As an associate producer at The Washington Post, Chris Vazquez ’21, ’21 MS is part of a three-person team tasked with creating content for the publication’s TikTok channel. Every day, Vazquez scripts, records and edits short videos offering a comedic take on current events, ranging from mask mandates to inflation to President Joe Biden’s approval rating.
Northwestern Magazine’s Clare Milliken (virtually) sat down with Vazquez to find out more about his work at the Post, his biggest challenges and his early love of sitcom humor.
Were you always drawn to comedy?
I had a bit of an interest going into middle school. One summer I would get up every morning and make myself toast and coffee and watch reruns of Seinfeld that I had recorded the night before. When I visited my grandparents’ house, I would pull out their old electric typewriter and try to write little standup routines or sitcom scripts. … I started watching old episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix and entertaining fantasies of being a sitcom or sketch comedy writer. My cousins and I started writing little scripts and performing them and posting them on a really obscure website.
What makes TikTok an effective medium for news?
I think the TikTok app was designed for and still, for the most part, functions as more of an escapist place rather than a place people go for information. At the same time, I think we are reaching a lot of people who might not be tuning into a news site or newspaper. To me, one big advantage of TikTok is that we’re able to find people who might not be following these stories as closely as Washington Post readers or subscribers, and then give them news in a way that is really digestible.
Every day I try to think not just in terms of who’s yelling at each other in Congress but what this yelling or piece of legislation means for the people who are watching our videos and how I can distill that for them.
What’s the most challenging part of your role?
We have to walk a really thin line of delivering information in a way that is fair to everyone involved and that doesn’t make light of things that are really serious. Finding that balance has been the hardest and most stressful part of my job so far.
And with COVID it’s especially hard. If the U.S. hits a record number of deaths, that’s not something we would make a fun, lighthearted TikTok about. But something like free masks getting shipped out — that’s not something people might see and think, “Hey, why are you making light of this?”
What’s one of your favorite projects to date?
We were looking into whether TikTok was intentionally flagging certain words or hashtags so videos that included them performed worse. We spoke with Black creators talking about racism on TikTok, queer creators talking about homophobia and transphobia, disabled creators talking about ableism, and they felt that if they said or included certain words in closed captions or text bubbles, the platform would recognize that and make sure those videos got less traffic.
We interviewed some people collecting data about this and edited together three very short videos unpacking that. It was our first time doing something on TikTok where we weren’t just adapting somebody else’s reporting; we were actually doing the investigation ourselves.
What Northwestern professors or classes had a big impact on your career?
I was professor Craig Duff’s work-study student when he was working on a documentary called Newstown about a city in Ohio [Youngstown] that lost its major daily newspaper. Part of my job was to take footage that someone else shot and edit it down into concise little scenes. That taught me how to take a lot of information and really distill it, and those are skills that I’m applying now.
Another teacher who really stands out for me is Bill Healy ’07 MS, ’09 MS. I took a podcasting class with him, and he really helped me see that I have other interests, like podcasting, that I could explore, and that doesn’t make me indecisive. It makes me an asset in certain workplaces, and it makes me dynamic. That was really valuable, on top of all the fun I had in his class.
Do your parents understand your job?
I know that my dad has downloaded TikTok, and he watches my stuff. … I was recently filming a TikTok video in my parents’ living room in Miami while my mom was in the backyard. I had to film one line — it was just me really excitedly saying, “Yay!” — and I was doing it a million different ways so that the editor would have a lot of options. My mom was just looking at me the whole time, and she walks in and says, “I’m going to admit, I was a little worried.”
How has your job changed your digital — and real-life — presence?
I’m mainly on TikTok for business, not leisure. I’ll scroll throughout the day to see what’s trending and what I could adapt for work, but outside of 9-to-5 I try to stay off the app.
I am more visible than I was before this job. … I’m just not used to being as online as this job has made me, which sometimes feels weird, but sometimes it’s really exciting.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.