impact and get more people to consume the journalism. So I knew I had to sort of leave to, to do some of that stuff, but I also just wanted to continue reporting on this subject matter.
[00:04:41] Rachel: Let's talk about our trade, cause it's getting a pretty bad rap at the moment. Uh, people like to talk about "The Media"- capital T, capital M- as if that means anything, and if you ask them to define that they often go "the corporate media", which means even less.
What you've said there is essentially that, you know, you wanted to try different mediums and to have a bigger impact. What is going wrong with our trade? Where could we be doing better to draw attention to these really, really critical stories? I mean, even the fact that you just said that an investigative reporter has to switch topics every two years. There's a sense of madness in there. I mean, surely the longer you stay on something, you build your sources, you build your wealth of information, you become the expert.
[00:05:24] Ian: Well, a couple of things. One, if you're a big institution like the New York Times, and you have 15 full-time investigative reporters, but you have 50 worthy topics, you know, rape, uh, on campuses, you know, Donald Trump, climate change, arms trafficking, slaughter in Sudan, you know. And you name it, right? You as the executive editor, in this case Dean Baquet, have to be smart about trying to spread the field with your players. And so from a structural point of view, even at a paper like the New York Times, that's invested a huge amount, probably more than most, if not all, in investigative, you have to move them around.
So while there is merit, and you see that even at the New York Times, there's a famous reporter and Willie Rashbaum who's been on the same beat for I think 30 years, and it shows, you know, he's got the best sources of anyone and the relationships and sense of nuance.
Peter Baker, the white house correspondent, same thing, he's been on that beat for two decades and it shows, but at the same time, you kind of have to move certain other types of players around. So I actually get why there's this need to move investigative reporters around so that they don't become beat reporters. They're investigative reporters, so they parachute into things. So at least in my own outlook, I get that. It doesn't mean I want to do it, and that's why I left. I decided I wanted to become a beat investigative reporter and my beat was the two thirds of the planet that's water. But I get why institutions need to do that.
To your other questions, I actually think a lot of the legacy, or what you rightly laughingly called the corporate media, there's a lot that they're doing well. Because if you look at media as the self created content, that floods the internet uh, you know, Facebook, uh, then the middling weird hybrid duck-billed Platypus content that's sort of low bar standards, journalistically, but it's a step above self-created Facebook content. But it's not really vetted, edited, fact-checked content. That's that middle ground. Those two grounds, those two realms alone flood the internet with crappy stuff, you know, that's not vetted. And then the corporate so-called media, the legacy outlets, are often the ones that are still clinging to certain standards of rigor, you know, copy editing, fact checking, corrections, you know.
And so I kind of look at The Washington Post, The AP, the New York Times, The New Yorker, you know, BBC, you know, as doing an impressively good job in, in the midst of a wave of content, and trying to survive from a market point of view and hold onto those standards and not become peddlers of misinformation.
So when I look at these papers and read them, I think, wow. You know, I really am proud of them for holding on to these costly, difficult standards, even if it means they get beat, you know, because someone else moved the story faster and got things wrong and don't have to be held to account for it and these sorts of things. So I actually think there's a lot being done right.
What I think is one of the shortfalls or blind spots of legacy outlets is if you think of we in our profession as makers of things, we make stories and we deliver content about the day's news and that's our product. I think in terms of crafting of the product, there's a lot of interesting innovation happening. I think there's a lot less innovation in terms of how to distribute it.
Legacy outlets have a sort of old school model where if you do it good enough, they'll come to you, they'll come to your restaurant. No, this is the time of delivering food, you know, like everything is delivered now, you got to go out to the customer. And a lot of legacy outfits are trying to make everyone come to them. And I think there's an anemia of innovation when it comes to distribution of journalism, by partnering with other platforms, even Facebook, even these things that I sort of dismissively referred to as half baked, you know, factories, those players can help us in delivering a better product if we figure out how to work with them, whether it's Spotify or YouTube or Facebook or whatever. And that's where I think there needs to be more innovation. That's one of the reasons that I left.
