Day in the Life: What a New York Times’ documentary producer does

Live and reactionary video is the current format du jour for publishers’ video efforts. But The New York Times is finding that its slow-churn efforts have a following, too.

“It’s a very unique series at The Times because we’re not pivoting off the news,” Kathleen Lingo told Digiday, describing Op-Docs, a series of films in differing formats from virtual reality to animated based in the newspaper’s op-ed section.

Lingo, the channel’s executive producer, oversees a team of three soliciting ideas from external filmmakers that creates short-form videos aimed to be “provocative and spark discussion.”

“Op-Docs are inspired by the opinion page and that page is for people outside of the Times to give a point-of-view of issues of the day, so that’s the spirit of Op-Docs,” she said. “We’re not part of news and we’re not competing with the newsroom, so we’re not trying to cover or recast the news. We can be artistic and take a different point-of-view.”

Kathleen Lingo
Lingo. (The New York Times)

Published on the Times’ website, the short documentaries recently focused on a Syrian teenager living in a refugee camp, candid conversations about what it’s like to be Latino or Asian in the U.S., and if fashion can be considered art. Op-Docs published its 200th documentary yesterday from filmmaker Errol Morris.

Lingo joined the Times in 2013 to lead the channel following producing stints at WNYC and various film houses. The teams’ honors are a rarity for the newspaper by winning two Emmy Awards and an Oscar nomination.

Here’s what Lingo does on a typical day, slightly edited for clarity:

6:40 a.m.: I woke up, which felt like the height of luxury considering that my son woke up at 6 a.m.

9:30 a.m.: I got on the train and browse through The New York Times app for news that I’ll need to know for the day (who knows, maybe an older Op-Doc will be relevant again, like this one about the first American climate change refugees on a vanishing Louisiana island recently was).

10:20 a.m: I arrive at The Times in Midtown, grab a coffee and make a to-do list. Today there’s back-to-back meetings from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. so I’ve gotta get organized beforehand and most importantly watch some films. There’s always a contract to revise or item to negotiate — can’t lose track.

Noon:  Every week we screen potential Op-Docs we are strongly considering with a small group of editors from the Opinion section. Today we screened a doc that was nearly 30 minutes. Usually, most Op-Docs are around 5 to 10 minutes, but we are open to different forms of storytelling and figuring out what appeals to our audience. One of our most popular Op-Docs was a 26-minute long film in Polish about a baby with a birth defect, which earned an Oscar nomination.

12:30 p.m.: Besides Op-Docs, we are also looking into publishing other types of Opinion videos to experiment with new forms of opinion journalism. Today, we discussed a potential fictional opinion video series related to the election. Not sure if it will happen, but it is super fun to consider the possibility and would help us bring in important new audiences. The duo we meet with is smart and so original. One of them also pitched an amazing Op-Doc idea! So the meeting was not only exciting, but productive in unexpected ways.

1:30 p.m.:  Had a call with Nonny de la Pena, the godmother of virtual reality, and a talented filmmaker who contributed a VR film to our Sundance VR series in the NYT VR app. Op-Docs published our first VR film in the NYT VR app a few weeks, ‘The Click Effect,” to stellar results. We are actively considering pitches for more VR Op-Docs. VR is exciting, but also challenging. A completely new frontier for storytelling.

2:00 p.m.: Another call, this time with someone in Los Angeles about a few possible Op-Docs related to feature documentaries. While we don’t publish direct lifts from features, we do consider shorts that are companion pieces to longer films. Our bar for doing so is pretty simple: the short must still be interesting even if one has seen the feature film.

3:00 p.m.: Another meeting! This one about a new potential Op-Docs series. We have done a few series, “A Conversation on Race,” “Animated Life,” and “Verbatim.” All of those series are around broad topics such race, science, the legal system. However this pitch is for first Op-Docs series that would be true episodic storytelling with one arc told over multiple installments. Bonus: it is about a cute animal and the Internet never met a cute animal it didn’t share a million times.

4:30 p.m.: Meeting with the Times newsletter team to plan the inaugural Op-Doc newsletter. The newsletter will not only alert audiences to our new films but also have info on upcoming events, Q&A’s with filmmakers, and special features. Op-Docs events are happening in New York on June 2 at the IFC theater in Manhattan, and on July 14 at LACMA, plus events later in the year in San Francisco.

5:30 p.m.: Call with a lawyer. There is always another contract to negotiate! Nice to be at my desk for a moment.

6:00 p.m.: On the train home I catch-up on my email and listen to podcasts.Some favorites are On Being, On the Media, Democracy Now! and Fresh Air.

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