June 13, 2017

Call 1-315-LF-FIELD, and you’ll hear one of the most familiar sounds in media: the signature tri-tone chimes that have been synonymous with NBC News for nearly a century.

Why would a news organization best known for its TV programming set up an old-school call-in line? It turns out, the people on the other end are a little crazy.

Meet Left Field, NBC News’ answer to a series of video companies that have colonized social media in recent years: NowThis, Tasty and Insider among them. The new, 12-person unit, which comprises cinematographers, journalists, animators and social media gurus in New York and London, aims to establish a toehold on major social media networks and experiment with new methods of visual storytelling.

“In my view, the metropolitan cities on the internet have been established,” said Matt Danzico, head of Left Field and former BBC News video journalist. “And they are called Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. And so, much in the same way that years ago you would create bureaus with cities around the world, it’s important to erect independent hubs and bureaus within these digital metropolises as well.”

As more and more ad dollars shift toward Google and Facebook and away from traditional media formats, it’s no wonder why so many publishers are flocking toward social media. But Left Field will create video designed to live in other places, too — on over-the-top platforms like YouTube, said Nicholas Ascheim, senior vice president of NBC News Digital.

Left Field’s name has its origins in a documentary about Lego Ascheim watched on his way back from Washington, D.C. on the train. Many of Lego’s biggest ideas come from an experimental room in Lego’s headquarters called “Left Field,” and Ascheim wanted to cultivate big thinking at NBC News’ digital operation, too.

“We wanted the unit to be unbound, offsite and on-brand,” Ascheim said. “Unbound meant it would touch the news, it would be near the news, but it was not going to adhere to the news cycle quite as closely as other video operations. The stories won’t feel like they’re foreign to anyone who’s following the news, but they won’t necessarily be tied to anything that just happened. The off-site refers to physically off-site — they are in a different building.”

And, Ascheim said, he wanted Left Field to be able to play with NBC News’ brand while still respecting its weight and authority.

That spirit of playfulness and big thinking is embodied by the staff Danzico brought aboard and the stories they’ll cover. One Left Field journalists spent the last 10 years as a photographer and cinematographer in the Middle East, and another has spent the past few years working at start-ups, writing books of fiction and shooting avant-garde narrative films. Danzico calls them “mad scientists” who will be producing stories about the U.S. and the rest of the world in roughly equal proportions.

Upcoming stories include videos on refugee squats in the Netherlands, debates over wild horses in Colorado, coal mining in Kentucky, military youth camps in Ukraine as well as the opening of an unusual museum in Sweden.

And the call-in line? Dial it up and you can leave a message for Danzico’s team. You can also listen to behind-the-scenes reports from cinematographers and journalists and audio versions of Left Field stories.

“What I’ve done is I’ve gone and knocked on the door of every video creator whom I look up to and talked to them about whether they would like to move into the home of the moving image in America, which is the National Broadcasting Company,” Danzico said.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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