Episode 9 – Vanessa Otero, CEO & Founder of Ad Fontes Media

Vanessa Otero from Ad Fontes Media talks about how the company started and where it’s headed.

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Welcome to Episode 9 of the Breaking Through the Mayhem podcast, where we explore marketing and advertising in a time of constantly shifting risk and opportunity.

Brought to you by Sightly, our goal is to share the insights of industry leaders from brands, agencies, publishers, and partners as they discuss the challenges and possibilities emerging from the ever-shifting media landscape, such as real-time marketing, brand safety and purpose, influencers, cancel culture, data privacy, technology and more.

Today's guest is Vanessa Otero.

She is the CEO and Founder of Ad Fontes Media.

Vanessa Otero is the creator of the Media Bias Chart and the Founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media. A former patent attorney in the Denver, Colorado area, Vanessa holds a B.A. in English from UCLA and a J.D. from the University of Denver. Vanessa's formal education and professional career has centered on analytical reading, writing, and reasoning, creating an ideal background for her to create a content analysis methodology for evaluating text. 

In 2016, Vanessa had been enjoying her life as a Patent Attorney, when the noise surrounding the Presidential Election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became louder and louder. She noticed that people would share articles on Facebook that supported their side, but weren't very convincing to the other. Alarmed by the unhealthy state of the media ecosystem, Vanessa used her expertise in content analysis to create the original Media Bias Chart, and thus, the groundwork for what would later become Ad Fontes Media was laid. 

In 2018, she founded Ad Fontes Media to fulfill the need revealed by the popularity of the chart- namely, to meet the demand for a map to help people navigate the complex media landscape, as well as for comprehensive content analysis of media sources themselves. 

Today, Ad Fontes Media uses a systematic approach to content analysis in which a team of politically-balanced professional analysts examine and categorize news content creating data that is useful to news consumers, educators, marketers, and even publishers themselves. 

In the episode, which was recorded live at the Brand Safety Summit NY on November 3, 2022, Vanessa discusses:

  • How the viral Media Bias Chart led her to founding Ad Fontes Media
  • Why she thinks the Chart has resonated so deeply in the market
  • Why investing in reputable journalism is just as important as avoiding misinformation

HostAnnalise Curvelo

GuestVanessa Otero

Ad Fontes Media

The Breaking Through the Mayhem podcast - Episode 9
Host:  Annalise Curvelo, VP of Business Development & Partnerships
Guest:  Vanessa Otero, Founder & CEO of Ad Fontes Media
Recorded on March 24th, 2023

Annalise Curvelo

Welcome to Sightly’s Breaking through the Mayhem podcast. I'm your host, Annalise Curvelo, VP of Business Development and Partnerships, and I'm so excited to announce our guest star today, Vanessa Otero. She is really one of the few people I'm lucky to know who is on track to actually change this world. As CEO and founder of Ad Fontes Media.So, Vanessa, thank you so much for joining us today.

Vanessa Otero

It's my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Annalise Curvelo

Awesome. So I have a lot of questions prepared, we'll see how many we get through. But if you could just start off and let us know a little bit more about you and how Ad Fontes came to be.

Vanessa Otero

Yeah, Ad Fontes Media. What we do is we rate the news for reliability and bias. It's a topic that is of a lot of interest to so many people, given that we've got this crazy news landscape, this crazy information environment that's got everything from like really reliable, great journalism to, you know, lots of opinion and analysis and pundits and hot takes to misleading information, and so-called fake news. It's a lot for people to deal with. How it started was: I was a patent attorney. I was just loving my patent attorney job, but also very interested in news and politics. And in the run up to the 2016 election, you know, I noticed the level of vitriol, if you recall, like the Hillary/Trump election, it got pretty intense, especially on social media like Facebook. 