[00:09:53] Rachel: How do journalists identify the line between, um, providing information and essentially taking on an educational role in society, and then giving the public what they want? Because journalists- we're not experts. That's kind of what we do, right? We write about other experts. That's the idea. And to me, in what you're saying, I mean, I agree, but I would also counter with: there seems to be a lack of innovation as well in kind of being more stringent with the demands of what a journalist's role is and what responsibility we have in choosing what information gets published, uh, choosing what's most important, prioritizing that rather than thinking in terms of, okay, well we have ad streams to support, so we're gonna, you know, float the clickbait and then allow kind of- hope that other people come through the back channel to find sort of the worthy journalism.
I mean, the amount of papers that are not investing in investigative reporting anymore because people don't want to read long form things and it's like, well, if you continue to feed that, um, feedback loop, it's only going to get worse. So what line do you take? I mean, we're not academics. We can't stand in front of a class and go, this is what you need to know.
[00:11:03] Ian: Yeah. I mean, I love metaphors and half the time I peddle bad ones. Um, so I might, I may engage in that right now, but the metaphor I think of is a restaurant. So I think of where you have a restaurant owner and you have a chef, and the restaurant owner is thinking about the menu at large, and whether there's a variety of things on that menu, you got desserts, you got some junk food, you got some really high end stuff. It's a, it's a mix that maybe the restaurant owner decides. And then the chef is supposed to make a lot of the stuff. And you have different types of chefs, the sous chefs and the dessert chefs. Okay. Just to stop with my metaphor is to say in media, I kind of think you and I make stuff, you and I are the journalists, the chefs, and we have an obligation as the journalists to decide what we like making, what we value making, what we want to serve folks. And then we lean into that and hope we get hired at a restaurant. So if you're okay with making dessert or junk food- Great, and there's a legitimate argument. People want junk food, people like it, I'm going to make it good and feed it to them. Okay.
I'm a broccoli guy, you know, I'm trying to make really healthy stuff and I'm going to keep doing that and I'm going to look for jobs making really healthy food, sustainable food, et cetera. Okay. And then I think that the job of a Dean Baquet at the New York Times or David Remnick at the New Yorker, whatever, these restaurant owners, is they need to think about the full restaurant and how much junk food, dessert, and sustainable, healthy, good meals they should be putting out. And so I guess in my conception, I don't ever want to run the New York Times. Like I don't want to have to be deciding the, the restaurant menu and striking a balance between giving people what they want, keeping the doors open and the lights on, you know, ad revenue, and making sure my certain class of reporters are producing the broccoli meals. You know, like I don't want to be doing that. I just want to make broccoli meals, you know, I want to make sustainable, and then hope for the best.
And that's why I left and made my own organization. If I can make an organization that has figured out a way... If the global landscape of consumers is young people in Taiwan and old people in the Netherlands and middle-aged folks in Washington DC, and I'm like trying to figure out how to get my meals to them then I'm doing things that kind of break the mold of the BBC or the New Yorker or The Economist, and sort of say, okay, I'm just delivering meals direct to customer. That's kind of where I am now is I'm just going to focus on my meals. I know that there's a reason that there's a lot of junk food out there. I eat junk food, you know, it's like, I'm not being high and mighty about all this. I do think there's too much junk food on the market when it comes to news and there need to be more of our sort that are really trying to produce more of these meals and make them attractive and get them to people. Uh. But I also don't pass judgment on the restaurant owners who kind of have to figure things out. Sorry if that's long winded.
[00:14:21] Rachel: No, no, no, no, no, I get it. And I mean, ultimately when you create something in a market that depends on that market and its consumers, um, to have a sustainable model, and when I say sustainable there I mean the fact that it won't go under then, you know, of course you're going to have to, there's going to have to be somebody that thinks about all these different moving pieces.
