Tuesday 25 June 2019

Snapchat's slow move to editorial evolution

Snapchat rebuffed a $3bn cash acquisition offer from Facebook last year
Snapchat rebuffed a $3bn cash acquisition offer from Facebook last year
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Snapchat has over 100 million users - and about 45pc of them are aged 18 to 24. The ephemeral messaging app rebuffed a $3bn cash acquisition offer from Facebook last year, and instead is going it alone as a commercial entity.

And it's making headway. Adverts now run on its Discover channels, with revenue shared with publishing partners like ESPN and Sky Sports.

Its latest initiative involves allowing users to pay for replays of already viewed snaps and "sponsored lenses", which will enable the addition of brand logos and tag lines to users' selfies.

But Snapchat's editorial evolution may be more interesting than any of its commercial developments. Aside from being a video-sharing platform, it's becoming a broadcaster - albeit one that's slightly different from anything we've seen before. Ahead of next year's US elections, the platform has been ramping up its news credentials.

Former CNN political reporter Peter Hamby has been hired as head of news, and last week he gave a talk at Harvard's Shorenstein Centre on the media, politics and public policy, which offered a real insight into how Snapchat is evolving.

Hamby honed in on Live Stories as a unique editorial product that offers immediacy and multiplicity. Live Stories are a daily stream of user-generated videos - like the Papal visit to Philadelphia or a Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. The videos are created from all the videos related to each event that are posted by Snapchat users, and are packaged by an editorial team. They reach an audience of around 15 million in a 24-hour window.

"We have the ability to capture and harness and broadcast videos from everyone who's a Snapchat user in any given location," Hamby said. "Whether it's a democratic or republican debate, the papal visit or the Greek elections; we are able to put up a geo-fence around a certain location. And every Snapchat user can submit to that story that we have fenced.

"We are able to curate all of that video, pick the best moments, add graphics and then broadcast that out to 100 million Snapchat users all around the world.

"At CNN we would cover an event or an interview with one or two cameras. At Snapchat we have everyone's camera at our disposal."

But the relative youth of the audience means that the content needs to be pitched slightly differently.

"So, in telling those stories, because the audience is so young, I view our mission here as educational," said Hamby. "Snapchat is not going to be the place where we're going to break incremental staffing news, or process-y campaign stories.

"But there are millions of first time voters using the platform. Three quarters of Snapchat's audience is over the age of 18, but most of them are between 18 and 34.

"And these are people who are not watching television news. They're not reading the New York Times. They're not reading the Washington Post. They might not be using Facebook that much, to be honest. But they are living in Snapchat. So there's this huge audience and we're building an editorial structure on top of them and alerting them to things happening in the world."

American politics is obviously high up on Hamby's agenda; he wrote the book (and by book, I mean a 39,000 word report) on the way social media has changed how US political candidates are presented to the media and voters. Hamby believes Snapchat has a role to play in next year's US presidential election, explaining policies and personalities to first time voters.

"We did a story a couple of weeks ago about the Iran deal in the campaign," he said. "Hilary gave a speech at Brookings in Washington, Trump and Cruz spoke at a big rally against the deal on Capital Hill, Jeb was in North Carolina, Ben Carson was in Anaheim. We were able to put up a fence around all these places and pull in video from all of those places, from the candidates, from journalists, from people on the ground, from voters. And also built artwork, graphics, text, animation on top of that.

"It basically became a four-minute explainer about the Iran deal; what it is, what does the US get and what Iran gets, and where the candidates stand on it. So I think there's value in that. A 19-year-old may not come across what the Iran deal is, but if it's in their face on Snapchat where they're living all day, I see that as a social good."

As to how the platform is changing the culture of journalism, Hamby believes Snapchat may paradoxically offer a return to more traditional values. Why? Because its news outlets are all manually curated.

"We live in this feed-based, algorithm-driven news world," Hamby said, "where you go on Facebook and it tells you articles that you think you want to read and you actually kind of don't. With Discover we're empowering platforms like CNN and ESPN.

"They're editors. They're making editorial decisions, these are the 10 pieces of content, 10 stories, 10 videos that we think you would be interested in today. In that way it feels like the front page of a newspaper."

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