January 27, 2021

This story is a part of our playbook for VidSpark, a Poynter initiative to bring local news to younger audiences. We worked with three local newsrooms over the course of 2020 to create social media video series aimed at GenZ viewers. Find our entire playbook here.

GBH News took on an ambitious new format, crafting a democracy game show to inform younger viewers about civic engagement and media literacy. The Boston-based news organization started a new YouTube channel and Instagram account, adapted to a remote workflow, and worked collaboratively within their organization and with outside talent.

In this case study, we’ll break down how GBH News made it all work. We’ll look at where they started, what resources they used, their content development process, and the audience response. By trying something new, GBH News has expanded their capabilities and adopted new ways of prioritizing social-first viewers in their content.

Watch: GBH News staff reveal their process for creating “Internet Expert”

The starting point

GBH News takes a community-building approach with their digital content and knows that an important part of serving their community is doing more to engage Gen Z.

“A big motivator for us was to do a test case to prove that we could reach another audience, a younger audience, and bring them more into our fold with thinking in a different way about how to get them the information that they need,” said Laura Colarusso, digital managing editor at GBH News.

This was GBH News’ first time crafting a video series specifically for social platforms. As an NPR affiliate, it was an audio-focused newsroom, and had done video work primarily to supplement other stories. GBH News had a YouTube channel that hosted clips from GBH’s local news and public affairs TV show, “Greater Boston.” As their existing YouTube channel wasn’t reaching a younger audience and wasn’t as curated, we decided to create a new YouTube channel for our work with VidSpark.

The team

This project was a collaboration between multiple departments within GBH. The leads on the project came from the GBH News team, the newsroom at GBH that focuses on local news, and the emerging platforms team, which focuses on innovation on digital platforms across the organization.

From the GBH News team, we worked with Colarusso and Lisa Williams. Williams, an audience engagement editor, initiated the project and was an executive producer on the series. She wrote episodes, came up with challenge ideas, worked with uploading and optimizing settings on YouTube and Instagram, and worked with audience engagement. Colarusso was an executive producer on the series and guided the editorial direction and topic selection.

From the emerging platforms team, we worked with Rob Tokanel, Joanie Tobin and Tory Starr. Tokanel was the director and lead producer, managing the physical production, editing episodes, writing episodes, and coordinating between departments and with talent. Tobin was senior producer, overseeing production, casting for contestants and guests, conducting outreach for promotion, writing episodes, and working on overall strategy. Starr advised on social strategy, provided feedback on scripts and episodes, and connected the team to other related opportunities and resources within the organization.

Tokanel’s video editing timeline. (Courtesy: Rob Tokanel)

Internal creative and design teams came up with the branding for the show and designed the initial look and graphics. GBH’s production group handled the technical operations of video recording. The team brought in an outside host for the series: Malick Mercier, a student journalist at Ithaca College, who had a significant social following. The team also brought in interns throughout the process to help with motion graphics, writing, and assist with production tasks. Usually one to two interns worked on the series at a time.

Poynter played a consulting role on the project. Jillian Banner, assistant editor for video strategy, and I reviewed scripts and video cuts, taught best practices for social video and optimizing platform features and advised on overall workflow and strategy.

The content development

GBH had a strong vision from the outset and had planned to create an explainer series to reach young people and first-time voters with civics content ahead of the 2020 election. We pushed them to think outside of the common explainer format and held a brainstorming session to generate a wide variety of ideas. The Post-it note “game show,” written by Williams, was the one that stuck.

The team came up with “Internet Expert,” a head-to-head game show where contestants use their media literacy skills to sort fact from fiction on topics related to the 2020 election. The hosted series featured a variety of contestants and guest experts and covered a range of topics, from the Electoral College to digital campaign ads. The series launched on YouTube and Instagram with a trailer on July 6 and the first episode on July 9.

Moving from concept to launch took just over four months, longer than we anticipated. This was partially due to the outbreak of the pandemic complicating workflows and diverting resources from the project. Internal processes for approving projects and staffing also took significant time. We learned the importance of legacy media institutions having nimble staffing and legal processes to allow for faster-moving projects.

