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Snapchat and the news industry: How youth platform is working with publishers to provide trusted news on Covid-19

“I’ll explain it to you the way I explain it to my mum, who’s in her mid-70s.”

Oh dear. That didn’t take long.  Five minutes into my video call interview with Suzy Cox, and she appears to have realised that (at 30) I am not an active member of the “Snapchat generation”.

Cox, who is the tech giant’s London-based head of international editorial, is talking me through Discover, which is the professional news and entertainment section of Snapchat’s app.

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Snapchat has been a major part of the publishing mix for most major news organisations since 2016, when The Sun claimed a daily audience of 1m readers per day on the platform. Since then it has continued to be a core way for news brands to reach highly illusive teens and early 20-somethings.

According to estimates published by Statista, Snapchat is just ahead of Twitter with nearly 400m users worldwide. It is disproportionately popular in the UK and the US and appears to be favoured by the young over the world’s dominant social media platform – Facebook.

“[My mum] wanted to know what I was doing. What I was going to do – and why I was leaving The Guardian to go to this thing called Snapchat,” says Cox, a former editor of Heat magazine who was commercial features editor of Guardian News and Media before starting her current role in February.

“I think the easiest way to explain it to someone who’s not got the app on their phone [is]: Discover is a place where we want Snapchatters to come and be informed and entertained.

“The way I think you could describe it is it’s like walking into a virtual newsagents where there are all these really cool titles. All your favourite brands are there – but there are also some that you haven’t bumped into yet.”

The titles you might have heard of include Sky News, the Guardian, Washington Post and the Telegraph.

Others, not as well known away from the app, include Good Luck America – Snapchat’s first original show, which recently broadcast an interview with White House coronavirus expert Dr Anthony Fauci – comedy series Gangster Granny (which is serialised, and is available on other platforms), and Will From Home, a ‘Snap Original’ show in which actor Will Smith documents his Covid-19 lockdown experiences.

Cox’s own history with Discover dates back to 2018, when Snapchat first started broadcasting an adaptation of her book series, the Dead Girls Detective Agency, as a Snap Original.

If news ‘wasn’t popular, we wouldn’t keep programming it’

The entertainment side of Discover is a major draw for Snapchat. But, as Cox says, if professional news content “wasn’t popular, we wouldn’t keep programming it”.

“And from the partners’ point-of-view, if they weren’t seeing results in terms of viewers tuning into their shows, I don’t think they’d be coming back to Snap either,” she adds. “So I think that tells you how popular news content is on the app.”

Evan Spiegel, the co-founder and chief executive of Snap Inc, claimed last month that more than half of Generation Z – generally considered to include those born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2010s – in the US watch news content on Discover. Snapchat boasts similar figures in the UK – where, according to Cox, 80 per cent of 13-24-year-olds are on Discover – and numerous other countries.

There appear to be two main incentives for publishers to be a part of Discover. Firstly, Snapchat – like Youtube – shares advertising revenues with publishing partners. Secondly, says Cox, the app provides news businesses with the “opportunity to meet new readers, and be in their palm every day”.

‘Not anybody can just post news on Snapchat’

Many non-Snapchat users might assume that in 2020 the social media platform – in common with the likes of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter – has been inundated with fake news and conspiracy theories around coronavirus.

However, unlike many of its competitors, Snap differentiates itself from many of its rivals by taking responsibility for a large portion of its output. 

As on other social media platforms, individuals are largely free to publish what they want, with the risk of being banned if they breach community guidelines. But posts are designed only to go to friends and automatically disappear after 24 hours. Therefore, with around 229m people creating an average of 4bn ‘Snaps’ a day, misinformation will exist.  But such content is likely to be viewed by fewer people than it would on other platforms.

The Discover section of the app, meanwhile, is closely guarded by editorial employees like Cox, who carefully consider which brands they allow to become partners.

“The mission statement of Discover, I guess, is that we want to help Snapchatters learn about the world,” says Cox.

“Because of that, Discover is a place that’s a closed platform, it’s curated, we only onboard trusted partners that are chosen by editors like me and the rest of the team. And that means that not anybody can just post news on Snapchat – you have to go through an editorial selection process.

“And I think that’s really great because it means that when something like coronavirus does happen we’re in a really unique position. Because we know that we can give people trusted advice from these amazing partners.”

Snapchat has published more than 700 Discover editions relating to coronavirus, and featured its Covid-19 content prominently on the app to drive up readership. And, during the crisis, Discover signed up news providers like The Guardian and ITV News to improve users’ access to trusted information.

“We want to make sure that Snapchatters are having access to properly credible information,” adds Cox. “It’s really hard to know what to believe in certain places – when there’s a story that’s potentially fake news sat next to your friend’s baby pictures.

“And that just isn’t a situation that will occur on Snapchat. It’s programmed by humans.”

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