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.

Over the course of 12 months, The Star Tribune went from having no visible content on its YouTube channel to publishing videos that have amassed thousands of views. Tribune staff did this while covering an intense news cycle, including the killing of George Floyd in their community.

We’re breaking down how The Star Tribune spun up a new social-first video series, how they managed their workflow, and what major takeaways they’ve had from the process.

Video: Watch The Star Tribune staff explain their process of building the social-first series Tomorrow Together

The starting point

The Star Tribune needed to reach younger audiences to be sustainable and relevant in the long term. At the start of the VidSpark program, staffers were creating content primarily with their website in mind, which did not attract a young audience. Creating social-first video geared towards younger viewers would be a new muscle.

Initially, The Star Tribune’s YouTube channel was dormant. It had been used in the past primarily as a back end to the Tribune’s website, and for hosting livestreams. We decided to refresh the channel and its branding, adding a fresh color scheme and an abbreviated tagline.

The Star Tribune did have a strong presence on Instagram with visually stunning photography, but it had not been posting much video there, and had not used IGTV. We decided to go with Instagram as our secondary social video platform.

The Star Tribune’s YouTube makeover: January 2020 to January 2021

The team

The core team for the project consisted of three people. Video journalist Mark Vancleave carried out the physical production of the videos, including shooting, editing and much of the writing. Senior video producer Jenni Pinkley oversaw the project and editorial, planning, and she assisted in finding sources for stories. Alexis Allston, an audience engagement producer, was the primary host and worked on audience engagement and marketing.

In addition, the team worked with an in-house designer at the outset of the project to develop the look and feel of the show. When Allston’s responsibilities mounted, the team brought in a second host for some episodes.

Poynter provided guidance that focused on what would resonate with younger viewers and what styles worked best for the platforms. Jillian Banner, VidSpark’s assistant editor for video strategy, and I gave coaching and feedback on scripts, video cuts, audience development, analytics and overall strategy.

The content development

With the outbreak of the pandemic, The Star Tribune team wanted to create a series that spoke to how their community was coming together to find a way forward and create a new normal. We came up with “Tomorrow Together,” which looks at how Minnesota is rapidly changing in the midst of the pandemic. The series launched with a trailer on May 5, and the first episode on May 6.

With the death of George Floyd in their city, the content pivoted to include how their community was dealing with police reform. The series, which ran nine episodes over the course of seven months in 2020, documented on-the-ground perspectives and broke down local community action.

Tomorrow Together: How Black and brown artists are making their voices heard after George Floyd’s killing

The Star Tribune’s previous video work was typically documentary or interview-based. The “Tomorrow Together” series spoke to those strengths while pushing their capabilities in hosted content.

Allston was new to hosting, and though she was well-versed in the conventions of the platform, finding her natural voice was an initial challenge. The first few episodes were directed remotely, with Allston learning how to film herself. Eventually, Allston and Vancleave began to film in-studio and could work together more directly. They began to do table reads of scripts and talk through ways to sound natural while filming.

Developing comfort with the camera as a host takes time, but Allston began to find her stride a few episodes in. Allston’s hosting time was limited, and arranging a studio shoot took significant time as their team was not working from the office. Reporter Zoë Jackson stepped in as a second host who could speak to her area of expertise and alleviate some of the hosting responsibility.

Producer Mark Vancleave filming with host Zoë Jackson. (Courtesy: Mark Vancleave)

Vancleave was skilled at capturing interviews and visually captivating footage in the field. Audiences resonated with hearing from on-the-street community voices and appreciated the production value of the visual portraits of the city. Not having a dedicated script writer on the team made the hosted format more difficult and, as a result, the episodes increasingly focused on showcasing community perspectives and experiences rather than on the host conveying information.

The topics discussed within the series dovetailed with The Star Tribune’s existing coverage. This allowed the team to pull in footage and sources that had been captured across the newsroom, and to engage reporters with relevant expertise for editorial review.  The series became an outlet to tell more in-depth video stories, outside of showing raw news video. The show’s relevance to the current moment helped the series to continue, even with the pressures of breaking news.

