Sky News is using Snapchat for breaking news

For 18 months, Sky News has been cultivating Snapchat Discover as a standalone editorial channel that can flex in response to breaking news. The broadcaster was among the first publisher partners to launch last February, and its strategy has evolved fast.

“We speak about Snapchat Discover in production and editorial meetings in the same way as our TV news,” said Alan Strange, Sky News output editor, who is head honcho for Snapchat editorial. “When we look at the big stories, we’re looking at how they’ll look on Snapchat. It’s embedded in the news room.”

He wouldn’t share figures, though Snapchat itself has flagged Sky News as having one of the more advanced strategies for the platform. Typically, Discover publishers’ views range from anywhere between 200,000 and 3 million a day.

“Sky News on Snapchat is arguably one of the biggest, if not the biggest millennial news desk in the U.K.,” said Strange. “When you look at the numbers, they’re big enough that they compete with our other platforms.”

Embedding Snapchat in the news room
Its heritage may be in TV, but today Sky News puts Snapchat Discover on equal pegging with its main platforms. In the daily news meetings, editors discuss how stories will be developed for the platform, alongside Sky News TV channels, websites and apps, according to Strange.

In the early days, Sky News had four people dedicated to creating Snapchat content: Strange, a designer and two producers. All remain integral to the team, but there are now 10 people who create content specifically for the platform. A special edition will take four people to create, though Strange will commission reporters for specific Snapchat content as and when the need arises.

Strange has managed to skirt the typical resource-bidding wars in the mornings, when different departments are setting out their agendas. Rather than having to join the designers’ workflow queue, Snapchat has its own resident designer, so snaps can be turned around fast.

Here’s how Sky News approaches the platform:

‘The intimacy value’
Sky runs a mix of original and repurposed content. It tries to create widescreen and vertical versions for pretty much all video created, according to Strange.

Correspondents have been assigned to war zones to send back content exclusively for Snapchat. They can provide the kind of eyewitness accounts that translate well on the platform. For example, foreign-affairs editor Sam Kiley sent back a striking shot of himself crossing the Syrian border, which did particularly well, according to Strange.

“It’s the intimacy value. We don’t need the sweeping images and set pieces we would for TV. Showing an image of a car, accompanied by the words ‘that car had 10 people in it three minutes ago,’ is more powerful than using generic shots on Snapchat,” he added. “All our main correspondents now send stuff in.”

It’s not just hard news that does well but lighter, standalone videos. A particularly well-performing piece was a video of a man being stalked by a jaguar in a zoo. “It wasn’t a story, but it doesn’t always have to be. Raw video has its place.”

Nevertheless, Sky News treats Snapchat as seriously as its main TV coverage. “Snapchat may not be a deep and heavy platform; It’s there for young people to communicate, and the lifestyle channels are always going to be most popular,” said Strange. “But we take it very seriously. News can be fun too, but we don’t shy away from the heavy stories that can be upsetting.”

Special editions for major breaking news 
Sky News creates a daily Snapchat edition comprising around 10 stories, which are a mix of vertical video, text and images. But one daily edition isn’t enough to draw in big Snapchat audiences around major breaking news, as it does on its own channels. So Sky News creates special editions for Discover, pegged to major breaking news. So far around a dozen special editions have been created around major news events including the Paris and Brussels attacks, David Bowie’s death, the Hillsborough disaster verdict and the Orlando attack last weekend.

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The number of snaps varies. “We have no hard-and-fast rules for how many pieces of content we’ll create in an edition, or if it’s more video or text-led. If a story warrants 20 snaps we do that. On Orlando, we did only six snaps because of the time difference.” Snaps included headlines and details such as who the gunman was and what was known about the victims. “Every video and detail we had on Orlando went in,” he said.

Facts and figures are updated throughout the day to ensure they remain fresh as breaking news develops.

Strange said that whenever a special edition has gone out, audiences on Snapchat have spiked up to 250 percent.

The team is currently creating the next special edition, which will go live on Monday to coincide with an exclusive TV appearance of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sky News. He’ll be quizzed on the EU referendum by a live studio audience of under 35-year-olds, and the Snapchat edition will include snaps on what people need to know about the referendum, the personalities involved on the two sides of the British exit vote, and the implications of the outcome.

Special editions are also an important Discover publisher differentiator, added Strange. “They set us apart. When a big story occurs, we’ve really attacked it on Snapchat, like we would have on any of our other channels.”

Faster-loading editions

For publishers, page-load speed has become a competitive advantage. On Snapchat Discover, speed is just as important, and Sky News tweaked the design and flow of content a month ago to ensure heavier content like video only runs later in the snaps, not at the start, which is now reserved for lighter snaps.

Snapchat itself redesigned Discover recently so that the static publisher avatars were replaced with a tile reflecting the day’s content. Strange said it’s too early to put definitive numbers on that, but that it’s already seeing the difference.

“The redesign has made a big difference,” said Strange. “Discovering each of the channels used to be a bit of a challenge. Now, its story leads so you’re drawn in by what each edition is trying to tell you.”

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