American confidence in the media continues to decline. A 2018 Knight Foundation survey found that 69 percent of U.S. adults’ trust in news media decreased in the past decade. In light of widespread cynicism toward media organizations, Tufts undergraduates Jia Wen (Covie) Goh and Daniel Lewis have dedicated the past year to changing the landscape of American media altogether.
With their startup, Podium, the pair aim to bring sought-after public figures and experts closer to their audiences through crowdsourced interviewers and concise video recordings.
“[Podium] is a platform to facilitate crowdsourced conversations,” Goh, a senior, said. “People can submit questions, and people can vote on the questions they want to get asked. That gives the power to the users to ask questions.”
Lewis, a junior majoring in political science, said that he was moved to co-found Podium in 2018 after noticing what he believed to be significant shortcomings in American media.
“The biggest thing to come out of the 2016 [presidential] election was [that] a lot of people looked at the ways in which media was consumed and saw that it was wrong,” Lewis said. “On top of that, people have looked at revenue models for media companies and seen that they don’t work.”
He added that Podium seeks to overcome increasing skepticism in the credibility of news organizations and mistrust of journalists.
“Other things that came out of this is the notion of people seeing large media organizations as sort of the ‘fake news’ media organizations,” Lewis said. “The way that we seek to alleviate some of those pressures is that you … take out the middleman, which is the journalist, and you give people direct access to some of those individuals.”
He stated that traditional interview formats, such as talk shows, leave the viewer minimally engaged with the politicians or celebrities from whom they hope to hear.
“Typically for interviews, it’s more of a one-way conversation,” he said. “Questions are asked based on who gets the mic first, or in the case of online interviews, who posted questions first. Ultimately, that gives little autonomy [to] the user to ask questions.”
Through making user-submitted questions and interviews readily available online, Lewis believes Podium can hone in on audience members’ desire to connect with influential figures who are typically out of reach.
“What people really like from video is feeling like [they’re] having a conversation with someone,” Lewis said. “When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posts an Instagram Live story of herself, it feels like she’s talking to you — more than it does when you read an article.”
Co-founder Goh, who’s double majoring in computer science and cognitive and brain sciences, concurred that he believes Podium holds a unique draw to those in front of the camera.
“In terms of the appeal for the interviewee, having a face-to-face direct link with your user base is something that is really exciting for them because it increases the intimacy of the conversation,” Goh said.
Through polls posted on Podium’s Facebook page, Lewis and Goh determine the questions that audiences seek to ask experts, then film these experts answering the most popular questions.
“[Podium’s] focus is finding: what are the questions that are most important to us? And then getting answers to those questions in an entertaining, civil and informative way,” Lewis said.
In the past few months, the pair has conducted a series of interviews with experts including professors from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Indiana University, discussing topics ranging from race and voter turnout to the United States government shutdown.
Dr. Deborah Schildkraut, a Tufts professor of political science, found her recent interview with Podium to be an improvement over experiences she has had with other media organizations.
“I think I’m not alone with other professors who feel this way,” Schildkraut said. “Sometimes we get calls to do interviews with the media — I may spend a good 20–30 minutes talking with a journalist and they might end up using one or two sentences that I gave them, or they might not use any sentences at all.”
According to Schildkraut, Podium provided a platform for her fully formed thoughts on the issue of immigration in a way that other media organizations often do not.
“That’s basically what’s nice about it … the information that I think is valuable on this topic is presented in a relatively unfiltered way,” Schildkraut said.
Schildkraut went on to commend Goh and Lewis for their composure during the interview, stating that she was impressed by their preparation and informative explanations of Podium.
“I would just reiterate how professional I thought the operation was considering how new and small they still are,” Schildkraut said. “Even before we had sat down together to do the filming, they really seemed to know how to present what they’re doing and why.”
Podium has enjoyed a wave of success in its first year, winning the Tufts University Montle Prize and taking second place at the National Association of Broadcasters PILOT competition. Despite their achievements, Goh and Lewis stated that their vision for the app remains far from realization.
“Essentially, what we see ourselves creating is a new form of communication between influencers, politicians and the larger audience,” Goh said. “We hope to widen options in terms of facilitating conversations in very different fields, be it politics, sports, whatever.”
Going forward, Lewis and Goh noted that they hope to hire a full-time web developer. They encouraged anyone interested with experience in development or design to reach out to them at email@example.com.
While they aim to develop a web prototype for Podium by the end of summer 2019, Lewis and Goh hope that the final form of Podium will be an app where interviewees can record themselves responding to user-submitted questions.
“Ultimately, what we anticipate is we would never have to go anywhere to film [the interviews],” Lewis said. “Someone could get an interview scheduled and they could just record themselves on their own phone responding to it — so instead of it taking 2 hours to go to an interview, it takes 15 minutes.”