Before the pandemic, the plan had been to create a game show that would be filmed in the newsroom, with the possibility of shooting multiple episodes within a day. With COVID-19 leading the newsroom to work remotely, this changed to a more complicated arrangement.

The production required heavy graphics work to create a game show environment, video livestreams to connect players and thorough scheduling to troubleshoot tech and coordinate internal teams. Figuring out logistics and workflow was a major challenge that Tokanel and Tobin managed effectively to create a cohesive and compelling final product.

Mercier’s recording setup. (Courtesy: Malick Mercier)

One benefit of working remotely was that the host and contestants did not need to be local. That’s when the team decided to bring in outside host Malick Mercier, who was based in New York. Not only was Mercier part of the Gen Z demographic that the show aimed to attract, but he had a range of experience hosting video on social and had a strong journalism-based social presence. With Mercier’s engaged following on Instagram, we decided that Instagram would be the second platform for the show.

A unique aspect of this format was finding the right blend of gameplay and information to work together in a cohesive structure. Creating challenges that were complex enough to be interesting yet easy enough for the players and audience to be able to follow took about as much effort as researching the content. We were constantly having to find balance between keeping up the momentum of the game, keeping the gameplay intelligible and conveying information that can stick with the audience.

The team thought hard about what topics could inform and empower first-time voters, and each episode included resources and websites that viewers could use to find trustworthy information and make informed decisions. The series began with the fundamentals of understanding voting eligibility and ended on ways to get involved in democracy beyond voting. Much of the content is evergreen, and it’s a resource that GBH plans to potentially repurpose going forward.

The workflow

Each episode of “Internet Expert” took roughly three weeks to produce from concept through video publishing. The team consistently published videos every other week, with the exception of one pause to put production efforts into another major project. The final episode of the season was published in the lead-up to the election on Oct. 28.

The team refined their remote production workflow over time using VMix to record episodes. Although the platform allowed them to switch between feeds live, they realized that capturing individual feeds made for more flexibility in post-production. As patterns in the format emerged, they created more editing templates which reduced the amount of graphics they needed to build individually for each episode.

The video call setup. (Courtesy: Rob Tokanel)

The team planned for a limited eight-episode run from the outset, and topics were established well in advance of filming. Once a format was established after the first few episodes were produced, it was hard to change, especially with the pre-planning needed to coordinate several aspects of the show, and the finite timeframe in which Mercier was available to shoot episodes. Having less flexibility made it harder to pivot midway through the season, which is often necessary to hone in on an audience for social-first series.

One area of growth in the workflow was distributing writing responsibilities. Williams began the project leading the writing of episodes, and initially others in the newsroom intended to write episodes as well. However, with the COVID-19 outbreak, much of the newsroom’s writing bandwidth evaporated. Tokanel and Tobin took on more writing responsibilities, and the entire team became involved in brainstorming creative game challenge ideas.

The team published full episodes to YouTube and IGTV on the same day, with Williams handling uploading and platform settings. Initially, we planned to produce vertical versions of videos for IGTV. However, the show’s length and graphic look made it challenging to convert to vertical. Doing so would have required rethinking the format, which was beyond our capacity.

The team was active on Instagram stories, using it to engage with Mercier and the contestants and to share clips from episodes. They created a rhythm for posting in-feed on Instagram with a rotation of expert tips, quotes, fun facts and contestant rivalry images.

“Internet Expert” grid on Instagram

We used Google Docs to collaborate and give feedback on scripts, Airtable to keep track of episode schedules, and Frame.io for reviewing video cuts. The team created a checklist in Google Sheets to assign roles for publishing and promotion tasks, which helped ensure that all final distribution steps were complete.

Here’s how Tokanel describes the steps of the “Internet Expert” production workflow. Each task was completed by one team member unless otherwise noted.

