Journalist Jessica Yellin spent years breaking news on broadcast television, most recently as the Chief White House Correspondent for CNN (among her accomplishments: interviewing multiple US presidents). Now she’s found a new audience on Instagram, where more than 130k engaged followers — including celebrities like Amy Schumer; more on that later — tune in for her short, mobile-first, direct-to-camera news updates and explainers.
Jessica often shoots her videos in her home or in on-the-go locations like LAX. Visually, the casual, selfie-style videos are more similar to the approach of digital-native creators than of traditional broadcast outlets. The break in format is intentional: Jessica believes there is a large audience, especially women, who aren’t served by the “all-outrage-all-the-time tone” that dominates so much TV.
As she kicks off the book tour for her debut novel, Savage News — a juicy, funny page-turner about a young female reporter trying to prove herself in a crazy political climate — Jessica explains the mission and heart behind her Instagram journalism.
Tell us about your Instagram strategy in your own words. What are you doing with the @jessicayellin account and who is it for?
This sounds idealistic but I got into the news business because I always thought that high quality journalism is key to our democracy. After years in TV news, I felt that we weren’t doing a good enough job of explaining what we were talking about in a way that the average person could understand. We use too much political jargon, gloss over complicated topics that need breaking down and spend way too much time on emotionally manipulative but unimportant stories, rather than topics that impact people’s lives. I believe that’s turning off big parts of the audience. I started this Instagram to test out my theory that people actually want news, not the noise, delivered to them in a different tone.
The goal each day is to report the most important news, in a way that everyone can understand (even if you’re not a news junkie) and leave the audience feeling empowered. By that I mean, they should have the confidence to talk about a topic at dinner, seek out more information on it, and ultimately act and make choices based on what they know. #Newsnotnoise is for anyone who wants substantive news from experienced sources but who doesn’t have time to read five publications or watch cable news all day. I try to be succinct and relatable without minimizing the importance of the stories I cover.
Your Instagram account has grown incredibly quickly over the last few months (@jessicayellin saw 50% growth in Q4!!). What do you credit for the incredibly fast pickup of your account?
It’s exciting and I’m really grateful for the response. I’d credit word of mouth from the community of followers. My whole career I’d been told the news is about conflict — that’s what audiences want. Not understanding. This proves that there is an audience for news in a different voice. I have been incredibly fortunate to have some superstar followers and supporters who have championed the #newsnotnoise approach, and I am so grateful to them for helping us grow. But really it’s the community of followers, who comment and tag their friends and repost and share, that have really validated the need for this kind of news and helped us grow so quickly.
You have a lot of experience in television news, at ABC and MSNBC and CNN – how is what you’re doing on Instagram informed by your experience in TV? Is what you do on Instagram different in any way? Do you feel your audience on Instagram differs in any way, and if so, how does that inform your approach?
My experience in TV news and the years I spent covering Washington gave me the training, base of knowledge and credibility that I need to do this. It’s a mistake to think that because people are getting their news on social they somehow want information from sources that aren’t credible. The platforms and delivery are evolving, but the need for experienced journalists and quality, trusted reporting has never been greater. TV also taught me how to get information out quickly. When I was first reporting from the White House I would often have to do live tosses back to the studio in 15 seconds. I used to joke that I was doing news haikus. But here I am, reporting the news on Instagram Stories, and that ability to get it all out there in just a few seconds is really helpful!
That said, I have made it a priority to do some things differently from the reporting I used to do in DC: I try not to speak in political jargon and I try to catch myself when I make an assumption about what the audience knows. What does it mean to testify in closed session? What is a redaction? How does that impact me and why should I care? The other major difference is that I get instant feedback, not from producers, but from the audience directly. That’s amazing. I love the engagement. I read the comments and see the questions and it helps me understand where I need to explain more, what topics people need more background on, etc. I still rely on my instinct and news judgment to determine what I will cover, but the audience feedback helps me understand the “how”.
You’re a masterful user of Instagram stories. We learn so much from watching your videos. How do you decide what goes on Stories vs Feed, and how do the two work together?
First, thank you. A year ago I didn’t really know how to use Instagram. So it’s been a quick learning curve. I know that success on social media is about programming specifically to the platform and using each new tool to deliver content in a way that makes the most use of the technology. What I love about Instagram is that the Stories are “right here, right now”, like the news of the day, but the Feed is there to stay. With that in mind, I think of the Feed as a place to create more evergreen content, like explainers that help break things down or do deeper dives into topics that aren’t getting the coverage they deserve. It’s a place to give people the 101 on a topic or issue, and it’s really great when we can point people back to something we have already covered in the Feed because it’s still relevant. The Stories are here today, gone tomorrow, so I focus on doing my daily reporting and analysis there, and it’s new and fresh every day.
You’ve recently started experimenting with IGTV. What’s your approach there?
What I appreciate about IGTV is the premium quality of the videos there. We have been so fortunate to grow our audience quickly over the last few months, and as we continue to grow and expand on what we can deliver, I’d like to develop a more produced version of what I currently do in Stories. My dream IGTV series would still be #newsnotnoise and it would have the same tone, but it would be longer-form with more voices. I can’t wait to have the ability to get that out.
We’ve noticed a *lot* of celebrities follow you on Instagram. From Amy Schumer to Kristen Bell to Jessica Alba to Zoe Saldana. How does having big followers affect the way you post?
I’m so grateful for the support that I’ve gotten from the celebrities that follow the account – shout out to Amy Schumer and Jessica Seinfeld who have been huge champions of what I’m trying to do and have helped us grow. What I’ve learned from having celebrity followers – at least the ones who support #NewsNotNoise – is that they are no different from the rest of the audience in what they want from news coverage. There’s a real demand for quality news delivered in a different tone – without the outrage and panic — and it resonates whether you’re famous or not.
If you had to credit one secret to your success on Instagram, what would it be?
Go with your gut. The scariest part about developing #newsnotnoise, but also the most liberating, has been the freedom to report stories that I think matter and to cover them the way I think most informs the audience. No producers, no network, no gatekeepers. I think all of us, but especially women, can have a hard time trusting our instinct – especially if you spent years inside a system that trains you to ignore it. But this experience has underscored that when you know your stuff, go with your gut. Other people will recognize the value of that.
Follow @jessicayellin on Instagram.