Cleo Abram is the Senior Manager of Development at Vox, and she's also the founder of The Short Version, a newsletter that breaks down the two opposing sides of current topics.
Cleo Abram is a million things at once. She's intimidatingly intelligent, dog mother to the cutest ball of energy, Thor, a Senior Manager of Development at Vox, founder of The Short Version, a newsletter that breaks down the two opposing sides of any given topic, and somehow looks good in every single style of clothing (she was once a model, which makes total sense).
We met through a mutual friend who could not stop singing Cleo's praises, and it was evident why as soon as I met her. Gracious, elegant, a wicked sense of humor and crazy amounts of ambitious, Cleo is literally a dream girl.
She's on a mission to help people understand the world around them through her work with Vox and her personal project The Short Version.
Manhattan, New York City
JT: Tell me about the Short Version. Where were you when you started it?
CA: It was a long journey of self-discovery. I came to New York to go to Columbia, and graduated with a degree in Political Science. During school, I became a model and had an agency, even though I had school going on at the same time. I think it helped me A) Balance those two worlds and never allow me to get fully sucked into fashion, and B) Become very comfortable with the idea of managing multiple things at once. After school, I went into political consulting and worked at a firm called Precision.
At some point, I wanted to practice writing, which I missed from my time in college. I wanted to get better at navigating my own instinct to be polemic. I didn’t have the ability to argue against myself in a meaningful way, and I wasn’t able to make my own best argument because I couldn’t figure out the opposing views. I grew up in DC, which is 76% registered Democrats, and I was always surrounded by people who shared my POV. The Short Version came out of a desire to A) practice writing skills and B) to force myself to think from a different perspective. Every The Short Version has what’s happening, why it’s important and a debate that I make for both sides, like a split personality.
JT: You’re both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!
CA: It’s really challenging! Once I had the format, I really got into it; it was what I wanted to wake up to work on, the thing I wanted to do before I went to bed. It became obvious that what I really wanted to do was work in political media. I came out of college and went off in one direction that I thought would be perfect, and then I realized that there was this whole other area that I never considered.
JT: But that’s the beauty of life, right? You just make it up as you go.
CA: I spent a long time searching for the right job, and ended up at Vox. While at Vox, I actually moved around the company in an interesting way. I began as part of a revenue team that was very focused on how advertisers sponsor content, and gradually became a part of the editorial side.
JT: That is strategic manifesting. I love what you said about balancing the POV and pushing yourself to think beyond your bubble.
To be able to understand the opposing viewpoint doesn’t take away from your own viewpoint.
That’s what I love about what you’re doing with The Short Version.
CA: One of the big things I worry about with The Short Version is creating a false equivalency, and I think that concern has led me to focus a lot more on the question I’m asking rather than the specifics on each side.
Often, the question can be quite difficult. I’m trying to find arguments that aren’t circular. I don’t like arguments that are based in religion or bigotry, so I try to find the part of discussions that may have those elements in it, but do not focus on them.
It’s a challenge to talk about something without saying, “I believe this because I believe this, because I believe it” and finding the interesting debates and studying them helped me filter some of those debates I hear on cable news. Once I’ve already decided that something is not a worthwhile debate for The Short Version, I’ve been able to clean up my own media consumption quite a bit.
It’s also helped me find the good arguments for ideas I don’t believe in. I won’t necessarily always pair the most prevalent idea on the “other side”, but I’ll actually try to figure out what the best argument is.
JT: How do you find those arguments? Have you coached yourself over the years to inhabit the other side better, or have you refined your research skills and are able to identify the people on different platforms e.g. Twitter? To identify an opposing view to your own is really hard!
CA: It is hard, and I think I’ve done both. I’d like to think I’m getting better at the mental pathways required to anticipate what those ideas would be. I couldn’t say with confidence that I would be able to anticipate what staunch conservative’s perspective on any given topic would be, but I have definitely gotten better at research. I’m not putting words into anyone’s mouth, I rely on a deep-dive into conservative media.
I am deeply biased, but Vox does a good job of representing both sides, so I use the research I find on Vox a lot. I also have honed my sense of who’s making good arguments down to a list of people I think are not insane on both sides. I read their arguments and think about their points of view and try to distill them down as best as I can.
JT: The Short Version started as something outside your 9-5, and you did it because you loved it. Now that your full-time job is producing very similar content (explaining things to the world), how do you feel about the The Short Version? Is it something you still get up excited about, or has those feelings changed?
