Snapchat: A Hub for Journalism?



Snapchat may have started out life as a private messaging app for teenagers, but its rapid adoption by people in older demographics has given the app an added role: as a news aggregator.

The original purpose of Snapchat was simple. App users utilized their phones to send short photos or videos to specific friends or post them as a "story," visible to all the users friends. After a set amount of time - no more than 10 seconds for a single "snap" or 24 hours for a story - the image would disappear.


This simple model - similar to that of the WhatsApp messaging service - was appealing at first to young people, but then led to burgeoning appeal in older cohorts. As Snapchat became ubiquitous for teenagers and college students, parents and grandparents adopted it as well.

In February 2016, Snapchat revealed that the platform has 100 million daily active users, many of whom are on the app for as many as 20 to 30 minutes a day. This puts Snapchat in rarefied company, alongside tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google.

Yet for Snap, Inc. - the parent company of Snapchat and a company that is preparing for an initial public offering in the early part of 2017 - this high number of active users is no reason to rest on its laurels.

Unlike the other social media platforms mentioned above, Snapchat's simple premise does not offer much in the way of revenue. Facebook can sell ads embedded throughout their site, and advertisers lap up the opportunity to target specific content based on the rich data that users provide Facebook. The same, roughly, goes for Twitter, Instagram, and Google's search function.

So Snapchat has sought new ways to seamlessly supplement its business model in the app. One of the most common - and most lucrative - has been by selling sponsored filters (an option for people to overlay their snaps and stories with a particularly graphic or a few words of text) to corporations. Multimedia companies, like movie studios preparing for the debut of splashy new hits, have been particularly keen users of sponsored filters.

In addition to what are essentially ads on the platform, Snapchat is also working to increase its revenue by becoming a content distribution venue. To do so, Snapchat has given spaces on its "Discover" function to companies in the journalism business for them to place short stories that get prominent play throughout the app. The companies and Snapchat split the revenue from ads that run periodically during each outlet's Snapchat stories.

To further this effort and lure high-profile media brands, Snapchat hired Peter Hamby, a political journalist who was highly respected in both Washington and New York, to become the company's Head of News. Before joining Snapchat, Hamby was a charismatic CNN reporter who covered the 2012 presidential campaign for the network. He also wrote a well-received critique of the way the modern press covers presidential campaigns that made waves in 2013.

Among the legacy media outlets that Snapchat and Hamby have lured to the platform are the Wall Street Journal and CNN. Upstart internet-only news outlets like BuzzFeed and Mashable are also part of Snapchat's "Discover" platform, as is the Britain's Daily Mail, a newspaper that is trying to break into the America market with its very popular website. (Media firms that blur the lines between entertainment and journalism, such as People, Vogue, and Food Network also have a presence on Snapchat.)

So what exactly are these outlets doing on Snapchat? The Wall Street Journal offers one example. It's story features visually appealing images and a short headline. Interested readers can swipe down on the image to read a longer story about the topic. This more fulsome version, while fairly complete, is typically shorter than the type of story that would run in the print edition of the Journal. Other outlets take a different tack. BuzzFeed includes a video heavy presence on the app, emphasizing short clips from news events.

To the contract, some outlets - like the Washington Post - do not participate in the Discover section of the app, meaning their content is radically different. Most of its content is sourced directly from its social media editor. On Election Day, for instance, the Post's Snapchat story featured brief interviews with tourists standing outside of Trump Tower in New York City.

Clearly, a video interviewing people in front of a landmark is not the highest form of journalism practiced by an outlet like the Post, which is likely to win awards for its coverage of President-elect Donald Trump's charitable giving. Nor are short-form BuzzFeed videos on Snapchat much of an improvement on the longer, more in-depth videos on the outlet's web site.

Instead of looking at Snapchat as a new outlet for high-quality journalism, it's probably best for consumers to under it as another way for existing media outlets to distribute their content and reach a younger audience. After all, despite the fact that more and more people over the age of 25 are on Snapchat, it remains highly popular with millennials.

The media landscape has changed: The New York Times was once a printed paper delivered once a day. Now the Times sends out email alerts to some subscribers, continuously updates a mobile app, posts countless Tweets, shares Facebook posts throughout the day, maintains a home page with thousands of stories, and prints a newspaper.

Instead of being a vessel for journalism on its own, Snapchat is likely to become yet another way that newspapers, television stations, and news websites reach readers. That doesn't mean it's not going to be a big business. After all, Snapchat is valued in the tens of billions of dollars; the New York Times, is valued at around $2 billion.