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The Investment It Takes to Reach a New Audience
I spoke with the team behind 404 by L.A. Times about how to reach a new audience on social media.
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Most brands want to reach a younger audience, few invest in it. They hope posting a couple TikToks a week, without giving their social team more resources, will do the trick. When really it takes a top-to-bottom monetary, headcount, and strategic investment to do so. So when I saw the L.A. Times had launched an experimental “burner account”-style social presence called 404, I was intrigued.
The 404 is “a team of creators, artists, filmmakers, writers and makers of all kinds (including a puppeteer) and is the first-of-its-kind collective in any major U.S. newsroom.” And unlike The Washington Post’s very good and very successful TikTok, the 404 will rarely make content as a way to amplify other L.A Times work. Instead they create social-first content that speaks directly to the audience they want to build. L.A. Times’ Executive Editor Kevin Merida said at launch, “We must continue to be imaginative and daring as we try to reach new audiences and actively experimental in how we tell stories and where we tell them. Let’s go!” It’s an impressive undertaking for a legacy newspaper.
Today’s interview is with Samantha Melbourneweaver, assistant managing editor for audience at L.A. Times, and Angie Jaime, head of creator content for 404 specifically. We talk about why they created this brand, the investment it took, and why they hope it won’t exist in five years. For any brand wondering how to reach a new audience the right way, this newsletter is for you.
Rachel Karten: To start, can you each tell me about your roles at 404 by L.A. Times.?
Sam Melbourneweaver: I am the Assistant Managing Editor for Audience. Which means I oversee all of our off-platform work. So 404, which we sort of internally call the Social Content Team, SEO efforts, our newsletter team, our news partnerships group, comments, digital optimization editors, and more.
Angie Jaime: I'm the Head of Creator Content. Basically I am spearheading all of the efforts for 404. My role kind of functions like a mix of executive producer and creative director for all of the content. I'm helping to shape the strategy, the vision, the look and feel—all that good stuff. But then also managing the day-to-day production to make sure everything actually happens and gets published.
RK: We’ve seen news orgs dabble with more social-friendly offshoots, but not at this scale. Where did this idea come from? How long has it been in the works?
AJ: Sam and I started having these conversations well over a year before we even started hiring for this. It basically started over coffee asking the question of How do we reach younger audiences in new and unique ways?
Around September 2021 was when we really started to shape the vision of what this would actually be. I think for me, first and foremost, as someone who has spent their entire career working in social and digital, I'm always thinking about ways that I can use the palette of the internet to then do the work of building community. That’s really shaped my entire career. There are audiences who have been marginalized from being accessed—and we want to reach them.
I think social media has always presented the opportunity to answer the above question in a really easy and straightforward way. But you have to use social in a smart, complicated, strategic way to do so.
SM: For me, this really started with Kevin Merida, executive editor of the L.A. Times. He had so much success in his previous role at The Undefeated, really using social media to reach out to younger communities, communities of color, and communities traditionally overlooked by legacy media organizations.
He came in and was like, what's our operation for that? What's our plan to solve that problem and to connect with those potential followers and readers?
So the real impetus on my end to reach out to someone like Angie and to build this team was the question of How can we create something with that audience in mind?
RK: Can you talk a little bit about that team structure?
AJ: Earlier I mentioned Executive Producer as part of my role. So if you think about 404 as a network, I would view each one of the creators on staff as almost like showrunners of their own shows or programming. I’m then deciding what your slate looks like—is it serialized? Will we have seasons? How do we iterate on it?
We do have five content creators, as we're calling them, on staff and each one has a different specialty or area of interest.
There’s Tom, he's our mini documentarian and does a lot of research-based reporting.
Micah is our art director and sets the look and feel for the content in general.
Marina does more commentary and takes—providing analysis on a specific topic.
Jess is more host-led videos, and she’s also an on-field host for the Dodgers.
Safi is our experimental video creator and, of course, our puppeteer.
RK: Does everyone come from social backgrounds?
AJ: None of them, with the exception of Marina, come from a social background. Marina’s expertise is in social publishing and community management but everyone else is coming from different sorts of walks of life. That’s also on purpose— we want our collective to represent not just different perspectives in kinds of content they make but also in backgrounds, expertises, and POVs.