And people would fight with each other about, you know, their preferred political candidates and causes. And they tended to not agree very much. And often people lost a lot of family and friend relationships over it. And what I noticed was that they would share these articles that would support their side but not be very convincing to the other side. So somebody on the left would be like, well, I'm right, because look at this article from HuffPost. This is like Donald Trump is blah, blah, blah. And people on the left would be like, well, I don't believe that, that's from HuffPost and folks on the right would say I'm right because look at this article from Breitbart, which says, Hillary Clinton is such and such and people on the left wouldn't agree with that either.

So I was like, you know, there are some media sources that are better, some are that are worse, some that are like, okay, and there's some that are left and right. But then there are some that are very extreme. So how can people seem to be having a hard time telling a difference between these things? So, I’ll tell you the short version of the story, but I created a visual chart (because I'm a nerd and I did this in my free time as a lawyer), but when I put it online to talk to my family and friends about it, it went massively viral. It took over my life for a couple of years as like this side blog project, but then I realized that there was like a real need for this data, a need for this, like a methodology to rate news because we didn't really have news ratings.

We've never lived in an era where we have tens of thousands of news and news-like information sources. So for the first time we sort of need labels like, like content ratings on them. And so for the last five years, I've developed this business. A lot of things have happened that led up to sitting here today.

Annalise Curvelo

That's so awesome. Yeah. I mean, I think we all remember those Facebook days and I think people were just posting and sharing whatever resonated with them. There was very little fact checking. So I think it's so interesting how it all got started. And I'm just thinking: You're working as a lawyer… Can you describe the moment that you decided you wanted to go all in on this?

Vanessa Otero

Yeah, I mean, it seemed… It's hard to pinpoint a moment, but I mean, there was definitely a moment where I left, right. So it was when it went viral, it was so time consuming. I mean, I didn't have a bunch of Twitter followers or like, I was not a social media influencer, but all of a sudden, like everyone on the Internet had an opinion about this, the placements on this chart and they were like, well, CNN should be higher or lower, more or less… more, right. You know. Everyone had an opinion on their favorite news sources and their less favorite news sources. So just like responding to all these folks, it was really like the MVP of a product, you know, like at start ups you talk about MVP's and it was the most minimally viable product, literally an image. But I got to talk to people who would be like future customers and like what they wanted. They kept asking for data and they would complain. They'd be like: Well, this is biased because you're biased. And I was like, Well, that's true.

So how do I make it less biased? And people would complain like: Well, this is just your opinion. This isn't like, this isn’t academically rigorous. And I was like, you're right, totally. But what shocked me was that teachers would use it in classrooms and textbook publishers would ask for licenses to print it in textbooks.

I'm like, don't do that. This is like biased and not academically rigorous. I was a lawyer. Like, I wrote, like legal papers and stuff. And I know the value of like citing sources and having it be correct and like all that is super important to me. So that's why I wanted to, like, fill that need and like, respond to it like, I wanted to create the methodology.

I was like, I have to be able to recruit folks from different perspectives for me, like left, center and right in order to mitigate biases. I just have to and I need to get bigger samples in order to make it more academically rigorous, like this needs to be repeatable, replicable. And that's how I started. Like getting the idea to cobble together groups of analysts that could do this from different political backgrounds, different, like diverse backgrounds.

And then people kept just kept asking for more things, like: You know, what would be cool? Is if this was like interactive. And going from this image, which I created on Microsoft Visio because I don't know how to use Photoshop, to like making an interactive chart, I'm like, that's software development, which I do not do like, and I'm busy as a lawyer.

So, I started trying to think of like, would people give us money? Could we raise money in order to put together what we wanted? And they did on an Indiegogo campaign at first. And then later, like we started to get some commercial interest. I worked on this, you know, really part-time and  with a very dedicated group of folks who were like: Yeah, we'll do this with you. Like, we'll do some analyst ratings and help however we can. So it really turned from a project into a company and then we got some commercial traction towards the end of 2020 and that's when I was like: Well, if we're going to deliver for commercial customers then I need to be all in. So that's when I really tried to raise some real investment capital and use our revenue to build it out further.

