Very Fine Day #45: Sophia Smith Galer
"I don’t have all of the time in the world to really infiltrate every single platform."
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“You can’t grow on TikTok unless you really work out and commit to creating good content. And that doesn’t only demand being a journalist, it demands good social media savvy.”
SOPHIA SMITH GALER is on VERY FINE DAY this week. Sophia is a senior reporter at VICE, but previously was at the BBC. She is – I think – the archetype of what the future of being a reporter in digital media looks like. That is: someone who tells stories to their audience in the way the audience wants to hear them. Sophia has almost 300,000 followers on TikTok and uses it not just to talk to her audience but to research her stories, too. In fact, she was just named a TikTok Voice of Change for the 2nd year running.
There’s a lot of screaming about the death of media. People don’t read. No one pays for it. We could go on. But this sort of thing is often overblown in favour of asking, well: where is the audience? People aren’t going anywhere. They’re still there. If anything, we’re only getting more online. The media industry has spent the good part of a decade blaming its audience, rather than itself, for this connection collapse. But the good news is this is changing.
Anyway – Sophia.
Like I said, she’s the future. But it’s probably another five years before it’s fully accepted widely in the industry. Trust me, as someone who was recently hiring for this sort of role, there isn’t really a name for it yet that people immediately identify. And that’s because, really, it’s just being a reporter, but for the 2020s. And Sophia is great at it. We had a good conversation about her start in media, her original ambitions to be an opera singer (!), and how it all clicked with TikTok.
We have one more edition before the end of VFD this year. Paid supporters will get another edition, following that, breaking down future ambitions, plans, guests, things learned, and overall ramblings from myself. I’m looking forward to unpacking it all. A teaser: I have realised making a product that you only send out once a week really limits your opportunity to take swings at growth! Go figure.
That’s it from me. Enjoy the read, share with a friend, tell someone about VFD today! Whatever gets you going.
See you down the road.
VFD: How was your weekend? Are you a night person – is that why you’re happy to do this at 9PM?
Sophia Smith Galer: No, probably not that much of a night person. I’m more like a mid-morning person.
VFD: So around 11AM.
Sophia Smith Galer: Well, I figured if we did this a few hours earlier you’d have to get up at a crazy time.
VFD: I appreciate it.
Sophia Smith Galer: It was me trying to be nice.
VFD: It is nice. It’s lovely. Usually, I’m up at 5AM or 6AM in the morning on a Saturday. So I appreciate that a lot. How’s the new gig at VICE? New-ish gig.
Sophia Smith Galer: Yeah, I’ve been here three months now. It still feels quite new. But it also feels like I’ve almost always been here. I feel like it’s where I’m supposed to be. It’s the kind of journalism that I’m supposed to be doing and I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to report on anything that seems interesting. Which means that I’m also really happy that I’ve managed to pump out quite a lot – but it’s a lot of stuff that I’m proud of. Thing are going well.
VFD: How the hell did that happen – the job.
Sophia Smith Galer: How did I get it?
VFD: Yeah, did you apply? Or did they come to you…
Sophia Smith Galer: Oh, I applied for it.
VFD: Ah, OK. And before that you were at the BBC, right?
Sophia Smith Galer: Yeah, I was at the BBC for over four and half years. I went there first as a social media producer, and then the following three years were as a video journalist and that was for the BBC World Service.
VFD: What’s it like to work for the BBC?
Sophia Smith Galer: Interesting. It’s full of truly wonderful, talented, remarkable people. And I’m really luck that when I was there I got to work with some truly brilliant minds. But there wasn’t any sort of opportunity to grow me, if that makes sense.
VFD: Yeah, right.
Sophia Smith Galer: And I just really struggled to see how I could get a more senior job there. I tried – goodness knows how many times – and was continuously told I didn’t have enough experience. I was given other reasons why, too. But the minute I looked outside the organisation it was quite obvious that I did have enough experience. So that’s what happened.
VFD: Why do you think that’s the thing at the BBC? Is it just an old, storied place to work with a lot of senior people?
