“We’re in the Business of Stopping Thumbs”: NowThis News and the Politics of Social Video
Politicians, like actors, often look smaller in person. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman and current Presidential candidate, has the opposite effect. On the Tuesday after Labor Day, he settled his long frame atop a raised plastic chair in a soundproof studio in the offices of NowThis News, a digital-video company in New York City. A dozen lights were pointed at his face, while three producers adjusted cameras mounted on tripods. Two O’Rourke aides were in the room, too, one of them busy on her phone. The studio’s door was shut, and the air inside was getting warmer. “I used to work near here,” O’Rourke said, as he figured out where to rest his hands. The corner of Broadway and Prince Streets was eleven stories below. In the nineteen-nineties, when O’Rourke lived in New York, he worked for an art-moving company in the neighborhood. The producers checked their levels. Somebody snapped a clapperboard. O’Rourke recalled the name of the firm. “Hedley’s Humpers,” he said.
It was O’Rourke’s first visit to NowThis, but the people in the studio had a hand—arguably a crucial one—in making his run for President possible. A year earlier, when O’Rourke was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Texas, NowThis published a video of him at a campaign event in Houston. Someone in the audience had asked O’Rourke about his views on the N.F.L. players who were kneeling during the national anthem. “I kind of wanted to know how you personally felt about how disrespectful it is,” the questioner said. O’Rourke genially rejected the questioner’s premise. “Thanks for a great question,” he said. For the next three minutes, O’Rourke—searching, earnest, his index finger waving in the air—gave an impromptu speech on the history of the civil-rights movement, the failure of government leaders to prevent or address police violence against African-Americans, and why he supported what the N.F.L. players were doing to call attention to the issue. “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, or any place,” O’Rourke said. The video was, to many liberals, the defense they wanted to hear in response to criticism of the players from Donald Trump and other conservatives. It soon racked up tens of millions of views, and elevated O’Rourke from a promising red-state upstart to a national Democratic figure. Four days after NowThis released its video, Texas Monthly published an article titled “Will Beto O’Rourke Become President?”
The O’Rourke video was an example of what NowThis calls “social video”—found footage, often no more than a few minutes long, recut for maximum “shareability” on social media. (“Stories that move” is the company motto.) Lately, though, NowThis has devoted more resources to in-house productions, with a particular focus on politics. Since the spring, it has been working on a series called “20 Questions for 2020,” interviewing the Democratic candidates for President. O’Rourke was the twentieth Democrat to visit the NowThis studio. The results haven’t been snappy viral hits but chatty, ten-minute-long sit-downs, big on familiarity and comic relief. Bernie Sanders was asked, “What is something that people get wrong about you?” He answered, “They think I’m grumpy all of the time, and I’m only grumpy most of the time.” Kamala Harris was asked, “What do you say to critics of your program punishing parents if their kids missed school?” She answered, “We improved attendance rates by over thirty per cent, and there is no question in my mind that that had a direct impact on those children and those families in a positive way.” Julian Castro was asked, “What was your first paying job?” He answered, “A stock boy at Pep Boys.”
Last August, NowThis’s political director, Nico Pitney, had been the one who found the N.F.L.-players video, on a Facebook page managed by O’Rourke fans in Houston. O’Rourke had made live-streaming video a signature part of his campaign strategy, providing NowThis with plenty of potential content. “We saw, watching him, that he was so authentic, that he was going to be a really uniquely powerful candidate in video form,” Pitney said. “And the N.F.L.-kneeling stuff was so core to our audience.” Pitney and his team got permission from the woman who shot the video to repost it under the NowThis banner. They made some minor edits and added a backing track of swelling strings and some introductory text cards. “This Texas rep was asked if he agreed with N.F.L. players taking a knee,” the cards said. “His answer was perfect.” Now, in the studio with O’Rourke, Pitney was about to start the twenty-questions interview. He directed the candidate’s gaze toward the middle camera. “You can look right in here,” he said, “for all the answers.”
NowThis News says that it attracts around two and a half billion views a month across all of its platforms. It has fifteen million followers on its main Facebook page and two and a half million on Twitter. In addition to politics, the “channels” on its Web site include topics such as entertainment, food, money, “her,” and “weed.” Its videos are regularly shared—earnestly by major figures on the left, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and caustically by conservatives, who hold them up as examples of an incompatible world view. Like many Internet shops with large audiences, the company spends its time thinking more about volume than virality. On a recent weekday, the company posted about twenty videos on its main Facebook page. A twenty-seven-minute clip, titled “House Gun Prevention Task Force Holds Forum on Impact of Gun Violence on Children,” got about sixty thousand views, while a minute-and-twenty-four-second clip titled “Moody Elementary School Surprises ‘Superhero’ Janitor with Party on National Custodians Appreciation Day”—which NowThis first produced last October and has reposted several times since—has attracted forty-seven million views. “We’re moving very fast,” Pitney told me. “You are not living and dying on the success of one piece. You sort of put them out in the world, and things happen.”
