Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther: Can you explain what the thinking was behind launching the LA Times’ archives as a spin-off Instagram account?
Adriana: At the LA Times, we’ve always found that our readers are really engaged with our archival work. So before the account existed, we shared a lot of archival content on our classic Hollywood Facebook page, which focuses on vintage films and TV shows with a lot of interest from there.
And then we started just experimenting, posting archival photos on our main Instagram account once a week on Thursdays. And we saw a lot of success from there too, and knew that a standalone account could be sustainable.
It’s over 10,000 followers now, isn’t it?
Yeah, right now we have about 12,000 followers. So it’s been really, really successful. And we’ve been really seeing a lot more growth lately, when we’ve been resurfacing a lot of the protests and riot footage that we have.
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The 1992 riots for #RodneyKing are just one of the many riots prompted by a black man brutalized by police in Los Angeles. The #WattsRiots, which occurred in the summer of 1965, were sparked by the arrest of a black motorist, Marquette Frye, for drunk driving. When Frye’s mother intervened, a crowd gathered and the arrest became a flashpoint for anger against police. The deeper causes, as documented by the McCone Commission, which investigated the riots, were poverty, inequality, racial discrimination and the passage, in November 1964, of Proposition 14 on the California ballot. That initiative had overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which established equality of opportunity for black home buyers. This 1965 photo from the Watts Riots shows two buildings on Avalon Blvd. from a helicopter as they go up in flames.
What’s behind the decision to post historical images of protests at a time like this, does it add a different context to what’s going on today?
I think, as an audience team, one thing at the LA Times, contextualising our coverage has been something that’s extremely important for us. So we’ve been really intentional with the account and trying to really connect photos with the past to what’s going on today.
And we know that LA has a history of these racial protests and connecting those past events to what’s happening now has been really invaluable to helping our readers really understand the moment that’s happening right now.
What’s the response been like to that?
The response has been great. A lot of our readers hadn’t known a lot about some of the history of some of the protests and things that have happened in the past in LA and in LA County. So a lot of people are commenting, saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard of this before. This is really interesting.’
So I think it’s just been really a great learning experience for a lot of our readers.
Where do you actually get those images from? What’s the process of finding and deciding what to put up?
So an estimated 4 million LA Times images from around 1918 to around 1990 are stored in the UCLA Special Collections library, so we use a lot of those photos to populate the account. One great thing is that we don’t think we’ll have a shortage anytime soon.
But in addition to that, we also have digitised a lot of our own photos in house. So we’re also resurfacing those photos as well.
And what’s really interesting about those photos is, a lot of them haven’t been published or seen by the public for decades. So they’re really getting a look at photos that they’ve never really seen before.
Do you think there’s a value for publishers in in maintaining archives like this and resurfacing content like this?
Absolutely. I think when we look at the news and just looking at history, a lot of times we see these things before. I mean, going back to the protests that we’ve seen in the past, it’s so great to draw from that history to really contextualise the moment, so being able to just resurface our archival images has been really helpful I think in our reporting.
We’ve seen a lot of our reporters make parallels between things like the [Los Angeles riots] in 1992, and to the protests are happening now. So it’s been really great to see our entire newsroom, dig into our archives lately.
Do you write the captions for that as well? Or is there additional research you have to do in order to get the backstory behind those, or is that all in the archive?
So the archive pretty much just has a description of what’s happening in the photo, typically just who’s in the photo and the year it was taken.
What we like to do is look back through our actual newspaper archives and look for the article that the photo first appeared. And then we’ll write a caption based off of the photo information as well as whatever the reporter wrote way back when.
I’ve seen some of the captions you’ve done in Spanish as well?
Yes, we’ve done that for our Coronavirus account. We try to do some of the captions in Spanish. One of my colleagues Gabby Fernandez is fluent in Spanish and for us, we see it as just a way to really connect with a lot of our readers.
A lot of our readers speak Spanish, so being able to provide that translation is something that’s really important to us.
I was going to ask you about that Coronavirus Instagram account. What was the thinking behind spinning that out as a separate account, rather than just running stories off the main LA account?
When the pandemic really started to spread rapidly across California and the United States, and even around the world, we saw that our audience was really looking for trustworthy news. And I think as a newsroom, we really prioritise that coverage, and we wanted to elevate it the same way on social media. So by creating the pop up account, we were really able to provide news about the virus from all angles.
