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April 22, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:15am

Oscars, CGI and Jonathan Pie: Inside The New York Times’ award-winning Opinion Video department

By Bron Maher

The New York Times last month won an Oscar for the first time in its 170-year history. Its “Op-Doc” – titled ‘The Queen of Basketball’ – won in the documentary short subject category at the 2022 Academy Awards.

To learn more about the NYT’s success and ambition in this area, Press Gazette spoke to Adam B. Ellick, the director and executive producer of its Opinion Video department. 

Ellick, a former Times foreign correspondent, founded Opinion Video in 2018. Part of the wider opinion section, it was organised to include “Op-Docs”, short documentaries by outside filmmakers that the Times has been platforming since 2011.

Thinking back to 2018, we started off by asking Ellick to recall his pitch for Opinion Video.

“The genesis of the idea is basically that the rest of the world consumes video, which they have come to expect is a medium with personality and attitude and buzz and voice. And those are things that, for very good reasons, newsrooms strip out of stories.

“In the newsroom for more than a decade, I was trying to weave my voice – not my opinions, but my voice, as someone who was a foreign correspondent in the field – into my stories, sort of like the way that The New Yorker does it in text.

“They have correspondents insert themselves at times when it’s relevant – not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that helps you better understand the story that they’re covering.”

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Previously, Ellick said, “our text viewers have come to expect the word ‘opinion’ to mean, sort of, ‘I’m Tom Friedman’ or ‘I’m Maureen Dowd and I have a column to write and this is my worldview, and this is my take on this issue.’

“And we do some of that [at Opinion Video]. But I think there’s lots of different flavours of opinions.

“We can have an opinionated edit. We can shoot something with deliberate opinion B-roll. We can be opinionated in our use of music and in the storytelling.”

How the NYT won its first Oscar

Ellick said his team “spent four years playing around in various sandboxes, from comedy to satire to original reporting with creative, voicey storytelling, in order to figure out how you can marry New York Times reporting with visual storytelling”.

In March they were rewarded for their experiments with The New York Times’ first Academy Award, bestowed for The Queen of Basketball, a 20-minute documentary interview with Lusia Harris, the first woman to be drafted by an NBA team. It was the third time the small Opinion Video team’s work had been nominated in its four-year existence, as well as the fifth nod in six years for an Op-Doc.

That’s a high rate of hits. Did the Times have Academy recognition in mind when it set Opinion Video up?

“It’s not our top priority. Our top priority is publishing excellent opinion journalism and short films that can have an impact in the real world. Awards are a byproduct of that goal.”

They were also previously the byproduct of a sparse short documentary category, Ellick said. “Basically, the space was not very competitive. There was sort of a void of players in the space. And I think Op-Docs literally paved the way for other people to get in this game.

The Atlantic launched a series that was basically a copycat version of Op-Docs. The New Yorker has done the same thing in recent years.

The Guardian also got in this space after us, and won the Oscar last year – which is also a fascinating angle to a potential story, that two years in a row these rinky-dink newsroom video outlets with three to five people working in them have won Oscars over big streamers and their cushy marketing budgets…

“Now there’s a market and it’s a mature marketplace, and there’s places for renowned filmmakers to go, like Netflix. And there’s also places for emerging filmmakers to go like Op-Docs. So it’s just a more healthy market.

“And as a result, the award space got more competitive. So I think getting those nominations early on was a result of a slim market. And over time, we became more well known, so more people come to us with their docs.

“That, along with really smart editors, is probably why we were nominated.”

Comment is free, news is $35 a month

The Times’ Opinion Video offering is outside the publication’s paywall, which encircles its news, cooking and puzzles sections. What’s the business case for keeping Oscar-winning journalism free?

“The way I think about it – and the way that it’s communicated to me – is that The New York Times is a subscription media company.

“And in 2022, I can’t imagine asking people to pay X amount of dollars a month for a service and not serving them text, video, graphics, interactive, on desktop, on mobile.”

Ellick says there was some long-term commercial logic behind the decision to keep Opinion Video free.

“We’re also putting stuff out there as a touchpoint for people who might not know that the Times is making stuff it didn’t make ten years ago or 15 years ago, and it looks different, and it feels different and it talks to you differently. And it’s innovative, and super creative and award winning.

“And you know – it would be crazy for us to put all these resources into new forms of storytelling and not share it with people who can potentially be subscribers to the Times in the future.”

‘We tend to think original reporting is exclusive to the newsroom, but it’s not’

The Times has cultivated an image of being concerned with factuality and impartiality. How does Opinion Video – which seems to be an explicit blend of subjective and objective – fit with that?