Phase 1: Pre-production (1 week)

Scripting

  • Team call deciding on episode concept – 1 hour
  • Research episode topic – 4 hours
  • Write outline of information to cover in episode – 4 hours
  • Brainstorm challenges related to topics – 4 hours, 4-5 team members
  • Draft script – 6 hours
  • Finalize script – 3 hours, 2 team members

Talent and casting

  • Seek and reach out to contestants – 4 hours
  • Book pre-production and technical call with contestants – 2 hours
  • Prep contestants and test their technical set up on remote call – 2 hours, 3 team members
  • Review script with host for preparation and revisions- 1 hour, 2 team members
  • Schedule episode recording – 1 hour

Asset prep

  • Prepare layouts and assets for episode recording – 3 hours

Phase 2: Production (half day)

  • Record video call w/ host and contestants – 2 hours, 2 team members and recording technician
  • Technician upload footage – 1 hour
  • Editor download footage and prep for editing – 1 hour

Phase 3: Post-production (1.5 weeks)

  • Build editing template with all episode layouts – 3 hours
  • Edit rough cut – 16 hours
  • Team reviews rough cut and leaves notes – 1 hour
  • Host records pickups for episode – 1 hour
  • Edit fine cut – 8 hours
  • Create motion graphics – 16 hours
  • Team reviews fine cut and leaves notes – 1 hour
  • Finalize cut and export versions for IGTV and YouTube – 6 hours
  • Final sign-off on episode – 1 hour, 2 team members

Phase 4: Distribution (2 days)

  • Prepare social media kit for contestants – 4 hours
  • Create images assets for social – 2 hours
  • Create video assets for social – 2 hours
  • Create rollout checklist with episode outreach plan – 1 hour
  • Write episode descriptions and titles – 1 hour
  • Get caption file made – 1 hour
  • Create thumbnails for YouTube and IGTV – 3 hours
  • Post files to social channels – 1 hour x ~3-4 days
  • Post to website – 1 hour
  • Various outreach tasks by episode – 3 hours, 3-4 team members

The team put significant effort into outreach from the start. They did research to find related YouTube channels, influencers and social accounts around civics, media literacy and game shows. They involved their public relations and communications team, published a press release and sent pitches that resulted in coverage. GBH News also shared the show in the community tab of their primary YouTube channel, and shared videos within posts on their website and social handles.

The team was able to involve noteworthy contestants and guests, including collaborating with Poynter in featuring PolitiFact and MediaWise Campus Correspondents in an episode on misinformation. Mercier promoted episodes on his social platforms, and the team created social toolkits for contestants to promote their episodes on social.

Mercier shared behind the scenes of production on his own Instagram account. (Courtesy: Malick Mercier)

The audience response

Audiences enjoyed “Internet Expert” and comments on the platforms were positive. Episodes received an average of 530 views each on YouTube and 450 views each on Instagram. Episodes reached more than 1,000 views when they featured guests or contestants with social followings who shared episodes with their audiences. The show received positive shoutouts in the press and through collaborations. Mercier represented the show on “PBS NewsHour” Student Reporting Labs’s Youth Town Hall and collaborated with MediaWise on TikTok.

Poynter conducted an audience panel of Gen Z viewers to review VidSpark videos, in order to get more robust, direct feedback. Overall these viewers found the content to be engaging and informative while also being entertaining. Although some found the gameplay confusing to follow at times, they had clear takeaways from episodes and appreciated the format as a fresh way to deliver information. Viewers especially appreciated how the series demonstrated tools that they could use themselves in finding trustworthy information and becoming more civically engaged.

Moving Forward

While season one of “Internet Expert” has wrapped, the project has opened up new workflows and capabilities that the newsroom will use going forward in thinking about social-first video.

“The things we learned about YouTube I started using on our core YouTube channel for our newsroom and our subscribers are up 25%,” Williams said. Shifts in newsroom staff’s thinking about thumbnails images, keywords, and making content discoverable within the platforms has made the difference.

“When you’re living in a kind of algorithmic world, where people can find anything they want from anywhere, they don’t need to find it from you,” Williams said. “You have to think about how they find you, and that’s really changed what we do.”

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Ahsante is Editor & Program Manager, Video Strategy at Poynter, where she’s focusing on developing innovative digital content with local newsrooms to reach younger audiences.…
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