I just wonder if the world would be in a slightly different state today if journalism didn't rely on profits and therefore could dare to say what we don't want to hear. You know I want to question even the idea of what do people want, um, because if we look at the data on mental health and what these sort of Tik TOK and Facebook algorithms are actually doing to us, like, yes, we're responding on some kind of neurochemical dopamine level, but it's not making us happy. It's not actually something consciously we want, it's something we've kind of gotten stuck into, thanks Zuck, you know?
[00:15:18] Ian: Yes. Yes. Yeah, no, I think there, there is a obesity, sorry I'm really leaning into it-
[00:15:23] Rachel: Yes, let’s keep going!
[00:15:24] Ian: There is an obesity epidemic, right, and junk food is bad. And I do agree with the mayor Bloomberg of the world that sort of find structural ways to de-incentivize the eating of bad stuff that makes us sick and unhealthy and costs society and has us die early. Yes. I completely agree with the point you're making, and I think you're exactly right, too, that: do people really want fatty foods or are we, is there a multi-billion dollar market inculcating a taste for those things, you know, both in the making of them, in the products, but in the advertising of them, the social engineering and all that stuff?
Yes, yes. Yes. So I completely agree. And I think you're right from a democratic point of view from a, you know, pandemic point of view, you look at, look at any issue of today, geopolitical point of view, the, um, pervasiveness of informational junk food is really unhealthy and um a big problem. So I hope our, our broccoli purveyors, win.
[00:16:20] Rachel: I hope so, too. Just, just a little anecdote, literally before, five minutes before we jumped on, um, I received a kind of chain message on WhatsApp, um, in one of the Malaysian groups I'm in, cause I do a lot of my work over there. And it was, um, one of these, like, it was a link to one of these middling, um, oh, what, how did you explain it? You know, the, the middling sites that aren't fact checking?
[00:16:47] Ian: Right. Pseudo news. Right.
[00:16:48] Rachel: Psuedo news. Exactly. And it was called breaking news and it had the grainiest logo. Um, and then there was, they'd, you know, copied and pasted and put the Malay translation in the actual message. And it was about the fact that the COVID vaccine is not an actual vaccine and that some case had been lost, you know, Fauci and everybody else had lost a case in the Supreme court that had been brought to them by scientists and how essentially everybody has to stop taking the vaccine. There's a huge anti-vax sentiment over there as well, unsurprisingly. And I had to- you know, I'm in a team of journalists. They're bright people and they forwarded it to be like, um, can you, what's what's going on with this? Um, and I went, right, here's the fact check, you know, this, the same hoax circulated around in May. But I know for a fact that that is gonna go sweeping through the Dayak the Iban, the indigenous populations who are already fearful of government, because they've been abused for decades, decades, if not centuries, um, and it's, it's going to have a huge, horrible impact. And it's like, well, it's not- God, and then there was that story - I'm gonna have to cut this out - there's that story of that guy that killed his, you know, one and three-year-old kid cause he thought that they had lizard blood in them, that florida bloke, you know. Some things got to give, surely something in our industry, it's got to change.
[00:18:06] Ian: Yeah, no, look, I live three blocks from this pizza place that was the center of pizza-gate.
[00:18:12] Rachel: oh!
[00:18:13] Ian: Yeah, it's literally, it's where we get our pizza. That's where we live. This zip code has the largest concentration of journalists in the country. Washington Post lives right there, page one New York Times is over there, and we all live, and that's the place we all get pizza. And you saw in that case, you know, guys with guns showed up because they were convinced that there were pedophiles keeping kids in the basement of the pizza place, you know, and it's complete- so yes, this has real world consequences, um, all over the place. Um, It's demoralizing, um, but the flip side is this.
I watched "don't look up" two nights ago and I was like, okay, this is, this made me happy in the way that "the big short" made me happy, in that this is an example of art and journalism, um, melding in a really smart way that makes a narrative that's fictional, but not so much, you know, like it's really clearly a riff on climate change and the idiocy of misinformation, but it's doing so in a narrative way that people will understand. And, and I'm like, okay, this is what change- where fiction combines with non-fiction in a positive way. And that's a huge success, that story, and it had huge stars and had flaws, I'm sure.
