News veteran Jessica Yellin is changing the landscape of hard-hitting news coverage, and is doing so deliberately. Our Founder and Editor in Chief, Amanda Carter Gomes, chatted with Yellin about her intentional delivery of current events and its importance in today's media, and also about her newly published fiction novel, Savage News.
Late last summer I started following Jessica Yellin on Instagram. The former CNN Chief White House Correspondent had launched her account with the sole purpose of distilling and reporting current events. Yellin's now popular hashtag #NewsNotNoise was music to my overwhelmed and overloaded ears, and her daily updates on the current news events of the day were calm, clear and concise; a refreshing change from the panic-inducing media of late, and a well-researched move on her part. Yellin knew many Americans were feeling like me: either hopeless and overwhelmed by the current news landscape or head-in-sand disengaged. So she offered an intelligent and informed remedy, and in her words, "...an on-ramp for people who aren’t watching the news and a distilling center for people who are watching so much news they are overwhelmed."
Yesterday Yellin launched her first book Savage News, a fiction novel. The book follows the journey of a young female journalist, not unlike Yellin — though she says the character is not her, but an "amalgam...there is a lot of me in her" — trying to make it in journalism. However, unlike the political book releases of late, Savage News is fiction and a lighter fare highlighting the humor that often happens in the newsroom. As Yellin describes, "You get through the intense adrenaline rushes and the non-stop hours by laughing..it’s such a fun bonding experience with the people on your team in the news."
I spoke with Yellin about her book writing process, the benefits and risks of mid-life career pivots, her tools for sanely consuming current events, and even the 2020 election. Prepare to be informed.
You spent years in mainstream media, launched and maintain #NewsNotNoise on Instagram, and just recently released your first fiction novel, Savage News. How did this all come to be?
I always wanted to write a novel. When I was a little kid and you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would say a writer. I never thought I would be a journalist. So when I left, I said well, I’ve got to write a book. And then I decided to write what I know.
It turns out, it is much harder to write a novel than I imagined. I don’t know what I imagined, but I definitely didn’t imagine what it is actually like. The writing part is really fun. The hard part for me is learning the structure and the pacing of a project that long. It ends up there are these certain conventions and you have to learn how to work that into the material you have.
One of the things that would happen is, I started to work with an editor and wanted to write something that was pretty real, and they would say that doesn’t seem plausible, and I would respond with no, that happens all the time.
How did the book writing process differ from hard-hitting journalism?
There is a limited set of options in journalism, it’s the facts you gather and what you know to be true and you figure out how to do that in a minute and forty-five. But when you are writing a novel its just limitless possibility and sometimes you know they call it the tyranny of choice — it can be overwhelming.
So there were some days I ended up talking to people saying well, it can do this or it can do that, what do you think? I am so used to talking to people inside a newsroom where you have conversations. For me, that’s what I enjoy most about the process, where you have engagement with someone else, and then you can go off and be private and work and think. I like that engagement with other people in the work process. You don’t get that as much when you are writing a novel.
Tell us about the story you created in Savage News. What was your inspiration?
I wanted to write a fun story about a reporter who just wants to get the story. For me, that’s the best part of the news: to be on the adventure. Finding the story, identifying it, figuring out how to tell it, working with your team to get it out there — I really wanted to celebrate that in the novel and have fun with it.
The novel for me was really trying to find the comedy in news. I think a lot of the content you get in Hollywood about the news is super earnest, intense, and serious. And that is a big piece of news, but its not all serious. And so much of what we do in the newsroom is a comedy, things that go wrong and so many absurdities. You get through the intense adrenaline rushes and the non-stop hours by laughing because there is so much to laugh about and it’s such a fun bonding experience with the people on your news team. That is to me one of the best parts of being in journalism. I really wanted to memorialize that in the book — and I don’t think you see that in public depictions.
There are many parallels between the book and your professional career. Was that intentional?
The character is an amalgam, so obviously she is inspired by some of what I experienced. It’s also a lot of stories that I heard, or saw, or had known in the industry or watched with my friends, so it’s all a composite. In terms of what she’s like, I had the same experience that it was important to me to be precise and to do the work, so we share that in common. I take things to heart the way she does, though I am not her – but there’s a lot of me in her.