A hundred and thirty people work in NowThis’s Soho office, a sprawling loft with three soundproofed, state-of-the-art studios; an open, startup layout; and bright hardwood floors in the common areas. In the kitchen, there’s cold brew on tap, and, on the days I visited, several people were walking around with dogs on leashes. According to a Nielsen study that NowThis commissioned earlier this year, the company’s videos reach seventy per cent of all twentysomethings in the U.S. every month. The staff is young, too. When I asked one of the producers in the room with O’Rourke how old she was, she declined to offer a number, saying that she preferred to be judged on her “record.” “It’s a newsroom of young people covering topics that matter to them,” Athan Stephanopoulos, NowThis’s president, told me. He compares the Nielsen numbers with the reach achieved by MTV in the nineteen-eighties. There is a different kind of relationship involved, though. Tina Exarhos, the company’s chief content officer and a former MTV executive, told me, “In a scrolling economy, we’re in the business of stopping thumbs.”
When NowThis was founded, in 2012, the media industry was thinking a lot about online video and Facebook. Web sites had disrupted print, and then social networks had disrupted Web sites. People, especially young people, were using their computers less and their phones more. Video seemed like the next thing, or a potential next thing, bringing with it a promise of higher ad rates and a cut of the action that Facebook and other social-media companies had been riding to astronomical profits. Nobody seemed to know how the shift to mobile would affect the kind of content people consume, but no one wanted to miss out on the future, either, even if it was a bleak one. In 2014, for instance, NBC invested in NowThis, with the Times reporting that the company would help the network “produce short videos as brief as six seconds.” Ken Lerer, NowThis’s principal founder, had been Arianna Huffington’s partner when she started the Huffington Post; then he backed Jonah Peretti at BuzzFeed. “The idea behind NowThis News,” Lerer told me recently, “was do to video what the Huffington Post did to print.”
We were sitting by the pool behind the waterside home that he owns in Miami. Lerer, who, at sixty-seven, has the hair and some of the self-assuredness of an aging rocker, got his start in New York politics and media but made his fortune in business. His venture-capital firm, Lerer Hippeau, has invested in hundreds of startups in media, consumer goods, and tech, including Allbirds, Warby Parker, Casper, Food52, and Axios. NowThis was launched with several million dollars in funding and initially staffed with veterans of CNN, the Washington Post, and ABC News. “We failed for two and half years,” Lerer said. The company didn’t find real traction, he added, until the keys were turned over to younger, rawer employees. The day he found out that someone working at NowThis had sold salsa in a prior job, he thought, “We might actually get somewhere!” Lerer recruited Pitney, who was then an executive editor at the Huffington Post, to lead the politics team. “He said, ‘I know nothing about video,’ ” Lerer recalled. “I said, ‘You don’t need to know anything. There’s people who know how to produce videos. Here’s what you do: make believe you’re at Huffington Post. Write the headline.’ ”
NowThis News has followed politics from the start, but the political coverage it’s now known for began to take shape in the lead-up to the 2016 election. “One of the candidates that we got early access to was Bernie Sanders,” Stephanopoulos said. “Maybe because he was an unknown candidate at the time. But a lot of what he was talking about just really resonated with our audience. And it was a reminder that our audience is young and progressive.” On a number of topics—guns, race, climate change—NowThis noticed that, if they made the videos, people would respond and share them on their feeds. “They were using it to express what they felt,” Stephanopoulos said. “They were using it as a proxy for their belief system.”
Politicians took notice, too. Toward the end of the Obama Administration, NowThis sat down for interviews with both Obama and Joe Biden. “We didn’t spend a lot of time trying to create a viral moment,” Eric Schultz, a deputy press secretary in the Obama White House, told me. “Because the President, by the nature of who he is, and the White House, by the nature of what it is, gets a lot of eyeballs.” What NowThis offered, Schultz said, was an audience “different than the people who are religiously clicking on CNN and the New York Times.” When Biden spoke to NowThis, on the day that Obama announced a suite of executive actions on guns, he said, “You are the audience. You are the people in this country that are responsible for the cultural changes that take place.”
In 2018, insurgent Democrats felt similarly. Ocasio-Cortez sat down for an interview with NowThis a few weeks before her upset victory against Joe Crowley, in the Democratic primary in New York’s Fourteenth Congressional District. During her own run against an entrenched incumbent in the Democratic primary, in Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District, Ayanna Pressley and her campaign saw NowThis as a way to reach untapped voters. “NowThis represents a powerful medium for reaching and engaging young people and empowering them to take a stakehold in their community and in their government,” Pressley told me.
