As well as curating the best newsletters, we want to showcase the publishers and get inside the mind of the individuals who do the painstaking work week-in week-out. And celebrate those who bring the hell-yeah back to your inbox.
For issue 1, I caught up with Cleo Abram, the up-and-coming writer behind The Short Version, the newsletter that gives you balanced arguments from both sides covering most topical issues that affect us all, every week.
Every now and then, you’re lucky enough to witness the early stages of a project that’s just taking root, something you know has the potential to have a massive long-term impact.
I believe this is one of them.
Tell me about you. Where are you? Where did you grow up?
I believe any major issue can be explained in a way we can all understand. That’s the simplest way to summarize what I do!
On weekdays, you can find me working in political strategy at Precision, a firm that sprung out of President Obama’s 2012 campaign.
On weeknights, I write The Short Version, a newsletter that takes the most controversial issue of the week and breaks down: what’s happening, why it’s important, and the best arguments for and against. For example, Apple v. the FBI.
On weekends, I’m a model. It has nothing to do with politics. I find fashion fascinating, and it’s fun.
I grew up in Washington DC, which based on my interests never surprises anyone. I moved to New York to go to college at Columbia and couldn’t leave.
Can you share the backstory for your newsletter?
Because I follow politics and current events so closely (and love to talk about it) my friends often ask me for “the short version.” Sometimes probably to get me to stop rambling! More often, I hope, because it’s useful.
They are all incredibly smart and busy people who worked in diverse industries. They wanted someone to share the most important information and the best points on each side so they could form their own opinions—and participate in dinnertime debates.
It took off. First I found myself emailing several friends on a weekly basis. They would forward it to their friends who would then email me and ask to be added to the next week. Then the chain grew from friends to friends-of-friends to some people I’d never met in person. I loved it, and many of the readers recommended I put it online so they could share it more easily. So, The Short Version. It’s a constantly growing work in progress.
What got you so interested in politics & current affairs?
Simple. My parents.
When I was in high school, my mom was working for the House Financial Services Committee on the Credit Card Act of 2009. She devoted herself to protecting consumer interests and preventing large credit card companies from taking advantage of people. At the same time, my dad was dedicating his time to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless to improve the lives of the homeless in the D.C. metro area.
You can see the impact smart people in politics have on everyone’s lives. I saw the work that they did, found it meaningful, and wanted to pursue something similar—with my own twist.
Not only did they lead by example but they nurtured my interest from early on, even if it was a bit silly at times. I remember during the Bush v. Gore race, we were riding in the car and my parents asked who I thought should win. I was 7 years old and said I liked Gore, because he was vice president and I thought he’d had practice. But the point isn’t what I said, it’s that they asked.
Looks like The Short Version is a side project? What else are you working on?
The Short Version feels like a natural extension of the work I do every day. As part of the team at Precision Strategies, I find creative ways to share political messages and inspire people to take action, online and off. My goal after college was to surround myself with as many brilliant people as I possibly could. I definitely did.
What’s your newsletter production process?
I have a running list of topic suggestions, links, notes and ideas. Got any? I don’t have a strict schedule for when I draft, but I edit (and get edits!) on Thursday nights. I send on Fridays now, but that might change depending on what readers prefer.
This first year, I’m focusing on creating content I’m proud of week by week. In the last few weeks, I’ve been beginning to think about how The Short Version can grow. Right now it’s very small, just me and my computer, but I work hard. It’s easy to go to bed at 2 am or wake up at 6 to write when you wholeheartedly love the product you’re building.
For inspiration, I look everywhere, most recently Vox’s explainers and Into the Gloss’ Top Shelf interviews. I think both Ezra Klein (of Vox) and Emily Weiss (of ITG) are incredible examples to look to as a young person working to create a fun and thoughtful community online.
Any indispensable tools, apps, software, notebooks, hardware etc that you use?
Online, I use: Evernote to collect my thoughts, stray quotes, and topic suggestions. Pocket to save articles as I find them in the wild. Nuzzle to triage the million great articles I could be reading.