[00:19:33] Rachel: I mean, just, just, we have to, we have to, because there's one major flaw and it actually directly affects you as well. So I'm glad we've gotten here. Leonardo fucking DiCaprio, right? He is not an environmentalist. He has made millions from 1MDB, from his friendship with Jho Low in which billions were funneled out of Malaysia from cutting down Borneo's rainforest. Okay. We know that. He was cited in the DOJ. For whatever reason in the DOJ his name disappears after a couple of years, he has never repatriated that money to the Malaysian people. And he's in the climate change film. C'mon!
[00:20:19] Ian: I, this is, I'm going nowhere near this line of questioning. Not, not just, not, not because I have self-interests, which I do a hundred percent, but also because I'm clueless, like I simply don’t know—
[00:20:33] Rachel: Well, I'm not, I can tell you.
[00:20:33] Ian: -what you're referring to. Yeah, no, it sounds like, uh, so off recording, I want you to school me on all you just said and slow that, that deck of cards down a little bit so I can see them. But, um, but yeah, I don't know shit about this, so, so I'm going to, I'm going to leave it. I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm just going to say I shouldn't go there because I don't know what I'm talking about.
[00:20:54] Rachel: Sure. Sure. Don't go there. But just, just to clarify for people listening, he was one of the people that bought the rights to your book about the oceans. Right?
[00:21:01] Ian: Yeah, and again, I would say like mixed bag though the guy may be, he's put a lot of money behind, um, a lot of ocean work, uh, whether it's a PR-
[00:21:13] Rachel: Have you, have you looked into how that money is structured?
[00:21:16] Ian: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it goes through huge multi-billion dollar organization. So Sierraa, WWF, which, which have deep flaws again. Great. Uh, I totally agree. Uh, um, but, um, anyway-
[00:21:28] Rachel: Let's- yeah, we can move past it, we can move past it. Let's talk about, let's talk about The Outlaw Ocean Project. Let's talk about some of these different ways that you're engaging audiences and you're getting narratives out there. And what, I mean, hopefully get into what you hope the future of journalism might be, but let's talk about the project.
[00:21:46] Ian: What is it? Yeah. Um. So The Outlaw Ocean Project is a, uh, small journalistic nonprofit. We have a staff of eight, nine full-time folk. Um. We produce stories uh, about, and usually reported from, that two-thirds of the planet that's water. Our goal is to, um, try to do stories out there that either aren't being done at all, or we think could be done better or differently. And that typically are at the intersection of human rights and labor on one side and environment on the other, so that we're not- we try to avoid, um, having one of those two elements fall away, you know, a purely environmental Marine story or a purely human story. We try to really stay at the interactivity and intersection of those.
Um, yeah. And we also try to then take the stories and, once they're done, uh, disseminate them in a pretty different way, you know? Um, we self-fund them and, and then, because we own them, we can translate them into 10 languages and give them for free or at reduced rate to, you know, a huge number of venues around the world.
[00:23:04] Rachel: Right. Okay. So you're getting the message out a little bit further than most people cause you're not in competition with these other publications. You can just sort of sell -- you're like an environmental, human rights, outlandish press agency almost, investigative press agency.
[00:23:20] Ian: I would say we're like ProPublica or the Marshall project, you know, we're we're, these are, uh, this is who we modeled ourselves after. These are boutique outlets that don't have an organ, they don't have a- they make food, but they don't have a restaurant, and they don't want to own a restaurant. They're not trying to put out, they're not trying to get folks to read it on their own website. If they do great, but they make the stuff, they make it better, different, um, than than many staff reporters at the New Yorker or the New York Times might be able to do. We spend a year, year and a half on something, and then we take it and we say, Hey, this is done or mostly done. Are you interested in it? If you are, you don't need to pay, or yeah, we'd be, we'd be happy if you put in a small donation, but, uh, um, but we're also gonna maintain ownership over it so that you can run it exclusively for a week, two weeks, but then we're taking it back and we're gonna translate it and we're gonna run it in, you know, 50 countries and all these different languages. And we have partners all over the place that are really interested in that. And we're growing that grid all the time.