To me, there’s an added benefit of that. The people we’ve hired reflect right back on the city itself.
RK: When I think of the traditional news org on social, I think of photos and headlines. What you’re building feels more community focused. How else does the content on 404 by L.A. Times differ from that model?
AJ: Relatability is at the core of everything that we do, but I also think when you are building a community, it should be reciprocal. True community building is not only creating content just for content's sake, but you're accountable to these people and they are accountable to you.
I don't think that we ever create anything that wouldn't be useful, informative, or inspiring. And I say inspiring not in a wellness culture way but inspiring in that it serves you to want to learn more about something or it moves you in some way…even if the way it moves you is by thinking it’s a hilarious meme.
I think what we do is at its heart service journalism.
SM: Angie and the team really try to reflect back the community that we're trying to serve. This team is built around the idea that, we too are Angelenos, we too are Californians. And this comes down to the hiring too, right? Hiring people that represent the communities and the voices that we are trying to serve.
This style of journalism isn’t for everybody, but we are really dedicated to who it is for and the language they speak and the things that they care about.
RK: I have seen Twitter posts that mock the TikTok-ification of news—whether it’s someone breaking down a serious subject or just the idea that news isn’t meant to be delivered in a 1 minute video. How do you respond to that?
AJ: It's not meant to replace, it's meant to be additive. There’s a universe where a journal published by researchers at MIT exists also with the article about that published paper. And then there’s a TikTok about the article that’s about the published paper. In order for audiences to be reached, we can't expect someone to go straight to the peer-reviewed study.
We want to view the opportunity that we have on platforms like TikTok as the invitation to walk through that door. I think part of that is being really responsible about the ways in which you are doing those TikToks. For us, we take a more sort of experimental point of view. For example, we made a recent TikTok about Shireen Abu Akleh and her murder. We did that through the lens of a puppet telling that story—but it is with the deep rigor of any of our reporting. We went to our foreign desk editor to review the script together and provide additional research. I think that it’s additive to the existing reporting that's already happening—it's not meant to be a replacement.
SM: I also think that in some ways this follows in a long history of satire, cartooning and the entire op-ed opinion section of a newspaper. And if you wanna relate it to historical terms, editorial cartoonists, right? They shine a light on an issue in the same way that 404 shines a light on an issue, it might be through a lens of humor but it's often a way to draw more attention to something or put a finer point on something.
RK: Any posts you are particularly stoked about that have gone up?
AJ: So many but the 6th Street Bridge piece that Tom just recently did comes to mind. It speaks to so many of the things that are our strengths—sharp writing and an insider look at something that's happening on the ground that only we can cover. He literally rode his bike over there to go film it.
Importantly it has a point of view that is community led and driven. It’s peer-to-peer content as opposed to something that could be maybe super polished by an outside paper. It felt true to the ways that Angelenos tell their own stories, which is in a very specific way.
SM: I won’t spoil that video if you haven't seen it, but it literally ends with Tom running into a real friend on the bridge. It shows he authentically would be there, this is his community and people.
RK: Everyone is wanting to reach a younger audience right now. Most brands are still sort of figuring it out. And I feel like you really invested in it in a way that I think a lot of brands are scared to do. Is there any advice you would give to a brand that’s wanting to reach a younger audience, but doesn't know where to start?
SM: It has to be genuine. The younger generation on social media knows what's authentic and they've seen it faked. You have to be interested in what they're interested in. You can't just parachute in and treat them like kids—they're not kids. These are informed, active, interested adults.
We did look for a cross section of people geographically, skill set wise, and interests. But I mean, just like we were saying about Tom's video running into his friend, it's authentic. There's some realness there. You can't just pop up a strategy to get it.
RK: In, say, 5 years, what do you hope 404 by L.A. Times looks like? What kind of impact has it made?
AJ: In five years it shouldn't exist.
In the sense that in five years from now, 404 better be something else. It better be whatever is the new thing that has to be. Maybe it’ll be an entirely different team or structure.
The core of our mission is constant evolution and trying new things. It's scrapping what doesn't work and changing. We're not going to be doing the same thing that we're doing now, even next year and the year after that.
Plus, five years is a really long time in internet time.
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