The workflow

The full process of creating a video, from brainstorming to publishing, would take roughly eight to 15 days, depending on the length and complexity of the video. Straightforward explainers, like one debunking voting myths, tended to take less time, while complex topics like breaking down the role of the charter commission in police reform tended to take longer.

On average, The Star Tribune published an episode once every third week. This was less than our goal of publishing every other week, but the flexibility in the release schedule helped to accommodate breaking news events.

One area of growth in the team’s workflow came with paying more attention to the steps beyond the video export, particularly the episode title and thumbnail image. Taking time to work on developing a title and thumbnail made a significant difference in audience engagement. Thinking about these elements early in the process allowed the team to construct and frame the story in a way that would be engaging to viewers from the start of their encounter with the episode.

After each video was posted to YouTube, it was embedded within a story on The Star Tribune’s website, a large source of initial traffic. Vancleave re-edited a vertical cut of the video to post on Instagram within IGTV. This took an additional day, but vertical video on Instagram is more engaging as it fills the frame on the platform when shared, particularly in Instagram stories.

By several months in, the team had refined their production flow. Below are the phases of production for a “Tomorrow Together” episode. Sometimes these phases would overlap by a day, occasionally by a day on each end. News, scheduling conflicts, and other unforeseen events frequently broke up this time.

Here’s how Vancleave breaks down The Star Tribune’s production process:

Phase 1: Brainstorming and research (1-2 days)

  • Develop a topic and angle for the episode
  • Gather prior reporting to prepare outline and script
  • Evaluate available visual elements to incorporate (e.g. file video, third party content)
  • Identify potential sources and situations to shoot/interview

Phase 2: Outlining and scheduling (1-2 days)

  • Write an outline with basic episode structure
  • Schedule key interviews (virtual or on-location)
  • Write and share social media callouts for virtual interview sources

Phase 3: Content production (2-3 days)

  • Schedule and record virtual interviews with sources
  • Shoot real-world events and subjects
  • Record and collect third party video content

Phase 4: Scripting (1-2 days)

  • Transcribe and annotate interviews and third party content
  • Write rough draft with a paper edit of video content
  • Review scripts with reporters for accuracy
  • Begin building a video timeline with available material

Phase 5: Record hosted segments (1 day)

  • Do a read-through with host and finalize script
  • Record hosted segments
  • Continue to build video timeline and graphics

Phase 6: Editing and post-production (1-3 days)

  • Complete video timeline with hosted segments and graphics
  • Share rough cut for feedback
  • Repeat …

Phase 7: Pre-publishing (1 day)

  • Finish episode with music, b-roll and graphics
  • Write episode title, description and keywords
  • Build thumbnails for all platforms
  • Make teaser videos/GIFs
  • Upload and prepare in YouTube

Phase 8: Post-publishing (1 day)

  • Publish the episode on YouTube. Coordinate engagement and social media plans
  • Re-edit IGTV version with closed captions graphics
  • Post to IGTV (usually within a day or two of YouTube episode)

The audience response

Overall, the audience response to the show has been positive, and viewership is growing. A typical video would receive around 1,300 views on YouTube and 6,000 views on Instagram. The final video produced in the program, featuring perspectives of young Minnesotan voters right before the 2020 election, reached 100,000 views organically on YouTube. Viewership on videos produced after the program has continued to increase.

Because our goal was to appeal to Gen Z, Poynter conducted an audience panel with Gen Z participants to get direct feedback. The participants appreciated that the topics of videos related to the issues they were facing in their lives, and appreciated seeing students featured. While the lower quality of video-call interviews was not noted, participants did enjoy seeing relevant and illustrative b-roll, and liked that visuals were not primarily stock imagery.  Overall, participants liked the structure and pacing of episodes and rated them positively.

Moving forward

Through the “Tomorrow Together” project, The Star Tribune opened up new channels to reach audiences that they are continuing to use going forward. “We were appreciative to have this project in this year to make space for us to create different kinds of video and it’s been so worth it, and absolutely something that we’re going to stick with,” Pinkley said.

On YouTube, they’re experimenting with using voiceovers rather than an on-camera host. They’re also continuing to use IGTV, including publishing news video captured in the field, Instagram live discussions with reporters, and videos featuring voices from the community.

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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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