One year ago this week, a small group of journalists launched a completely reimagined approach to covering the news. We called it The Recount. Its mission: To be the leading outlet for video journalism in today’s age of mobile, non-linear, on-demand television. We started with a single product focused on politics. We called it The Daily Recount, and we envisioned it as a “remix” of the most important news sourced from scores of outlets, from national and international broadcast news to radio to podcasts to digital and social media and more. Our promise was simple: We’ll deliver the news quickly and free of the bullshit and bad faith that was drowning out our national discourse.
Now one year old, The Daily Recount was and continues to be an extraordinary media artifact – each segment is constructed from elaborately sourced samples of sound, graphics, and video clips. It employs no narrator, no “suits on set” — instead our journalists build an entirely new product from the 24/7 barrage of batshit crazy which leaps from our tangled media ecosystem. My friend and co-founder John Heilemann calls it “hip-hop journalism” – a radical re-interpretation of a standard form, built on the beats, samples, and melodies of what’s come before.
We spent nine months perfecting what we’ve come to call the “manufacturing process” that informs The Recount’s journalism. That’s an eternity for a media start up, but we took an approach familiar to anyone who’s worked at a technology company: Hire extraordinary talent and agree on the problem you were trying to solve, then put your heads down and work the problem until you’ve got a product you’d be proud to release. By April of last year we had the core team assembled – led by the insanely talented Slade Sohmer. From April through July we made a version of The Daily Recount each and every day – and then threw it away, only to make another the next day. In late July we began to show our work to a small group of advisors and colleagues. By October that group had grown to more than 10,000 beta testers, and we felt ready to release our work into the wild.
When we launched one year ago, we knew we were onto something, but we weren’t sure how our new idea would play out. We knew asking news consumers to adopt a new habit would be difficult – and that news consumers in general had shifted their consumption habits to social platforms. And we also knew that asking marketing partners to support anything covering the country’s toxic political environment was, at best, a heavy lift. But we did have a number of firmly held principles about not only the editorial product we were making, but also the role of journalism and the media business in today’s fractured information ecosystem.
In our work, we committed to not only eliminate the bullshit so common in political coverage, but to use the impact of video to hold the powerful accountable to the truth (that’s the job of journalism, after all). In our business, we committed to rethink the core assumptions of how a media outlet produces, distributes, and gets paid for the work it does. We also knew that we’d have to be agile, that we’d make mistakes, and that we’d have to quickly adapt to survive. Thankfully, we counted Fred Wilson – the most thoughtful, patient and contrarian-minded venture capitalist I’ve had the honor to work with – as our first financial partner. And we secured Bank of America as our core launch sponsor – a partnership that has grown several fold over this past year. Were it not for the vision and commitment of both, The Recount would remain confined to a set of white board images stored in my bedroom closet, a dream imagined but unrealized.
October’s launch was covered by Vanity Fair, and in the month or two following, hundreds of thousands came by our site and app to check out our work. Initial feedback was consistently strong, but we also learned that our product was demanding – it truly was a new way to consume news. We’d developed a grammar and vocabulary that attracted hardcore fans – but a more casual mass audience would likely require spending millions of dollars, and endless months, attempting to convince people to form a new habit on our owned and operated properties. As I’ve written (extensively) elsewhere, it’s now ground truth that when it comes to national news, Facebook, Google, Apple, and others are the new gatekeepers of audience – particularly in digital video. If you want to build out your own properties, you have to pay the gatekeepers a steep rent – constantly.
This was not unexpected. I’ve spent decades studying the tectonic changes in media wrought by the rise of digital. Every five or so years, I’d jump in and start a new media or technology company that played into those changes. But when I moved to New York two years ago, my intention was to get away from company creation, and lean more into scholarship and writing. But the challenge of imagining and executing a new approach to news consumption in the two most potent media forms – video and the internet – was just too seductive. And to do it with John and Fred, two of the best in the business – who just so happened to be close friends? Irresistible.
So by late last year, The Recount had an excellent core product (and a growing set of new short form series), but it was time to crack the most intractable problem in post-platform media: Distribution. We were determined to not play the audience-arbitrage game that has bedeviled the media business these past five or so years (for more on that, see this post from this past summer). But on the occasion of our soft launch in mid-October, it was Twitter that provided us with a hint of how we’d grow – and of the role we’d play not only in the national conversation, but in the shifting power dynamics between platforms, media creators, audiences, and marketers.
The Italian translator's really in the splash zone today. pic.twitter.com/XlzZ292vDd
— The Recount (@therecount) October 16, 2019
The post above was a sophisticated, 32-second edit of a clip spotted by one of The Recount’s producers (oh hey Brennan!), all of whom were already in the habit of scouring feeds all day long, looking for just the right moments to include in the Daily Recount. I’ve come to call this process the “human algorithm” – talented, experienced journalists attuned to the news of the day, leveraging a system of machines and feeds we’ve hacked together using commercial tools like SnapStream, TVEyes, TweetDeck, and Slack.
In any case, that Italian translator video went bananas on Twitter, with more than two million views overnight. We learned something about the role we could play in the national political dialog – identifying just the perfect moments to propel and contextualize the conversation millions were having on Twitter and beyond. Rethinking the nuanced and critical role of editing, we began to test and learn, using Twitter as our preferred medium. This made sense, given the unique role the service plays in the news ecosystem – it’s a sketchpad for the first draft of history, and has a huge audience of people interested in the news.
