What happens when journalists, filmmakers, designers and programmers from all over the world come together to open a new unit within America’s oldest major broadcaster? That’s what we’re here to find out.
NBC Left Field is a new digital video journalism unit, tasked with rethinking format, style and engagement in social spaces and other digital realms.
Starting today, our team will begin serving you a mixture of international and domestic short docs and features, all tailored to and delivered on the feeds you frequent most.
We officially launch today, but the team’s origins can be traced back through a six-month-long zigzagging chain of crumpled printer paper, ripped notepads and endless blue-sky chatter with a not-so-small fraction of the world’s best video journalists.
By way of introduction, the following post details the who, what, when, where, why and how of the unique journalistic project that is NBC Left Field.
Early development, or “the where”
Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I often speak in analogies, admittedly to a fault. And many work-related analogies deal with comparisons between digital and physical spaces.
So with that, I’ve often said over the past five years — that the great metropolises of the Internet have been founded. The New Yorks, Londons, Nairobis, Tokyos and Shanghais of the world now exist on the Internet, and they’re called Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat.
These are spaces where people actually live, not mere websites or apps they visit. They’re realms where we all now work, play, socialize and exercise ideas. Anyone under 35 knows this. But it’s my belief that broadcasters need to begin viewing these hubs as digital cities. So in the same way that it’s clearly important NBC have local bureaus to serve news and information for, about and within the actual cities their audiences live, it’s now imperative that we erect working hubs within our digital municipalities as well.
So when I first arrived at the National Broadcasting Company six months ago and listened to NBC News’s head of digital, Nick Ascheim, explain his vision for a new digital video unit, it was obvious that we’d need to focus on these social locales.
But what would this bureau look like, and who should help put it together?
The editorial focus, or “the what”
During one of my first few mornings at NBC News, I flipped on a screen and watched our brilliant international correspondent, Bill Neely, reporting from Aleppo the day after the crown jewel of Syria had fallen. He and his team had risked their lives by going in and gathering crucial facts and footage for viewers. And while standing crestfallen but captivated by Neely’s report, delivered amidst the gray and brown rubble that many of our viewing eyes have at this point normalized, I had a thought.
In addition to Neely’s crew, what if NBC had sent a cinematographer and video journalist to the same location to craft a short doc? What if that additional unit’s mission was to strictly collect additional color, or more of what was happening outside of Neely’s immediate frame? And what if this team’s ultimate aim was to stop younger audiences in their tracks on social media using beautiful cinematography and social media-infused treatments that shake the viewer and hold their attention until they cared?
Though we will not necessarily be working in breaking news, NBC Left Field is the unit that developed out of that line of thinking.
There are some incredibly smart digital media minds sitting on Nick’s team inside 30 Rock, many of whom helped contribute to the founding of this unit, from Alex Duncan in digital strategy to Catherine Kim at the helm of editorial to Moritz Gimbel in product. And through conversations with them and many others at NBC News Digital, it became apparent that this unit should not replicate the style of other digital media brands nor the visual language of news television.
NBC is the organization that helped develop color television. We are also the group that aired the first news program in American broadcast history.
We should not be replicating others: not on social, not on television, not anywhere. We are pioneers — pioneers who need to build on a legacy of both innovation and experience.
And I think we should feel emboldened by our strengths, and use our unique infrastructure to our advantage to help set us apart — especially, and most certainly, in the cluttered landscape of social media.
That is why NBC Left Field is starting off actually in the field, and at times with hard journalistic offerings, but with a style that speaks to younger audiences. Younger audiences who don’t always want information that’s quick and disposable, but who’ve been proven time and time again to choose quality and storytelling as well.
A simplistic mission, or “the who”
To keep riffing on analogies, I often think of a cluttered toolbox while scrolling through my social feeds and the many news organizations I follow there.
After crunching some numbers of other media companies’ social media growth, it seems obvious that units with a very simple and specific mission, whether that be explaining the news with motion graphics or telling beautiful positive stories, are the units that tend to do well. On these platforms, it doesn’t pay to try to be everything to everyone — all under one name. It pays to have your audience know exactly what they are getting.