CA: Great question. I haven’t done The Short Version in about a month, partly due to too much actual work, but that’s okay! I think I’m allowed to reframe what that is exactly. I’m particularly interested in telling stories via video at the moment, and I think The Short Version will become more about that. It’s okay for it to evolve, and I would like to be able to do that. I think your question is really about how I feel; it used to be a space where I was experimenting with a new thing, and now that new thing is my whole life.
JT: You could even argue that it is extra work. It’s the same mind that you’re using in both.
CA: I think The Short Version got me my job at Vox. I obviously had gained a lot of experience in political consulting, and I was able to make the point that the work and skills I was gaining was similar to the skills you use in digital media. The Short Version is on my resume, and they may have read some of it. They probably saw that the sensibility I was bringing to that was very much what Vox believes in; that all important issues can be talked about in a language that we can all understand, that that conversation is very important.
When we think about the hockey of everyday cable news, it’s more important to pull out the context; the stadium that we’re playing hockey in.
I own The Short Version, that means a lot to me. Having a side project that will be mine to experiment with. If I want to make it more about video I could, if I wanted to dive more into a particular topic area and do things weekly there, I could do that. I think that it’s important to have your own mental play space, and I think it’s really great to do that in public. That’s something you’ve done with Ghost Vintage. Taking an interest and putting it into the public space as opposed to in your own closet is, I think, hard, and puts some pressure on you to continue doing it. And that’s a lot of what The Short Version is to me, an area where I am forced to use these skills, those skills improve, I’m allowed to experiment, there’s no boss telling me what to do. I think that’s very special, even if it’s similar to the other work that I do, it’s not; it’s mine. It matters that it could be the through-line throughout my whole career. The Short Version could be something that I continue for many years.
JT: You’re your own editor, writer, producer, you make the website obviously, you do the marketing. Do you relish inhabiting all those roles at once?
CA: I think it’s a good pressure to have, which I really enjoy. I think it also allows me in different points in my formal career to experiment with parts of The Short Version that reflects skills I want to work on. If I’m figuring out how to market our Vox Netflix show, I may also want to test and think about how I’m marketing The Short Version. Building those skills simultaneously on very different things, one on a tiny scale where I can do whatever I want and I can mess around with it and I can mess it, I think that helps me do the bigger projects I want to work on it because it helps me provide time to just fuck around.
JT: It’s not as big of an impact if something goes wrong.
CA: Exactly, who cares?
JT: I used to have complexes around the word ‘creative’, which led me to have self-limiting beliefs. I’m not a photographer, I’m not a website producer, I don’t know anything about it. But being forced to say, yeah, I’m literally a photographer now, and really owning that statement really helps speed up the skill development.
CA: Exactly. I could not agree more.
JT: Has there been any part of The Short Version that was really fucking hard to work on, or made you super uncomfortable?
CA: Yeah, actually one that I’m working on right now is video production. I’m quite proficient in Adobe Premiere, so editing the videos is something I’m fairly comfortable with. I am conversational in After Effects. I want the hard skill, I want to be able to mess around and make my own videos on The Short Version and have them have important animated pieces, and it also means that I’m spending a lot of time learning those skills. I took a class at Columbia that helped me learn videography and camera use, and that’s where I learned Premiere. Then I took an animation class at SVA, every Thursday at 6:30pm-10:30pm, or whatever it was.
It was a lot of time, it didn’t feel exactly like I was coming away with something that I could point to that I had done, but now I have a large step up in learning animation. I think that the class gave me the ability to speak the language and to understand what the questions were that I want to ask. Now when I work on animation project, I’m building on that resource and figuring it out. I think that is something that I have struggled with a little. I want to be able to make a video from start to finish myself, I already can, but I want it to be the best it can possibly be, so that’s a very hard skill that I’m trying to build.
JT: Is making videos something you want to do long term, or is it more so that you want to learn the skills and master it for the sake of it?
CA: I really enjoy it. That’s something that I’ve learned with The Short Version, to put the pressure off the things that I find myself really drawn to. Right now, my job at Vox is to figure out what the big projects are that I can help into things we’re really proud of, and I have found over the course of making several videos with Model Citizen that I really love the puzzle that is making a video.
I think that joy and the things you have discovered in stuff you really like took me to a really great place with The Short Version, so I’m kind of letting it do the same thing but with video. I stay up late working on pitches, I love writing scripts. it’s hard but I do in fact love doing the animation. I think that finding something that you are super curious about and really want to learn to do can end up taking you in so many different directions.