Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Now nonprofit, The Salt Lake Tribune has achieved something rare for a local newspaper: financial sustainability
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 25, 2021, 2:38 p.m.
Audience & Social

Meet the editor building a “meme team” at the Los Angeles Times

Samantha Melbourneweaver on the biggest mistake news organizations make with younger readers, the audience team’s growing role within the newsroom, and “getting weird” online.

The Los Angeles Times announced a major expansion of its audience team earlier this month, saying they’ll add more than a dozen new jobs and promote the team’s leader, Samantha Melbourneweaver, to assistant managing editor for audience.

L.A. Times executive editor Kevin Merida and managing editor Kimi Yoshino told staff that the changes are a “major investment in our digital growth” and “a critical step toward attracting news readers.”

We wanted to talk to Melbourneweaver about the new “meme team” she’ll create within the larger audience group, a growing emphasis on experimentation at the Times, and what she finds funny on the internet.

Her last name, by the way? Melbourneweaver says people often ask about it (I did) and oftentimes assume she’s Australian (she is not). She and her husband both had longish, double surnames before marrying and had been going back and forth on what family name they’d choose. They were still deciding when filling out their marriage license. Her husband typed in his last name, without its hyphen, in the form and they decided to go with that. “In retrospect, I would have cut out a few letters,” she said. “Nix some of the vowels in there. But it’s a fun icebreaker.”

Here’s the conversation with Melbourneweaver edited for length, clarity, and to make it seem like I don’t say “you know” as often as I do.

Sarah Scire: I would like to hear how you like to explain audience engagement. It seems like audience work, now, encompasses so many different roles and job titles and actions within a newsroom. How would you describe it to someone?

Samantha Melbourneweaver: At the risk of sounding a little egomaniacal, engagement is everybody’s job. I view the audience team at the L.A. Times as the coaches for engagement. Everything we do comes along with the hope and the intention of getting other people to put the audience first, wherever they are.

Audience jobs at the L.A. Times are a couple of teams. We have a newsletters team. We have a social media team. We have a search team. Those are really specific to platforms and storytelling styles. The people who work on those teams are optimizing content and using a certain set of tactics and criteria for that specific platform.

Our straight-up audience engagement editors are like trainers for sections. They do promotional work and … not story editing but story coaching, like, “Oh, this angle is the strongest for this platform, so let’s highlight that” or “You know what I’ve seen on social? People are asking this question, we should put that as the headline.” The whole point is teaching other people, here’s how your audience reacting to what you’re talking about, here’s what they want to know. Think about that. Serve them. Audience is really just the practice, in whatever form it takes, of trying to connect with readers, viewers, and listeners.

In a practical sense, yes, we have audience engagement editors and they do a different job than line editors and senior editors and copy editors. The mission [of audience engagement editors] is to teach everybody that there are certain tools you can employ, there’s data you can look at, and there are tactics you can use to make sure that you’re putting your reader or listener or viewer first.

We do other things, of course, that are directly audience engagement. We’ll do a survey where we ask people to send in their stories. We’ll host a Clubhouse where we talk with people about an issue directly or we’ll put on an in-person event and invite people to attend and meet us and talk to us. Those are things that not every journalist is going to do, although they could. I think we are — or, I should say, I want us to be — a hub in the L.A. Times newsroom of innovation and experimentation.

I oversee the team, of course, so I think it’s everything. Everything is audience.

Scire: The announcement of your promotion says your team’s expansion will “benefit the entire newsroom and every area of our coverage.” I’m sure there are certain people or sections that are early adopters at the L.A. Times. How do you approach the other people and different sections — the ones that might be trickier?

Melbourneweaver: Different sections, different content, different editors need different pieces. I actually think the challenging sections to figure out are the ones that are already doing a really great job. The ones who have staff that know their Twitter audience or reporters who have their own email list and email a whole group of people every time they publish. We’re like, “Oh, wow. Yes. This is a great start. Now let’s get weird.” That becomes a fun challenge for us.

