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Feb. 27, 2019, 12:06 p.m.
Reporting & Production

A hotline for racists, a gun control app for “a**holes”: The New York Times is taking its opinion video coverage in a new, YouTube direction

“We’re trying to be a platform for voices that you wouldn’t ordinarily read in text at the Times.”

“Hi. I’m Niecy Nash, actress, inventor, and advocate for not calling 911 on black people for no goddamn reason.”

“Introducing Aftershot, the only app that helps a bunch of assholes figure out when to talk about gun reform.”

These feel like lines pulled from SNL commercial parodies. But they’re actually from The New York Times — more specifically, from the Times’ year-old Opinion Video department, which is aiming to produce videos that appeal to a YouTube-native audience and feel very different from…well, let’s say “stodgy stereotypical newspaper video.” You might be surprised by the swearing. And the Facebook snark. And the variety of video styles. And that these are things your non-news-junkie friends might actually want to watch.

While I found the satirical pieces the most strikingly different from what I’d expect from the Times, they’re only a small part of what the Opinion Video department is putting out. It also includes: investigations into crazy sexism in Chinese tech job hiring (that one was done in partnership with Human Rights Watch as well as an independently hired Chinese social media expert to scrape the social web); rapper/activist Meek Mill on prisoners’ rights; and a major three-part series on Russian disinformation (which BBC World has licensed).

The new opinion videos are “enabling us to get voices we would otherwise never be able to get on our platform,” James Bennet, editorial page editor at The New York Times, said in a talk this week at the Shorenstein Center. The videos are also attracting new audiences at a moment when the Times is extremely focused on subscriber growth; for now, Opinion Video is almost entirely focused on YouTube, even though everything is also posted on The New York Times’ website.

“We’re not really taking on these battles over on-site promotion and homepage placement and all those things,” said Adam Ellick, the Times’ director and executive producer of opinion video. “Our priority is YouTube.”

I recently talked to Ellick and to Times senior video editor Taige Jensen about their first year making videos aimed at what Ellick describes as “a new generation of video viewers who have come to expect voice and attitude.” Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: You launched Opinion Video about a year ago. Why? And what space did you want it to fill at the Times?

Adam Ellick: If you go around and speak to other people in the video journalism space, and ask them who they think is making good “opinion video,” they’ll tell you that the rest of the industry just calls that “video.” It’s a new generation of video viewers who have come to expect voice and attitude.

Historically, at the Times, there were only two forms of opinion video: There was Op-Docs, a weekly, short digital documentary series that acquires and commissions films from outside filmmakers. And then, over the years, [op-ed columnist] Nick Kristof and I used to get on airplanes and go make short documentaries on human rights.

Outside of that, there was no opinion video. I proposed that we start this department because of what viewers have come to expect in this medium. It echoes the tenets and the mission of the opinions page, which is to be a platform for diverse and interesting voices. And because we’re in Opinion, we have the license to collaborate with a lot of outside video makers — foundations and NGOs, musicians, celebrities who have their own production houses, places like Forensic Architecture that are doing their own journalism, production houses, and comedy TV shows. Historically, there wouldn’t have been a way for the Times to collaborate with those places [in video]. My vision was to create a formal structure [to do that].

Our goal for the first year was just to experiment broadly and freely with a ton of different formats, from famous voices to do-it-yourself YouTubers in order to try to eventually narrow the field of what we make.

Owen: So what have you learned so far?

Ellick: One thing we learned was that a lot of these outside video makers are eager and anxious to collaborate with us. We’ve worked with Human Rights Watch; Fortify Rights, which is an NGO that supports Rohingya; Meek Mill; some YouTubers; the director of the documentary “City of Ghosts”; Forensic Architecture in the U.K.; and a TV comedy show in Australia. A really diverse range.