[00:24:25] Rachel: That's amazing, but then how do you make money if you, if they don't have to pay for stories?
[00:24:30] Ian: Leo DiCaprio? No, I mean, uh, um, uh, no, I mean, uh, somewhat a joke, somewhat not. Um, uh, we are philanthropically funded, so we take money from, uh, not corporations, not governments, but, uh, large philanthropies. I'd say 50, 60% of our current budget is singular big grants from philanthropies that are invested in journalism. Um. And again, we, again modeled after ProPublica and Marshall project, again, run by former Times folks that I know well and took guidance from, but we have a real firewall so that our funders have no say. They don't even know what the stories are before they publish, we publish them, but they have no say at all, they just fund us to do the journalism.
And then the other 40% comes from, um, individuals, you know, small subscribers who want to pay something to support the work we're doing. And so they pay five bucks a month or two bucks a month or, or a hundred bucks a month, you know, depending on what they want and feel. And, and as we publish in all these different places, you know, we just published in Le Monde yesterday, this big Libya piece. Um, uh. So I think we're up to about 55 countries, um, 10 languages, um, people see the stuff, they click on the website, they say, oh, wow, this is really impressive, and they decide that they want to support in some small way. And that adds up eventually. We're still small. I mean, we would love to have double the number of staff cause we could produce double the number of stories, but, um, uh, but we're growing, we're only 24 months old.
[00:26:06] Rachel: I noticed, um, when I read your story on the seabed mining, I noticed at the end, you know, all the different places that it's in, and I saw the Scottish Herald, which I found surprising. And I clicked on it and it was the exact same copy as well. Like they didn't change it up, they didn't make it a little bit more tabloidy, they didn't try to dumb it down.
And I was, I was very surprised. Is that, is that one of the deals that you have with people? When they take it they have to take it as is?
[00:26:35] Ian: Yeah. I mean, we, we th that's sort of, so our rules are that, uh, there are several rules, and one of them is you can't touch the copy, except if we approve it. So if they say we love this piece, but we want it to have a new headline and we need to cut 400 words. We say, okay, we'll cut the 400 words, you propose the headline, we'll approve. Or, Hey, we love this, like with the New Yorker piece, it's a 10,000 word story. A lot of venues can't handle that length story. So we knew that was going to be a problem. So we made several versions. We made an 8,000 word story and then we made a serialized version, a four part series, and we said, Hey, we've got lots of different versions that we want to offer you. And then we had seven or eight spin-off pieces that were 1500 words that refer back to the original investigation. Okay. If you can't run the original then could you run this? You know? And so then we prepare this whole slate of things and different models of the same reporting, and then we go out and we build these relationships.
But we say, you cannot edit the story unless we approve it. Um. And some places, again, when you're translating from Arabic to Chinese or, you know, um, there are certain words that just don't make sense and so we have translators on staff that just vet that stuff. Uh, Yeah. And, and our view is, you know, we're dealing with partners who are, you know, state organs, you know, these are sketchy outlets. We don't care. Like so long as they run our copy, that's what we care about. If they want to run it on their platform because they have their own interests. Oh, they, you know, the Russians like this piece because it's hitting the Ukrainians or, you know, the Spanish like this because it's- okay, well, that's their deal. We're not gonna write a story that's meant to be a hit job and fit within a certain model. Um. Lots of people are going like certain pieces of the story for certain reasons. Morocco and Algeria love the Libya story. Why? Because it bangs Libya, you know, and it brings attention away from their abuses. Um. We'll come, we'll come for them to in due time.