But, yes, we use different tactics for different sections. If you look at Food, for instance, that’s a really visual line of content — photo-rich, video-rich, graphics-rich, and there’s a robust community for food content on Tik Tok, Instagram, and YouTube. If you look at our environment coverage, which is covered by people in our business section and people in our larger California section plus national reporters, that’s a much more broad topic area. The people that care about it are all over the place. Some of them read newsletters, some of them read traditional newspapers, some of them are on Enviro-Twitter. That’s a harder nut to crack. In those cases, we focus a lot on the content itself. How do we optimize this piece of content? How do we make sure that this article or this newsletter, no matter where it goes, makes sense to someone who cares about climate or wind energy or whatever it is that the piece of content is about?

Scire: There’s also this idea at the L.A. Times that, you know, you’re trying to reach people who don’t already view you as “part of their world.” You’re trying to reach new audiences and part of that is extending the journalism’s impact but it’s also getting more people to see the value of a subscription. Can you connect those two dots for me — about how audience work can be a tool in that endeavor?

Melbourneweaver: Yeah, totally. That’s the job. That’s why I say it’s everybody’s job. I don’t think we’re very unique in that the L.A. Times is a very old news organization with a big history, but its primary history is as a newspaper delivered on doorsteps. That kind of content and that storytelling format is geared at a certain type of person and I think we’re very good at getting those people — the people who are dying to sit down with a newspaper every day. And, look, I get the newspaper; I think there’s value. Some people like reading paper.

But when we look at how people consume media today and the types of media they consume, we haven’t quite cracked the code on how to be one of those choices people have. And I’m not even talking about on Twitter or on Instagram. When people open up their phone, what app do they open? I don’t think they are necessarily like, “Oh, sweet! What’s the latest from the L.A. Times?” when there’s Instagram sitting right there. I also think, like a lot of other organizations, we’ve got some trust issues we have to work on.

I think part of our role as the audience team is to show that we’re people, we have fun, and we have interests too. I think a big mistake that a lot of organizations make is thinking, “Oh, young people only want ~snackable~ content. They only want video.” As if there aren’t young people marching in the streets for social justice and climate change action. Everyone cares about these issues. It’s that when we just print this long, big thing and put it on the internet, that’s not speaking to that.

So how can we adjust our output but keep our expertise? And that’s what audience engagement people are here for, right? We’ve got all of these brilliant minds, all these people with all this experience covering issues that are huge and important and happening at an incredible rate. I mean, every day, there’s some exciting thing — good or bad — when it comes to the environment. Audience is here to go, “Here’s why you should care about this TikTok or Twitter. Let’s talk about it. What do you think?” Let’s invite them into the conversation.

Scire: Ok, yes. You mentioned this phrase earlier and I noticed you’ve used it elsewhere, so let’s talk about “we’re going to get weird.” I know there’ll be a meme team but, yeah, let’s talk about getting weird.

Melbourneweaver: I always want to get weird. I think everyone’s weird — a little bit weird — in great ways. And I think weird really stands out. It doesn’t have to mean dumb or stupid. I really want it to mean: No one’s tried that before so let’s give it a shot. It could work.

A couple of years ago, one of our then-interns who was later hired full-time, Lauren Lee, was joking around in Slack about sending a tweet about Lucas Kwan Peterson‘s power rankings on French fries, and the “let’s get weird moment” was that everyone said, “That’s really funny. You should just tweet that.” That’s the thing we try to do all the time: Send it out and see what happens. Every time we give ourselves permission to be ourselves, whether it’s on social or in an article or whatever, people connect with it.

We’re doing this funny thing on Instagram right now. We’ve given the keys over to one of our video journalists, Mark Potts, as he covers the Dodgers-Giants playoff series. We’re calling it POTTStober and we made a logo. It’s partly a way around the fact that we can’t send out clips of the game during the game, but he can walk around doing goofy, sort of stand-up stuff. We don’t think everything is dead serious. But, also, we’re here for you when you need to know about the corruption at City Hall — because that’s also on Instagram.