Annalise Curvelo

That's awesome. And it’s a great segway to another question I had, which was, you know, I know that it got its start, Ad Fontes got its start in the education world. So, when did the use case of the advertising industry arise?

Vanessa Otero

Yeah, it's funny, my background is not in the advertising industry. You know, my whole world is pretty much that now, right? But, when I saw teachers using this in classrooms, so some of our first products were like, all right, how can we make it easier for teachers to teach our methodology, you know, to search the sources on our chart?

But then folks from the media industry started reaching out online and connecting with me. And they were the ones who were like: You know what? There's a brand safety play here. There's a brand safety opportunity. And I was like: Cool. What's brand safety? 

And I have never heard the term before. And then it was this concept that, like, brands don't want to advertise next to things that are like, objectionable in a lot of ways, like, you know, hate speech or like sexually explicit content or scams or terrorist content, you know, and I’m like: Okay, that makes sense.

And they probably don't want to advertise next to misinformation or really polarizing controversial content. But it was folks in the media industry reaching out to me through LinkedIn and just emailing…Like this whole company came together because people found this chart online and reached out to me. So, like pretty much everybody I work with now, I met on the Internet. It's totally wild.

Annalise Curvelo

That's really cool. And why do you think I mean, obviously we know it just went viral and all of these things, and, you know, because I think the timing was also really there for misinformation, fake news, all the things were really top of mind for people… But why do you think it resonated so well in the market in general, not even necessarily specific to advertising?

Vanessa Otero

Good question. And I have spent a lot of a lot of time over the years trying to answer that same question because it really took me by surprise. It was like it was shocking to me. I'm like, why do people care about this so much? And it comes down to a couple of things. One, it's visual. You know, it's visual and it explains a really complex concept in a really short period of time. And I think this, you know, for folks who might have not seen the media bias chart it’s a two dimensional infographic. And so from top to bottom, it's your sources for reliability and from left to right it sources for like left to right political bias.

And whether you're like, you know, very politically astute and savvy and follow the news or you just like have no idea and you can't tell the difference between like a really good news source and a fake news source, like, it gives you a mental framework. And so it was this rare thing that actually worked for people to communicate about the news together.

So, like, people tell me all the time, I share this with my family members, even my family… especially my family members who disagree about stuff. And, you know, the nature of like trying to change people's minds on the Internet is a tough thing, but it was this rare thing that would work because even if people disagreed ultimately about the placement of the source, they could still, like, agree on it relatively.

They could be like: Well, you know, my news source, it's a little too far right, or a little too far left, I think it is more towards the middle. But they could still agree that, like, you know, Fox News is more to the right than like The Wall Street Journal and like MSNBC is more to the left than CNN.

Right. Like they can agree on relativity. And so people on the left and the right and the middle say: Okay, we could probably agree that the lower the sources are on the reliability scale, the less we should rely on them. Right? We could probably do with some better news sources.

So there's this rare thing that works and it just balances this nuance versus like, versus ease of consumption, right. So… and that's a hard thing to do. Usually how people talk about the media is in these like overbroad generalizations. They're like: Well, CNN is garbage. Like, okay, what are you even talking about when you're talking about CNN?

They have the TV show and then they have the website and the app. And then on the TV channel, they have like a bunch of different shows from morning to night, like what CNN are you even talking about? And people would complain about the mainstream media, like what is… what is that?

The more specific you can get, the more people can agree. Right. So when we have analysts, we have left, right and center analysts, when they look at one article, it can even be from CNN, they can be like: This CNN article is a left leaning opinion article, all three of them agree. This CNN article is a fact reporting, minimally-biased article.

And so we want to get granular and that helps people have really meaningful discussions about the news.

Annalise Curvelo

Yeah, I think that's so important. And all the work you've done to acknowledge, okay, we all as individuals have our own bias. You know, what can we do to combat that? And I think like having you know, I've been working with you for a while now and every time you guys add new analysts, you always like, let us know.

