”There is fatigue…from the constant background of [political] scandal, and that makes it hard — for news consumers and producers like me,“ Pakman says
Hosting his own political talk show was almost preordained for David Pakman.
Since he was 5-years-old, when he moved to the U.S. from Argentina in the late 1980s, Pakman said he can remember his family “always talking about politics.”
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Those roots spurred him to starting “The David Pakman Show,” a left-of-center political talk show, while he was a junior at University of Massachusetts, Amherst 14 years ago. The show started as a community radio show and podcast, but soon grew to its current multi-platform status, including a busy YouTube channel with nearly 780,000 subscribers and 500 million views since it launched a decade ago. The show is also internationally syndicated, available as a podcast, and broadcast on Free Speech TV on DirecTV and Dish Network.
Pakman has become one of the better-known independent political YouTubers out there by not being bashful about his opinions, whether it’s on President Trump, the feasibility of medicare-for-all or the crowded Democratic field vying for the White House. He produces an hour-long daily show Monday through Friday (which he records, David Letterman-style, through Thursday each week), and posts to YouTube, along with smaller, bite-sized clips.
It’s a grind, especially keeping up with the news of the last few years.
“I basically don’t talk about politics outside of my show. (laughs) I just talk about other things. With friends and family, I never talk about politics,” he said. “And as much as possible, once we finish production late Thursday and until I start looking at stories for the Monday show on Sunday evening, I check social media as little as possible, I don’t watch any news, I don’t read any news. That’s sort of a proactive thing I do on an ongoing basis.”
Pakman, like many other YouTubers, experienced the site’s “adpocalypse,” or the drying up of video monetization in 2017 as a result of changes to YouTube’s automated ad-placing system. But the show is doing better than ever, he recently told TheWrap, thanks to having his show mostly funded by monthly memberships. Starting at $6 per month, members get exclusive content and commercial-free access to the show. At a time when most journalism and political commentary is still predominantly ad-driven, Pakman is adamant that if we don’t want advertisers to influence coverage, paying directly for media is a necessity.
TheWrap recently caught up with Pakman to talk about his show, what kind of approach works on YouTube, and sharing his opinion for a living.
Your YouTube channel has done remarkably well as an independent political show — what’s behind that success in your view?
From the beginning, the big thing has just been consistency. There are a lot of channels that never really get going because, even if the content is good, it’s produced unpredictably, and it’s unclear when the next video is coming. One of the things we did from the beginning is our team knows what the schedule is and the expectations are, and we produce content on that schedule. We continue to improve the production value and iterate in that way. But the audience for a decade knows to expect new clips every day. That day’s news starts publishing around 4:00 Eastern each day. Consistency has been a really big piece of [our success].
Obviously, if the content just is no good, consistency won’t do much for you. But that’s been the starting point for us — we set an expectation of when people can expect content from us.
As far as format, so many different formats succeed on YouTube, so I don’t think there’s anything really unique about that. We do an hour-a-day show and our format is to chop that up into individual clips on YouTube. But there are other successful channels doing long-form conversations, up to 3 hours,. There are political YouTubers who have success with a live stream-type events, as opposed to more produced content like we do. I don’t think that’s where the secret is [as far as formatting]. I think it’s understanding audience expectations and meeting them. It’s having the right technical resources in place. Story choice is a big part of it, of course, but I think there are a lot of ways to succeed in politics on YouTube.
Obviously there’s a lot going on in the news, including plenty of impeachment coverage. What goes into picking the stories you’re going to cover on your show?
It’s always been basically: What do I feel like talking about that day, with a sensibility for what will be interesting to my audience. I try and mix it up. We do the Trump stories, of course, but we’ll also do policy stories, [and] I’ll do longer interviews that are sometimes related to something happening in the news, and sometimes not. They may come from the science world or psychology world or someplace else.
It’s really, mostly, what am I interested in talking about? I’m interested in chess, but I know my audience doesn’t care about chess, so to some degree I do consider what is going to be interesting to my audience.