I also think that the industry of journalism — despite our efforts to become a more diverse, welcoming, inclusive industry — in the end, we end up recruiting people from similar backgrounds. Middle class, upper middle class, who went to college, who got a journalism degree, who have done certain levels of internships, especially at the level of the L.A. Times. That’s great because that gives us some really great journalism, but there are some ways it’s not great in that we end up talking to ourselves. And listen, I don’t think the meme team is going to solve this by itself but hopefully we can, you know, take a couple steps in our direction.

I really want to build a team — especially the meme team — that has people who don’t necessarily come from journalism backgrounds or don’t necessarily think the old tenets of journalism are as hallowed and important. Because they’re like, “Well, I’ve been over here on YouTube. And let me tell you what works there” or “I’m an illustrator and I’ve got a following because I tried this thing.” I probably wouldn’t say that if I ran the investigative team, right? I think when it comes to engaging with audiences about certain topics that we know they care about … Let’s find someone who can think outside of the box a little bit, get a little weird, try some new things and maybe find and engage people who might not otherwise have found out about it.

Scire: And you’ll have 15 positions to fill! How will you find these people? Is there something different you’ll do when it comes to hiring?

Melbourneweaver: That’s an excellent question. I don’t know I have a great answer for it. One of the things that I like to think I’m pretty good at is getting the word out to people. I think there are a couple avenues. First of all, not to say that journalists aren’t welcome. I was in journalism school; I’ve been a reporter; I did internships. It’s not like, journalists need not apply.

But, especially in LA, we’ve got a whole industry — many industries, actually — for creatives and creative people, so I’m hoping that we can tap into some of those networks and invite people from off-the-wall backgrounds. One of the things I’d really love to experiment with is someone who’s a different type of writer: a comedy writer, a novelist, a cartoonist, or something like that. I think there’s ways we can experiment with that type of content creation. And we have a huge books community in Los Angeles. I think we can find some some cool people. I mean, we have the TikTok houses here! Let’s get those weirdos over here.

Scire: So what do people need to know about the meme team? It sounds like you’re still shaping it and it’ll depend on the sort of individuals you hire.

Melbourneweaver: The meme team itself will be about six people. I’m hoping there are people who see the job description and go, “Oh yeah. That sounds fun. I get to join an experimental team and just try things for a while in a safe space? Sign me up.” Even better if people are like, “I know and like the L.A. Times. I like their reporting but I think they need a little something-something. I think I can help them.”

I want the group to come together and I want to mix all these cool people up and see what they want to go after. Obviously, we’ll have to think deeply and seriously about voice, we’ll have to think deeply and seriously about what content to cover that we can continue to have fun with and also be respectful and smart about, and then we’ll have to think deeply about what platform to put that on and what kind of audience specifically makes sense for the content. But, yeah, I want to keep it loose for now and see what we get.

Then the rest of [the team’s expansion] is continuing to build on our successes as an audience team with our audience editors and our SEO experts and our news aggregator partnership. We’re going to keep building on the rest of these things and invest in our traditional L.A. Times content just as much as we’re investing, if not more than we’re investing in, getting weird.

Scire: It sounds like part of your mandate is to just experiment and try things to see what works and what doesn’t. What sorts of things will you be looking at to determine if what you’re trying is working? What does success look like?

Melbourneweaver: I think audience reaction is a huge thing. What I want to start to see organically is people in Los Angeles or people who care about Los Angeles saying, “Hey, look at this. It came from the L.A. Times — isn’t that cool? I’m going to follow them.” That’s what I want to see. We see that sometimes now where we send out a funny tweet and people are, like, “Give this person a raise.” That’s what I really want and I think that’s the ultimate measure of success, at least for this year.

Scire: Ok, can we take a step back for a second? How do you separate work scrolling from fun scrolling or doomscrolling?

