When Talya Minsberg, the New York Times social strategy editor, first started showing her colleagues how Snapchat worked, she joked that she was going to institute a teen-mentorship program.
“If you know someone you love who’s younger, watch them use it,” Minsberg said she told her colleagues. “Let them give you a tour.’”
In the year and change since Snapchat launched Discover, it has gone from a curiosity to a crowded laboratory for publishers, where shops ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Cosmopolitan to iHeartRadio are experimenting with how best to engage the millions of millennials who open the app every day.
The Times is not among the 23 publishers tinkering on Discover. Instead, the publisher using a regular old account to post stories, and thanks to a core team of eight people, the Times has filed stories everywhere from Angola to Hiroshima, from the runways of New York Fashion Week to the cabin of Donald Trump’s press jet. The account creates a couple stories per week, occasionally ramping up its output during tentpole events; it posted a story every day during Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
And while the company is still busy learning what it’s best used for — the Times does not release view counts — Minsberg and Collins feel that Snapchat broadens the paper’s storytelling capabilities, and connects them to an audience that is not yet a core part of their readership.
“Right now, we’re using it as a means to connect with new audiences, a younger audience, and flex different storytelling muscles,” said Cynthia Collins, social media editor at The New York Times.
Getting there took time. Minsberg said that she first began thinking about how the Times should use Snapchat about a year and a half ago, when the app’s Stories feature was unveiled. At first, she and her colleagues toyed with the idea of treating a Snapchat account like a TV channel, with regularly scheduled programming: cooking on Monday, international news reports Tuesday and so on.
That proved to be the first idea of many. They used the account to animate the paper’s op-ed page, to have columnist Charles Blow conduct interviews and to turn its regular series “Room for Debate” into a back-and-forth between authors who hold opposing views.
At other points, they used it to bring viewers as close as possible to unfolding drama, shooting from the steps of the Supreme Court or the finish line at the Boston Marathon. They’ve also used it as a way to provide red-carpet access, like this summer’s Met Gala.
At others, they’ve used it to educate. Their chief fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, brought the app with her to Fashion Week to give viewers a true definition of the word “couture.”
Over time, Minsberg and Collins settled on a flexible strategy of putting the app directly in reporters’ hands. “We’ve turned it over to all the reporters, editors, photographers,” Collins said.
Even though Collins says that Snapchat now figures into discussions about coverage weeks ahead of events, she and her colleagues are still training reporters to use it, sometimes at the very last minute. Last month, a reporter got her first tutorial in how to use the app just one hour before heading out to publish something from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Getting newsrooms excited about social media tools is sometimes easier said than done. But Collins said the sheer scale of adoption that Snapchat’s seen — it recently passed Twitter in daily active users — has piqued reporters’ interest.
“They understand what a phenomenon it is,” Collins said. “They’re eager to use it.”
What’s left, for the Times and many other publishers, is figuring out monetization. While the paper has had good luck bringing sponsors into new arenas like virtual reality, it’s not currently trying to generate sponsorship revenue for its Snapchat stories. “It’s safe to say there are people in this building who are exploring that,” Collins said. “But we’re not doing anything currently.”