"You get to a certain point in your career where you say I want to now cover what I want to cover," the former CNN anchor tells TheWrap
Soledad O'Brien was announced as Al Jazeera America's special correspondent on Monday, marking the fourth project for her new Starfish Media Group.
O'Brien may no longer anchor CNN's "Starting Point," but she's clearly keeping busy. In addition to Al Jazeera, she's working with CNN, HBO, and National Geographic — with several more deals coming in the near future.
With a few minutes to spare between all of those projects, O'Brien spoke to TheWrap about how Starfish Media Group is a new model in journalism, why she doesn't want to be tied down to another network, and how she won't cover Jodi Arias.
TheWrap: Al Jazeera America is now the fourth project Starfish Media Group has announced, right?
Soledad O'Brien: That is correct, we're doing HBO, we're contributing some pieces and some docs to Al Jazeera, I'm in the middle of shooting for CNN and I'm executive producing and moderating the Geography Bee for National Geographic.
The HBO "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" deal was a surprise.
You know what's so funny? It's the only sports show I watch. For me, it made a lot of sense because the writing is so good and the storytelling is so good and I really pride myself on capturing great stories. I always felt that HBO's "Real Sports" was about storytelling around interesting stories.
My first piece for them was about these guys who are MMA fighters who are vets. It's really a story about veterans struggling to overcome terrible PTSD and get their lives back to normal. The way they do it … is through sports. But it's not a look at the sport of MMA. I always felt it's not about the scores and it's not about the stats, it's about the human element that's affected by sports. Right now I'm in LA shooting another piece for HBO "Real Sports" right now, and I think it's gonna be an amazing story.
Also read: Soledad O'Brien Joins Al Jazeera America
What are you hoping to do, ultimately, with Starfish?
The goal has always been creating a new model and you take different platforms — the CNN, the HBO, the Al Jazeera, the National Geographic — and do the work that you want to do across the number of platforms, and I think the answer is yes, I think that there's a new model in journalism. Instead of just doing a bunch of different things, you can do what you do well, what you like to do. Me, I like storytelling. I like good journalism. I like getting into thoughtful stories and I can now do that across a number of platforms for a number of partners.
So when you approach networks to work with, you're focusing on telling a human story?
The focus is, first of all, do they want to be a partner? If they want exclusivity, then we can't do it. Starfish Media Group is my new company and this company does a number of things. We distribute content, I own "Black in America," I own "Latino in America," so that's part of it. We produce material so you know, we have teams that go in and produce stories. And I go and report some of those stories. So for me, number one, we ask people, if you want an exclusive deal with Soledad O'Brien, that is off the table. I do partnerships. And those partnerships have to be around the kind of work that is good journalism, smart, and good storytelling, great storytelling. And if you want that, then we should be in business together. We should be working on projects together. There's a lot of stuff that I don't want to cover. It's easy for me to say no to things now.
When did you decide to do start your own company? Why?
I started about two years ago, talking to CNN and others in my circle. How can you be your own production company? How can you just take the work that I'm working on, that I love, and do that more of that and less of the things that I don't want to do, like celebrity news or crime stories. I'm not afraid to say this is the stuff I want to do and these are the things I don't want to do. I want to do what I want to do, and I don't want to do what I don't want to do, you know?
So we had this conversation for the last two years and then when the morning show ended, it seemed like a really great time to go ahead and do what I had been planning and trying to do. And I think the timing was right. I think the timing two years ago was not right. But it's a different time in the media atmosphere.
You said a couple of months ago that you didn't have to do much promotion to get deals for Starfish Media Group; that a lot of it came to you. Is that still true?
Oh my gosh, yeah. I think people understand this new role. People who reach out to me, invariably they ask me to come and anchor for them, but it's not what I want to do at this moment. I think people understand that the new model is if you have a strong brand that stands for something, that you do good work, and you know the stories you want to tell, and they're interested in that work, then there's a partnership possibility. So, you're right. It hasn't been a tough sell.
You know what's so funny? When they announced that I was leaving CNN almost every single journalist that I talked to would say what network are you going to next? Are you going to be able to land at X? And all I could think about was I don't want to land at X. I want to create my own thing, and work with great journalists who want to do the stories that we do well. I think that people who understand what we're trying to do really get that it can be very successful.
What are the places that want to work with you looking for?
I think that they want to buy into a partnership with a known quantity. We deliver the quality of "Black in America," we deliver great writing, we deliver the quality of "Latino in America." You're going to get great journalism, we're going to dig into stories that are challenging and tough and thought-provoking. That's what I do, and now I just do it for different partners.
If you are interested in having me cover the Jodi Arias trial for you? That's probably not going to happen.
No 24/7 poop cruise coverage?
I covered Katrina, I've covered the tsunamis, all of them, the Haiti earthquake … you get to a certain point in your career where you say I want to now cover what I want to cover. So for one of our first Al Jazeera pieces for "America Tonight," we'll go back to Haiti – I go back there every year – and we'll take a look at what's working and where the money's gone?
There's a lot to do there, so I'll go in and do a couple pieces on, for all the Americans who gave a lot of money, what's happening in Haiti? And then we're going to do a great piece on the variation of the quality of public education across America. That's an amazing story.
So you've been very busy?
I'm literally simultaneously in the middle of starting those stories, I'm shooting right now in LA for HBO "Real Sports" and I just got off the phone with my "Black in America" producers. And my schedule is about 500 times better than it was. I don't have to come into the office at three in the morning and work until four in the afternoon. I'm just working on projects that I'm passionate about that I can actively contribute to.
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When you left CNN, there was a lot of talk about the network losing some of its diverse faces and bringing on several white ones.
Diversity is never about one person, ever. It's about a company's philosophy, what they believe and what they want to put on TV and how they want to serve their viewer. I think I can serve my viewers by making sure that the stories that I cover are over a wide range of topics, just like I did when I was fulltime at CNN.
I always felt like you can't really tell the story and leave out important voices. And by "important" I mean across the board, all the voices. Definitely I'm going to get a chance to continue doing that, but for a number of partners across a number of platforms, because Starfish Media Group is, I think, a real model for future media.
It's a very exciting time to start a new company and to be a CEO as I am now. I think the time is right. Media has changed, the model has changed. Look at what we would consider to be tech companies – Google, Amazon, Yahoo! – are doing. Those are media companies.
We hear so much about how journalism is dying out. Sounds like you, at least, are going strong.
We're in a shift, in a transition. And when you're up close, nose to the shift, it feels like it's going to fall apart. But when you take the bigger view, it's all just shifting. Look at Netflix — it's a distributor. It's pretty amazing.