And you have quite the team now that is, you know, from all spectrums of the media bias scale. So I think it's just really awesome. I definitely can vouch that the methodology is sound and it's really exciting to see you know this, like the kind of hope that this could bring. Right. To get people to agree, like you said, like instead of just talking about it so broadly. So this is really cool.

Vanessa Otero

Yeah about that like, the hope like this, the work that I do, it really does give me a lot of hope for America, especially because, you know, our analysts… I mean, we have 60 analysts, again: left, right, center and they're talking about the most contentious topics in the United States every day: race, abortion, guns. Right. Our very controversial politicians.

And they can agree on stuff still. Right. And there's just not a lot of settings… It seems like there's not a lot of settings right now where you get people being able to talk rationally and reasonably about contentious issues.

Annalise Curvelo

Totally. And bringing that back to the advertising industry: What do you think is one lesson or the biggest lesson that advertisers should be learning from The work you're doing with Ad Fontes?

Vanessa Otero

It’s that they have the power to change the world. Look, the advertisers' dollars drive so much of our society and you know, it's not about, you know, when folks initially talked about brand safety, like, oh, you don't want your brand to be next to something that people find yucky, right? I mean, sure that's one concern… But it's more than that. Like, there's way more for advertisers to gain by responsibly picking where they invest their ad dollars and the information ecosystem. Right. Like in that saying good reputable journalism is just as important, if not, I would argue, more important than just avoiding misinformation and polarization. Right. I mean, you need both. But like where we are today, advertisers for quite a few years now have pulled funds away from reputable journalism, especially in local. A lot of that, and for a number of reasons.

So a lot of that money has gone towards platforms, right, that are aggregating and distributing the news and like less directly to the publishers, which has been really damaging. But also you have brands that just because of brand safety concerns, they're like: Well, let's just block all of the news and just not have to deal with that risk, but  it's really short sighted. One, because like in the short term with investing in news, those audiences are super valuable. Like news content is 20 or 25% of all content that's out there. At least across all these formats, across web, across video, across audio. And to not be reaching those audiences is like to be missing out on some really good return on your advertising spend. Right. And especially right now like when ad budgets are getting smaller in this macroeconomic environment, you want to make ad dollar go farther, you should put that ad dollar in the news. Like it's a better bet. Folks like advertisers, I think instinctively know this but they've gotten scared away from news. But like, bigger picture, the whole like power to change the world? Here's how I think of it: Capitalism, like this environment in which our businesses function, works best within a strong, stable democracy. 

And democracy works best when you have a well-informed electorate. A well-informed electorate needs journalism, like good journalism and like this high quality information environment, not one that's just littered with, you know, pranks, partisans and hucksters. You know, that's basically what we have right now. So, if brands want to operate in a strong, stable, capitalistic democracy in which they can run profitable businesses, they should invest in news. Like, it's a direct impact on, you know, the S (Social) of ESG.

ESG is like environmental, social and governance. This is the S, this is social right? They're literally mitigating social risk by ensuring that we have a strong information environment. So there's both short term and long term reasons why advertisers need to direct their advertising dollars towards news.

Annalise Curvelo

Yeah, I agree with you. And I think, you know, like you were describing, reaching the audience in a place where they are, but not only where they are, but also where they're the most leaned in. Right? Like people are actually paying attention when they're reading news articles and things like that versus just scanning through a cooking recipe page or whatever else is out there, you know?

Vanessa Otero

Yeah. It’s important stuff. It’s the news.

Annalise Curvelo

I think it's been really awesome to see the work you're doing with Ad Fontes giving kind of the power back to the brands a little bit to be able to do that in a way that they're comfortable with, you know? At Sightly, we're always telling people that they need to figure out where they stand on these issues and really make sure that they're being authentic and consistent so that they figure out what their Brand Mentality is, right?

And then they're sticking with that through and through. And so that is going through the interactive media bias chart and figuring out where they want to associate their media and where they do not. And then you're able to give them the power to say: This is where I feel comfortable, but I'm still not completely avoiding news. So, it’s really awesome.

