Evan Spiegel's anti-Facebook bet for Snapchat is taking shape—with hard news at its core
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Evan Spiegel’s anti-Facebook bet for Snapchat is taking shape—with hard news at its core


Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel cares about the news. 

“Evan really cares about editorial judgment and editorial expertise,” said Peter Hamby, Snapchat’s first head of news and now host of its politics show Good Luck America. “He genuinely cares.” 

This can be hard to take seriously, especially for an app that grew up as a way to send disappearing texts. And yet, Snapchat continues to build up its hard news bonafides—something no other platform like it has done before.

As the app celebrates its sixth birthday on Tuesday, the amount of hard news that is now on its once chat-focused platform is staggering. There’s Good Luck America, Snapchat’s homegrown politics-focused show. There’s NBC’s Stay Tuned has burst onto the scene with 29 million viewers. CNN’s got it’s own Snapchat show, too. It featured on-the-ground reporting from the city of Mosul as Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought to take it back from the Islamic State. 

This is part of Spiegel’s long game. Snapchat has sputtered as a public company, but the app remains a destination for tens of millions of young Americans. Spiegel, Hamby, and a growing staff of journalists are betting that providing them with serious, high-quality journalism will help keep them there—and do what Facebook hasn’t.

Running a media business isn’t cheap, and it’s super competitive. The hope is that by investing in news they can keep Snapchat’s users hooked.

“So many young people in this country are disconnected from this news, media environment and they are also spending many minutes of Snapchat. That brought this opportunity to bring news to this audience in a smart way, not in a condescending way,” said Hamby, who worked for nearly 10 years as a political reporter at CNN.

It’s a curious development for an app that started out as a chat where teens could text their classmates disappearing messages during school or college students could send each other photos of, uh, stuff. 

The hard news push is part of Snapchat’s plans to be a destination—to become the thing people go to when they wake up. Snapchat wants to be taken seriously—not only as a camera company but as a media organization. 

This month, unfortunate circumstances enlightened many to Snapchat for news. “It took a natural disaster for me to understand Snap Map,” wrote Jessi Hempel at Wired’s Backchannel. The Washington Post published an analysis piece titled, “Thanks to Harvey, Snapchat’s map feature went from being kind of creepy to really useful.”

It’s a stark contrast for Snap’s strongest competitor, Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s company has repeatedly shied from the term “media company,” laid off contracted journalists in the wake of potential bias, and is now entrenched in a battle against fake news. Meanwhile, Spiegel is betting his young and struggling business on media — at least for now. 

That effort not only involved launching Snapchat Discover, a network of media partners (Mashable is one) but also hiring journalists to cover breaking news for Snap’s audience of 173 million daily active users. Last month, Snap hired Xana O’Neill, formerly managing editor for digital at ABC News, to serve as an executive producer and help manage the team Hamby built. 

Still, it’s a bet. So far, Snap’s audience has proven their interest. About 29 percent of Snapchat users surveyed by Pew Research Center said they get news from the app, according to a recent report. That’s up from 17 percent in early 2016. The second season of Hamby’s show GLA received 6 million views per episode, and it will now run every week. 

To Snapchat’s benefit, more users are helping create more news. The app received nearly 250,000 photos and videos from Hurricane Irma in Florida over 24 hours, which is more than double the number of submissions they received every day during Hurricane Harvey. 

Snapchat has inspired every day people to be reporters by using their smartphones. That’s something TV networks have sought after, but none have really mastered.

“There’s always been this dream of how could we get everyone to be a news correspondent and be in all places, get content in real-time and fast and be in places that we wouldn’t always be,” said Sean Mills, Snap’s head of original content. “I’ve never seen it come together like it does at Snapchat.”

Of course, Snapchat isn’t the only platform providing user-generated footage. On Twitter, people can rattle off 140 characters of text and also can share photos or videos from anywhere. Both Facebook and Twitter offer live video platforms, which Snapchat has not branched into yet. 

Snapchat emphasizes curation. Photos and videos are reviewed by Snap’s editorial team and potentially selected in the official Our Story while others are available in the new Maps feature. However, the Map is not pre-scanned by humans and relies on tech and user reporting. 

An Our Story “really feels like a real-time documentary,” Mills said. “If people are hiding behind a building in San Bernardino and we see this footage of the terrorists that are shooting … the emotion comes through that in the very emotional way that you use your phone.”

Importantly for Snap, it’s been able to avoid an association with fake news. While a photo of a shark swimming on a highway spread on Twitter and fake news stories were shared on Facebook during Hurricane Harvey, Snapchat provided real-time footage via Snap Maps, curated Our Stories, and other news updates from Discover partners like CNN and NBC. 

But that hasn’t necessarily helped with scale. Snap isn’t as big as Facebook or Twitter, and overall user growth is slowing. Advertisers hear about it all the time. This week, Facebook executive Carolyn Everson touted that 800 million people use Instagram every month and showed off footage they captured from the hurricane to a room at Advertising Week in New York. 

Spiegel and his team hope the audience and the advertisers just don’t give up on them. 

“For millions of young people in this country and this world, Snapchat is the point of entry for them for news,” Hamby said. “There’s a huge opportunity.”

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September 26, 2017
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