By Mackenzie Weinger (Politico.com)
It’s one of the most talked about trends in media today: big-name journalists leaving an established outlet and setting out on their own. For Soledad O’Brien, making that move for herself has proven “phenomenal.”
O’Brien, 47, left her daily journalism gig with CNN in March 2013 and started her own production company, Starfish Media Group. Since then, O’Brien has been working on projects ranging from producing documentaries for CNN to being a special correspondent for Al Jazeera America. And she’s looking to step things up in 2014, especially in the realm of political coverage. O’Brien will do pieces for AJAM on politics and is also aiming to take advantage of her new position as a journalist who can work across different networks and platforms.
But don’t expect her to drop the contentious interview style that was the hallmark of her short-lived CNN morning show, “Starting Point,” during the 2012 election cycle. “I enjoy doing aggressive interviews,” O’Brien told POLITICO.
“I’m doing interviews like someone who doesn’t cover politics,” O’Brien said. “I like interviewing like a voter, you know? There are certain questions that I, like any voter, would like answers to. I would like people to stop BS-ing and actually give the truthful answer about a certain thing. And that, to me, is the most fun about doing political interviewing, to be able to do them but not be of Washington, D.C.”
With the midterm elections and 2016 on the horizon, O’Brien said she is also looking at the question of whether there is space in the media sphere for more political interviews of that ilk — she throws out the possibility of “a political talk show,” for example.
“The thing I love about political interviews is, if you’re really prepared, you can make great headway because these are the people for whom, theoretically at least, the buck stops,” she said. “So they should be able to answer the question.”
O’Brien said the one thing she has relished the most about going solo is building her own media company. And the cancellation of her show came at a great time for her new business model to thrive, she said.
“It’s been phenomenal, we’re incredibly busy and we’ve been in lots of conversations, and we just have a lot going on. It’s been very exciting and very different for me. The most exciting thing, and the most challenging thing, is really launching a company,” O’Brien said. “But the timing seems very right. There’s so many different networks looking for content, and the conversations that I have are, ‘If you’re looking for someone to be exclusive to you, then I’m probably not, my production company is not who you should work with. But if you’re looking for what we do well, then we can absolutely talk.’”
As O’Brien puts it, the company’s “big, overarching theme is multiplatform,” producing a variety of content for different networks and companies. And that’s exactly what O’Brien’s career approach has been since departing the morning show grind: She is a special correspondent for Al Jazeera America, reports for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” will co-teach a course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and this year is also taking over hosting duties for the National Geographic Bee from Alex Trebek.
And over the next year and a half, O’Brien and Starfish will work on a theatrical movie release, a made-for-TV movie of the week and three documentaries for Al Jazeera America and three for CNN, including the next documentary in the “Black in America” series. There are also deals in place with National Geographic and HBO for content and plans to write for Latina and Essence magazines, and the company is also “in conversations” with PBS, O’Brien said.
More recently, her two-part report on education for AJAM aired Monday as part of the cable network’s weeklong “Getting Schooled” series. Her part of the project offered a “look at public education and its fairness,” she said, and documented the parents who attempt to sneak their children into school districts where they are not permitted to register.
As for her next projects, O’Brien said she just spent time in Seattle digging into the issue of African-Americans involved in coding and the tech sector, and her company will also do “a lot of our work this year” on the issue of income inequality.
“Really, what’s under everything, right, is this fear that people are unable to realize the American dream,” she said. “That the middle class, because of the exportation of manufacturing, is disappearing, and people aren’t really able to make the leap from being working class or poor into middle class and being upper-middle class. I think that’s really changing the sense of what America can be for a whole group of people. You have this wide gap that’s almost impossible to figure out how to leap across. I think that’s kind of the underlying story under a lot of these political debates, frankly.”
In the time since CNN canceled “Starting Point” — she said she has not watched the replacement, “New Day,” and instead spends mornings sleeping in and then taking her four children to school — O’Brien’s career path could offer a blueprint for other well-known journalists who are looking to build something ambitious without being tied to a single media organization.
“There are so many platforms now that are very interested in creating content,” O’Brien said. “And for journalists, if you want to bring journalistic credibility and really operate — I mean, for any doc that I do, I have editorial control, that is a thing that I just never capitulate — if you can have those conversations where you can totally bring what you do well and keep control of what you do well, you’re in pretty good shape.”
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