Vanessa Otero

Yeah. And Sightly is attacking such an important issue that's so difficult for brands to do, like you said, but like: Where do you stand on these issues? And there's a lot of things to like, take a stand on. Brands cannot just sit these things out right? Like, you're a participant in a society… a powerful participant in society, as a brand, right?

Things are happening around you. You're advertising in this environment, as you know, it is very difficult for brands to first say: This is what we stand for and this is what our mentality is. And then second, to actually actually execute on that, right, to make sure that their spend is consistent with what they say they do and believe in.

And there's so many avenues to do that, which obviously, you know, and preaching to the choir here because that's what you all do at Sightly. 

Annalise Curvelo

Yeah yeah. I mean there's more pressure now than ever, especially amongst younger consumers, right? They're looking to put their dollars towards brands that align with their values, so it's really important for brands to figure that step out.

All right, switching gears a little bit, I would love you to share a little bit about your experience as a female founder. I know you and I have talked about this a lot, and specifically as a woman of color, and how that has been and the experience and also especially working with investors? Something, and I know you and I have talked about it a lot, but you have some really, really amazing points to share so I want to make sure we had time to touch on that/

Vanessa Otero

Yeah, definitely. You know, there are a lot of stats out there about, you know, so we're a public benefit corporation, which means we are for profit with a stated public mission. And that's, we’re a venture-funded company-  and raising venture capital, there's sort of all these abysmal stats about how only 2%-ish of all of these funds go to female founders.

And in similar numbers for founders of color, I think one of the lowest, like I think I said something like 1.2% of funding goes towards like black founders you know? So, there are a lot of odds to fight against just being a startup, trying to raise money. And then like within that world, when it's like 1-2% of the funding, those can be daunting.

And people always ask like: What to do about it? Because it's not that… People know that this is a problem. Folks in venture know that this is a problem. It's been that way for like a little while and there are more funds now that are specifically focused on women and people of color, other underrepresented founders. But still, this problem persists.

And so, yeah, I, I don't know. I'd have to like try to compare apples to apples: My experience versus founders who don't have like, my demographic background to see like how easy or hard it is. And that's sort of, it's hard to do because everybody's got their own unique situation. But I’ve pitched to a lot of investors. I’ve probably pitched over 250 individual investors and to date, like, you know, I had a hard time, you know, one, because this is like a social good company.

Sometimes you're in this weird space between like doing good and like being profitable. But like, if people look at it like: Oh, you're doing good. Shouldn't this be like a nonprofit? You could get grants from like philanthropy or something. I'm like: No, we're solving a business problem for people who have like the most money in the ecosystem, right? And then people look at the, like in the venture world, like, oh, you're doing good. Like, is this really profitable? 

So, I had a hard time even getting into accelerators or incubators, like these sort of things like Techstars and whatnot. I even had a hard time getting into pitch competitions, so how much of that is because, like, folks might have a subconscious or unconscious bias? You know, it's really hard to say.

Like, I prefer to look at it like: What can we do about this? This issue. So I think there are a few things. Like one, you have folks in VC say there's not enough female founders or founders of color. Fair enough. Like, I think that is true, right? So like: What can I do about it? About it?

Like, I can encourage female founders, founders of color to start businesses. I can mentor them. I can say like, if you're thinking about this, like, here's my best advice for how to go about doing it. Like that, that’s step one. Two is that we need allies. We need like, people who are in power to be allies, right?

Like in this situation, it's male allies. Like pretty much all of my investors are men, right? So clearly, these men, whether or not they've had subconscious or unconscious biases, that didn't stop them from investing, right? They know the power that they have to advance to solve this problem, to advance good businesses. And they acted on it.

Right. And the third thing is like, we need folks like investors, whether they're men or women, because, look, I feel like I run up against difficulties pitching female investors as well, right? I think there's an existing mental model of what a successful company and a successful founder looks and sounds like. Like a female founder might not be as bold and brash in her predictions.