[00:28:36] Rachel: I find it fascinating because I think one of the issues with how information is disseminated, uh, despite the fact that the world is so globally connected, it's that people don't know- there's no sort of universal news. There's no universal media. Um. People on one side of the world don't know what's happening on another. And certainly for like, you know, these big global topics, like, you know, the economy or economic frameworks and systems, or climate change, or, you know, the energy crisis, there's no one singular message kind of going out, um, in all these different countries. So I, I find it very, very interesting what you're doing, and I really look forward to seeing the results, if it has an impact on kind of joining dots and then linking up people who are interested in these kinds of things across the world as well.
[00:29:24] Ian: Well, I appreciate it.
[00:29:25] Rachel: Yeah. Spreading universal, um. Universal's the wrong word, but making sure that people all around the world have access to the exact same information. I don't think, I think that's a pretty and still very, very rare thing.
[00:29:41] Ian: I think that's right. No, I think, uh, I think I, yeah, I, I think that's right. I mean, one of the things I'm really interested to look at is whether- like this year, we're going to take a really good look at radio in Latin America and Africa, because I have this sense that what you, the realm where you and I live in the realm of words in Western media, on the internet, it's insanely overcrowded. But if you just take a couple steps off the beaten path, there's, um, grid informational grids that are far less trafficked, and you can access a lot of people that matter through those grids because they consume their news there. And radio to me feels like one example. Spotify as a platform, a non news platform that a lot of young people are on is another example of like, well, who says it can't be a news platform? Like what if we make, what if we package our stuff in music, but it's news, uh, and we then get to young people through Spotify? That was one pivot.
Another pivot is, well, who says that a lot of people in the world don't listen to radio? And those places have websites. They need content. And if we get them the written content, maybe we can also get them audio, and all of a sudden we're tapping into a huge market. We just got to build the infrastructure. But I think the key is a lot of us, you and me, are really focused on this one terrain and it's really competitive and overwhelmed, and, um, and the same editors at the BBC and The Economist and The Washington Post are getting a thousand emails per week from freelancers. And it's like, okay, stop hitting them. Let's find folks that have as big or bigger readership.
And then there's alternate things like apple news. It's not a news platform, but it has huge news consequences. Right. And so like figuring out where the nodes of news aggregators are, um, and figuring out how you can get your content to them without going through the traditional legacy means like publishing in The Washington Post so as to get on apple news, what if you just went straight to apple news and said- uh. So I'm trying to find landscape innovation that allows us to get our stuff to bigger audience.
[00:32:14] Rachel: I guess, another danger with that model then, right, would be, and I'm just thinking off the top of my head here. Like, it's fine, um... There's an element of, if I go to The Washington Post or the New York Times, um, generally speaking, I'm going to trust, I'm gonna trust- uh, what am I going to trust?- I'm going to, I know I'm going to definitely trust the information, I'm going to definitely trust the legality. I might not always trust the intention or whatever, um, but there is a, there's a reputation that serves as a boundary, which means that I can quote that, and I'm, you know, it's correct, essentially.
Um. For someone like you, if somebody were to Google you, they go, oh, wow, okay, well, it's this Pulitzer prize winning guy, you know, 17 years at the New York Times, I can trust what he puts out into the world. Now, does that mean that kind of, you know, um, social capital is going to start coalescing or like reputational capital is going to start coalescing around specific people rather than institutions?
[00:33:11] Ian: Hmm.
[00:33:11] Rachel: And then what happens when those people retire or leave or, you know, flip and start to use it for their own agenda as well? You know, it is, there is the potential to yes, reach more people and be very, very modern and very, very innovative. But it's also like, you remove that barrier and you're letting in a lot of potential dangers as well and loopholes for exploitation. Um. And as long as we don't have kind of like a, an international, like union of there is, there are unions of journalists, but like an international one or an bo-, God, even international legislative body, am I right? Um, you know, how do we ensure that, Um, we're not essentially just opening the flood gates for more fake news?