We’ve also learned that good opinion video journalism can lead to significant impact, which is obviously the overriding goal of our department. In early 2018, Taige produced a video about #MeToo in the church. It’s the story of a woman who called out her pastor for sexual assault. Our video gained a ton of traction in the local press in Nashville where the pastor worked at a megachurch. Eleven days later, he resigned, and he quoted our video in his resignation later. I think the victim had been interviewed for like 20 seconds by some newscasts, but it was her first full telling of her story.

In collaboration with Human Rights Watch, we made a video about gender discrimination in hiring inside China’s tech companies. Alibaba and Tencent — these are two of the largest companies in the world, according to market value.

Human Rights Watch was coming out with a 99-page, mostly text report about the egregious ways Chinese companies were signaling that only men could apply for certain jobs, using the promise of beautiful girls to recruit male candidates for jobs. We independently hired a social forensic researcher to scrape the Chinese social web and found more video examples. We launched our video the day the report came out. Within a few days, Tencent issued an apology and pledged that this wouldn’t happen again, and Alibaba vowed to conduct stricter reviews.

Our biggest piece of last year was Operation InfeKtion, on the history of Russian disinformation. It’s now translated into 10 languages in countries where the press is either banned or under threat; the full list is embedded in our YouTube player. Someone in Romania is using it as part of a disinformation literacy project in high schools. We sold it independently to BBC World and it aired in 200 countries.

We’re really focused on engagement, in terms of completion rates and comments and participation. For the disinformation series, the engagement on YouTube was astronomical — the average watch time for each of the three episodes was between 8 and 10 minutes, and 45 percent of the viewers were international.

Owen: I was struck by the satirical videos — some of this stuff wouldn’t feel out of place as an SNL skit. How are you thinking about tone and humor?

Ellick: Our general goal this [past] year was to focus primarily off-platform, specifically on YouTube, and to reach new users who ordinarily might not read the Times’ opinion section. If you go back about eight months on the Times’ YouTube channel, the top three most-viewed videos are all opinion videos. I think that has to do with the fact that the stuff we’re doing naturally has more shelf life and it’s not super newsy, though it is off the news. We’ve been experimenting with different voices and trying to take on really serious topics but doing them in an engaging way. One of those tools is satire. I think the Niecy Nash story is something worth talking you through, because it was pretty exceptional in a few ways.

Taige Jensen: There was this avalanche of stories last year of people getting the police called on them for no apparent reason [other than that they were black]. I thought that there should be a number to call — literally a number. Typically, when I think of a project, I try to imagine it as more of an artifact that is useful to viewers — more than just a video that you watch that adds a perspective, but something you can actually participate in.

It seemed like if we created an actual number — that had meaningful statistics and a perspective when you called, and gave something you could actually use in your own conversations — we could potentially help people second-guess and wonder whether they are participating in a racist culture of over-policing black people in the United States.

The commercial was sort of an afterthought to me. The number was the product. So that’s how that evolved. Satire and comedy sometimes get a bad rap for demeaning the subject matter, but I definitely disagree with that concept.

Ellick: About 250,000 people called that phone line. The only way they would have heard about it was through the video. I sort of jokingly referred to it as our first phoneline format — the video was just the promotional lever for the actual voice recording which we thought of as the primary story form. We prompted people in the video and in text to call the number, it’s real. A ton of people were tweeting: “It’s real, you’ve got to call it.” And there was a lot of information on the phone line about these cases.

Some people left messages sharing their own experiences, and some were quite moving and tragic because they took place in an era before there were cell phones; these were instances [of racism] in the ’80s and ’90s that will never be documented. (Also, to be transparent, a lot of people were just breathing at the end of the voicemail, and we’ll never know who they were.) We received hundreds of emails from people sharing their own stories. Taige pitched this with a ton of creativity, but what attracted me at the highest level was that these cases pop up consistently, and we wanted to try to go above the news and create a sticky, evergreen place where you can keep track of all these egregious examples.