We’ve incorporated stories from almost every desk on our newsroom on the account. So it’s really been a team effort, and our readers have really responded well to the account.
It’s been out for about a few months and we’ve gotten over 25,000 followers. It’s been really great to see readers really engaging with us.
And I noticed for that, I know a lot of publishers will do pretty pictures and things, but you tend to do this kind of headline style…it’s like a headline and a picture, and then there’s a bit more detail in the caption. Is that quite a deliberate design choice?
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#COVID19 has killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S., but some are more vulnerable than others. These charts show how Americans have been affected. Swipe left to see the breakdown of #coronavirus cases by age, race and ethnicity, common symptoms and more. Visit the link in our bio for more #coronavirusnews. 📸: @ccole_photo
Yes, we’ve actually been really deliberate about that. One thing that we try to do on our social media accounts is making sure that the content that we present is really native to the platform. And when we look at how people consume news, specifically on Instagram, that’s a format that people are really interested in and really used to consuming.
We see a lot of these meme accounts or news accounts where it’s pretty much just like, you know, a text over a photo, and that’s just the way that younger audiences in particular are used to engaging with news.
So we try to keep that same look and feel so that we can hopefully get more followers and really get younger people to really engage with us.
And related to that, I noticed for a lot of the stuff the LA Times puts up, especially on Instagram where it’s so much harder to link back, a lot of publishes will use social media as a way to funnel people back to their website. But the stuff you work on seems to deliberately be going away from that. It’s like you said, you focus on engaging people on the platform. Is that a deliberate decision? Or is that just because Instagram’s really awkward with links?
I think it’s definitely both. I think we’ve realised that Instagram is definitely a website where the users are not used to leaving the platform, whereas they would normally do that on Twitter or on Facebook, where they can easily click the link. We still provide a link in our bios for all of our accounts so that if readers want to read more, they have the option.
But for us, especially on Instagram, our strategy has really just been engaging with readers on the site and just giving them as much information as they need there. And hopefully, they’ll come to us as that source of information when they need it.
So wider brand building rather than specifically driving to stories or anything.
Yeah, definitely. And we’ve still seen a lot of success with Instagram Stories and things, where it’s a bit easier to go back to the website, so we do a little bit of both.
And your work at the LA Times is as an Audience Engagement Editor. So apart from all the Instagram feeds, what does that actually involve on a day to day basis?
Yeah, so I, along with a few other colleagues are on our core social team, which means that we’re responsible for the curation of our flagship LA Times accounts. So we focus specifically on Twitter, on Facebook and on Instagram.
We have other editors on our team that work more closely with the specific desks in our newsroom, and then we have others who work more specifically on products like news aggregation, or search engine optimization.
So as a team, I think we’re really able to represent our audience, to the newsroom, and really just spread as much information as we can about our audience.
And do you have different ways that you approach each platform, like have you got a Facebook strategy, a Twitter strategy? I know the Instagram one is quite different!
Yeah, we definitely approach each platform a lot differently. I think just looking at the data and looking at what our readers are interested in, you have to have a different strategy for each.
But I think overall, our big focus is just making sure that we’re providing our readers with the information that they need.
And that engagement part of your role, is there a mechanism by which you get that response from audiences, apart from obviously reading comments and things? Are there ways that you pass that back into the publisher to inform a strategy or stories, or what they do?
Yeah, one great thing about social media is there’s a lot of different metrics that you can use for success. So I think for us we try not to just look at one thing, so for example, even with something like Instagram we don’t consider likes as the only metric of success.
We really try to be intentional about looking at a lot of different things on each platform. So our biggest thing is really looking at each platform holistically and driving some conclusions based off of that.
For example, with Instagram, I think a lot of people can really get caught up in how many likes a post has, is that successful. But there’s a lot of other metrics that publishers could look at. They could look at things like comments, they could look at how many times the article was sent to a friend, how many times someone added this photo to their story, how many times they clicked the link.
So there’s just so many different ways that you can define success on each platform. So just making sure that you’re intentional about knowing really how each platform works and how the data works is really important.
Do you do any responding, if people have got queries or questions on any of the platforms, do you as a team work on responding to any of that?
Yeah, as a team, we definitely try to do as much as we can on all the platforms. I think one great thing about our website is that we’re able to open comments. So we do have a pretty robust commenting system there, and we encourage our reporters to actually really hop in and interact with some of our reader. So we’ve seen a lot of great audience engagement there.