If the social platform is the toolbox, then we should all strive to be the perfect saw or drill or wrench. Just pick one. Be a hammer. But strive to be the perfect hammer. If you are more than a hammer, your reputation will get diluted, confused and lost.
NBC Left Field’s mission is to craft creative, nuanced, surprising and important stories and deliver them straight to your social feed. We aim to combine innovative treatments with important, thoughtful journalism and deliver it all within these digital cities.
So to accomplish this mission (and to try and make the best hammer we could), I called many of the journalists and cinematographers pushing boundaries stylistically and creatively through journalistic output — and we hired them.
Our team is effectively made up of great journalists, who double as stylistic renegades. If you go through the names in our unit, I suspect you’ll see this resonate with each and every one.
The brand, or “the how” and “the why”
Branding and achieving the right look was the part of the development process which really took time. We were keen to launch quickly and iterate as we went but needed a solid jumping off point with our design package and our name.
At one time, the name NBC At Large was being considered. (We didn’t go with At Large for many reasons, least of which because it sounded like we’d be crafting immersive journalism with on-camera reporters, two elements we’re not as focused on.)
In fact, we ended up landing on the name Left Field after Nick had seen an interesting documentary on the Lego Company — A Lego Brickumentary. In it, the CEO was interviewed about their offices and mentioned that there was a room in their HQ in Denmark where they held their meetings for “crazy, out-of-the-box ideas.” That room was called ‘Left Field.’ Nick saw a perfect connection between the mantra for that room and what we wanted to create — a space specifically dedicated to creating what’s next and new in the digital video space and help steer our audiences to better destinations. So, Left Field it was.
And after innumerable design conversations with my former colleague David Botti, it was decided that NBC Left Field would pull from the art deco origins of NBC but also infuse those with a renegade punk spirit.
David is now our editor and is a massive driving force behind design and editorial direction.
We wanted to be on-brand but unbound. We wanted to play with the larger NBC News stylistic elements. Left Field initially hired a designer from Nike, whom I’ve worked with a lot in the past, to help draft a few designs.
We were at first extremely keen on using the old NBC lightning bolts, an NBC logo element that not many people know or remember. The lightning bolt, which originally represented electricity and progress, was used frequently in radio logo designs of the 1920s and 30s as a way to help differentiate radio news outlets from their print counterparts.
But while letting the lightning bolt logo storm around in our heads, we began seeing lightning bolts everywhere — from laundromat windows in Queens, New York to sports drink bottles on every supermarket shelf. If we were to attempt to stand out from the crowd, we certainly had to be more original.
But how? The small but growing team—which at that point had a full-time motion graphics artist and a social media guru—turned once more to NBC’s iconic visual legacy. It came down to the NBC Peacock or the Rockefeller Center logo. We ultimately went with 30 Rock.
The exclamation point riffs off of the iconic Rockefeller logo. It came to us one night when we mistook a lightning bolt our motion graphics animator made for a ‘!’.
We needed a simplistic, very basic design framework from which to iterate, and I believe (at least right now) that this may be it. A reference to the stripes of the Rockefeller logo, NBC’s art deco past and the punk feel are all contained within that exclamation point.
The future, or “the when” and more of “the where”
There’s not much else to say other than we launch today with a new workshop, an office in Union Square and a small but incredible team of journalists currently on assignment across four countries.
So, please visit us, digitally and physically. And come along for what will undoubtedly be a learning experience and an incredible series of adventures, as we try and bring you the content that stops you in your tracks, the video that answers your questions, and the journalism that makes you ask more of them.
No analogy there. Just the truth and the end.
*** 🎥 NBC Left Field’s launch would not have been possible if it weren’t for NBC’s fantastic dev team, the NBC News Digital exec group and most importantly the incredible hard work of all dozen or so of Left Field’s brilliant journalists, filmmakers, social gurus and animators. 👏🏼 Please read all about them here. And a very special 🙏🏼 to Nick Ascheim and Andy Lack.