News in a snap: Snapchat’s evolution from social app to content platform

By Katie Jansen, Special to the Alliance

When Snapchat launched in 2011, it was seen as a social app to send selfies to friends or to post stories that would disappear in 24 hours.

But it has since evolved into a platform where news outlets are producing original news content – sometimes exclusively for Snapchat – to report stories in new and interesting ways that cater to a typically younger audience.

Many newspapers started by creating accounts where they could post Snapchat stories, just like individual Snapchat users. Several major outlets are now getting on board with one of Snapchat’s newest features, Discover, where they are featured regularly on a special section of the app.

On Discover, outlets are able to combine video, text, images and animation to package featured stories in a visually interesting way. Often, the snaps that comprise an outlet’s Discover package offer a fact or a statistic, giving readers the option to swipe up and read the entire story on mobile.

So far, several major newspapers have launched Discover channels, including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times announced in February it will be the next newspaper to join Discover.

The Times will continue to operate its traditional account, which it has run for two years, in addition to Discover, said social editor Talya Minsberg.

“It’s very valuable to be able to produce stories and interact with readers through our Snapchat account,” she said.

One of Minsberg’s favorite Snapchat stories was a project she did with social media strategy editor Michael Gold before the election. They wanted to find a way to explain the electoral college via Snapchat, and Gold had the idea of using popcorn to represent votes.

“We had to come up with ways to represent various parts, like the Republicans, the Democrats and the voting process,” Minsberg said. “We scripted it out and figured out what each shot should look like. We got good feedback on that story – some people said it was the first time they ever really understood the electoral college – and we were proud to have created something visual and engaging that people could enjoy and learn from.”

Snapchat’s interface even made it to the print version of the Times in a story on Snap’s I.P.O. The social team used Snapchat to ask users what they like about the app, and they took screenshots of the best Snap responses they received. The screenshots appeared the next morning on the front page of the business section to illustrate how Snap’s popular app works.

Using Snapchat has been a learning experience for everyone in the newsroom, Minsberg said, and she’s excited to see how the paper’s Discover channel will interact with its traditional Snapchat stories.

The Washington Post has been on Discover since mid-February. Chris Meighan, director of emerging news products, said the Post aims to include both “quick hits” and longer pieces in each Discover segment.

“We aim to create a pacing that will move people through our stories,” Meighan said. “We really allow the storytelling to dictate the form. If it’s a nuts and bolts news story that can be boiled down to a few bullet points, we will go that route; if it’s analysis or opinion, we’ll keep it in its original form. Or if a video can tell the story best, we will opt for that.”

Meighan said that although it’s too early to tell how frequently users swipe up to read entire pieces via Discover, the tool has been helpful because it allows them “to create bolder and deeper storytelling.”

The Wall Street Journal, which was the first newspaper to join Discover last January, has also been able to create this bold storytelling, such as a mini documentary on drug addiction that appeared only on Snapchat Discover.
Audience engagement has been very important for the Journal, said visuals producer Dave Cole.

“You keep the audience engaged by having reliably useful, smart and fun content every day,” he said. “We have experimented a lot with doing reader callouts where we used readers’ contributions to create native content, and that’s been quite successful for us.”

For example, the social team asked users why they were attending the Women’s March, and then they built a feature on the march integrating video content from users.

“This ended up being a fresh and I think pretty unique way to cover a historic event, that stood out from the rest of our coverage and a lot of what we saw from other publishers on Discover,” Cole said.

Snapchat does have its limitations, particularly in the length of snaps, but social teams like the Journal’s get creative to deliver interesting and informative content in a limited timeframe.

“We typically do a weekly feature where we have one story told across eight or more snaps in a (Discover) edition, which is our way of breaking down an in-depth story over multiple snaps,” Cole said.

Although it may be difficult for local newspapers with limited resources to participate in Discover, major outlets like the Times have proven that even a traditional Snapchat account can be useful for increasing audience engagement. Local newspapers like Raleigh’s News & Observer and the Orlando Sentinel have already gotten on board and opened accounts, and as Snapchat continues to add features and gain users, other papers are sure to follow.

“A few years ago, a platform where stories disappeared didn’t seem like something we should really focus on,” Minsberg said. “But now we’ve embraced this technology and more people are willing to explore and play, so we’re reaching a new audience with this tool. It’s another kind of reporting skill – using your phone to tell powerful stories.”


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