Snapchat is ‘ripe for experimentation’ in newsrooms

While the payoff may not be immediately clear, Snapchat has become an unlikely, yet invaluable tool for contemporary journalists.

**Photo Credit: Selena Larson

A number of news companies are now “fishing where the fishes are” with the help of Snapchat, the viral photo and video-sharing mobile application that some have dubbed the “new Instagram.”

The app, co-founded by Stanford University student Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, his recently graduated business partner, was partly inspired by former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner’s disastrous decision to exchange sexy photos on Twitter.

Snapchat, launched in 2011, originally gained traction among teens and millennials who could send their friends goofy or racy images that vanish 10 seconds after they are viewed. It became easily identified by its smiling, yet now rendered faceless mascot “Ghostface Chillah,” named after former Wu-Tang clan rapper Ghostface Killah.

Accordingly, it rapidly grew in notoriety and value, receiving a $3 billion dollar acquisition offer from Facebook, for its ability to attract smart-phone users seeking a private, ephemeral way to send original content to friends.

Despite its overnight success, Snapchat’s value to news organizations has been less obvious compared to other social networks that could be used to direct audience members to the publisher’s site such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

However, the addition of Snapchat Stories in October meant users could compile images and short-videos, known as “Snaps,” and share this flip-book-style album with their followers. Instead of content vanishing after mere seconds, it remains available for 24-hours. This shift has opened doors for news organizations such as the Washington Post to jump on the Snapchat bandwagon and experiment in the newsroom.

Having already tested the waters with the PostPolitics account in mid-January, Cory Haik, executive producer and senior editor for digital news at the Post, decided on a whim to live-Snapchat the Super Bowl commercials as they came on as well as provide quick commentary.

“It’s really been on our minds and we just really wanted to experiment with it and sort of push the bounds and new audience,” Haik said.

The undertaking was inspired by a Super Bowl live-Facebooking event she saw. That got Haik thinking about using Twitter for audience engagement, but the “waterfall of tweets” persuaded her to try out Snapchat instead.

The non-controversial subject-matter made covering the Super Bowl ads low-risk and ripe for experimentation, she said.

Haik said she was surprised by how difficult it was to keep up with the ads on live TV and then write commentary with only 30 characters, equal to a quarter of a Tweet.

“Oh my gosh, you have to be really quick and really concise,” Haik said.

The goal was to tread lightly and see what sort of response the Post received. Once the Snapchats caught on, Haik promoted the “experiment” midway through, which attracted some new followers.

What sets Snapchat apart from other social networking platforms is its one-to-one engagement, she said.

“There’s no comments. There’s no liking. You can’t repost anything. It’s an experience,” Haik said, “You produce something in the palm of your hand and someone else sees it in the palm of their hand. It’s like a tunnel to someone. It’s entirely different than any other medium that we’ve used or are using.”

Haik raises one of the main challenges news organizations face when adopting Snapchat to deliver the news— there is no readily available method to drive traffic directly to a media outlet’s own site from Snapchat. Despite this hiccup, journalists are still choosing to use the technology to reach a new and much younger audience.

For example, NowThis News, a NYC based startup that creates news and entertainment-focused video channels for a Millennial audience across social and mobile platforms as well as an early adopter of Snapchat for news coverage, has managed to attract between 4,000 and 5,000 followers, according to Maya Tanaka, digital video producer for NowThis News.

Much of NowThis News’ audience on Snapchat is under 15-years-old, a demographic that is increasingly moving away from Facebook and doesn’t engage with Instagram as much, said Tanaka.

The startup has been using Snapchat since October, propelled by the news cycle of its Washington, D.C. office. When NowThis News first started using the app, it concentrated its efforts on video, but has since shifted its approach to mostly still photography with text and drawing.

With the app, the depth and complexity of the story really depends on the comfort level of the reporter managing the account and his or her knowledge of the story. Issues with brevity of character count can be mitigated through drawing with fingers or a stylus, said Tanaka.

“It’s a very pleasant platform, so it’s easy to stay. Once we got in there, we just kinda got hooked and kept doing it,” Tanaka said.

For news outlets like NowThis News, Snapchat is more about engaging their audience and extending their brand to a new, wildly popular platform than it is about driving traffic to their home site. Though, this outlook may be due in part to the difficulty of calculating metrics. With Snapchat, news organizations are only able to track the totals of followers, views, and screenshots. An absence of transparent analytics makes it difficult for news organizations to monetize their efforts using the app.

However, Snapchat’s founders have said that the screenshot feature can be equated to a “like” or a “favorite,” a signal to the sender that the image sent was favorably received, according to a New York Times blog post by Jenna Wortham.

Even though the app may be lacking in metric-tracking capability, it more than makes up for it in its level of intimacy, immediacy, and choice, Tanaka said.

“If you don’t want to follow our stories, you don’t have to. It’s not flooding your feed, we’re not pushing our information on you, you’re choosing to look at it,” Tanaka said.

NPR made the plunge to try out Snapchat when Melody Kramer, digital strategist for NPR, noticed a lot people were flocking to the app, including her younger brother.

“We try to go to where ever our audience is, so we thought a lot of people are on it, how would NPR look on this medium?” Kramer said.

However, she has taken a unique approach to incorporating Snapchat into NPR’s newsroom.  Kramer has been using the video functionality of the app to shoot 15-second video of reporters sharing an interesting fact from their news stories. Then, she downloads the video to her smartphone’s camera roll and “Snaps” it out to NPR’s followers every day.

“I don’t think it’s different than any other social media platform we’re on. We’re seeing what our audience likes and we’re adapting to it,” Kramer said, “I’m proud that we’re on there.”

Kramer said NPR has received very positive responses from both inside the building and outside and has attracted thousands of followers. However, she was reluctant to comment on the future of the app, “It’s not within my wheelhouse,” she said.

It is unclear what the future holds for Snapchat’s staying power in journalism, but there’s a lot to be said for the value of experimentation and efforts to adopt this new medium in newsrooms.

Tanaka was lukewarm in her optimism. She said, while NowThis News has made a strong effort of keeping pace with Snapchat, everyone is at least six months behind technological advancements.

“We’re going to get really good at this and then move onto the next thing that we find that someone will tell us about; and that person will probably be 15-years-old. So we’re learning, everyone’s learning.”