NowThis: 'We are the largest social video news publisher in the world'

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

NowThis via YouTube

Still barely five years old, NowThis boasts of being the world’s “largest social video news publisher” and has begun talks with Netflix and other streaming services to produce series-based formats targeting younger viewers.

Many news consumers in older demographics may not have heard of it. But NowThis has become a staple news source for millennial-aged audiences and is registering 2.6bn monthly views for its mix of videos across 11 subject verticals from “Politics” to “Weed” (the politics of cannabis).

Founded specifically to provide video news for social media, and originally specialising in climate change and gay rights coverage, it has become the number one video news provider in America on social platforms, according to Tubular Labs data for December.

Its 110-strong team, based in New York, produce over 100 new videos a day. The average age in the newsroom is 26 and 90% of the content they produce is viewed on mobile.

Its distinctive white and yellow logo has become associated with strident video op-eds, such as one from heiress Abigail Disney criticising tax cuts for the wealthy (“I did not do anything to earn that money”), and another from former Mexican president Vicente Fox on cross-border relations (“We are not paying for that fucking wall – understand that!”)

NowThis pioneers video formats such as real-time reporting on Twitter, mini-documentary series on Facebook Watch, and political coverage on Snapchat where it has 1.5m daily users.

At the start of this year, the newsroom hired British news executive Jon Laurence, who has been fundamental to the transformation of Channel 4 News from a marginal television bulletin to a global digital news brand watched on mobile devices.

Now a website

NowThis has also just sprung a major surprise for a brand that built its reputation and audience by distributing its material on other people’s platforms: it has launched its own website.

This might appear counterintuitive. When NowThis shut down its original website three years ago it was seen by digital commentators as a clear sign of the times; that news consumption had moved so decisively to social media that the home page was dead.

NowThis’s new site has coincided with a change to the Facebook algorithm which has alarmed news businesses who fear their content will be less visible in user feeds. It’s easy to imagine that NowThis – arguably the most successful news brand on Facebook – is stepping away from the social giant in favour of having an owned and operated space.

But in setting out his 2018 strategy to The Drum, NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos is adamant that the website and the algorithm change are unrelated. “It just happened to be serendipitous that we launched the site in the following days after Facebook made the announcement,” he says. “This was not in any way shape or form a reaction to Facebook announcing the algorithm change.”

NowThis and the whole digital world have both changed so much in three years, he says, that it makes strategic sense to have a website in 2018, whereas it did not in 2015. In that period, NowThis has upped its production from less than 15 videos a day to around 100, and launched 10 more verticals (Politics, Sports, Food, Weed, Booze, Money, Her, Español, Entertainment, Future), each with a presence on diverse social platforms.

“We would hear people saying ‘I can’t find all your stuff’,” says Stephanopoulos. “Developing the website created a unique opportunity for us to house all that great content and our audience – whether it be on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – can come and see the range of stories and issues we cover.”

Sarah Frank, editor of NowThis, says that the challenge of building a website in 2018 involved “not just thinking of it as the home page and how people would enter through the front door”. Instead, users are guided by subject matter. “It’s organised based on the issues that we know our audience cares about.”

As a digital native publisher, NowThis’s direction has always been informed by audience reaction to its content. It launched NowThis Politics (its largest channel, after the news one) because the subject was over-indexing in audience engagement. In the past six months it has followed similar insights to launch channels in Sports, Money and Food (which has been the quickest to find an audience of 100m monthly views).

Making stories personal

The tone of NowThis Politics is captured by the slickly-scripted “Who Is…?” series, which profiles key political figures such as Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old adviser who “masterminded” president Donald Trump’s controversial Muslim travel ban.

Frank says that climate change and equality (especially LGBTQ+) stories have been important to the NowThis audience from the outset and that her challenge is not so much to identify fresh issues but to cover existing ones in a more engaging way. “We fought really hard to find a way to cover these stories better,” she says, emphasising the importance of making stories personal.

This personal element, says Stephanopoulos, has been “central” to the entire editorial strategy. “On social (media), people have the ability to engage with content by sharing,” he says. “Humanising these stories allows people to engage in a meaningful way because it is a representation of what they believe in.”

The insights offered by Facebook have been critical to this, says Frank. “We really use our growth and scale on Facebook to better refine our editorial.

NowThis will want to maintain this Facebook relationship beyond the latest algorithm change, which prioritises posts from friends and family in user feeds. “We have built a tremendous audience on Facebook and it has been a big part of our strategy,” says Stephanopoulos. “Without question while we want to continue to maintain bringing news content into people’s feeds.”

But by “feeds” he also means other social platforms, including Snapchat – with whom NowThis has been discussing the introduction of new “pop-up shows” – and Twitter, who Stephanopoulos praises as “a place on which we have seen tremendous growth”.

Whereas the Facebook algorithm reacts to multiple posting with an “assumption that you are spamming your audience”, Twitter is more lenient, he says. “We can increase the volume.”

NowThis has used Twitter to host Newsroom, a real-time journalism project which aims to give “context” to major news events by combining sustained on-the-ground reporting with social media news-gathering done from the office. Newsroom, which has a dedicated team of four, has so far focused on events including the four-month-long civil rights protests in St Louis, political upheaval in Catalonia and the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Talks with Netflix

Then there is Netflix. NowThis is already in talks with the streaming service, and other over-the-top platforms such as Amazon and Hulu, with a view to licensing some of its original content. “We have a number of programmes in development that we are actively pitching,” says Stephanopoulos.

It is working on a series on refugees. Another project is focused on America’s upcoming midterm elections, he says. “We are spending a lot of time looking at how we are going to be covering the mid-term election, specifically for reaching and educating millennials about the issues that are going to be driving people to the voting booth in November and the topics that matter; who are the candidates that are running and who are the young millennial and diverse candidates.”

NowThis has competition in seeking to be a news provider for these over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms. Rival millennial-focused outlets such as Mic are also in the market.

But NowThis, which is part of a wider digital media company, GroupNine, that has $100m investment from Discovery, says it has a key distinction from competitors that have recently pivoted from text content to video. “Our DNA from day one was video and news,” says Stephanopoulos.

Laurence, who joined as deputy editor, had long-admired NowThis and helped arrange a content sharing partnership with Channel 4 News. “They were pioneers in terms of mobile first video production.” he says. “Social video is now something that government departments do, brands do, politicians do – it’s something everybody has a bit of a stake in. [But] this is, in the scheme of things, a recent development and NowThis was in at the beginning and has not only led the way but continued to innovate and stay distinctive.”

He will no longer have Channel 4 News international correspondents to work with, but NowThis is adept at using the internet to contact fellow millennials to tell their first-hand video stories of crises from hurricane-torn Puerto Rico to Venezuela in meltdown.

This game isn’t based on bureau networks. Laurence argues that young audiences “are increasingly globally-minded” and that NowThis content from New York will resonate with them “in the UK, Europe or wherever else they happen to be”.

NowThis has Chinese producers in its newsroom and is already on “every major platform in China”, Stephanopoulos points out. There are no plans “just yet” for offices overseas “but it’s definitely an international strategy,” he says. "We want to be seen as the global news brand for the next generation."

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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