NowThis spent much of its early years thinking about Facebook, and how to hold people’s attention in their News Feeds with the first three seconds of a video. “Audio agnostic content”—i.e., subtitled videos—were a breakthrough, because people could watch them without headphones, on the subway, at the airport, or with their partner asleep on the next pillow. But Facebook eventually made changes that cut into the audiences that were available to social publishers. For some, like Mic, which also eyed a younger audience, this meant doom. NowThis has tried to adjust by diversifying its output. The company spent a long time thinking mostly about building its audience, Exarhos told me. “And then it was, like, ‘O.K., now we have to build the brand.’ ”
Longer videos are part of this shift. In the company’s “Who Is” series, celebrities narrate videos about officials in the Trump Administration. NowThis has been experimenting with daily news-digest videos, and with opinion videos, where staff or outside contributors make arguments about everything from pronouns to climate change. The company is thinking more about its stand-alone Web site and YouTube, and recently got into e-mail newsletters. The “20 Questions for 2020” series has generated ten million views—a fraction of what a short, teary clip about a janitor can garner, but NowThis is encouraged by how the series has performed on YouTube. Longer videos keep people around more and do better in their “second window,” meaning that two days after they’re published, people are still watching them. “We’ve established a larger audience across multiple platforms,” Exarhos said. “The early part of our history was fish where the fish are. There’s fish everywhere now.”
In 2016, NowThis became part of Group Nine Media, along with four other Web sites: Thrillist, The Dodo, Seeker, and SourceFed, which shut down the following year. Discovery Communications invested a hundred million dollars. Lerer’s son, Ben, is Group Nine’s C.E.O. Lerer’s daughter, Izzie, founded and runs The Dodo, which covers animals and animal news. Together, Group Nine bills itself as the “the #1 video publisher on mobile in the U.S.” When I asked NowThis about profits, everyone demurred. “We sit under a holding company, under Group Nine,” Stephanopoulos said. “There’s a lot of constructs that exist around that, with the investment that we’ve taken from Discovery, and how we fit as one of four brands inside of a portfolio company. What we can say on the record is that our growth, both in terms of audience and revenue, is up and to the right. It’s the direction you want to see it going.”
Total views, from NowThis’s perspective, are a “vanity metric.” The company makes money, Stephanopoulos said, three ways: producing branded content, selling ads, and looking for licensing deals for its content. The bet, Lerer told me, had been that digital distribution would replace old-fashioned “linear” distribution of video, and that money would follow the eyeballs. “Are we twelve months behind where I thought we might be?” he said. “Yes. But that’s because Facebook and Google are pigs.” But the shift was still coming. It was a question of being able to wait it out. “It’s obvious,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”
In the studio, O’Rourke was answering questions. Pitney, who has a quiet, gentle manner, asked him about his old band Foss and his most controversial pop-culture opinions. (He never got into “Breaking Bad,” he said.) Then Pitney asked for something big that he had changed his mind about. O’Rourke talked about his views on gun laws, of how he used to think it would be O.K. to let current gun owners keep the assault weapons that they’d already purchased. That changed in August, after the El Paso shooting, in which a gunman shot and killed twenty-two people at a Walmart, in response to the illusionary Hispanic “invasion” of the U.S. that Donald Trump has been fearmongering about for years. “Though it is very tough politically to say, and would be very tough to implement, I think buying those weapons back, getting them off the streets, is fundamental,” he said. O’Rourke then answered questions that led him to discuss climate change, his relationship with his wife, Amy, and instances when he’d witnessed discrimination.
Pitney brought up the N.F.L. video. “You were catapulted onto the national stage by this viral campaign moment,” he said. “How have you dealt with the expectations from that?”
“I just spoke my mind,” O’Rourke said. He added that, at the time, some of his campaign staff hadn’t been thrilled with his answer. “It may have seemed to them like a distraction, or something that was going to make it harder for us to win in what had been thought to be a very red state.” The lesson that O’Rourke had learned from the video is that there is power in being honest, speaking your mind, and providing context. “If it furthered that conversation, nationally, then I’m happy for that,” he said. The excitement that the NowThis video had generated has proved hard to maintain for O’Rourke. The 2020 campaign, so far, has been more about old-fashioned political skills—coalition-building, policy articulation, fund-raising—than viral moments.
The interview moved on to drug policy, money in politics, whether O’Rourke would regret not running for the Senate again if Democrats don’t retake the chamber in 2020 (“No”), and health care. “What actor should play you in your bio-pic?” Pitney asked. “Cory Booker,” O’Rourke said, without hesitation. The room laughed. After forty minutes, the interview was over.
“We’d like to get a video portrait,” Pitney said at the very end. “So, if you could just look into the camera, a neutral expression, and then let a smile come to your face.”
“All right,” O’Rourke said. “Neutral.”