When it comes to Black storytellers, Andrew Johnson producer at NowThis also known as Andy, has been in the digital media space for over a decade. He is currently a video producer at NowThis News, specifically for their series Wrongful Conviction.
The inspirational glo-up
Andy recalls being interested in filmmaking and creating visual media after watching MTV’s Making the Video.
He was fascinated by hip hop culture while growing up and would watch a lot of music videos. Andy also noticed something interesting–he would look at the bottom of the screen to see who directed the video.
Johnson would often guess who the director was based on their thematic and artistic choices. Hype Williams, Paul Hunter, and Little X were his common guesses. Watching this series gave Johnson the opportunity to see the creative process of the music videos. It also introduced him to a possible career path.
He knew he did not want to create music videos, but rather full-length movies. When he enrolled in college at Long Island University – post campus, he became a film major.
Andy’s first filmmaking gigs started at weddings. He would do 10-hour wedding days and then edit the footage. He would have hours of video and ultimately turn them into short, five-minute films.
NowThis’ Wrongful Conviction
NowThis News covers investigative reports, interviews, along with original series, like Wrongful Conviction, which Johnson produces. The series highlights individual cases of people who were sentenced for crimes they did not commit.
One episode Johnson produced was that of Huwe Burton’s. Burton’s mother was murdered when he was 16. He came home to the body and called the police.
At first, it appeared that the police were conducting an investigation on the murder. They shifted the blame towards Burton and he eventually was jailed following a coerced confession.
Huwe Burton’s case
At the time of the murder, Huwe had a 13-year-old girlfriend. The police accused Burton of statutory rape and told him if he admits to killing his mom, they will bring him to family court and he will serve no jail time. If he didn’t admit to the murder he never committed, authorities told him he will get a murder charge alongside a statutory rape charge.
Johnson remembers the episode:
“Being that he was 16 years old, he confessed to the cops’ coerced confession about his mom’s death. Basically, it made me think of what I would have done when I was 16.”
“At 16, you’re not necessarily operating with a full deck, so that kind of weighed heavily on me. [I reflected] on what kind of child I was at 16, and said if I was in a situation like that…where would my life be right now?”
Huwe Burton was only 16 years old when police coerced him into confessing to the 1989 murder of his own mother. After being exonerated in 2019, he’s setting the record straight.
Posted by NowThis on Monday, June 29, 2020
Huey Burton’s case hit close to home for the producer. Andrew admits he develops emotional connections to some of the stories on the NowThis series. He cites that Black and Brown people are disproportionately affected by incarceration. However, he focuses on other demographics as well in order to keep his work versatile.
“As a Black person…my outlook on life and every day is the Black experience. So, I do cover that, but I also don’t want to be boxed into, ‘He only covers Black content’.”
The experience is for everyone to see
By expanding his palette, he can also highlight the human experience overall. Andy is interested in finding other groups affected by incarceration, like suburban moms and convicted children.
“I want to take the time to get different aspects of the problem or different demographics…Although this does disproportionately affect Black and brown people, it can happen to anyone.”
The COVID-19 outbreak caused a lot of companies to shift the way they operate. In Andrew’s experience, NowThis switched in-person interviews for the show to Skype interviews. The pandemic altered the storytelling, but the episodes still garnered thousands of views and engagement.
JJ Velazquez has been fighting for his freedom for 22 years after being wrongfully convicted of murdering an NYPD officer in 1998. But despite phone records backing up his alibi and witnesses recanting their testimonies against him, he still remains behind bars.
Posted by NowThis on Friday, May 22, 2020
Andrew Johnson may make film production look easy, but there are some challenges that come with it. Research is paramount to the creation of a successful episode. Usually, when you speak to friends or family of incarcerated people, they will suggest the person in question is innocent.
By conducting heavy research, the Wrongful Conviction team can present the public with the facts of a case. For Andy, this means he has to make sure he can stand behind what he published. Sometimes, that involves filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and talking to forensic examiners.
Andy’s end goal doesn’t stop with NowThis. The film producer dreams of creating feature-length documentaries on stories surrounding social issues in general. More specifically, he wants to explore the African and Caribbean diaspora through his lens.
He’s already started doing the work–Johnson is currently working on a project about Black farmers in America. Johnson cites that there were over a million Black farmers in America in the 1920s and that there are roughly 49,000 today. That makes up less than 1% of all farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is notorious for discriminating against Black farmers, of which we see the effects of today.
White people own 98 percent of rural land. Young Black farmers want to reclaim their share. https://t.co/xDw9kE99PP
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) June 29, 2020
“[We] have less Black farmers now and when you look at Black areas, there’s a lot of food desserts. And then when you look at it even deeper, you find out that the top deaths for Blacks are food-related, like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.”
Advice for the up-and-coming
Andrew’s pro tip to young aspiring producers: start now.
We have an abundance of technology to the point where you can even record a film of an iPhone. There are a lot of software programs and apps to download for editing, like iMovie. YouTube is also a great resource for tutorials.
“Start now. It doesn’t matter if you suck, you’re going to get better. Just keep working on improving. Find your niche, find the stories you like to tell; even if they’re quirky.”
“Chances are, if you are interested in something, there’s probably other people who are interested in it.”
Johnson also reminds the new generation to opt for start-ups or smaller companies versus large corporations.
He searched for openings at companies like MTV and CBS when he was in college. However, when he began to look at smaller organizations, he noticed he could have the opportunity to do more work.
Internships sometimes have a bad reputation (e.g. supervisors making their interns grab coffee and print and copy documents).
The medium you’re looking to get into also plays a large role in your job search.
“Sometimes, you can actually be functional without a large company. So when you look at segments of media like podcasting, you can do that on your own.”
Andy also suggests creating a name for yourself. If you’re working for a large corporation, your work reflects their practices and tone. So, by creating your own experience, people learn about you, what you do, and ultimately turn yourself into a brand.
To check out more of Andrew Johnson’s work, click here.