Sophia Smith Galer: Yeah, I think it’s just such a massive institution. It’s going through a big restructure at the minute and I think, when things like that happen, ultimately a lot of people get disappointed – either because they literally lose their jobs or because they are told that they have to continue their job but 200 miles away in a different city. So it’s kind of the timing, I suppose.
VFD: Were you doing it in London?
Sophia Smith Galer: I was working for the BBC in London. I have worked with the BBC in other parts of the UK as well. When I left I’d been working from the London office.
VFD: I’m not expecting you to have a high-level knowledge of our small media ecosystem here in Australia, but we have a very similar thing called the ABC. A government-funded broadcaster, at least in part, and there’s definitely a pathway from doing journalism at university to working at the ABC for a lot of people. Is that similar with the BBC?
Sophia Smith Galer: Possibly. I mean, when I tried to get into the BBC I must have been rejected – I don’t even know how many BBC jobs and traineeships I was rejected from before I got through to interview for what would become my job. So, I guess I would describe it here as being hyper-competitive. But that’s not only the BBC – that’s any media outlet, I would say.
VFD: Was it your first gig?
Sophia Smith Galer: BBC was my first job from university, yeah.
VFD: Right, OK. And then at university was it all journalism? Or media? Writing?
Sophia Smith Galer: Yeah, I did a Masters in broadcast journalism. And then, before that, I’d done a degree in modern languages.
Sophia Smith Galer: And it was when I was at the end of that degree that I knew I wanted to be a journalist. But people were making it very clear to me that I didn’t have any other skills. Like, I didn’t have the technical skill-set required, nor did I know anything about media law. So that’s why I did the Masters – because I realised: oh, crap, people aren’t gonna hire me until they’re secure that I won’t get them sued. So I better learn all that stuff. And that’s how that happened. Then I did a tonne of internships when I was at City University. Eventually, towards the end of that course, when I was applying for jobs, I got the BBC one.
VFD: Right. So how did you get into languages as something to study?
Sophia Smith Galer: Well, I was always raised around a passion for languages. Not necessarily coming from a linguists perspective, but I grew up with a bilingual mum. So my mum speaks English and Italian because my grandparents moved from Italy. And my mum is always very good at picking up languages. I grew up in an environment where that was a skill that was really admired.
So I’m a teenager and I work out: Oh, I have this thing that my mum has. And I spent all of my teenage years thinking I would use that skill to become an opera singer. So I actually spent all of my teenage years in training and auditioning, constantly preparing myself, not to go to university to do languages but to go to a conservatoire and study voice.
Sophia Smith Galer: And then go through that rigmarole that is going through opera school and then embarking on a career on stage. And then I changed my mind because you needed language skills as well, among many other things, because you’re constantly singing in other languages.
VFD: Why did you change your mind?
Sophia Smith Galer: Well, I remain a singer and I really enjoy singing, but the more I penetrated the world of classical music the more elitist I found it and the more I found – in several instances – that it wasn’t necessarily meritocratic. And I also found that a lot of people were just so obsessed with the music that they didn’t give much thought to the world around them and the world outside of the rehearsal space and outside of the concert hall – which is what interested me.
I don’t see them as two industries that are a million miles apart. They’re both about storytelling. And I do think that it sounds bonkers to a lot of people, but there are a lot of transferable skills between the two which I was able to bring into those early experiences I would have in broadcasting, live radio, live television. I used some of the skillset that I developed being on stage in front of lots of people. It all comes in handy.
VFD: How does a teenager get into opera? Or is there a burgeoning teenage opera scene that I’m clearly not in-the-know on.
Sophia Smith Galer: Kind of. I was in a youth group that was run by my singing teacher, and before I went to university I’d already been into operas. I’d already been auditioning for real operas. I got a part once but I couldn’t perform it because it was over my GSCEs – which is the exams you do in the UK when you’re 16 years-old. So I didn’t end up doing it.
But yeah, once you start training, it’s everyone in the expert space that then tells you to go join this group and audition for this thing. And it goes on, and on, and on.
