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June 22, 2022, 1:41 p.m.

The Los Angeles Times gets a fully staffed “burner account”

The first-of-its-kind team is offering “views, vibes, and commentary.”

Is an official Finsta an oxymoron? The 404 — a new Los Angeles Times project being billed as “a burner account” for the legacy newspaper — doesn’t think so.

Known informally as the meme team during its formation, the 404 is “the first-of-its-kind collective in any major U.S. newsroom.” Unlike other social teams — including the Times’ own audience engagement staff — the 404 does not create content to amplify existing journalism. And readers won’t see work by the 404 on the Times’ website. Instead, the 404 has been tasked with “continually inventing new types of experimental content” in hopes of reaching younger, more diverse audiences who are not already reading or engaging with The L.A. Times.

“Their formation is vital for the future of The Times, but their work might come across as a glitch, a hack, a page you landed on by mistake,” an introductory post explained. (Hence the name.) “It will truly stand apart — while still standing for — The Times.”

The newly hired six-person team contains multitudes. There’s a puppeteer on board, as well as a professional sign painter, community manager, and an on-field host for the Dodgers. Angie Jaime, who’ll lead the team as the news org’s first “head of creator content,” has a journalism degree and has worked as a reporter, creative strategist at Snapchat, and social editor at Vice.

The staff for 404 have one thing in common, though: they’re all extremely online.

@latimes At the edge of the continent—at the end of the world—404 is where everything extremely L.A. and everything extremely online crash together to create something new. We can’t wait to show you what’s next.♬ original sound – 404 [by L.A. Times]

In terms of what the team will actually do and make, Jaime said video — especially on TikTok — would be the first priority. Other areas of concentration will be images (think: memes, illustrations, comics, and graphic art); content for emerging platforms (AR, VR, live streams, and “stuff that doesn’t exist yet”); and collaborations with other creators living in L.A.

Jaime described the 404 voice as concise, well-informed, but supremely down-to-earth — emphatically a “real contrast” to the more formal tone most newsrooms deploy online. Because the team is developing material meant to “live and breathe on social” rather than drive traffic to a news site, Jaime said the team has an opportunity to take into account the complicated relationship many of us have with screens large and small.

“Right now the digital landscape is littered with hollow content and misinformation. A lot of folks are burned out online,” Jaime said. “Our aim is to offer an accessible alternative. We want to tell stories for an audience that craves information. I think part of that has to be being very self aware of the nature of people’s relationship with the internet itself.”

So. What does that look like in practice? In its first weeks of existence, the 404 has posted news reports from a mildly deranged sheep named Judeh, footage of “vibes” at a Juneteenth celebration, a defense of LA’s metro system, and entertainment news roundups. On Instagram, the team is sharing memes about parking and (what else?) traffic, a text exchange with a palm tree, and a promo for a “very fake, very non-existent podcast” about a boss who didn’t respond with an emoji on Slack.

@latimesIt’s Friday, June 10 and this is the Sorry Report. Today, our intrepid reporter Judeh sets out on a journey to conquer the teleprompter.♬ original sound – 404 [by L.A. Times]

After questions bubbled up on Twitter and the standards channel of the Times’ internal Slack, the team decided to clarify where they stand on the traditional news-opinion divide, said assistant managing editor for audience Samantha Melbourneweaver. The team also reworked its process to work more closely with editing and copy desks following an early factual error and typo.

“We updated our bios to more clearly state what type of content people can expect from us and to explain what 404 is,” Melbourneweaver said. “It’s a group that, in the tradition of editorial cartoonists, is informed by newsroom reporting but will comment on it and share views.”

With 404, The Times hopes to drive awareness by meeting people where they already spend time online. Success looks like content that sparks mass engagement, Jaime confirmed, and that makes the news org feel relevant to new audiences. Since launching earlier this month, the 404 Instagram has earned a little under 2,000 followers and its TikTok account, which the 404 inherited from another L.A. Times team, has more than 260,000. (The TikTok’s previous host, V Spehar, said they would still contribute weekly.)

Some of the earliest feedback has been positive — and in line with the reaction the 404 hopes to garner among new audiences. “Whoever convinced the executives at the LA times to give this account a budget – we love you,” wrote one commenter on TikTok. Another wrote, “strong 2000s ‘randomness is comedy’ vibes but I’m down.” A user named Alex simply asked, “Is this … the news?”

POSTED     June 22, 2022, 1:41 p.m.
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