A female founder, or it might not be like, “Yeah, we're going to be the next billion dollar company, right?” But it doesn't mean she's not. And so if she has these, like, metrics in front of you, like traction revenue, those are the biggest indicators, right? And you may not, underst- like, a lot of the markets that startup founders serve are just markets that they know.

And if that's predominantly white and male and affluent, like those are market…those are different markets than markets that serve women and people of color and less affluent folks. Right? So the markets might look different, you just might not have experience in those, but it doesn't mean that it's not a great opportunity.

Annalise Curvelo

Yeah, that's amazing. You have had quite a lot of hurdles, but you've been able to jump over them so gracefully and it's just been awesome to watch and I'm so excited to see what's in store. I actually got the opportunity to listen to one of the podcasts that you did, I think with Sliced…Was the name?

Vanessa Otero

Uh huh. Yeah, about startups in particular.

Annalise Curvelo

Yeah. And I have to share that it really stuck out to me, is that you shared a stat on that podcast that my college mentor actually shared with me when I was about 21 years old, which was about how women will, you know, wait until they have eight or nine out of ten requirements for a job opportunity before they apply, and men will most likely apply when they have six out of ten, right? And what does that tell you? And you know, she shared that with me and it completely changed my entire outlook and probably is part of the reason why I've been able to grow in my career because it's been… you know she explained to me like: Okay, if that's the case, the company might be getting a great deal, but what are you getting? You're not having as much opportunity to grow, etcetera, so I think everything that you shared was just inspiring other women and being able to be there meant, you know, mentoring and through other ways, but also just, you know, getting the word out that like this is so important and to just go for it because, you know, it's just, yeah.

Vanessa Otero

Yeah. I mean, I, I think I saw that stat in Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In and there's a couple of other really hard hitting examples of like, the differences between how men and women approach things in business. And there are differences, right? And it's really helpful when you can like,  acknowledge those and say, like, what can we do about them?

So even in when I was a lawyer, I noticed that like, you know, they didn't really teach you how to negotiate your salary when you're in law school. I mean, you're literally a lawyer, like your whole job is going to be negotiating, right? And so, like, shouldn't that be just assumed, like normal, important and a part of the interview process?

And I was like, yeah, since I knew that that training wasn't there, I wanted to provide it for, like younger, like female law students who were graduating. And I was like, like, let's talk salary! Like let, like, let me know what your offer is and like, here's how much you should be making. And this is so important because if you start- like I mean, I remember a situation that like it was I was happy about the outcome, but I was like also appalled because like, the, this like brilliant lawyer, like a law student going to work at a law firm from like… I taught her that she should negotiate and like you laid out questions that you should ask at the end of the interview and like how she should figure out from like how big the firm was and what their billable rates were and how many hours she was going to be working, what she should get paid. And the difference like was what she was offered was $90,000 and what she ended up getting was $130,000. At the beginning of your career, like the impact that makes on your total earnings over your lifetime is, I mean, it just compounds. It's unbelievable. And to not know that information… or like the flip side, to know that and to be able to to take advantage of it and benefit from it, I mean, it makes all the difference in the world. So I'm super passionate about that stuff.

Annalise Curvelo

Yeah, me too. And thank you so much for sharing. Okay, so one last question: We love what you're doing, of course, and we know that everyone else who comes across your path will too…So where should people go to learn more about you and Ad Fontes? 

Vanessa Otero

So, AdFontesMedia.com. So you can see our free, interactive media bias chart on there and you can search any of the thousands and thousands of news sources we've got rated across websites, TV and podcasts. You can search a bunch of them for free. Then, we've got some other… you can explore all of our other products and services for all the different stakeholders in news media, whether you're an everyday news consumer, news reader, informed citizen of the world, an educator, advertiser, publisher, and so on. So yeah, please check us out. 

Annalise Curvelo

Alright. Thank you so much for joining the podcast today. It was so fun. It's been a pleasure.

Vanessa Otero

Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks so much, Annalise.

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