Under the video, we listed every case we could find and tried to link to it. I think it’s up to 38 or 39 cases and readers are pointing out more — the Waffle House guy in Arkansas, a lemonade guy in California. So we’ve been adding to the list and updating it.

Owen: You guys are putting a lot of focus on YouTube. How do you think about which platforms you’re going to focus on, versus bringing people to the Times site?

Ellick: I mean, we’re trying to walk and chew gum at the same time. We’re putting almost everything on the [Times] site, but we’re obsessing more with YouTube. Since we’re a very small team, we’re not really taking on these battles over on-site promotion and homepage placement and all those things. Our priority is YouTube, and the reason for that is engagement. We’re seeing tremendous engagement. In general, the tone and ethos of this young department is to reach new audiences, and I think the natural place to do that is on YouTube.

One of my favorite examples is our video about the Disney minimum wage dispute. We did it because we think it’s an important story about income inequality, but we didn’t expect it to be popular at all. It was a video op-ed about three Disney workers who are in a labor dispute with Disney. One sleeps in her car. One has been homeless. These are employees who have been working at Disney for decades, in some cases.

It has over a million views on YouTube, and five or six thousand comments. We got goosebumps reading the comments; other Disney employees were sharing their stories about how they left Disney because they were homeless and couldn’t pay their bills.

We never expected this to be [particularly] popular or engaging. So I don’t think that — I don’t think the Times website can host that sort of debate on opinion video. I think YouTube is a natural place where the product functions and the new audiences are conducive to this.

One of the things we struggle with is: How do you signal to your audiences, both new and old audiences, that something is comedy or satire? Because when they see our brand, they’re probably not expecting that. The Washington Post has a called Department of Satire, which is a very blatant and bold form of signaling. We obsess in the comment fields to see what’s landing with the audience and what’s not.

Jensen: Giving the right signals is a challenge. But I think that to be successful, you have to really believe and deliver a full argument — and not be worried about trying to bring them back to the platform, because online culture sort of resents that kind of attitude.

So when I produce a doc piece, I want to deliver to the YouTube audience or in that video a clear idea, as funny or irreverent as we’re allowed to be. My mission is also very different from the company’s company overall. I just want to execute pieces to be the best product that I can, more than getting people back to our branding and platform.

Owen: So when you say “as funny or irreverent as you’re allowed to be” — like, who’s allowing it? Who’s making the rules?

Jensen: It’s a tightrope act, to be honest. The appropriate voice is based a lot on attitudes around the subject. We have lawyers and PR people and everyone here to push back and try to keep us in some kind of lane. My thinking is, I go for what I want to make, and if they can stop me, then I’ve gone too far.

Ellick: This is an infant department. It’s a year old. We’re constantly learning. We’re experimenting with what’s in and out of bounds on a story-by-story level every day. We have killed pieces this year because we really liked the video but we just didn’t think it would land with our audience, even off-site.

If you watch these pieces carefully, you’ll notice that they’re packed with reported information. The format can be light and engaging, the tone can be satirical — not always but sometimes — but there’s reporting in them, and that is the ultimate buffer for an opinion department in injecting these pieces with information and wrapping comedy or voice or attitude around that information.

There are no rules, and we navigate all this on a story-to-story level, but it’s probably worth saying that the broader Opinion department has a few red lines. One is inaccuracy: All opinions must be grounded in facts. Every text op-ed is fact-checked, and so are our videos. The other two are anything hateful — we want to be respectful of other perspectives and experiences — and no tolerance for anything that’s beholden to hidden interests, hidden influence, or a blatant conflict of interest.

Those are our more formal red lines. Everything else falls into tone and style. I turned down a piece from a YouTuber this week that I loved, but I thought the humor was uncomfortable and even though I liked it, it wasn’t worth the risk to try to explain afterward.

Owen: What’s an example of something you’ve turned down?

