L.A. Times’ ‘Hear Me Out’ Turns Letters Into Video Gold
A few months ago, Greg Golden, a senior resident of the Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys, wrote the Los Angeles Times to express his grave displeasure over rampant area use of leaf blowers. Golden observed in his four-paragraph letter that leaf blowers contribute to both air and noise pollution and seem to more greatly achieve the potent spreading of dust than anything else.
While gas-powered blowers have been banned by the city, the rule is hardly ever enforced, Golden added. He also disclosed his own feelings of guilt about hiring gardeners who utilize the obnoxious machines on his property.
“I’ve tried in the past to encourage the use of rakes and brooms, even offering to increase the compensation to the fellows. Not interested,” Golden wrote. “Part of the problem is the language barrier. I’ll keep trying.”
What Golden probably didn’t consider while penning his measured tirade to the Times was that he’d soon star in a three-minute film inspired by it. The segment — which literally put a face to the name etched at the bottom of his letter, and provided historical context as well as additional color to the story — would become part of Hear Me Out, an ongoing series of letters to the editor-turned-short documentaries.
Hear Me Out was launched last summer by the paper’s content production hub, L.A. Times Studios, which also generates branded and sponsored content, clips for the marketing department and other original programming. Among the series’ two-to-four-minute episodes, Hear Me Out has touched on the abortion debate, mental illness stigma and treatment, the pandemic-related financial struggles of citizens and other topics. While their themes may vary, all the segments feature primary sources who shared a personal story in a letter to the Times that outlines the real-life impact of widely accepted social constructs, official policies or the lack of them.
“I just generally have been, I don’t want to say amazed, but struck by the level of expertise among our rank-and-file readership,” says Paul Thornton, letters editor at the Times since 2011. Thornton combs through 500 to 1,000 communiques to the paper each week. “This is Los Angeles: Former diplomats write into me, war veterans, Holocaust survivors, lots of people with really bracing experiences will write into me, and this is our chance to make more of that.”
Last spring, Thornton was brainstorming ways to “expand what Letters does,” he says, primarily in terms of reader interactivity. He believed harnessing the video capabilities of L.A. Times Studios with the intellectual property pouring into his inbox from readers would be a good place to start.
Unbeknownst to him, a new senior producer with the studio, Karen Foshay, had already pitched the idea for what would become Hear Me Out to the opinion editor and other higher ups. While previously working on a digital series for PBS called I Was There, Foshay sometimes lifted story ideas from the Times letters. After the paper’s video division hired her, she pieced together proof-of-concept clips for Hear Me Out, which ended up in Thornton’s inbox.
“They just kind of blew me away,” Thornton says. “It was quite serendipitous.”
When all the relevant parties rallied behind the idea for Hear Me Out, Thornton says, to his relief, they were easily able to procure funding.
“It was nice to actually have resources available to do more things that we wanted to do because under previous ownership there weren’t always resources,” Thornton says, referring to Tronc, the company that, in 2018, sold the Times to biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.
In Hear Me Out, Times letters come to life, with the author narrating their story and diving into the topic’s history. In the film dedicated to Golden, he asserts he’s hardly alone in his frustration with leaf blower use, and outlines California’s decades-long, drought-compelled “love affair” with them. He also provides details about past legislation against leaf blowers and other facts. Though the production team inserted images of Times headlines and archive video to support Golden’s statements, no other reporter appears in the video. There wasn’t any need for one.
“Greg’s knowledge of the state’s relationship with leaf blowers was really quite impressive,” Foshay says.
That became apparent to her during her pre-interview with Golden, the second step in the production process behind a Hear Me Out episode. Thornton’s flagging of potential video story candidates from out of his stockpile of letters is the first. He says what primarily separates those from the rest are the personal experiences the writers include that are connected in some way to a story the Times has covered.
“They don’t have to be great writers,” Thornton says of the submitters. “Of course, great writing is always a plus, but I will assist them with editing.”
So far, every person who’s made it to the pre-interview stage with Foshay has also graduated to the film shoot. (One individual who Foshay spoke with turned out to be camera shy, and the video version of their letter was canceled.) Typically, Foshay and a photographer shoot at the letter writer’s home for two to three hours.
Foshay says she uses either an in-house photographer or a freelancer and, depending on who does the job, they’ll employ a Canon C300 Mark II or III camera, relying mostly on natural light. They also use lav mic and a camera shotgun mic; editing is done either in-house or with another freelancer based in New Jersey. All post-production is conducted in Creative Cloud, via Adobe Premiere, After Effects and some Photoshop.
Episodes are typically turned around in about five days, though if they are graphics-heavy, Foshay says an extra day might be tacked on, giving the artists she uses time to finish. The videos publish every two weeks, with the Opinion Editor Terry Tang and L.A. Times Studio Executive Producer James Novogrod offering notes along the way.
While Foshay says her “heart is in longform,” she keeps Hear Me Out episodes short because they’re more attractive watches on digital platforms and social media. But there’s room for her to show off some production pizzaz, as she mindfully manipulates tone from clip to clip, obviously leaning heavily on the score to pull this off. The leaf blower story is more light-hearted and even “snarky,” she says, with a hopping string soundtrack to match. However, the story about a woman whose friend died 60 years ago during a then-illegal abortion procedure is much more heart wrenching, with piano keys teardropping down in a deliberate effort to find the notes.
Reader — or rather, viewer — response has been overwhelmingly positive, Foshay and Thornton say. Letter writers now sometimes directly pitch Thornton to be a part of the series. As its archive grows, Thornton expects view figures for Hear Me Out to rise. The stories tend to have evergreen-like qualities to them, and Thornton says the videos can and have been enjoyed months after their initial release.
In Foshay’s mind, Hear Me Out gives Times readers another means in which to amplify their individual voices. She says when she interviews the letter writers for their Hear Me Out episodes, she can sense an appreciation on their part for being heard.
“They’re just so grateful someone is paying attention,” Foshay says.
Times content decisionmakers have also taken note of the series, calling it a seamless extension of the publication’s greater mission.
“Hear Me Out is a great example of the special place newspapers hold in their communities, serving as conveners, public forums and platforms for people to weigh in on the issues of the day,” a spokesperson said in an email. “It’s also a very direct way to engage with our readers. With committed family ownership and new editorial leadership, we’re on a mission to redefine the modern newspaper — or news organization.
“Video,” the spokesperson continued, “is an essential component of that, as we strive to be where our audience is, which increasingly is online, on mobile devices and other digital platforms.”
Sales of paper copies of Los Angeles Times-delivered news may be threatened by consumer behavior, but clearly brands like this one continue to see video as a viable means of sustainability. As Thornton says of Hear Me Out and video content like it: “There’s more in the pipeline.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.