[00:33:56] Ian: Yeah, it's a really good question. Um. I think that, um, the way I view that question pertaining to me specifically is, uh, you- much like ProPublica started as three people and now is 300 or whatever it is, and, and the brand ProPublica became an independent, trustworthy brand, but it started somewhere. Similarly, the Outlaw Ocean Project is starting with one guy and his team around him, but eventually, and we're already trying to do things to move, um, that away from Ian, the person, and into the brand that is this organization as having a track record of producing stuff that appears in lots of different venues and that kind of doesn't matter. But the stuff that they produce is, holds itself to a certain standard journalistically. And that's why they have a whole track record of getting published in these vetted old legacy outlet, you know, institutions, because they produce legit stuff, you know, and by, that follow the rules. Right?
And so that's the hope here. I don't want a vanity institution that's built around me. I am trying to use my track record to build the, the foundation of the institution, but then really the institution itself should have the reputation as abiding by certain standards. And then when you see something that's been produced by that institution, it doesn't matter where it got run because it's probably got run a million places. Um.
[00:35:28] Rachel: What I like about that is essentially you're creating a symbiotic relationship, and if there's one message of people that come on this podcast, all the scientists and the academics, it's that the solutions are not simple. The solutions are multifaceted, whether it's for the energy, economic, ecological crises, um, there's not just one blanket thing that we can do that's going to fix everything like EVs or, you know, renewables. Um, So, the question of the media, what I like about what you just said is you're essentially showing how legacy institutions and new media can work together to fulfill, um, a kind of, how do I put that, fulfill a role that the other can't, but cannot exist without the other as well, rather than being in direct competition.
[00:36:16] Ian: Yeah. Yeah, no, I, you summed it up perfectly. I don't think that we're meant to be adversarial. My existence isn't meant to signal the end of legacy outlets. I think there is, uh, a lot of challenges that legacy media, um, is facing, and we're probably gonna see a consolidation more than we already have of which ones are left standing, but I really think they play an important role. And my hope is that they're open enough to partner more and more with the likes of, you know, ProPublica or the project, you know, my organization, uh, if we can comply with their needs. Uh. But it's a growing process. Like even getting these outlets to agree to the terms of not owning the content, that's a big, big hurdle to cross because they don't like that. Um. But you know, people I think are evolving, the people in those decision-making positions.
[00:37:18] Rachel: Well, especially with investigative reporting. The amount of time it takes, as you said, years sometimes to uncover a good story and get everything in place, um, it's kind of worth handing over the rights or rather forsaking the rights of a story if somebody comes to you with all that work done, I would imagine, I would hope.
[00:37:34] Ian: Yeah. Yeah. And, and, and the marketplace makes it competitive cause I think they know that like, okay, well, if we don't bend on this, he's going to take this to another venue and then, you know, we're going to be in a, if it does, when we read it and wow, this is pretty impressive. It's going to get traction. And so then everyone's going to be running a story that we didn't run and we can't match. So we kind of look like we didn't get invited to the party. So I think there is going to be market pressure. If, if my- if this model succeeds, then that's how it should work.
[00:38:09] Rachel: Excellent. Now I have to ask you because, um, if any of my listeners Google you, these are kind of the first things that are popping up at the moment cause these articles were produced in December. But there was a something that happened with musical artists and one of those projects. And you're in, I couldn't- I mean, I read the Rolling Stones, it wasn't particularly clear. Is there some sort of legal dispute over royalties and rights happening right now? Or is the Outlaw Ocean Project managing to put that behind you quickly.
[00:38:42] Ian: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, this does harken back to your original points about dangerous misinformation and sort of, um, the middling peddlers of really poor journalism. I mean, I won't go down that rabbit hole too far, but it is a really illustrative example of, um, the potential for a really, really skewed and inaccurate things to get taken up by, um, semi branded institutions and pedaled and echoed. All that is to say the basics of that are: the music project has about 505 musicians from around the world, 60 countries that have signed on, and the mission of that is the musicians make music, uh, you know, around and using sound samples from the stories as a way to try to get more attention onto the stories and get the stories onto platforms like Spotify.
