USA Today’s Newest Sports Franchise Only Looks Casual

What I’m Hearing franchise offers reporters’ selfie-style video on breaking and other news

After a press conference or a winning shot, a reporter holds up his phone and records himself talking to the camera, sharing the latest with his followers. It seems like a casual video, similar to those shared many thousands of times daily. But in the case of What I’m Hearing, the latest franchise from Gannett-owned USA Today, that casual look is part of the appeal, but there’s a lot more behind it.

An editor at the Gannett-owned USA Today works on What I’m Hearing, a new sports-video series built around video shot on mobile phones.

This isn’t the first time USA Today Sports has set out to create a franchise. A few years back, it created the hosted show Sports Pulse, its own version of a slick, fast-moving cable-style production. Staffed with on-set commentators and field reporters, it streams to multiple platforms.

For its next act, USA Today Sports went the opposite direction. What I’m Hearing is built around the hundreds of sports reporters that Gannett’s various sports properties rely on every day. This group already chases down rumors, covers breaking news, and attends press conferences. What I’m Hearing offers the latest info with a personal touch. It’s a quick hit ripped right from a reporter’s notebook.

Videos are shot selfie-style and presented vertically. The first entry streamed just before the Super Bowl, and there are now roughly 80 in the series. They show on a variety of platforms, including USA Today web pages, the paper’s mobile app, and its Twitter and Facebook channels.

USA Today Network’s Robert Padavick: “We want our audience to feel like our reporters are talking directly to them.”

“We bottle it up in a format that’s primed for mobile and social, and that looks the way our audiences expect it to look on these platforms. It’s creating the feel of a one-on-one connection to our reporters. We want our audience to feel like our reporters are talking directly to them in the form of a FaceTime call or something like that,” says Robert Padavick, director, digital video franchises and strategy, USA Today Network. “For us, it was all about finding a new format but, at the same time, creating it in a way that makes it scalable.”

Before USA Today launched the series, it did a lot of testing to determine what works best and coached reporters. For writers, being on camera requires a whole new set of skills. USA Today started with a select group and explained that videos have to offer valuable info, such as breaking news or quashing a rumor. Videos should be short — reporters file two- to five-minute videos that get edited down to a minute or 90 seconds — and have a specific purpose. Once the show got going, other reporters wanted to take part.

One of the most important things for USA Today to get right was the shape of the video. They wanted What I’m Hearing to be viewed on mobile devices and multiple platforms, so they needed a shape that looked good across the board. The exact aspect ratio they chose is designed to take up as much screen real estate as possible. The team A/B-tested multiple versions to find the sweet spot in engagement. (And, no, the team wouldn’t share what the exact ratio is. Those who really want to know can measure their screens.)

Once a reporter uploads fresh video, it needs to be edited and pushed out quickly. When the Robert Kraft story first emerged, a USA Today reporter at the Florida press conference recorded a video right away, and the production team had it edited and posted in just over an hour.

Gannett’s Russ Torres: “We see the brand maturing, not just as a video franchise but as an activation that happens in discussions.”

Today’s viewers expect authenticity, and that’s something What I’m Hearing delivers. Videos don’t begin with logos and overlays but with a light summary of the topic. That’s intended to stop people from scrolling through their feeds. Viewers can see the topic immediately, even with their sound off, and all videos are captioned. USA Today can’t publish game highlights like the leagues do, but it can deliver quick reporting and add value that way.

The show is monetized through pre-roll videos and will likely add sponsors in the future. But don’t look for product integrations because USA Today has to preserve its reporters’ independence. The company isn’t sharing performance data but notes that the show exceeded expectations during its first month and looks to improve on that by 20%-50% in the second month.

This is only the beginning. USA Today launched What I’m Hearing as the foundation of a franchise. It has big plans to grow the concept into new areas.

“We have certainly tested it through a number of breaking-news stories, but we really do see the brand maturing, not just as a video franchise but as an activation that happens in discussions: it is a podcast; it is an event proceeding sporting events,” says Russ Torres, VP, video and strategy, Gannett. “With this brand and what we’ve begun here, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”

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