Ellick: Last year, we killed a very opinionated piece about the conflict in the Middle East. It wasn’t satire; it just had a strong tone and a strong voice, and I thought that the video was fun to watch, but it lacked nuance. [Nuance is] something text does well, and I think video can do nuance well, but sometimes it’s a bit more of a struggle. We could have helped the video by putting more information in, but if we had put in all that information it would have slowed it down and made it feel a lot more like homework. So we just decided not to run it.

Owen: Now you guys are heading into Year 2. What’s the plan going forward?

Ellick: My team includes Op-Docs and this new video unit; combined, we’ll have 10 people when our visual fellow starts in a few months. We’re hiring a senior producer right now. We have a couple of editors and an assistant editor and then Op-Docs is three slots, technically.

So we’re a very small team, and we have a more significant freelance budget in order to acquire and produce and work with all of the outside collaborators I mentioned earlier. My thinking in setting this up was: Let’s have fewer [job] slots and a little bit more money, since we need to create an identity and voice in the first year, and then we can narrow the lane in years two and three.

We’ve found a bit of a sweet spot in the medium-form space. When you’re a small team, you can’t always do reaction to breaking news; you need to lean more on evergreen stories. We’re always monitoring the news and we have a news meeting every morning, but we try not to make a video every day. Stuff that’s more enterprising and valuable to our audience takes more like a couple days to a couple weeks. Every now and then, though, we’ll go hard on a news story, if we have some great idea.

We’re trying to be a platform for voices that you wouldn’t ordinarily read in text at the Times; there are a bunch of videos of people who simply would never write an op-ed for the Times. One was “We Are Republican Teachers Striking in Arizona. It’s Time to Raise Taxes.” These were Republican school teachers in Arizona whose classrooms were running short on school supplies. We Skyped with them while those strikes were happening.

We also did a video, “How to Get 1.4 Million New Voters,” with three ordinary Floridians who’d been in jail and didn’t have the right to vote and were making the appeal that they should. One was a Latina social worker, one was a black minister, and one was a working-class conservative white guy who runs a family carpet business. [Florida’s law preventing felons from voting was overturned in the 2018 midterms.] And “Our Loved Ones Died. We Want Action on Guns,” made with several Americans whose family members were killed in shootings.

We can complement what the text op-ed desk is doing with big names by making op-ed videos with more ordinary people who are personally affected or influenced by the news. Those have really resonated well. They’re so human and people are speaking from such a personal perspective.

There are a couple formats we’re gonna push forward. One is the video op-ed. Some examples of this are: “The Rape Jokes We Still Laugh At,” “I Escaped North Korea. Here’s My Message for President Trump,” and “I Was Assaulted. He Was Applauded.” These are evergreen news stories: #MeToo, prison reform, North Korea and the U.S. It’s giving people a platform to share their human story, how they were impacted by the news, and really putting in some strong visuals. All three of those were very inventive, visually; we want to scale those up quite a bit.

We also want to scale up what we’re calling “argued essays” or “argued video essays.” My favorite one is one that Taige made, called “Trump Is Making America Great Again.”

Jensen: The subhed is: “Just not the way he thinks he is.” The basic premise is to take a surprising argument and to apply a visual style and personal kind of tone. We haven’t produced a lot of those, but we like the format, and we think we can fit in more and really flesh out a fun voice that’s very current. We use a lot of GIFs and fast cutting; it’s got a sort of frenetic pace and also builds a case over time, until hopefully, by the end you’re convinced by the argument — or you’re not, and then you leave a comment.

Ellick: “Trump Is Making America Great Again” resonated with the audience, and we were shocked that it did really well on site as well. The style that Taige just described — I call it “lo-fi hi-fi.” It looks like a kid made it, but if you actually know video and can study the pacing and the rhythm, you know it was a big lift. The editing is quite elegant, even though it uses GIFs and Inspector Gadget clips and things you wouldn’t have noticed historically on the Times site.

POSTED     Feb. 27, 2019, 12:06 p.m.
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