Our ambition is showing. Xtra is undergoing a significant strategic shift. Think multimedia and multichannel. Last fall, we announced that celebrated theatre artist Daniel MacIvor had joined Pink Triangle Press, Xtra’s publisher, to develop co-productions for broadcast. Closer to home, Xtra is currently shifting around some jobs and responsibilities in order to foster new and larger audiences. Enter Mel Woods, our former senior editor, culture, who is taking on the role of senior editor, audience engagement. This means Mel will be presenting their culture smarts in new formats on new platforms, like social media and newsletters.
I sat down with Mel to discuss shifting trends in journalism, audience development and the inspired madness that is TikTok.
Why is it important for you that Xtra reaches beyond its core readership to embrace new audiences on other platforms?
There was a lot of talk a decade ago when I was entering university about how people were moving away from traditional newspapers and TV and on to the internet. And you saw that in the rise of outlets like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and VICE, which were so formative in how I thought about media. Now I think we’re in the midst of another huge shift in how people gather information. So much of that comes outside of the traditional news website or the home page—when I need to know about something going on, I go to Twitter. When I want to watch a stream of news catered to me, I go to TikTok. When I want to hear from voices I trust, I subscribe to a newsletter. The impetus is on media outlets to go where people are.
So I think it’s important for Xtra to meet our audience where they’re at. I’m a firm believer in service journalism, and bringing our valuable and entertaining journalism to people where they are is the future.
Let’s talk about the #ElephantDressedUp in the room: TikTok. Xtra is launching a TikTok channel featuring you front and centre.
I’ll admit I was a TikTok skeptic three years ago. As someone in my late 20s, it made me feel old! But since then, it’s become such a core part of my life. I learn everything from the news to recipes to workouts and what my favourite cat is up to. I honestly watch it the way I feel like older folks watch the nightly news—going to bed is not complete without an hour spent scrolling my For You page.
Why do you love TikTok?
I’m fascinated by its DIY spirit—there are so many people who’ve found massive success on the platform with no formal training, just a keen sense of tapping into what people want to see and need to see. I also find the algorithm so engrossing in its ability to cater content to the viewer and supply an endless stream of stuff.
What are some of your fave TikToks?
Oh my goodness, my For You page is honestly so eclectic. TikTok is both blessed and cursed in how it really reveals your soul. Right now I get a lot of recipes and workout advice, alongside cats and queer media. There’s this guy, Michael Sheldrake, who’s local to Vancouver and fosters litters of kittens, documenting the process in such a delightful way. There’s a local influencer my partner and I are obsessed with because he’s always going to restaurants near us and having the most wild takes on them, and we can’t help but hate-watch as he orders nachos at some fancy spot. And there are also some celebrities doing it so well—I love Lizzo’s TikTok.
There are also just individual videos my friends and I quote constantly and have become part of the vernacular—this one about people who travel to Berlin came out while we were on vacation in Berlin earlier this year and truly coloured our entire trip. That’s the power of TikTok.
What will Xtra on TikTok look like?
It’s going to be a lot of things—some fun, some experimentation and lots of the thoughtful, informative, queer journalism Xtra is known for. Already we have explainers on how to counter-protest safely, spotlights on banned books, and maybe even a few viral dances planned. There will be a lot of queer culture—and I mean everything from TV and movies to why we’re all obsessed with patterned button-up shirts. And yes, my two senior cats, Hobgoblin and Tesla, will be making appearances because they are stars!
When it launched in 1984, Xtra was known, somewhat dismissively, as a “bar rag.” It was first published as a local entertainment supplement to its parent magazine, The Body Politic (BP), as a way to bridge between the BP activist circles and the seemingly less politically motivated bar crowd. So going where (potential) readers are is baked into Xtra’s DNA.
Yeah! You know, I’m the only one from the Xtra staff out here in Vancouver, and I often have community members saying they miss the boxes of Xtra West on the street corners on Davie St. But I do firmly believe that platforms like TikTok are the “boxes on the street corners” of today. These are the places where conversation and innovation is happening. Activism is organized on Instagram. Emerging artists are finding platforms on TikTok and Spotify. Keen columnists are cultivating massive followings through newsletters, with the same sort of “rush to see what they have to say this week” that came from picking up a physical paper. It’s exciting.
You’re a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Master of Journalism program, and you came to us in 2021 from HuffPost Canada. How did your experience there influence your work with us?
My first job out of journalism school was as a viral/trending editor at HuffPost Canada, and so much of that informs my approach to journalism today. You can do the most impactful, well-researched story, but if no one reads it or knows who you are, it won’t land. I push back on the negative associations with “clickbait”—I think you can make audience-focused work, particularly on social media, that is tailored to what people want to read and not have it be hollow. Bringing the heart and thoughtfulness Xtra has become so well known for to audience-focused content (like TikTok) excites me because it means more people will get to see the amazing work that happens here every day.