Major media outlets in our country like The New York Times and Washington Post aim for objectivity, but the industry also attracts plenty of people who, on a personal level, have a left-of-center viewpoint. In England, on the other hand, you see papers and outlets that are more open about their political leanings. Do you think our media ecosystem would be better off shifting towards that model a bit more? Where outlets are upfront about their views and how their reporting is approached?
You’re getting at a couple of really important things. One is that, whether you’re doing opinion or news reporting, there is some bias implicit in all news. But there is a difference between political bias — for example, if you have a publication claiming to just report the facts but instead leans one way or another politically. That’s one thing. But much more often the biases are a little more hidden, they’re either biases towards sensationalism, or corporate bias or advertiser-influenced bias. I operate in the opinion space, so for me it’s always been I’m not doing original reporting, I’m synthesizing reporting that’s been done and giving my opinion and perspective on it. There’s a really important place for just the closet thing as possible for reporting just the facts, because we need that to form our opinions.
I saw “we” as news consumers, but also as someone like me that is doing opinion. I’m looking all the time for sources that can just give me the facts on which I can base my opinion, so I don’t know if we’d be better off if everything just became opinion journalism. But I do think there’s a serious lack of media literacy in the United States, where people cannot distinguish between news and opinion journalism, or where people aren’t aware of the different kinds of biases that can influence reporting. That is a problem. But I do think there’s a really important place for just reporting the facts.
You’ve been doing your show both on radio and on YouTube for more than a decade. How have you changed as a host?
There’s a lot of little tweaks you make over time, and there are a lot of little things I do differently than I did before. One example is I will often start with my conclusion and then build up how I got there, rather than starting with a lead-up and ending with my conclusion. I’ve found that, often times, people better understand me if I tell them my thesis right away rather than building up to it the way you might in a different format.
There’s a lot of little things like that, over time, have changed our style.
In some ways, I’m much more careful now about the language I use to try and avoid giving the wrong impression about what I’m saying. Being misunderstood by my audience is a really common thing. If you look at my inbox, there are a lot of responses from people who are responding to positions I haven’t taken. So that continues to be a concern. I think working on expressing myself as clearly as possible is a big priority.
What have the last few years been like, in particular?
It’s a little bit of everything. Certainly, it’s exciting that the audience has grown so much in the Trump era, and we have a bigger audience than ever. That’s a great thing, and it’s been great from the audience side, from the business side, all of those things.
There is no question there is fatigue going on from the constant background of scandal and that makes it hard — for news consumers and producers like me, where we have to sift through and say, “Okay we have a limited amount of time each day. There are so many things that are big stories [that] in previous times would be 24-hour stories for many days in a row that now are barely a blip.” So there is that challenge of 1) dealing with fatigue and getting through to people that this is not normal and 2) the questions around, there are so many things to choose from, what do you choose to cover?
Do you think there’s anything that has been under-covered that you want to focus on the show?
Yes, I think the selections of judges to not just the Supreme Court but lower courts by Donald Trump is something that is going to have an effect for a really long time, and it doesn’t get nearly the coverage that would make it consistent with the impact it’s going to have on society. That has been something I’ve been talking a lot about. We hear a lot about Supreme Court justices, we hear a lot less about Appellate courts and Federal courts, and they’re actually the ones that are really impacting a lot of people’s lives and the decisions they’re making. That is an area that is increasingly filled with Trump appointees, and I don’t think that gets covered enough.
Your show, which is posted to YouTube and is also nationally syndicated on radio, is supported in large part by monthly memberships. Why do you think it’s important for news consumers to pay for their media?
My argument has always been that if you want to disconnect media from advertiser dollars, you just need to fund it directly. I’m a huge advocate of that. Whether everybody can implement it successfully depends on several factors, but I’ve been making the case for a long time [that] if we don’t like how much advertisers have power over media, then we should fund media directly so they’re not relying on advertisers.