October 27, 2020

With the Tampa Bay Rays continuing their battle with the Los Angeles Dodgers tonight to clinch the World Series title, the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times’ engagement team plans to direct readers to its Game 6 previews and sports coverage. There will also be another round of cutouts of fans who submit photos of themselves in Rays baseball gear.

If the Rays win tonight, the engagement team will focus a lot of energy on Game 7 previews with some special do-or-die coverage and graphics, according to Joshua Gillin, senior editor, engagement. If they lose, that’s a different story.

These fan cutouts are just a sliver of the work the Tampa Bay Times’ engagement team produces. That work has only intensified recently in the world of sports with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup win, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers attract new attention after picking up all-star quarterback Tom Brady, and the Rays continue to fight for the World Series title.

“Traditionally the Times is a very strong investigative journalism outlet. Our reputation is staked on our ability to produce exceptional, traditional journalism, and so the focus hasn’t always been on these social media platform-based kind of engagement plays,” Gillin told Poynter last week. “My directive to my team is: We need to try things we’ve never tried before. When you have a situation where you can talk to another newspaper about something and joke around and have fun with it, that’s something that readers notice and that they get involved in just because they see that, well, we’re willing to have a personality about it.”

Last month, a week before the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Times’ Instagram featured a primer on the “Lightning players you should know.” Swipe left and you’d find brief facts about some of the NHL team’s key players with accompanying photos.

There was Brayden Point with the second-highest point total in the league, and fan-favorite Nikita Kucherov, who led the entire playoffs with 26 points. And there were “The Gnats” (Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow), which the Times said could be a “difference-maker in the final.”

Each photo was set against a blue background with lightning strikes. The caption of the Sept. 21 post read, in part: “New to Tampa Bay’s #StanleyCup run? There’s plenty of room in this bandwagon.” Scroll down a bit and you’d also notice a post about the Dallas Stars players Lightning should watch out for done in collaboration with The Dallas Morning News. There was also a lot of Twitter banter between both publications before the Stanley Cup, and cheer cards that readers could use as their Twitter profile banners.

Carolyn Fox, the newspaper’s senior deputy editor, engagement, sports & culture, said the basic benchmark for success is growth across platforms, whether that be audience to tampabay.com, or larger followings on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and so on. The hope, she said, is that growth leads to new readers for the Tampa Bay Times.

One of her favorite projects has been the fan cutouts.

“I think fans, just like us, are trying to find a way to engage with the excitement around the World Series even though it’s such a strange year,” Fox said. “This was just one really fun way to be a part of the excitement and be featured in the Times that helps people feel that energy that they would normally get if they could go to the ballpark or be out watching the game with their friends.”

The cutouts have been wildly popular and feature fans of all ages, from a 10-month-old baby to a fan’s late grandfather. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” one user said to the Times on Instagram for posting a photo of her late father in his Rays jersey and hat. “My heart is so full of joy.”

“We’ve had several replies saying that people just enjoyed it so much that they actually subscribed from it,” said Gillin, adding that that’s the goal.

Fox, who came to Tampa Bay from New Orleans last year, said the newspaper wasn’t doing nearly as much social media engagement as it is now. At the time, the Tampa Bay Rays were in the playoffs, she said, and the Times began experimenting with the design of cards that became very popular among fans. Fox credited the designs to Sean Kristoff-Jones and Tara McCarty. McCarty is the Times’ former print design director who is now a designer for The Washington Post. Kristoff-Jones is the Times’ current print design director.

“By the time it got to the sports season this year both for baseball and hockey — which was obviously delayed because of the pandemic — we had really gotten down designing and implementing cool, different cards across platforms,” Fox said. She credited lead engagement producer Ashley Dye and engagement producer Bernadette Berdychowski for much of the work in creating visuals.

This has been a challenging year for journalists as they continue covering the ever-evolving pandemic story, a historic election, news from their communities, sports, and more. The engagement team has also posted a ton of information on social media to help voters. Fox called it a balancing act that the team has been working incredibly hard to keep up with.

Gillin said his team coalesced just as the pandemic began and all have varied backgrounds and have broad skill sets, plus people who have worked in broadcast and marketing roles. In addition to Dye and Berdychowski, it includes engagement producers Monique Welch, Meaghan Habuda, Carly Thompson, and Rachel West (who newly started working in the sports department but collaborates with the team a lot), newsletter editor Thomas Bassinger, and newsroom digital brand and promotions coordinator Aubrey Jackson. Gillin said web designer Martin Frobisher also works on projects and special presentations.

It’s very important that newsrooms credit their engagement teams, Gillin said.

“All the people on our team are journalists by profession. They’re all very involved in the reporting and editing process, they know how it works,” he added. “They know why stories are important, they know how the audience may receive them, and they have to combine all that and synthesize it into a method of getting people to notice us.”

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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