Melbourneweaver: That’s really generous that you think that I’m able to do that. It’s actually one of the reasons that I’m a print subscriber. I think a lot of journalists have this problem where you’re reading an article on the internet but I’ll do this thing where I start to ask, “How was this tweeted? What did I like about this article? Why did I click on this one versus that one? How did we present this on social? Look at the linking structure! That pop-up was so interesting; we should try something like that.” And then it’s like, what did I even read? What’s this article about? So, yes, it’s one reason I subscribe to print. One of the things that I do to separate is just picking a different format.

In terms of fun scrolling versus business-related scrolling, I don’t know. It all kind all melds together, especially when it comes to a new platform where I think, “Oh, I’ll get on this to see if there’s anything we can ever do on this platform.” I also never want to tweet anything in case I forget which account I’m posting from. So, yeah, I don’t think I’m good at [separating], is my short answer.

Scire: It’s true! I made an assumption that you must be better at doing it than the rest of us.

You alluded to this earlier, a bit, but the L.A. Times has a reputation and prominence that you can play off of — sort of the way that the official New Jersey Twitter account, by virtue of being official, is funnier. But there’s also this thing of, you know, good memes die when brands do them. How do you balance those two things? I guess another way of asking this questions is: how to not be cringe?

Melbourneweaver: Yeah, that’s tough. We just have to be authentic. This is not a rule — because I don’t think anyone’s tried to break it — but there’s no expectation that we take part in any meme or situation.

It really starts with the “you should tweet that” conversation. This is a humblebrag but the audience team at the L.A. Times really gets along in a way that teams of this size —we’re 17 right now, including me, and we’ll have 36 once we finish this expansion don’t always. We talk all day about the news and it’s the funnest thing. Someone will drop in an article and be like, “Look at this part.” And then someone else cracks a joke and it’s “Oh my gosh, we should tweet that.” Or we’ll see a meme and we say, “Here’s what our version of that would be.”

It’s organic and not meant to capitalize on the situation. Instead, it’s — “That made us all laugh. And it’s kind of harmless and it’s genuine. Let’s do that and see what happens.” I think if I were to enforce some sort of structure around that process, it would feel like forcing it. Only do it when there’s an actual opportunity or a genuine reaction to something rather than looking at everything and asking, “How do we fit in here?”

Scire: O.K., with the full knowledge that this answer could expire in 10 minutes: do you have a favorite meme? Or something that made you laugh recently?”

Melbourneweaver: Oh, God. The first one I think of is kind of old. I like the “upload the last video of your cat and play this sound” one.  I think people are fudging a little bit but it still cracks me up. Or the one where the person is like, “Do you ever look at your person … ?”

@meagankoonswhose mans? @coltonkoons #husband #katespadenyonthemove #CinderellaMovie♬ Grateful by Danny Christian – Danny Falcao

And this fits with my obsession with weird things but I loved that moment where there were all of these Instagram accounts that popped up with a single frog photo with a random name. Where’d that come from? I don’t know but, man, it’s fun to send someone.

Photo of Samantha Melbourne by Patrick J. Fallon for the Los Angeles Times.

POSTED     Oct. 25, 2021, 2:38 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
SHARE THIS STORY
   
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Now nonprofit, The Salt Lake Tribune has achieved something rare for a local newspaper: financial sustainability
The Salt Lake Tribune’s transition to nonprofit status has been closely watched in the news industry. “The opportunity for us to prove that this can work is significant and so is the responsibility.”
Address — don’t sidestep — health misinformation to debunk falsehoods, study finds
“Don’t be afraid to tackle misinformation head on. It’s important that people speak out, and you can repeat [misinformation] and then debunk it.”
A rose is a rose is a rose, but please, please make it clear to your readers what a “subscriber” is
Do you mean “people who pay a news company hundreds of dollars a year”? Or “email addresses we have in a spreadsheet somewhere”?