Nerd Paradise: The Joy of Being Your Internet News Sherpa

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An interview with Slade Sohmer, Editor-in-Chief of HyperVocal.com

by Laura Glascott, Manager, Media Services

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HyperVocal.com is a next-generation news portal launched by the ex-CNN duo Lee Brenner and Slade Sohmer—two guys with a boatload of news and media experience and the cojones that come with it.

In addition to being HyperVocal’s Editor-in-Chief, Sohmer is the founder of award-winning music blog Hidden Track, and served as executive producer for Lou Dobbs’ talk radio show for a number of years. I had the pleasure of interviewing Sohmer, one of the newest members of our Voices program, who shares his thoughts on being an independent content creator, what makes for good content, and where curating the news and passion media intersect.

SAY: So you’ve done a lot of this media stuff—TV, radio, and journalism—would you say that your passion is… media-in-general? What exactly is it about media, news and information-sharing that gets you fired up?

Slade Sohmer: My passion lies more with "stories" than "media." I love a good story…. It's all about how we decide to advance the narrative. I can get just as fired up about a local human interest story as I do about national politics and the issues that matter, and judging from our best-performing posts, I think most people feel the same way. A good article from the New York Times or a well-produced segment on CNN still makes the world go 'round, but there's nothing more amazing than watching a story go from some guy's blog or Twitter to a small website to a bigger news aggregator to a traditional news outlet. It's a pleasure to play in the increasingly meritocratic news business. The best story always wins.

SAY: What was the impetus for starting HyperVocal? Does it inhabit the place you thought it would, in the landscape of news online?

Sohmer: How often are you asked, “Where do you get your news from?”… An unconvincing “well, lots of places" seems to be the overwhelming response among the so-called Facebook Generation (or Generation Wi-Fi). So my partner Lee Brenner, an ex-CNN and MySpace guy, approached me about collaborating on a next-generation news portal and commentary network, and we came up with HyperVocal, specifically for and by our generation. The World Wide Web’s a big place, and sometimes people need Internet Sherpas to curate the vital and viral while adding their own stuff. We went live on October 12, 2010, and the response we’ve gotten so far has been immense. We don't yet inhabit the place I want to be, but we're getting there, and our growth has been well ahead of expectations.

SAY: How do you decide what news to cover?

Sohmer: It's a delicate balance between what I think our audience wants to read, what I think they *might* want to read, and what I think they need to read. The first step in the process is taking in as much information as possible -- what's already hot in the worlds of politics, entertainment, sports, offbeat police blotters, etc. Then we carefully start to lay it all out piece by piece. This may sound vague, but I'll cover anything on any topic that starts a provocative discussion, continues an important debate, evokes sympathy or outrage, stokes fear, or elates readers. If it meets any of those criteria, it's a good story.

SAY: Knowing that they are two totally different enterprises, I still want to ask: What was different about starting Hidden Track vs. HyperVocal? Did your experience launching your first site inform the way you approached the launch of the second?

Sohmer: The biggest difference is that I started the Hidden Track music blog as a side project, something to get me into concerts for free and a place where I could make dumb jokes about bands. Along the way my old partner Scott Bernstein turned it into a legit music site, and it's won some nice awards. But that was all for fun, for a goof, even. HyperVocal is my dream job. It's staring at the world all day long and seeing which chess pieces move, and how they move. Whereas Hidden Track was very concentrated, HyperVocal requires me to pay attention to everything in every field. I'm not often successful, but I try to be knowledgeable about as many news stories as possible as they're happening. And if I don't know what it's all about, I do some research and teach myself the history. It's nerd paradise. Francis Bacon once said "Knowing is half the battle," and this job requires me to know as much about the world as possible. Wait, hang on. GI Joe said that.

SAY: You spent a number of years working with Lou Dobbs, some of which as executive producer of his talk radio show. That sounds like kind of a big deal. What did you learn from the glamorous world of television news about creating good content?

Sohmer: I'd say I learned more about the danger of expressing unpopular opinions than I learned about creating content. Our audience is much different than that of CNN or the talk show I produced for Lou, and what this audience responds to in terms of content is far different than what older TV and radio audiences respond to. What isn't different -- in fact, what's exactly the same, if not even more magnified -- is that any time you put yourself out there you'll have detractors. Lou obviously had some controversial opinions. He knew it, and he dealt with the criticism. But my takeaway was that I'd hate to stoke *that* kind of visceral reaction in people. So I try not to say outlandish things just to get attention -- if I believe in something that I know will stoke resentment, I'll back it up with as much data and research as I have available so that I can defend it rationally and not just say, "This is something I believe, take it or leave it."

SAY: Who influences you?

Sohmer: I'm more influenced by my friends and my Internet acquaintances than anyone else. It's why Facebook will one day destroy Google when they take over the search market. When a friend recommends a story or a link to me, that's 100x more powerful than anyone else out there. But outside of that, I love great aggregators. His politics disgust me, but Matt Drudge is still the best game in town. I really enjoy The Daily What, some of the Gawker properties, the Reddit culture/subculture, Fark.com. That's all business, though. On a personal level, it's all friends, acquaintances and family (I discuss literature and pop culture with my mom; my college friends and I still have a book club, and I'll click any link sent out by a member of my fantasy baseball league).

SAY: Who would you say are your favorite content creators?

Sohmer: I'd have to break that down to online and offline. Offline, I absolutely adore the novels of David Mitchell and Michael Chabon. Salinger's non-Catcher work also rules, but he's dead. I love David Simon (The Wire), David Milch (Deadwood), Aaron Sorkin, Mitchell Hurwitz (Arrested Development). I really enjoy John Heileman of NY Magazine. Love me some Conan. And probably my absolute favorite content creator in the universe these days is Ira Glass and the This American Life team. Media does not get better. Online, I go back and forth on Glenn Greenwald, but he's obviously brilliant. Christopher Hitchens, too. They make me think. I like the Gawker folks for nothing other than they make me laugh (same goes for its Deadspin property). I read everything by Luke Winn at Sports Illustrated -- talk about someone under 35 who just gets it. There's a guy named @pourmecoffee on Twitter who I'd consider a content creator. His tweets are absurdly funny. I'm probably leaving out about 100 people I read on a daily basis who deserved to be mentioned.

SAY: You’re a music guy: Rolling Stones or Beatles?

Sohmer: Toughest question ever asked. I'll take the Beatles in a Sandy Koufaxian way -- what they managed to do in such a short time period is literally unparalleled. But gimme some Stones' Exile on Main Street or Sticky Fingers and I'm happy.

SAY [really, just Laura]: Koufaxian?!?! You're dead to me.