Understanding the Media: A Conversation with Bubba Atkinson

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Media veteran Bubba Atkinson shared industry insights and career advice with Free the Facts Ambassadors last week

Media veteran Bubba Atkinson shared industry insights and career advice with Free the Facts Ambassadors at last week's event.

Bubba Atkinson, former head of video and social media at Axios and former editor-in-chief at Independent Journal Review, joined Free the Facts last Tuesday to kick off its 2021 Master Class Series. He walked Ambassadors through his career experiences and shared some gems of wisdom about the ever-changing media landscape.

Atkinson began the conversation by explaining that his career grew from a very unconventional start. “I just had a lot of trouble getting a job as an accounting major from the College of Charleston,” Atkinson shared, “I really didn’t know what to do.”

So in 2012, he created an online blog to track his job hunt called “Bubba Finds A Job” and shared it on his social media channels.

“Suddenly,” he explained, “it went viral within my network.”

It was after seeing this blog that a colleague reached out to Atkinson with the opportunity to help build an innovative, social media-driven news platform. A few years later, this platform—which started out as a small Facebook page—grew to become Independent Journal Review (IJR), an online media outlet with millions of readers across the country. Atkinson took on the role of editor-in-chief there.

In 2016, Atkinson was recruited to help build the now-famous news outlet Axios—at the time just a fledgling startup from the creators of Politico. While there, he pioneered the “smart gravity format” that helped Axios garner the highest social media engagement rates in the news industry.

After explaining his career path, Atkinson dove into the history behind the digital media boom and explained how his ability to leverage key pieces of this new landscape contributed to his success in the industry.

“You have to learn to utilize it properly,” he said.

The most successful news agencies of the 2010s understood the sudden demand for digital content, used new data to pick up on their audience’s interests, and curated their content accordingly.

But that method of success, Atkinson said, came with certain downsides. In a metric-driven industry, there was a tendency for outlets to produce content that simply boosted their engagement rates instead of providing relevant news coverage. Atkinson noted that quality content is not always reflected in high metrics. Clickbait-style articles, for example, drove unprecedented traffic and changed the industry standard for article production during their heyday. But they were not focused on providing informative, high-quality content and experienced major drop-offs in engagement once the public caught on.

Thus, according to Atkinson, “The model of the future is not ‘bigger is better.’ It’s ‘better engagement is better.’”

Atkinson then shared some tips for successful content production. The first was a rubric that contained 3 options: Good, Cheap, and Fast.

In general, when creating digital content, “You can only pick two,” he explained. “You can’t have all three.”

Creativity can also be distilled into a simple equation, Atkinson said. If you combine Format + Risk + Access + Entertainment, you end up with a recipe for content that can captivate audiences across the Internet.

A real-life example of that equation was applied by Atkinson’s team at IJR in 2015. After Donald Trump broadcasted Senator Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number to audiences during a live primary debate, the IJR team reached out to Graham with an idea.

Taking a risk by combining their access to Senator Graham with an entertaining video format, Atkinson’s team produced a viral video where the senator destroyed his cell phone in several creative ways, including with a golf club and blender.

The video was an instant success, gaining millions of views and shares almost overnight. The risk they took in asking a presidential candidate to record such a silly video had paid off.

Atkinson wound down the Master Class Series event with a Q&A session. The event attendees, all Free the Facts Ambassadors, had several questions for him on topics ranging from professional advice to media industry insights.

During the Q&A, Atkinson had one last gem to share about creating digital content. In a highly-saturated market where news articles are a dime a dozen, he advised Free the Facts Ambassadors with an interest in media to carefully consider their future audience’s content consumption habits.

“There’s two types of consumption,” Atkinson said. “Active consumption, where the audience seeks it out to consume it, and passive consumption, where it appears right in their face and they can choose to consume it or not. Active is more valuable.”

For more professional insights, networking opportunities, and career guidance, Ambassadors can join Free the Facts tomorrow, March 31st, for its second Master Class Series event featuring New York Times bestselling author David Murray.

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