I want to tell people that it’s a fun book, it’s a fun read. It’s funny, I wrote about a missing first lady, a reality TV star, politics, intrigue, sex, workplace drama — and it’s not a Trump administration tell-all. It’s about what it’s like to be a driven young woman trying to make it in journalism.
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You have challenged and changed the traditional news landscape. Why did you think Instagram would be the ideal social platform for #NewsNotNoise?
I was doing research and found out that there is a huge audience that is turned off by the news, they are disgusted by the negativity, but they still want information. So I was trying to figure out how to make content news in a way that captures and holds attention but also is substantive and without some of the high-octane outrage you get from a lot of the other sources.
I started with this idea of doing calm news, or news without a panic attack, and people just said to me that’s not going to get an audience, people don’t want that, so I started doing the Instagram almost to see for myself. What would that look like, how would it sound, what would I do? So it was more a test for me. I definitely did not anticipate this, and then it took on a life of its own.
To me the most gratifying part is when I get people who say I stopped watching the news, but I can watch this. My goal is to create an on-ramp for people who aren’t watching the news and a distilling center for people who are watching so much news they are overwhelmed, to turn down the volume and help people find a signal from the noise. It’s not your job to watch the news all day and figure out what’s the most important story. You have a real life, and a lot of people have kids and jobs to juggle and manage, but they want to be informed.
It’s my job to decipher the news so I can tell you here’s what matters, here’s what you need to know and why, and make it clean. And then that gives you permission to turn off the notifications, not check Twitter so obsessively, to go about your day and still be informed. I think one of the challenges of our environment is so much information coming at us is overwhelming. The danger is getting too amped up over everything or tuning it all out.
What are your personal news sources?
I am on a roving, all-day news intake. Part of it is talking to people too, as I still have people who are former sources, friends in journalism, people who are in the political world and policy minds, so I have places to go and call and talk and figure things out. But I also think of my role as watching the media landscape and helping an audience that isn’t as steeped in it decide where to spend their time.
I really do try to take in a fair amount of media every day or engage with other people who are so they can point stuff out to me. And now the audience does it too, and I’m always grateful when I get DMs and the audience telling me hey, did you see this or here’s a great news source. Or did you know this is happening? I love that.
How can we apply your approach and tools to determine what is news versus what is noise?
People are hungry for information that is information based. The advice I give people is follow the reporters you respect and follow the people they direct you to. Part of this is just being media literate and being mindful that opinion sources are opinion sources, and that doesn’t mean their illegitimate. They still have really valuable information. You just have to keep in mind what their point of view is and distill for it. I think that this whole notion that we can’t engage with opinion journalism because it’s too biased is unnecessarily distracting.
The important thing is to know when you are reading opinion journalism is that it has a point of view, and be mindful of that. Because the truth is, everything has a point of view. We are humans, so we make judgements. There is no such thing as pure objectivity, and I do think major news organizations are fact-based and they are trying to give you the news as real as they find it. There’s a lot of packaging around it that drums up your emotions. That’s what I am trying to get away from, so to the extent that you are watching the news and it’s hour one and you're feeling panicked, remind yourself I don’t feel good, this isn’t making me feel good, so I’m going to put this down for a minute.
As for the current political landscape, there is already a lot happening with eyes on the democratic bid in 2020. Do you think there are more women running because of what happened in 2016 election, or because what has happened since the 2016 election?
First, one of the lessons from 2016 is the candidates do better with a little competition. It’s going be a crowded field, but it's too early to freak out about it. With regards to women running, I think probably both. Hillary made it possible and the world changed after her run. And so I think a lot more women were emboldened to say yes, I want to do it and I am going to do it.
You've certainly found success with your book, newsletter, and Instagram platform, so what's next?
I am turning this into a business and am figuring out what that looks like. I have proven on Instagram that there is a market for calm news without panic. And, there’s obvious interest in journalism and there’s a desire by other journalist to do that as well. So, we are in this still-evolving phase of digital media where the business is going through the motions trying to figure out what that looks like and what’s next, and I am in the process as the industry is changing. I have to figure out where in the landscape this ends up.
I will tell you the one thing: It’s never easy, you have to figure it out. But my whole philosophy is, there's a choice to stay safe, but there’s also something else you know is out there for you. So you can try and live in a space where you are not reaching for it, or (you can) reach for the thing that you believe and trust you will find the way to make it all work.