Conversation with Sam McPeak from TIME Magazine Dives Into Social Media, Digital Storytelling and Navigating New Changes in the Journalism Industry

Reyna Huff interviewing Sam McPeak at the TIME magazine office in New York City, photo credit to Ashley Sepulveda.

Sam McPeak is a production assistant and video editor at TIME magazine who specializes in social video via TikTok and Instagram. 

Point Loma Nazarene University students from Linda Beail and Amy Nantkes’ “Creating Change, Claiming Power” course toured TIME magazine with Sam McPeak on a class trip to New York City during PLNU’s fall break. A student from the class who is a staff writer for The Point interviewed McPeak about his role in developing TIME’s social media presence and the recent changes in the news industry. 

The Point: You started in your parents’ bedroom out in California. And now you’re here, in one of the biggest cities, working for a 100-year-old magazine. Was TIME always the dream? Can you walk me through that path? 

Sam McPeak: So that’s absolutely correct. So when I started first, [it] was in 2021. When I first got hired, and I was working freelance, I was actually a motorsport photographer, and one of my friends is a racecar driver. I started working with him [and] doing his media strategy, as well as doing some other stuff for like, local car companies and a bunch of auto manufacturers in San Diego. 

And at the time, I was just really looking for something that was actually solid, not freelancing. I graduated from college [in] 2019, the pandemic happened, and I was just sort of free-floating. I got lucky enough that I submitted a bunch of my content to someone who was well connected, actually, Nancy Gibbs, who was the ex-TIME editor, and her daughter and I went to school at the same time. I was just like, “Hey, here’s what I do. I don’t know if there’s any potential chance that  you’d be interested. But I’m really fascinated by social video and doing digital stuff. Here’s my portfolio.” And it was all the personal videos I put together and stuff like that for other companies. And she set me up with an interview. 

I always knew I wanted to be in social video because that’s kind of my background. But yeah, I started doing TikToks for the company in my bedroom. I had a projector on my wall that I would just dance in front of and point to [it saying] “stocks are going down, things are going up,” and it started to develop like a really healthy audience on TikTok. We grew from 15,000 subscribers to 200k, [then] to over two million [views]. And luckily, I had a great team here that was sort of trying to get it [social media] but couldn’t get the resources to be able to do it [well]. 

TP: I think whenever I talk to people that have been in the industry for a long time, they often talk about how we’re in this big, cultural-changing moment. And sometimes I think it’s a little bit nerve-wracking for people who see journalism suddenly shifting toward being on social media platforms. How do you feel about being in an industry that’s constantly changing? What’s exciting about news being on social media platforms? 

SM: Yeah, well, I think that the only way for news to remain relevant is if people are providing it, where they’re regularly available. The thing about this kind of industry, even though it wasn’t something that I originally thought I was going to be [in], I think one of the most compelling parts about being in this sort of sphere is knowing that what we do today might be completely different in a year. It might be completely different in two years. And I mean, with the revolution of AI and with all these different things, our job is to see what’s going on in the world, and [to ask] how can we come alongside it rather than repel away from it? 

I think that regardless of what we do, the world is going to keep evolving. And social media is where people are at. And now there’s the problem of misinformation, and it’s happening constantly and where the source is coming from is a very important thing. Luckily, I think that TIME as a brand is evolving in a sense where we’re becoming more relevant to people’s daily lives because we’re showing them stuff that they want to see in content, that they actually want to consume, in a medium that appeals to them. 

Whether that’s, you know, just a photo post or photo carousel on Instagram, or it’s a TikTok, or reel, or something like that. So there’s something for everyone. There will come a time where maybe social media and the current form that we have, that might transition. I mean, X is in a very interesting place right now. You know, who knows what the next two to three years will look like as far as that is. But, I think as long as we’re providing quality perspective and being a source of trust — rather than misinformation and problematic stuff that’s going on and has been going on for a long time — I think that we’re able to be more effective in that sense.

TP: You’ve worked in particular on social media for TIME and alongside people who work in social media for TIME, which is fascinating, because the job that you have now maybe didn’t even exist, like five years ago.

SM: For sure.

TP: So how have you seen social media shape storytelling and the news landscape? 

SM: Well, it’s funny you mentioned that. The whole format of how we film videos has changed because of that. We have to come up with moments that are going to hook the viewer early. Because if you’re dry in the first 10 seconds, no one is going to want to watch the rest of it. Even if it’s the best video you’ve ever put together. That first 10 seconds is so valuable. So you have to come up with like, here’s our thesis statement. Here’s what we’re trying to say in this video. Let’s break into more details. 