VFD: That’s wild. Whenever I hear about people that had experiences like that when they were teenagers I always think back to my own time, when I was young, like: why didn’t I do more…
Sophia Smith Galer: It’s all a really big learning curve. My parents are not musical at all and they didn’t know anything about classical music. All they know is that there are songs on the radio that they sometimes like and sometimes don’t. And so as a family we all had to learn about this new world, simply because once – when I would have been maybe 10 or 11 years-old – someone said to my mum: your daughter has a natural vibrato. You should consider getting her trained. And my mum was just like: What? Yeah. OK…
And I fell in love with it.
VFD: So you grew up in London?
Sophia Smith Galer: Yes,
VFD: Where abouts in London?
Sophia Smith Galer: I grew up in North London – Barnet.
VFD: Right. And what’s the scene there? What’s the vibe?
Sophia Smith Galer: Ah, dead. Growing up, I had nothing to do. It’s beautiful, though. It’s right on the border between London and Hartfordshire, so it’s semi-rural, and I lived near some woods. It’s a very pleasant place for a young person to grow up but in Barnet itself there was nothing…
Like, when I was a teenager there was nothing I could do. There was nothing remotely of interest there. And then once I turned 18 years-old there were no pubs for young people. No clubs. No bars. So you have to go into London for that.
The minute I turned 16 years-old, me and my mates would always just head to Camden because that’s half an hour on the train away. And we just wanted to be like all the edgy, indie stars who were hanging out in Camden at the time. We just wanted to be them, so we went there.
VFD: Yeah, I think there are similar things all around the world – there is a similar vibe here in Sydney in the inner west area. Just a bit more trendy. And you see everyone from the outskirts of Sydney, particularly young people, dressing up. I live there now and I see 19, 18 year-olds all the time and I’m like: Oh, I used to be you. I know what you’re doing. I can see it.
Sophia Smith Galer: I definitely think it’s part of my life. I think I will always orbit around North London, because my whole family are there. In terms of when my Italian side moved to the UK, they still all live fairly close to each other. So I feel like my life will always be there, in a way. I’ll never be too far away from them.
But all of that was a big part of the reason why I wanted to go to a university that wasn’t in London. I wanted to do languages to see the world. I did feel quite sheltered growing up where I did, and eager to see what else lay beyond Barnet.
VFD: Yeah. And turns out quite a lot, I imagine.
Sophia Smith Galer: Yeah.
VFD: How was it working in that first job in social media and having that gig in the storied hallways of the BBC? Was that something where it was readily adopted? Was everyone keen to hear what you had to say, with social media high on the agenda, or was it different to that?
Sophia Smith Galer: In terms of team hierarchies I was definitely the lowest in the team. But then, that doesn’t mean to say that I wasn’t listened to and that I didn’t get to have a lot of creative freedom. The particular team that I was in – which was the international facing side of the BBC and the website that abroad makes money for the BBC – they have a budget with which to play around with. Which is a very different experience to working for the publicly funded side of the BBC.
And I got to do loads that I pitched. I had a couple of successes there, but my biggest one was when I got told by BBC Culture that they were going to be doing a lot of coverage around the anniversary of Jane Austen. So it was like: can you think of a social idea about that?
And I just went: Cool. OK. What if Jane Austen had Tinder? And then I went to the video producer and they were like: Yeah, I can make that happen. Because at that point I wasn’t a video producer – I’d been trained to cut TV packages and that’s it. I don’t have any slick graphics training like our brilliant video producers in the team had. And I told him how I wanted it to look. But I wanted the user to watch the video and feel like they were swiping the gentlemen of Jane Austen’s world. And it got millions and millions of views when it went out.
I was really happy with it. People loved it. And it was weird because in order to put out social content for the BBC you needed editorial news training, because it’s going on BBC channels. But to make a video like that – it demands a bit more. Like: you being nutty enough to come up with a very random idea that you think is going to fly with Jane Austen fans, that you also think would compel someone to share it.