Um. And you know, at root there have been, uh, a dozen to two dozen musicians who were not happy with the project, um, not for all illegitimate reasons, for some good reasons: poor communication, you know, anemic streaming, um, you know, sort of dropped balls and, and, you know, so in, in those ways a real lesson learned by me and my staff who run the music project of ways we should improve and should have improved earlier. Um. Several of those musicians, um, were very vocal and, you know, sort of were able to sort of get a lot of coverage on their frustrations. And, you know, again, what we tried to do is almost sort of Ted Lasso it, you know, what would Ted Lasso do as a, uh, you know, um, okay: hear them out, um, figure out what feels fair and what doesn't feel fair, focus on the things that feel fair and try to fix them in a really open way.
And so that's essentially what we did. We heard them out. Um. We discerned from fair, from unfair. We looked at the fair critiques, which were, Hey, we want, you know, more ownership over the streaming revenue and the rights of our music. Um. Hey, we're not happy with how this music is doing and we want to pull out. Um. These sorts of things. And we said, okay, how- our goal here is to disseminate the journalism. It's never been to make money. And in fact, we've only lost money on the music, um, project ever, but it's still worth it because it gets a lot of attention on the stories. And so we said, okay, here's how we can give you the fair things that you're asking for. We're going to shift the streaming revenue so that none of the streaming revenue comes to us, a hundred percent goes to you. Done. We're going to offer you the right to pull your music down and then take it someplace else and own it outright and, and publish it anew. Done. Uh. We're going to, if you want to stay in the project but keep your streaming revenue, we're going to make that really easy: here's the form, you know, uh. We're also going to switch our service provider so that the people that see that are supposed to be getting you information about your streaming information and your loyalties are more responsive. That's our responsibility. So if they screw up, it's on us. Our last uh, service provider wasn't great so we switched providers. Done. So these are- and then we're going to formally apologize for the things we did wrong. Done. And then we're going to let the dust settle and see what folks have to say at that point.
And that worked, you know, um. We went from having 505 musicians to we now have 430. The 430 decided to stay, said we're really happy, and especially with those changes, but even before, we were happy, we want to stay in the project. And the dust has settled and now we're, you know, moving forward. So that's that.
[00:42:35] Rachel: Okay. Thank you for clarifying that. I think it's really helpful for anybody that um, has the misfortune of reading through those extremely long Rolling Stones articles.
Now I have one final question for you before we go, uh, much as Carl platformed you, who would you like to platform?
[00:42:54] Ian: Let me think carefully about that. Um. Who would make for great- who does great work is one question, who does great work that would make a great interview is a subset question. And I think you're asking the subset question, right? Um. Well, who does great work in my space? Um, Uh, you know, the global fishing watch is an organization that is really unusual and they leverage satellites to lay eyes on bad stuff happening on the sea around the world. Really inspiring and unusual. Um, uh. And then there's another organization called TMT, which is obscure and no one's ever heard of it, but the guy that runs it, a guy named Duncan Copa. It's an investigative firm and they do amazing work, you know? And, um, they're very quiet, but they're extremely effective at finding stuff happening on the oceans that no one else knows about and I rely on them a lot. Um.
Who makes for a great interview? There's a guy named Brenn Smith who does really good work. He's a fisherman, career fishermen, and he now calls himself a fish farmer and he switched from chasing fish to growing, um, kelp and other sustainable seafood. Um, uh, Uh. And he's just so interesting and smart and plain spoken and experienced, and he is a great interview. I've been on shows with him before, and he's poetic.
[00:44:27] Rachel: What was his name?
[00:44:29] Ian: Bren Smith. And I'll email you his info.
[00:44:33] Rachel: That would be fantastic. Ian, it has been such a pleasure to speak with you. I really appreciate you giving me the time
[00:44:39] Ian: My pleasure. And again, if there's anything we can do collaboratively in the future, please keep in touch. I'd love to work with you again.
[00:44:47] Rachel: Oh, well, do you know what I was going to stop this record button and ask that same question. So let's get right to it.