As we leaned into creating video built for the platform, engagement soared – as did our followers. When we launched, @TheRecount had just 10,000 followers and our posts had little attention and engagement compared with larger news brands on the platform. But after a few months of experimentation with our editorial on the platform, we’d grown sevenfold, and found that our posts were being picked up by leading figures in business, entertainment, politics and media.
In March, we published a game-changing piece of journalism that proved a harbinger for the future of our distribution strategy. Produced the week the pandemic shut down offices across the U.S. (and of course, our own office in New York), the short film offered a devastating, fact-based account of how President Trump had downplayed the threat from COVID-19. Just four days after our office shut down, on March 17th, “Trump’s Coronavirus Calendar” debuted.
As Trump pivots to coronavirus crisis mode, let’s not forget the months of downplaying and denial. pic.twitter.com/gH1xZAHXm5
— The Recount (@therecount) March 17, 2020
This post not only “went viral,” it also introduced our unique brand of journalism to more than ten million new viewers – Madonna posted the video to her Instagram account, countless DC journalists quote tweeted it, pirated versions even traveled to Chinese sites like Weibo. As the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the world – and threw the US election into chaos – The Recount had, in a few short months, become an important voice in the national dialog. Oh, and right before the pandemic shut down the world, we welcomed new investors and believers into The Recount’s family – USV, Burda Ventures and Viacom/CBS led a new financing – which closed four days before we closed our offices.
The folks at Twitter had also noticed The Recount’s growing presence and engagement on their platform, and before the Calendar was posted, we’d already begun a set of conversations that led to an innovative partnership around Twitter’s Amplify product (I’ve written extensively about that here). Working once again with Bank of America – and I must shoutout BofA’s innovative head of media Lou Paskalis, who really drove this partnership – we tested a pilot early in the year, then launched a fully realized media experience on Twitter in early June. The thesis was elegant: We’d combine our quality editorial work, which had grown to explainers, ongoing series, and topical features, with Twitter’s targeted reach, providing Bank of America the best of both worlds. If it worked, it augured an innovative approach to distribution where our advertisers became true partners in our success.
While I can’t publish internal results, I can state definitively that the partnership has indeed worked. Not only has The Recount grown exponentially, performance for our marketing partners has soundly beaten industry benchmarks – sometimes by as much as 400 percent. Since launching formally in June, we’ve added four new marketing partners, and are now expanding our coverage from our base in Politics to the corridors of power in Tech, Business, and Culture. We’ve also added partnerships with Flipboard, Roku, and iHeart – including the launch of three fast-growing podcasts in the past month alone, all of which have charted in their first month.
We’ve also developed the Recount Wire, an always on clip service available on our app and site that highlights the most important moments as they happen. The Wire feeds our work across all our products and distribution outlets, including a number of new narrated series and a burgeoning Instagram effort. (You can check out more Recount products here).
Since launch one year ago, our work has been viewed more than half a billion times – and one fifth of that traffic came in the past thirty days. Our posts on Twitter, now fueled by the Wire, continue to draw unparalleled engagement. This past October 8th, for example, President Trump released an unusual video, apparently shot from the South Lawn of the White House. Trump had just come back after his COVID diagnosis and trip to Walter Reed hospital, and in his unique style, he free-associated about the impact of the virus on senior citizens. The Recount’s editors found exactly the moment that mattered in that video, posting this:
Trump speaks to senior citizens about COVID: "You're not vulnerable, but they like to say the vulnerable, but you're the least vulnerable — but for this one thing you are vulnerable." pic.twitter.com/eyZDRwur1p
— The Recount (@therecount) October 8, 2020
That same night, the president’s son was stepping in for his father, holding a packed indoor rally that sparked national concern. Again, our journalists found exactly the moment that mattered:
Donald Trump Jr. is holding a packed indoor event in Florida. pic.twitter.com/F4PpuML9j6
— The Recount (@therecount) October 8, 2020
More than ten million people watched those two clips, but more astonishing were the breadth and influence of folks who shared them. Tens of thousands commented on and/or shared the videos, including most of the White House press corps, Captain America (Chris Evans), late night host Jimmy Kimmel, the actors Don Cheadle and Kat Dennings, the wrestler Dave Bautista, and the television personality Farrah Moan, among countless others.
What’s remarkable to me, as I think about where we started one year ago, is that October 8th no longer represents an unusual day for The Recount. We’re averaging roughly three to four million views a day on Twitter alone – and our editorial voice has moved to the center of the national discourse on the platform.
All of this progress in just one short year – more than seven months of which we’ve spent working remotely. That’s an incredible way to launch a brand. We’re now well on our way to delivering on our vision of reinventing how people consume their news, and I’m so proud of what this team has accomplished. In the coming months, we’ll have plenty of announcements about how we plan to take our brand and our voice to many more platforms, with exciting new partners and editorial products (I don’t want to spoil the fun, but think OTT/streaming, communications apps, and more). But we’d be nowhere without those that got us here – so thanks to everyone – our incredible staff, our partners, our investors, and especially the folks who engage with us every day. I hope we’ve made you proud – and here’s to what we’ll do together in the years to come.