Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed

snapchat

Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

Odd station out?

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. According to the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn, ESPN’s ratings- and signal-challenged Boston radio station, WAMG (AM 890), will shut down just as ESPN’s Boston Web site is making its debut.

But sports-radio ratings leader WEEI (AM 850), locked in a war with new sports station WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), will start carrying some of ESPN’s programming. Then, a few months from now, WEEI will match ‘BZ’s far better signal by moving to the FM dial. That, in turn, will open the way for ESPN to start a new Boston station at AM 850.

So ESPN goes from being number two in a two-station battle to number three in a three-station battle. It will have a better signal than it does now, but it will still be pretty lousy. And it will continue to deal with the challenge of not having any local professional games to carry.

Wow. Doesn’t sound smart to me.

On “Beat the Press” yesterday, ironically, we talked about how smart the folks are at ESPN, which is marking its 30th anniversary.

Earlier: “Optimism amid the newspaper gloom.”

Optimism amid the newspaper gloom

espnboston_20090828Two pieces of news prompt this post. First, the Associated Press reports that newspaper advertising was down 29 percent in the second quarter of 2009, a devastating decline that is sure to renew questions as to how much longer the traditional newspaper business can hang on. Second, the Boston Globe’s main football writer, Mike Reiss, is leaving for a new ESPN Web site to be called ESPNBoston.

What do these two events have in common? They are further evidence that media organizations whose business models are relatively healthy have an opportunity to invade the turf traditionally occupied by newspapers. That doesn’t offer much hope for newspaper publishers. But it’s certainly cause for optimism among those who want to see journalism survive — and something worried journalism students should take solace from as well.

ESPNBoston, which has not yet launched, is not to be confused with the radio station of the same name — an also-ran with two bad signals, now reduced to spectator status in the sports-talk battle between WEEI (AM 850) and WBZ-FM (98.5). ESPNBoston, writes the Globe’s Chad Finn, is part of a strategy by the parent company to launch regional Web sites in the most sports-crazed parts of the country.

Disney-owned ESPN, among other things, operates wildly successful cable channels, publishes a magazine and produces a Web site that, according to Quantcast.com, attracts between 14 million and 20 million unique visitors each month. I don’t pretend to know what ESPN’s business strategy is for the new local sites, but it seems logical that company executives would be willing to subsidize them for quite a while if they help cement brand loyalty.

Reiss is not the only local sports reporter to leave for sites operated by non-newspaper companies. Previously, the Boston Herald lost Rob Bradford to WEEI.com, and Globe baseball writer Gordon Edes decamped to Yahoo. The Globe and the Herald have always had good sports sections, and their coverage has helped drive a lot of circulation. Their sports sections are still good, but now they must compete with online coverage produced by companies with fewer financial problems than the newspaper business is experiencing.

And sports is just one example. Tom Palmer retired from the development beat at the Globe last year and kept right on doing his thing for McDermott Ventures, a public-relations firm — a relationship that may raise eyebrows among journalism ethicists, but that is sure to becoming increasingly common.

Also in 2008, Boston.com political blogger James Pindell left to head a national network of state political sites called Politicker.com. The project was ahead of its time, and it folded in the midst of last fall’s economic crisis. But the idea lives on: Pindell is now trying a similar project on his own in New Hampshire.

Finally, and not to repeat myself, but one of the more interesting projects under way right now is the redesigned WBUR.org, published by Boston’s public-radio powerhouse, WBUR (90.9 FM); the site combines local and NPR news into a quality online newspaper. Public radio has not been immune from having to make recession-related cuts. But, unlike newspapers, both its distribution model (commuters stuck in their cars) and its business model (listener contributions, corporate underwriting and grants, supplemented with a small amount of taxpayer money) remain intact.

If the next owner of the Globe keeps on cutting, it’s easy to imagine WBUR.org morphing into a real alternative. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop the city’s television news operations from pumping up their Web sites, though they, like the newspaper business, are experiencing tough economic times.

We often hear that if newspapers die, there will be nothing left but amateur citizen-media sites that, for all their strengths, lack the capacity to do the sort of public-interest journalism a democracy needs to thrive. In fact, there is reason to be a lot more optimistic than that. I hope newspaper companies can find a way of combining their print and online operations so they can thrive for years to come. But if they can’t, it won’t be the end of journalism.