I also have a physical notebook that I’d never abandon for any app. I learn best by writing things down. I’m also a to-do list nut—I write to-do lists in washable marker on my bedroom window so I can’t possibly ignore them. And at work, my desk looks like this:
How do you decide what to write about?
Some weeks it’s easy, like with the Oscars boycott and when Apple first refused the FBI’s court order. More often, it involves finding the most debatable part of a much broader issue. For instance, I don’t find it useful to debate the existence of climate change. Climate change is real. But there are nuances that are important to understand to adequately participate in the dialogue. This is where the Short Version comes in. For example, I recently debated the details of the first universal climate change deal. It’s all about finding the right lens, which can be challenging but is often one of the best parts.
In general, I’m drawn to the grey area at the center of every important issue. I think too many issues are put to the public without acknowledging that there’s more than one legitimate side. It’s my job to find value in them and explain those perspectives.
What sources do you use?
I have a mini daily news cycle of my own: morning and evening email briefings from the New York Times, Brookings and Vox among others, with a well-curated Twitter feed in between.
How do you stay impartial?
I don’t! When I’m writing the debate, I try to do the opposite. I work hard to get as deeply into the mindset of each side as I can. That’s the only way I can write and defend each effectively.
That’s also why I set up the structure of The Short Version the way it is: simple factual summary, fierce debate, sources to learn more. It means the times I’m discussing the most controversial or ambiguous parts of an issue, I can put my impulse to create strong arguments to good use… as long as I do it with equal intensity on both sides.
Surely you have an opinion on the topics you cover?
I definitely have strong opinions. So to create two-sided debates I’ve had to write a lot of forceful arguments for points of view I don’t agree with (check out the articles on drones, refugees, superdelegates, and more.)
That’s hard sometimes. But I think it has already made me better at defending my views, more considerate about other peoples’, and more thoughtful when I’m forming my opinions in the first place. So, I keep at it.
Do you think we’ve lost our capacity to think for ourselves? What else can we all do to improve the way we think about issues and form our own balanced conclusions?
Not at all. I think people continue as always to make up their own minds. But getting information online, particularly through social media, means we choose our news—and therefore have our own opinions reinforced over and over again. By presenting multiple arguments, sources like The Short Version help mitigate that effect. For any important issue, we should be able to understand and empathize with the other side.
What are the big things that keep you up at night?
Besides Donald Trump 2016?
I worry about spending my time well. I wonder how I can best build a career and a product that’s useful, worthwhile, and inspired. Like everyone else, I’m eager for things to happen so quickly. I need to remember to be patient. For The Short Version, I’m focusing on creating great articles, but I worry what I can do better (if you have thoughts, I’m always collecting them!)
What makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning?
A really hot cup of coffee in a Notorious RBG mug, ‘Cheap Thrills’ by Sia, and the hope that I’m building something useful.
Oh, and this little guy. He’s called Thor.
What’s the future for email newsletters?
Like every writer running a newsletter, I’ve been told ‘email is dead.’ The opposite is true. The endless options for news makes a newsletter even more valuable, and people recognize that. You can subscribe to newsletters you trust to filter through those infinite articles for you, and that’s an invaluable service.
As for The Short Version, I’ll be adding interviews, guest writers, and in-person events soon, and there’s more after that.
What big question did I miss that I should have asked you? What’s your answer?
Q: What’s one thing you’re working on about yourself in 2016?
A: I have a list of resolutions (I actually tweeted them thinking if they were public I’d stick to them) but most importantly, 2016 is about supporting my friends and great people I meet. It’s so easy to focus on your own career, and we all should, but it’s absolutely essential to lift up the people around you as well. I’m working hard to be the type of person who always emails back, introduces people who should meet, gives long written feedback if ever I’m asked. Success is absolutely not a zero sum game.
Where can our readers reach out to you? Social profiles?
You can also subscribe to The Short Version and I’ll be in your inbox once a week.
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