Aneesh Raman’s resume reads like a choose-your-own-adventure tale. He trekked the globe as an international correspondent for CNN and had noteworthy experiences covering such events as the deadly 2004 tsunami in Asia and the Iraq war. In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign had such a profound effect on Raman that he took a detour to become a speechwriter for the campaign, which lead him on a new path to the Treasury, the Pentagon, and ultimately to the White House.
Eventually, he wanted to go back to working in news. The world of digital news excited him, and staying true to form, he was ready for another adventure. As he surveyed the digital news landscape, which he likens to the Wild West, he discovered the daily news and culture site OZY and got hooked. He shares, “What I love about OZY is that it’s so unique to any other offering that’s out there. And once I saw it, I knew it was something that I wanted to read every day.”
Raman chats with Mediabistro about what makes OZY so special, and shares his thoughts on the current state of digital journalism and what it might look like in 2024.
Name: Aneesh Raman
Position: Senior editor and head of PR and marketing, OZY
Resume: Started his career at CNN as an assignment editor on the international desk and went on to become an international correspondent for CNN in Southeast Asia and in the Middle East as the network’s first correspondent based there responsible for region-wide coverage, where he was notably the first Western journalist to announce Saddam Hussein’s execution. Began working on Barack Obama’s campaign as a speechwriter in 2008, went on to work as a speechwriter for the Treasury secretary in 2009, then work in strategic communications at the Pentagon, before heading to the White House to work as a presidential speechwriter. Began working at OZY at the beginning of 2014 as a senior editor and his role was expanded to the head of PR and marketing. He’s also a Council on Foreign Relations term member.
Birthday: May 27, 1979
Hometown: Wellesley, Massachusetts
Education: Bachelor’s in government, Harvard University
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: Christiane Amanpour
Best career advice received: “A TV executive told me when I was an intern to create what he called an ‘F- You Fund.’ And what he meant by that was I should start saving, so I would have enough money [in case] there was a day when I was asked to report a story that I didn’t want to report, or my job turned into something I didn’t want to do. [I could then] have the financial freedom to be able to walk away.”
Guilty pleasure: “Television. All forms of television. I can lose hours watching good television. My wife and I are religiously watching Veep. And we’re catching up on True Detective. And I’m always a sucker for ESPN’s 30 for 30. I just think they’re so well done.”
Last book read: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
Twitter handle: @AneeshRaman
You’ve had such a diverse career. How did the skills and experiences you gained from each role contribute to the next?
The way it all makes sense to me is that in every role I have had to explain complex things simply, whether it was reporting from Iraq as the war unraveled or from Iran as the nuclear dispute grew, whether it was speechwriting at the Treasury or at the White House about the economic situation. No matter the job, it was about taking a really complicated situation, finding the story and explaining it simply to as wide an audience as possible. So, yeah, I think if I thought back to the career path I’ve taken, that’s the one thing that seems to thread it all together.
You started at OZY not long after it launched, so can you describe the role that you had in building it to what it is now?
I came in, as you’d expect in any startup, with an expectation about what I would do. And that was principally that I would write pieces and do video pieces based on my background. But part of what a new hire does is figure out where they can help most in order to keep the company growing. I found that was actually in our marketing space. So soon after I joined I started helping to drive our marketing and eventually started managing all of our partnerships, [which] are a key part to OZY and to our growth. We have partnerships with [outlets] like USA Today, NPR, CNN. And now most of my job is figuring out how to get everyone aware of what we’re doing [and] to make sure that we keep growing the site.
Can you speak specifically about what has worked for OZY?
I think what’s worked is our core identity, which is to offer something that’s smarter, that’s fresher, that’s different than anything else out there. To offer something that’s about the new and the next, that’s looking forward and around the corner. One of our most popular offerings is our “Presidential Daily Brief,” which catches you up on the five most important and intriguing stories over the past 24 hours. I think what’s working for us is that we have a model that both catches you up in a smart, succinct way on the news of day, but also vaults you ahead and introduces you through these compelling profiles to people and places and trends and technologies that you’re going to want to know about before anyone else.
Another thing that I’ve been really amazed at that’s helped us grow is our partnerships. We’re pursuing what I like to think of as a reverse aggregator model. So you think of aggregators as places that have a bunch of links that take you to other sites. And they make their brands known as a place that you can come to and you click through to other places. What we’re doing is actually the reverse. We’re coming up with consistently high-quality content and then we’re using these partnerships we have with USA Today, NPR and others to take our content to audiences we think would find [it] interesting. And so people are coming to know us through our partners. And then when they come to the site, we’re finding that they’re staying and they’re coming back.
What’s some content on OZY that you’re proudest of so far?
I love this interview we did with Condoleezza Rice a few weeks ago, which really hit a broad, diverse set of areas. She talked about news of day, including hearings that were happening on the Hill about Benghazi and Russia, and then she also talked about trends she was seeing around the world. She named Vietnam as the place that she would like to go back to because she thinks the change that’s happening there is really interesting. She also talked about sports.
What I love most about the site is that on any given day you’re going to hear everything from what Condoleezza Rice thinks about Benghazi, to the $15 cup of coffee that’s worth it, to economic trends. I would say that what I’m most proud of is not a specific piece of content, but it is the daily offering that we give you on OZY. We have spent a great deal of time figuring out what are the eight to 10 stories each day that work best together and that give you the most interesting, delicious, forward-looking view of what’s happening in the world.
When you speak at conferences (whether it’s for the Asian American Journalists Association or Journalism Next), what points do you make about journalism today?
Storytelling and the ability to tell [stories] in different ways — that, to me, is everything. People should be excited about that. People should be innovating around that. I think that’s the first, most important thing for people to realize because there are a lot of people begrudging the decline in journalism — the decline in quality in journalism, the decline in standards in journalism, [and] claiming that the best of journalism is behind us. I fundamentally disagree with that. I think that the best is yet to come for news because I think we have an engaged public like never before through social media. And the ability for news to lead to action exists more now than it did before. It’s so much fun to figure this out. And there are no right answers or wrong answers right now. There are just the answers that work. And even those might stop working in a few months and then you’ve got to figure it all out anew. But [digital news] is the Wild West. And so anyone who’s hungry to innovate and who’s excited about where journalism is going, there’s no better place for you than the world of digital news.
What do you think digital journalism will look like a decade from now?
I think a decade from now you will no longer turn on your television; you’ll log on to your television. And we will each create our own networks. So you and I will have different CNNs because we will choose to watch different content in a different order at a different time of day. There will be no distinction between print and video, between television and newspapers. And so in that world where everyone is offering everything, you’re going to go towards the people that are offering the best content — the people who are telling the most powerful stories that make you rethink your own life and the world around you.
And I think that [this shift] is going to give rise to a much more engaged and active society around issues. Because right now you’ve got big media brands that talk about the same story and then that engenders a national conversation that in a trickle-down way leads often, or sometimes, to some sort of action. People are going to be coming to stories and feeling compulsion to act on their own rather than being told to [do something], and then they’re going to join others. And for the truly powerful stories and moments, that’s going to grow and grow and grow and lead to much more purposeful and powerful change ultimately.
Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.