People have been making content about Jane Austen for so long, how is what you’re gonna make anything remotely compelling? So I had a lot of fun in that job. But I wanted to be a reporter. I got to do a lot of feature writing for the team, which was lovely, and I got to start building my portfolio. Then, a year in, I got my role as a video journalist – specifically in faith and ethics. That was for the World Service and that was still a social media role. It was just that I was making videos for our social media channels – that was my day job – and what I would end up doing was a significantly higher number of tasks around my day job, which is what I got known for.
VFD: Yeah, go figure.
Sophia Smith Galer: But that was my main day job. For the vast majority of my career I have been working in the social media side of journalism.
VFD: Right. And then “faith and ethics”. That’s an obvious beat when you say it to me, but it’s not something I’ve thought about a lot in terms of what that looks like.
Sophia Smith Galer: It’s interesting, because that’s what they call it in the UK but everywhere else they call it religion journalism. But at the BBC it’s either called religion and ethics or faith and ethics. And the beat isn’t that big in the UK, to be honest. I went to a conference in America where I met a bunch of colleagues on the beat and I was really struck by how much better nourished it is as a beat in the US – Like many beats are, I would say, including internet culture beats which is the other beat I have gone into. The UK isn’t the place to go into them. It’s really frustrating.
But the other thing about the UK beat is that it was hardly digitised. So I felt like it really hardly focused on normal people.
So you’d find a lot of the religion journalism would focus on interviewing priests and Imams and Rabbis, which invariably means you only ever hear from old men who are important and experienced and whatnot, but my remit was that I had to make content to grow BBC World Service audiences. And our primary audience we were trying to reach was young women. I’m not going to reach them by continuing to interview the same demographic. I’m going to reach them by making content that’s relevant to young women.
So, I’m really proud that I left that role having made a tonne of documentaries and videos that had performed well with young women globally. Just something a little bit different to what normally gets the time.
VFD: Like what?
Sophia Smith Galer: Well, I was the only journalist really covering abortion in Malta, and the rising noise around it and the criticising of it as the last country in the EU to fully decriminalise it. And, obviously, that’s only down to a very strong Catholicism that remains there.
I made one of my most successful things in terms of how many people it would have reached – which is millions upon millions – and it was a documentary about female reciters of the Quran. And when I made it, and when I spoke to people, I was specifically speaking to a lot of people who were young Muslim women themselves. And a lot of them wrote back to me to say: this is the first time I’ve heard a woman reciting it. And I’m happy that I was able to get these women’s voices out on the BBC because it just makes that bit of a difference.
You get exposure in a place like that and people start normalising something that, for many people, is normal – but for some people is seen as abhorrent and something that shouldn’t happen. There are a lot of female trailblazers trying to say: hey, we can recite as well.
VFD: Yeah, it feels like that’s what the BBC is for, right?
Sophia Smith Galer: Oh, 100%. Representing everybody, especially those we know are underrepresented.
VFD: I wanted to ask you – because you hinted at it before – but having a beat like, say, internet culture in the UK media-space… I think there’s parallels here in Australia, where you’re outside of the US. For whatever reason, it continues to be allowed to dictate the internet in a lot of ways.
But I know that’s difficult because I’ve done it. I did it here. But how did you find writing about the internet and trying to find stories in an environment where it’s not as well equipped? You’re looking at the US and you’re seeing all of these superstars and you’re just like – and perhaps I’m proselytising here with my own experience – but to look at all of these people in the US and just think: If I was there, I could be a part of it. But I’m not.
Sophia Smith Galer: I think, yeah, I’m fortunate in that the job that was as a religion reporter really had no one covering it much. Really looked at the fault lines between faith and the internet. And I feel like I really owned that when I was at the BBC. I made a lot of work that I’m really proud of. So I just found a USP and I mined it.
Now, at VICE, I’m a senior news reporter and I can be as generalist as I want. I don’t need to necessarily pick a beat if I don’t want to. But when I’d started at the BBC, outside of my job I was finding stories on TikTok. And in the UK I still remain pretty much the only journalist that uses it to news gather and story-tell and publish content on there.
