Catching Up with Veteran Journalist (and “Black in America” Host) Soledad O’Brien

Multi-award winning journalist Soledad O'Brien

Many of us know of Soledad O’Brien’s multi-award-winning work in broadcast journalism from her days at CNN where, for five years, she served as co-anchor on American Morning and, later, as an anchor on Starting Over. Somewhere in between, she anchored several groundbreaking specials and documentaries, among them, “CNN Presents: Black in America,” a highly-rated seven-part series that ran from 2008 to 2012 and chronicles a variety of topical issues and how they affect the Black community.

In one of the installments, “Black in America: The New Promised Land, Silicon Valley,” for example, the hard-hitting, direct questions O’Brien posed to venture capitalists shed light on the almost non-existent amount of venture capital funding Black entrepreneurs were receiving compared to their white counterparts. 

The episode famously featured eight promising, talented Black entrepreneurs, including the late serial entrepreneur and tech diversity advocate Hank Williams (who launched a non profit organization dedicated to “the important mission to increase the interest and participation of underrepresented groups in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on African-Americans, Latinos and women” shortly before his untimely death), who all aspired to obtain venture capital to get their startups off the ground. It started a conversation about the digital divide. Consequently, some of the nation’s VCs came under intense scrutiny for their questionable funding practices as did large tech companies for their hiring practices, which, by and large, excluded African American tech professionals.   

Since then, O’Brien, who will receive the Humanitarian Award from Los Angeles Team Mentoring in Beverly Hills next month, has been busy hosting Hearst TV news program “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien,” which just wrapped its third season, and running Starfish Media Group, a media production and distribution company she launched to produce investigative stories around “race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity through personal narratives,” according to SMG’s website.    

We recently spoke with the consummate interviewer about being the boss, the problem with pundits, and her love for journalism. I really enjoyed your work on “CNN Presents: Black in America,” particularly the Silicon Valley installment. For me, the topic was so controversial and troubling that I began covering it regularly in search of better outcomes for Black founders and for workforce diversity and inclusion in the tech space. Do you ever contemplate some of the stories you’ve covered, and do any, in particular, resonate with you for any reason?

Soledad O’Brien: Not only do I think about those stories, I know most of the people in those stories. The Rand Family, for example, where we followed their roots between a great, great great grandfather who was a slave owner where there was a black thread in the family and a white thread, I’m invited to the family reunion every two years. We spoke to Matthew Perry at Capital Prep Magnet School about what it takes to get kids to and through college; he’s become a good friend of mine. So, I feel like I’ve kept up with most of the people from the Black in America series.  You’re no longer with CNN, and now run your own production company, Starfish Media Group. What, if any, challenges go along with running your own company?

S.B.: There are so many great things about it. I like being my own boss, picking my team, and picking the people I want to work with on the projects I want to work on. But it’s hard to be the boss! You are responsible for everything; I travel a lot and I shoot a lot, and that’s a separate job from running a company. That can be challenging. You have to make sure you have a good team around you. I hadn’t done management before I started my production company. That was a lot to think about.  Is there anything you miss about working at a large network like CNN?

S.B.: A ton. What I loved the most was working with really smart and creative people, and when you’re in that kind of environment, you have to prove yourself over and over again. In our pitch meetings, you couldn’t just pitch a story, and expect everyone to say, ‘That was brilliant. Let’s do it.’ You pitch it and someone says, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And you have to say, ‘No, here’s why it’s amazing!’ But when you’re the boss and you pitch a story, even if it’s a dumb one, everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s brilliant’ even when it’s not so brilliant. I love that I have been able to build the right team and surround myself with smart people who have good ideas. Those teams are built in at large networks, but I’m glad I’ve been able to do the same at my company.  Tell me a bit about “Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien” and how it came to be.

S.B.: I was asked to do a political show that wouldn’t be about politics; it would be about people and how policy affects people as opposed to a bunch of talking head politicians which, frankly, I was getting very tired of watching on TV. We made a commitment to this idea. So, our tag line is “Stories as diverse as America.” 