On a lot of our accounts, we also try to answer questions on our Coronavirus account, especially people have a lot of questions about openings and different rules and regulations. So when we have the time, we definitely try to send as much information as we can.
I know a lot of people say that there’s a darker side to social media as well, and people that are running the accounts often see, I don’t know, necessarily abuse, but you know, the trolling and the less pleasant side of things. Do you guys have a particular way you deal with that? Or do you just try and ignore people if they’re being a bit stupid?
I think it’s hard. We’re at the front lines of seeing all the the good and the bad of what people think about our content. I think, for us, it is important to look at the negative things as well, especially if it’s feedback that we can pass online to teams in our newsroom.
But I think overall for the really nasty comments, those are things we try to avoid.
And then as the bigger picture, how does social media and audience engagement and the work you do fit within the LA Times’ wider…I don’t know if it has big goals around this or things it particularly wants to achieve?
One great thing I think about our audience team is that we’re really able to touch a lot of things in the newsroom. Like I said before, we have audience editors who work on the desks, we have audience editors that work with SEO and that work with news aggregators.
So I think it’s really clear that our company values our audience, and as a team, we’re really devoted to delivering the best news product as we can to readers. So I see the work that we do is really important and really on the front lines of really looking out for our audience.
I also noticed you’d started, just by yourself, a newsletter and website dedicated to journalism internships. I’d love to know a bit more about the thinking behind that, and why that’s particularly important to you.
So I started the journalism internships site few months ago. I think it was just me wanting to do more for students who were starting out in journalism. I think back to when I was in college, I noticed that there were just a lot of disparities in media, especially when it came to internships. And often, a lot of the internships in media are unpaid, or at least very low paid, which I think shuts out a lot of students, especially from low income backgrounds.
And when I look at myself as a first generation college student, and even as a black woman, I didn’t really see myself represented as much in media. So I really wanted to try to collect a database of as many paid internships, and really provide mentoring as well.
Right now we have over 80 mentors who sign up to just mentor students on one-on-one sessions from a variety of backgrounds in journalism. We have reporters, we have editors, audience engagement people, and people who work in product and engineering.
So I think for me, it’s just trying to play a small role in closing some of those gaps with representation in media.
There must be a fair shortage at the moment anyway, because I can’t imagine many places are offering physical internships.
Yeah, not at all. Right now it’s been really difficult because we had so many summer internships for students to apply to, and a lot of those internships either got cancelled or postponed or just moved online remotely.
So we’re really trying to figure out a way that we can still engage with students and still get them that preparation that they need, which is why I think our mentorship programme right now has been really useful, because even though a lot of students aren’t able to intern right now, they can still talk to people in the industry and get insights that they may have gotten during their internship.
And I know you do some work with lecturing as well. And I’m just curious to see, there are so many students that at the point that they’re entering the workplace, it feels like skills and things just change over so much. I mean, even seven or eight years ago, an audience engagement editor wouldn’t have been a role that they’d have looked and seen. When it comes to preparing students and talking to people that are coming into the industry about the skills they need, how do you approach that when things change so quickly?
Yeah, that’s been definitely something that’s been really tough. I teach at the University of Southern California, and there we are thinking of how to be really agile when it comes to these changing industry norms and the skills that students need to have.
So I think for me, the biggest thing is just making sure that, every semester you’re looking over the curriculum that you’re teaching, making sure that it’s up to date, making sure that the latest tools and the latest resources are involved.
One way that helps me a lot is that I try to get as many speakers to teach to my classes as much as possible, just so that students are really getting an insight to what people in the industry are currently doing, how they got there, what tools they use day to day, so that they feel more prepared and more equipped to work in journalism.
Do you find that they tend to be quite, I don’t want to say multi-skilled, but there’s a bit of a stereotype that they know how to do all the social media, and they know how to edit video and podcasts and stuff, or there’s actually quite a gap there in what they know?
I think one great thing about the next generation of journalists, as I like to call them is that they are very skilled with a lot of these digital skills. And I think that that’s one really great positive for them is that they’re coming into this industry, knowing how to do a lot of these things.
I think a lot of my classes right now are just really helping them to be able to refine those skills and really use them in the context of journalism. A lot of them may have experience using Facebook or Twitter or Instagram in a personal setting, but not in a professional setting.
So I think what we’re doing a lot of right now is less teaching of skills, but teaching more about how to refine those skills and how to really intentionally use them.