You have a couple of journalists who are simply using it as a publishing tool. It might be that they make content for their day job – they might have a TV thing – and then they just upload the video of their TV stuff. Or they take agency footage and upload that and give it their twist or their analysis. Whereas I spend a lot of time on there looking for stories or interacting with people who I think – possibly – have a story or something interesting to say.
I’m constantly communicating with my followers who tell me about stories. Things they’ve noticed. That’s how my last story came out. I found this trend of “cleaning the streets” and it was all because a follower said to me: Hey, have you seen this trend? It’s really disturbing. And I hadn’t seen it but the minute I started looking at it I’m like: Oh, my goodness. This is so, seriously disturbing.
And that began at the BBC when I had a really excellent radio team that I worked with. They were quite eager to commission a documentary on how TikTok was being used around the US election. And that was only supposed to be expository – it' wasn’t necessarily supposed to uncover anything. It was just exploring what was going on. And then I ended up finding stuff and it made me think: God, when I’m getting the time to invest all of my skillset into this – investigating this, researching this – I find stuff. And that’s what I would do: I would have my day job and then I would spend my evenings on TikTok just looking for stuff.
This was all, obviously, far easier in a pandemic world. I wasn’t doing anything in the evenings or on my lunch breaks. So I would just go on TikTok. That’s probably how I experienced it – I experienced it as in my head I’m not competing with the US people. I just seek to emulate them and do interesting stuff. And in my little corner of TikTok, stories that are otherwise not going to hit mainstream media – because no one in mainstream media is actually on there looking – I feel like that’s one of the boxes that I’m checking. And I’m really happy with some of the coverage I did and continue to do.
I did some work on Clubhouse as well and some VICE stories on that.
VFD: Ha, what do you think of Clubhouse? Is it still the next big thing?
Sophia Smith Galer: What’s the right word for it… This is controversial, but it’s arguably more vitriolic than Twitter. That’s how I would describe it.
Sophia Smith Galer: And it’s unchallenged vitriol. So people will just spew complete false statements and absolutely no one will hold them accountable. Because the moderation capability is so poor and they will never hold people accountable after they’ve made comments and you try to report them. And it gets even worse when it’s not in English – as it is so often in other languages, just like pretty much any platform.
Moderation gets capped the minute you speak in another language that isn’t English. And I certainly found evidence that Clubhouse was being used to mobilise like minded-people to commune offline. So if people are ignoring it, and if security people are ignoring it, that is not good.
VFD: It definitely has been allowed to fade out of the picture, and out of perspective, while still existing and being adopted by the fringe, right? As opposed to all of the growth-hack mindset, mainstream people who originally were on it for ego, mostly. And the origins of Clubhouse are ridiculous.
Sophia Smith Galer: And the other thing is that I don’t have all of the time in the world to really infiltrate every single platform.
Sophia Smith Galer: So for me, I have made my little burrow in TikTok and I’m just going to keep doing that. Then, when I have extra time, I’ll check out these other spaces.
VFD: When you said before that you’re kind of the only journalist in the UK using TikTok, and on TikTok, in that way – to me, it’s like: Well… why? It doesn’t seem like there should be a huge barrier for people trying to do that, right? Other than time.
Sophia Smith Galer: You’re right when you mention time, I think. The fact that I don’t have any dependents and I’m a self starter, I’m pretty good at organising my time. I managed to fit TikTok into my daily media diet, as it were, and work cycle. I am not afraid of being on camera. I think there are rightly lots of people who are – or who simply would like to maintain some semblance of privacy in an online world. I don’t blame them after getting to where I am. I don’t.
There are some things as well where I think: I don’t want this to happen to me, but tough – it’s going to happen. It’s one of the cons. I would add that you can’t grow on there unless you really work out and commit to creating good content. And that doesn’t only demand being a journalist, it demands good social media savvy. Being able to look at other people, almost like marketing, but the ability to look at other people’s content and figure out where it did well and where it didn’t do well and then applying that to what you do. I naturally had it because I’ve worked for years in that bit of journalism where I had to constantly remodel my own product based on what I was seeing trend-wise.