We decided we would actually count and track who we were putting on the air. Were they diverse? Did we have the Midwest and the Southwest? Did we have Black, white and Native American people? Did we have women, older women, younger women, women of color and all the voices we were interested in hearing from? It’s gone so well. When we started we had a couple of hundred thousand and now we’re up to a million five viewers on average. With this kind of show, you really start having thoughtful conversations about policy and how to make government work for all people as opposed to what a particular politician has to say which, I think,  is less relevant.  What about journalism, for better or worse, has changed since you started off in the business?

S.B.: A lot has changed and nothing has changed. Journalism in a lot of ways has very much stayed the same. It’s about trying to dig into the truth. There are many more platforms, and much more access now, and as a result, you get a lot of feedback from your viewers! I love journalism. I’ve been a little bit disappointed in the number of talking heads we have on because I think stories are so important. But that is not a fault of journalism. It’s the way it’s being executed. I think we should be out in the field more talking to people who are living their lives rather than talking to pundits who don’t really know. Journalism has always been about illuminating topics for people.  What do you know now about being a journalist that you didn’t know 20 years ago?

S.B.: That’s a really good question. I probably thought it was more glamorous 20 years ago than it actually is. There’s a lot of travel. I fly Delta a lot, and the other day, a Delta representative congratulated me on hitting some new milestone of points. It was an indication of just how much I travel! It was a little deflating! But to do the job well, you have to go. It’s not about sitting in a studio. It’s about going, landing, meeting people, talking to people in their homes, and understanding the issues that matter. You mentioned that you are tired of talking heads and pundits. But now more than ever before, under this administration, people want analysis of the nation’s troubling issues. If not through talking heads and pundits, how would you cover some of these topics?

S.B.: The show we do is a pre-taped show. It doesn’t air live, and I don’t do a daily show. But if I were doing a daily show, I would have journalists in the field. One of the things I loved at CNN was that reporters were in the field often. When we covered Hurricane Katrina, 50 crews went. You just don’t see that now. I understand the economic model that makes stuffing a show with talking heads very worthwhile. It’s financially viable; I get it. It is boring as anything, and I don’t think it really does well for the ratings. And I think the latest ratings would prove me right on that.

So, I would say get back in the field, bring the world to viewers, and report. Go and tell stories. If you’re going to talk about poverty, bring on a congressman who will tell us about the legislation he’s working on. Talk to people about the issues and details. That’s what we try to do at Matter of Fact. If we’re talking about pharmaceuticals, we don’t talk to elected officials; we would talk to a woman who is trying to pay for insulin for her 26-year old daughter. We feature the voices of people who are experiencing things and trying to solve problems, and people who have some expertise and solutions – not pundits.  Any short to long term goals for Starfish Media Group?

Right now, we are swamped. We have four verticals, we create a lot of stories and I obviously do a lot of projects for Matter of Fact and other organizations. We do some branded content that the company itself does. We are in the middle of three or four documentaries. One is about trying to get into festivals; one, in particular, looks at hunger on college campuses, which is an amazing documentary.

There’s another one about public health, and we are also producing shows for television networks. So, it’s really, really busy. My short term goal is to make sure I’m focused, and spending time on the things I want to spend time on. When you talk about your values, do they match how you’re spending your time?  As a veteran journalist at this stage of your career, what advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

S.B.:  The key is to be curious. Figure out how the world works. Anything you want to know, just ask people, ‘How does this work?’ I was preparing for a panel discussion once, and there was a guy there who was a public defender. Just hearing his story about being a public defender and how the system works was fascinating. I did lot of stories about the system, but I still don’t know a lot of the details. It was just amazing to me when I think about the contradictions and how many interesting stories came out of it. So, I would advise aspiring journalists to be curious, and learn how to write and connect your voice to your writing.