You might see this on things like TikTok and things where people will say, “Did you know that 40% of used cars are over $60,000? Let me tell you why.” That has become the standard, as opposed to tonight’s top story. That’s the new-age version of that. People nowadays want to see what’s going on. They don’t want someone to tell them what’s happening. Because there’s a million people who will tell you everything from their perspective. Now people want to form their own judgments. I think it started after the pandemic when everyone was questioning everything and  conspiracy theories were ripe. And everyone wanted to see firsthand what’s going on on the ground. What is the actual story?

That’s why I think people are more trusting of personality-based news, where it’s someone who they’ve consistently seen or someone who’s telling a story that is maybe from a perspective they haven’t heard before. They understand that this person is a part of a larger organization. And from a video perspective, it’s changed how we edit.

TP: So I’m coming to this conclusion that you can’t really be a one-trick pony anymore in the industry, especially with it being so competitive. Is that something that you see, where people are working in different mediums? Even here in this office? Or do you still feel like it’s pretty separate from like, these are the people working on the magazine, these are people working in video format, or do you guys have to kind of learn to do it all?

SM: I genuinely don’t believe that we [the social media team] would be able to do what we do without the assistance of the rest of the organization. I mean, we all focus on different things, there’s no doubt about that. There’s different people who occupy very specific and segmented roles in the company. But [that is] part of why we’ve been able to continue to be successful and continue to make progress in various different mediums — especially going from a print magazine to an online website. 

And now the websites, you know, people will go on it, but I don’t even walk into my room and go on a web browser. I don’t type in TIME.com. So it’s the process of getting people to be like, “Okay, well, how do we format it for an Instagram-based thing?”  What are the key points we can include in the caption that’s going to give the best summation of the story without being inaccurate? And you’re absolutely right, you can’t be a one-trick pony. I can’t afford to be a one-trick pony. I have to be able to do social video, but I can also direct and I can also produce based off of what I know about the audience we’re looking for. 

That’s a very key aspect to remaining relevant in the news world, is being able to say this one story has nine different ways we can put it out. How can I define those nine ways to be the best possible story I can tell, but also not distract from the platform it’s based on. Because one article can end up on all of our platforms and in various different iterations. But I think that if you can come back to base camp, [and say] this is the story I want to tell, this is who I am and this is what I want to say, then you’re better able to spread that around to other platforms and be more dynamic with whatever you’re posting on.

TP: You talked a little bit earlier about just navigating misinformation and disinformation. How do you navigate that while working on social media platforms where there is so much just misinformation? How do you stress the importance of needing to be on these platforms, but also think about doing it ethically, in a safe way that is responsible? 

SM: Well, we’re lucky enough that we have an audience team, which is run by Sam Cooney, who’s an absolute legend, and she helps us define that sort of thing like, okay, here’s what we need to say so it’s consistent with editorial language and we’re not saying something different. Because if we’re saying something different to our editorial coverage, or the magazine, eventually it’s going to look really bad for us. 

So being able to have a person you can go to and say, “Here’s what we’re going to post, what language do you think is going to work best for it in the editorial context?” Because most of the content we’re putting out is done alongside an editorial piece, [and] there might be something that’s just standalone that we do because it’s buzzy or whatever. But, being able to say, “Okay, here’s the story we’re telling, that’s what we’re aiming for.” And just being as accurate to what we receive in our information and also being able to say when we need to correct it, and not trying to shy away from it as if we did something wrong. Luckily, the edit team does that very well. 

But you know, another thing you have to do to avoid misinformation, it’s just stay the hell out of the comments. The comment section is a cesspool, and I have a strong enough skin to be able to read it and say alright, well, that’s what people are saying. But, you know, I find it to be a good litmus test to see how people are reacting to the content. What are people saying? And what does it mean, for the way that we’re telling [the story]? Is there something that we could have done better? 

I think reporting should be retrospective, as much as it is proactive. You have to be able to say, “Okay, we’re going to tell the story, it’s gonna be great.” But we have to make sure all the information and all the building blocks to telling a good story are there before we even tell that story. And because we’re not a 24/7, breaking news, first-on-the-story, first-on-the-ground organization, it allows us to make more rational, well-vetted decisions that end up providing a more cohesive story. And so, for the people that are hearing these things from various different platforms, and you know, not accurate stories, and a million different opinion pieces with dudes with a podcast mic, [for TIME] it’s here’s what we what we know, and here’s a bunch of sources that are validated through all the possible avenues that we can have. Here’s what the story is, according to what we know, and [we are] staying firm to those ideals and staying consistent. I think consistency is probably the biggest key to combating this misinformation, especially on such a massive platform and on so many avenues.