Sophia Smith Galer: Whereas I’m conscious that there will be journalists who go through their whole career ladder and never do a social media job. They’ll never have to deal with that daily sense of workshopping content, figuring out why something worked less well than others. I have to do that every single day with the stuff that I make.
And I’d also say that it’s a truly meritocratic platform and that I managed to do well on there based on my own content. Like, there isn’t really a way that someone big or well-known could share my work on TikTok and then I get famous. That doesn’t work. I think that works a bit if a big Instagram account might share you on their Stories, or if a big Twitter account retweets you. It doesn’t work like that. You will only succeed because of you and you alone.
Sophia Smith Galer: And that's actually pretty tough. And again, if you don’t have the time and you don’t have literally all the things to make the potion right, the potion is not going to work.
I've been on there now two years, and there are lots of other people who've been on there less than me. I have way more followers that aren't in the journalism space and maybe this is their full time job. And they don't have a million other things that they do the whole time. But no: two years at it. Some people can look at me and say: Oh, wow, she has 200,000 followers or whatever. Others might look at me and be like: Oh, she only has 200,000 followers. I'm quite harsh with myself as well.
VFD: Well, I’m gonna say it: I think you’re doing well. I think that’s good. I think TikTok is also interesting because I find that it’s the social media where people following you matters the least, because who the hell is going to their “Following” stream and flicking through that as opposed to the insane algorithm of TikTok that somehow always feeds you what you like? So to build a following on there, it’s tough in terms of building a relationship.
Sophia Smith Galer: Yeah, I think it's one thing reading someone's tweets and it's another thing seeing their face every day.
I’ve never been big on anything other than TikTok. But I remember when I would have had 10,000 Twitter followers – even when I was doing on-air work at the BBC – no one in the industry has ever said: Oh, I know you from Twitter. Oh, I know you from Reddit. But I have so many people come up to me now being like: I follow you on TikTok! And that's the relationship that the app fosters, because it just chucks your face at people, on mass, repeatedly, every week. By nature of what works on TikTok, that content is probably not sterile. It’s you looking like you’re talking to me. So the audience sees you and that’s who they interact with. They don’t necessarily start to not see a stranger anymore, it just becomes this parasocial relationship.
But whenever I meet someone they’re a stranger. And I have to figure out how to reverse it and be like: you know me really well.
And I’ll always write down their name and check to see if they’re around on my content again. Like: they’re my friend now. So that’s been very strange.
VFD: When did that start to happen?
Sophia Smith Galer: That’s a really good question. It’s tricky because the pandemic happened, but I think the first few times I started getting recognised were last Summer. And I don’t think I would have necessarily even had 100,000 followers at that point. So I didn’t need a super high follower threshold to start getting recognised.
I went to Glasgow to cover COP26 and I was recognised more times there than I am in London. I don’t know why. It was just lots of people who recognised me who live in Glasgow – they weren’t there for the COP. But the diversity of people who recognised me ranged from a PhD student, to an Egyptian political official inside COP26, to a Glaswegian security guard who was a bloke in his ‘50s. And it’s just like: Christ. It’s TikTok that has gotten me this. It’s not my journalism. This is from my TikTok. But let’s work out how I can make it aid my journalism.
And to what you said earlier about why there doesn’t seem to be so many journalists on there, I really, really think they’re missing a trick. Because if anyone can find the things that I found to make it all work – the amount of people you get to connect with is just fantastic.
VFD: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I think there’s a lot of talk that comes out about the death of journalism, and that people don’t read anymore. All of that stuff. And it’s like: Yeah, kind of, but also: are you looking at what they’re looking at? Because it’s not exactly hidden. The way people want to engage with stuff is very, very clear. They’ll tell you what they want.
Sophia Smith Galer: And I’m very lucky that VICE has a big appetite for that. They’ve started the main channel but they’re also growing. But I actually have more time to do it now.
VFD: Yeah, for sure. Alright - well I won’t keep you any longer. But thank you so much.
Sophia Smith Galer: OK. I hope that was interesting!