“If you watch opinion video at some of our digital competitors… in large part, it’s people standing in front of the camera, giving their opinions and giving their worldview. And that’s fine, that’s opinion video.

“But what we do is something that I really don’t see a lot of on the internet, which is original, reported opinion video.

“What does that mean? It’s taking this thing that the Times’ brand is built on, which is investing in original reporting.

“We tend to think that original reporting is exclusive to the newsroom, but it’s not.

“We can make something that is originally reported and then tell it in the most opinionated, creative, delightful ways so that audiences can actually not feel like they’re being fed homework of investigative reporting”.

Ellick cited as an example a video the section had just published.

“I hired an investigative reporter and she worked with nine Afghan journalists for seven months. And we created the largest database known to date of Taliban killings of Afghans accused of collaborating with the West.

“And then we paused – we all know what the boring version of this video is, right? A news report about revenge killings and a database.

“But instead of telling it in that fashion, because we have the freedom to tell things in an opinionated way, we created a memorial in our photo studio, and we shot all of their photos hanging on chains in a studio, and we wrote a script that is more colloquial than your usual script and talks you through the story as if we’re a viewing partner with you, and not some paternalistic or didactic news anchor voice…

“We’re taking this thing that the Times is really, really good at, and then we’re combining it with opinionated storytelling.”

Losing sleep over Youtube

Asked what he wanted to do next with Opinion Video, Ellick said: “I wake up every morning worried about the technology and the storytelling formats that we’re not using, or what’s going to be next…

“A project that I’m launching right now is I’ve seen all of these fascinating voices on Youtube of people who speak about one subject. I mean, it’s a very niche platform with incredible specificity.

“We’re developing a roster right now of Youtubers who we admire, who we think can have a voice at the Times. 

“These are people who traditionally would never write for the Times in text. But they’re basically guest essayists, who were formerly known as Op-Ed contributors, in video form.”

What kind of niches did Ellick have in mind?

Felipe Neto is a really good example. He specialises in silly comedy for kids in Brazil. I think when we made that video [for the Times] he had 44 million followers, and he’s one of the 15 biggest Youtubers in the world. And he basically makes silly little dispatches.

“And when people were dying at the highest rates in the world of Covid in Brazil, he decided he wanted to speak out and go from silly to serious. And we asked him if he would be interested in doing that in the Times and he agreed.”

Another was Charlie Goldberg, a gaming Youtuber who in 2019 made a video for the Times disputing suggestions video games drove gun violence. Another, Venezuelan-American comedian Joanna Hausmann, recorded a video about the Latin American country’s politics.

“And the most recent example, as you may know, is Jonathan Pie, your fellow British citizen, who does a satirical news anchor character.”

Pie, who achieved social media fame in 2016 for portraying a broadcast correspondent serially caught making furious unguarded remarks about the news, did a video for the Times in February about Partygate. He followed with another in March about Russian oligarchs in the UK.

Ellick said the Pie videos had “arguably the most glowing comments I’ve ever seen of any story I’ve run in 15 years at the Times. People appreciated the format, the humour, and also the serious issue and the opinion and commentary – it was just adored by our audience.”

Pie’s two videos received thousands of comments. One typical response read: ​​“Absolutely brilliant, a true insight into what Bumbling Boris and all his parasitic cronies are really like. 👏👏🤣.”

“All of these are examples of stuff that you wouldn’t have seen in our paper a couple of years ago,” says Ellick.

Dreams of CGI octopi in The New York Times

Are there any other formats tormenting Ellick’s sleep?

“The thing I’m most fascinated about for the future – and I guess if I tell you this someone’s gonna pick our pockets, but so be it, it’s already out there – I’m very interested in CGI.

“There’s this whole generation of young video makers that are pumping out Jurassic Park-esque fiction video on their laptops in their basements. The technology has improved so much in recent years.

“It looks really good. I mean, there’s these guys I follow on Instagram and they’re putting like, octopus on treadmills and they’re showing what climate change may look like in years to come when our subway systems are completely flooded and we’re living underwater.”

Much of the content didn’t try to carry intellectual heft, he said. But “it’s cheap and easy to make. And we’ve reached out to some of these people, just being like, ‘Hey, who are you? How long does this take? How much do you charge? What are the barriers to scaling this sort of visual creation?’

“And a lot of them are students and I am super – not maybe wary, but excited – about how we can take that new form of storytelling and marry it with Times standards of commentary and analysis and reporting.

“I don’t know exactly what that looks like in the future. But there’s definitely a super interesting opportunity and we’re trying to solve that question right now.”

Picture: New York Times Youtube channel screenshot

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