TP: Just kind of to continue talking about how to use social media, for freelancers it’s a really interesting way to put your own work out there but also to do research on your ideas. In your time as a freelance storyteller, how did you use social media to your advantage?

SM: I would not be here if it wasn’t for social media, and if it wasn’t for Instagram specifically. I started producing content in the middle of the pandemic because I was so bored that I didn’t know what else to do with my time. I think having social media allows you to have a personal stage that makes it so you are the one who’s responsible for what you put out there. My goal was never to grow big or make a brand for myself, it was just something I genuinely loved to do. 

I think because of the accessibility and discoverability of social media, that’s something where I found, as a freelancer, I could tell a story that was quality with low budget things, it was a GoPro and a phone on a gimbal. It was also research and being able to say here’s my sources, let me list these off on the video. Here’s what we’re dialing into. Here’s what’s happening in the world and [I’m] honing my craft accordingly. 

Because when you’re a freelancer, you’re responsible for your brand. That’s the end all be all. The buck stops with you; it’s like running your own company. And so if your company is yourself, how are you going to run it in the best way possible? Are you going to go for the biggest profit? Or are you going to talk to different people involved in the situation, and then come up with a cohesive narrative in the center?

And it’s how you want to define that, that I think is the most effective way to be an effective freelancer, but also as a quality writer and quality journalist, because all of the people that I work with here do that. And they don’t use social media as much, which honestly, I think is sometimes a little bit of a downside for themselves. But you know, they’re, they’re traditionalists. They’re journalists. So that lines up.

TP: I just would love to know, what is some advice you have for the younger students who are hoping to break into the industry? What’s a piece of advice that you find helpful?

SM: Be kind to yourself. Be okay with not having all the answers. Because I think when you come out of college, when you’ve gained all this knowledge, when you’ve kind of gone out into the world, you think, all right, I’m as equipped as I possibly can be to go and tackle the world. I’m going to make a difference immediately. 

That’s what I thought. And I think that when you’re chasing something, if it’s your dream, if you want to be a writer, you want to get there as fast as possible. But trusting the process is going to be the best outcome for you. No one ever got up to a position of satisfaction and happiness by speeding through it. I’m still going through that right now, I don’t have all the answers. And I had to humble myself enough to be like, okay, this is going to be a little bit harder than I thought. And with that, you’re doing all right. 

If you’re still passionate about something, and you think that this is something you can do, you can continue to keep chasing, because you never know where it’ll take you, I was doing videos in my bedroom. And now I work for TIME Magazine. And I got really lucky knowing some very, very quality people on the way. But if I didn’t have that base level of, I know what my craft is, [I know] that I’m doing something good, and I’m honing it to the best possible ability that I can, I wouldn’t be here. I think we beat ourselves up too much for not having all the answers. I think the best thing you can ever do is say, okay, we’re going to find a way for this to happen. And it’s all part of the process. It’s step by step, brick by brick, and at the end, you have a pretty decent foundation to work [from].

TP: You talked in the presentation earlier about an idea here that you’ve heard about journalism being a service industry. As a storyteller, who is it that you’re hoping and trying to serve? 

SM: So I’ve tried to answer that question for myself. It’s undefined, there’s no ideal. If you go to our executive board, they’ll have an idea on who they think is their audience. But from my perspective, I think my service is to the people that read the magazine. And I believe that very, very strongly, because that demographic is diverse, and worldwide, and there’s so many people that are interested from all backgrounds, all financial statuses. My responsibility to them, as an abstract group of people, is to provide them with the most quality information, quality story and effective journalism that I possibly can. 

I think that we are here to serve the readers of the magazine and also, it would be a disservice to ourselves not to do all of our due diligence, research and background. We owe it to the people that helped pay for us to exist, like whether it’s digital subscriptions or advertising revenue, those people are our customers.

I don’t believe in pandering. I don’t think that we should change our journalism or the way of our journalistic integrity to suit a certain narrative or fit a certain group of people or to appeal to them. But the people that are here and value TIME’s journalism, our best thing that we can do is be a quality voice, effective voice, giving the best information, just being exactly who we have been as a brand overall but also being more dynamic and available as the future goes forward.