Meet the 2020 Rising Stars Awards overall winners: Nat Geo’s Rachel Brown and Media Voices’ Esther Kezia Thorpe

As the FIPP World Congress came to a close, Rachel Brown of National Geographic and Esther Kezia Thorpe of Media Voices were announced as joint overall winners of the FIPP & UPM Rising Star Awards 2020. Brown was also the winner in the Journalism category and Thorpe winner in the Business category.

Both will serve at least one year on the FIPP Board as part of their prize. Hosts James Hewes and Charlotte Ricca-Smith caught up with both winners on the final day of Congress to hear more about their work, who inspires them, and what they hope to contribute during their time on the FIPP Board.

Diligent beginnings and the importance of good mentors

Rachel Brown began by explaining her origins as someone who had always enjoyed the craft of writing. As an anthropology student in college, she began to figure out a career path, realising that her interest in oral history could combine well with writing as a way of connecting to a community and telling stories. From this, she chose to dedicate her professional efforts to journalism.

Crucially, Brown added, “I had good mentors to guide me.” A serendipitous meeting at a college dinner with National Geographic’s current editor, Susan Goldberg, led to Brown securing an assistant role at the magazine. Since then, she has worked as both a writer and an editor on the producing and the travel teams.

For Thorpe, winning the award “is a real honour”, most especially for being recognised as part of the Media Voices team which she has built and worked with for the last four years. Back in 2016, she was asked to join what was then The Media Briefing as a writer and, along with Chris Sutcliffe, she launched the company’s podcast.

When The Media Briefing closed its editorial side, and after a year of running the podcast as a side project, the pair decided to make it more serious. In 2017 the podcast was relaunched as Media Voices and Peter Houston joined the team. “We decided to do some awards. We thought: we’re speaking to all these great people in the industry, and no one is really celebrating them,” said Thorpe. The Publisher Podcast Awards were born, with their inaugural ceremony taking place just before nationwide lockdowns came into force in March.

The impact of Covid-19

There have, inevitably, been disappointments and losses wrought by the pandemic. “Seeing what’s happened to events is really gutting, because they’re such a good revenue stream for publishers. And in this case it isn’t a pre-existing industry trend that’s been accelerated, it’s just bad luck,” Thorpe said. 

For an international, travel-based brand like National Geographic, the pandemic has drastically altered the way its team covers stories. “It’s difficult to cover travel when people aren’t – and shouldn’t – travel,” Rachel Brown said. “It’s a credit to my entire team that they have been able to reposition themselves not just once, but pretty much every month as the situation shifts.”

Yet at the same time, the pandemic has created opportunities for focusing on local stories which Brown has embraced. “We’ve had strong stories about the loss of tourism and how that’s impacting communities, and also the opposite: in the US, how an increase in domestic tourism brought on by Covid-19 has affected certain places.”

Work to be proud of

The pandemic has also made space to write stories that wouldn’t necessarily have surfaced otherwise. “In my writing role, I’m most proud of a travelogue/personal essay that I wrote during the pandemic,” said Brown. “I took a four-day road trip from Washington DC (where National Geographic is based) to Tucson, reporting on that trip and speaking to local people.”

In her editing capacity, she’s proud to have been able to tell stories that she might not have been able to focus her time on before. “A few stories I reported on talk about issues such as folks of colour in national parks,” Brown added. “And there are some other stories around diversity and inclusion which I’m proud of.”

One upcoming article features Stone Mountain in Georgia, a three-acre sculpture in a picturesque area. “The photo editor helped connect me with a local writer/photographer to create that story. For me, it’s a great example of how regional stories can have national relevance.”

In general, Brown thinks it is really important to build and strengthen relationships between National Geographic and local actors. “Having quality writers who are local to their communities, who have experiences informing their expertise, enables me to pick the right person for the story and gain access to people with different perspectives,” she said. “So LGBTQ, black Americans, Latinx, and other people from different groups act as content advisors.”

This forms part of her fact-checking process, as well: “Our own colleagues act as resources for that, too, to make sure we’re representing truth in an accurate way.”

Learning from others

Both winners spoke about who inspires them in the media space and beyond. For Esther Kezia Thorpe, her work with Media Voices brings her into contact with amazing big brands like Business Insider, plus smaller brands doing innovative things on a weekly basis: “The small ones like Black Ballad really stick with me,” she said. “What they do with such a small team, such as launching membership in 2016 against all advice – it’s really inspiring. It makes me feel that if they can do it, we can do it.”

During the FIPP World Congress, at which Thorpe hosted some sessions, she has felt inspired by Claudius Senst at Business Insider, for setting a massive goal of 1bn uniques a month by 2025; and Scott Lamb, ex-Buzzfeed, who now works at Medium. “He has some interesting insights on the relationship between publishers and platforms, and what they’re trying to do at Medium with building something that works for individual creators and the publisher alike.” There’s also Connie Aluoch, a Kenyan stylist: “The way she manages multiple strands of her career and takes a nonlinear career path is really inspiring,” said Thorpe.

As a podcaster, she also listens to tonnes of memorable audio. “The Week’s podcast, for instance, I’ve listened to a lot,” she explained. “They have something called The Week Unwrapped, which goes behind the scenes of the news stories which don’t necessarily make the headlines. There’s also the FIPP Podcast, of course; Digiday; and Pugpig, which recently did a two-parter with Katie Vanneck-Smith [of Tortoise]. Outside of media, I like the In the Moment podcast, which focuses on mindfulness and mental health.”

For Rachel Brown, Rene Ebersole is a writer she keeps her eye on, for her impactful investigative and narrative stories. “I also read a lot of poetry, non-fiction etc. Reading a variety of genres has really informed my job,” explained Brown.

… And giving advice back

Finally, the winners were asked about what they would suggest to those inspired by them. Brown feels that ultimately, the most important piece of advice she can offer other young stars-in-the-making is the advice she received herself: read widely, and listen.

“It’s also important to be open to making mistakes,” she added. “This has been a year of crisis, in which I’ve really been able to see what a journalist’s work entails during this pandemic. I’ve made mistakes, some of which which cannot be corrected. But I’m at a point in my career now where I know what I don’t know, so I try to use it as a learning experience.”

She’s most excited to learn from everyone else on the FIPP Board, but would like to continue exploring how locally-informed perspectives can add to national stories. “I hope I can bring this to the Board and hear others’ perspectives on this,” Brown said.

For Thorpe, she would guide her 18-year-old self away from the notion of a straightforward work trajectory. “I know so few people with a linear career path any more, especially in the media,” she explained. “At school, you are told you go to university, then pick a career and follow it for the next 40 years. But no one’s job is secure.”

She’s instead embraced the unpredictabilities of working life: “I’ve always enjoyed keeping multiple plates spinning. It doesn’t have to be a career, it can be multiple things and that’s fine. I’d say take every opportunity to learn. There are so many people in the industry, plus studies, reports to read – whether you’re in ads or editorial, the more you can learn about your industry, the better.”

On the FIPP Board, like Brown, she hopes to continue to learn from her fellow Board members, as well as use her position to cast some limelight onto smaller publishers. “I’d like to bring forward some lessons and insights from people I speak to on the Media Voices podcast,” she said. “There are lots of small businesses that don’t get airtime, so I hope to bring some of their ideas from the wider business.”

The Rising Stars in Media Awards are possible thanks to UPM Communication Papers. Over the next few months, we’ll be conducting in-depth interviews with this year’s winners. Keep an eye on our website for more.

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