Sky News targets US market as it says Sky takeover drama has been 'very positive' for the news channel

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.

Sky News has found a new audience in the US and has enjoyed a “very positive outcome” from the existential crisis it has faced during the ongoing takeover of its owner Sky plc, claims a senior executive.

Jonathan Levy, Sky’s director of newsgathering, says Sky News has recently made inroads into the American television market through partnerships with streaming services Apple TV, Roku and Pluto TV. Its focus on international news sets it apart from American news providers, he says.

Levy also criticises other sections of the US and international news media for being distracted by Donald Trump into the “cul-de-sac” of “rather introspective debates about fake news” and not focusing more on the president’s “impact on the international order and on people”.

In some respects this has been a traumatic year for Sky News, with the very survival of the loss-making channel having been thrown into doubt during the protracted takeover of Sky plc by American media giants.

But Levy says the ensuing discussion of the network’s role and value has given reassurance to its newsroom. “The two companies biding for ownership of Sky – Comcast and Fox – have given very strong undertakings around the continuation of Sky News for 10-15 years and massively useful financial undertakings,” Levy tells The Drum. “Overall – even though it has been a period of uncertainty – what’s come out of this is the idea of Sky News as a really essential element of UK media that is trusted and valued and needs strong financial underpinning and its independence guaranteed. That’s all been a very positive outcome.”

Reaching more viewers on mobile than TV

It’s often not appreciated that the London-based news organisation, 30 years old next year, has a bigger audience outside the UK than within it. Sky News reaches 169.1 million people in 138 countries through a series of carriage arrangements in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

In the US it is enjoying an increased profile thanks to deals with OTT (over-the-top) video streaming services that are watched by 200,000 American users each month. “It’s recognition of a kind of news coverage which is not so common in the United States; internationally focused and impartial,” says Levy. We have a different broadcasting culture here in the United Kingdom, which is certainly appreciated by some audiences in the United States who are accessing us via Apple TV and other OTT platforms.”

Sky News’s advances via OTT streams have come in parallel with a heavy investment in digital coverage. “[We are] reaching a greater audience on mobile than we do on TV,” says Levy. “When you look at the international frontiers digital will, to a great extent, be where it’s at.” This does not mean it relies heavily on Facebook. “Some of the engagement times on Facebook are not particularly impressive. We want people to engage with content within the Sky News products. Social media is not an end in itself; it’s a means to an end.”

Levy is keen to stress the importance of Sky News’s coverage of the world outside the UK. “From our perspective foreign news has never been more important than it is now,” he says. “Whilst others might be retreating, closing foreign bureaux and looking at what they are spending on foreign news, we are continuing to invest.”

In the past 12 months, even as its parent company is being primed for sale, Sky News has opened a new bureau in Istanbul and staffed it with its star correspondent Alex Crawford, the five times Royal Television Society television journalist of the year. Middle East editor Zein Ja’far is being deployed to Beirut to coordinate coverage of a region where the political sands never remain still. “That story was all about Israel and Palestine,” says Levy. “It’s now much more about Iran and Saudi Arabia and we have shifted accordingly while allowing for the fact that these places are not easy to go to.”

Correspondents Dominic Waghorn and Lisa Holland have reported recently from Saudi Arabia on changing social conditions in the region. Waghorn, the Sky News diplomatic editor, was also on the ground in Iran, although the newsroom has recently had trouble getting Iranian visas.

Post-Brexit, Sky News has added a second correspondent to its Brussels office. It has Asian bureaux in Beijing and Bangkok. “I have been at Sky 16 years and have seen Asia go form the margins of the foreign news agenda right to the centre,” Levy says.

When Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened their recent summit in Singapore, Sky News moved east en masse, presenting its programming from Singapore and Seoul. “We invested more heavily in that than the BBC,” says Levy. “We recognised that this is a president that’s changing the way the world works and we thought that was a key point along that road and that it was important to mark it as such and demonstrate our investment in it.”

Avoiding the 'Trump cul-de-sac'

Sky News reports the Trump administration “in wide terms”, he says. “It’s very easy to get bogged down with Trump in the distractions and the noise and the flak that’s thrown up. But it’s important in foreign news terms to stand back and look at what’s happening,” he says. “I think we have done that more than any other UK broadcaster.”

By “noise” he also means the rancour of White House press briefings and the fake news accusations that Trump has levelled at critical news organisations, from the New York Timesto CNN and the BBC.

“The president is very good at drawing news organisations into this cul-de-sac where they end up discussing themselves. I am always keen that we resist that [and] we haven’t done lots of stories about fake news. I think there’s a certain self-indulgence in that, I think it’s more important to look at what’s going on and the impact on the international order and on people,” he says. “[That is] much more important than rather introspective debates about fake news and I’m not sure our audiences are particularly interested in that discussion.”

Rivals might say that Sky News’s absence from the president’s list of targets is a sign that it needs to work harder to contribute to the American news agenda. Levy says that global exclusives such as Stuart Ramsay’s ‘IS Files’, a 2016 exposé of documents identifying thousands of Islamic State recruits, have been widely followed up in the US and around the world. The network’s Washington team of Cordelia Lynch and Amanda Walker have landed interviews with new national security advisor John Bolton and the former director of the national security agency Michael Hayden.

Levy says independently reported international stories (in a global news market that is growing increasingly crowded with state-funded operators) will attract audiences, in the US and elsewhere. The qualities he looks for are “strong pictures, a sense of jeopardy, changing facts, and humanity”, along with close quarters reportage that he says the BBC struggles to match. “If I was to make a comparison, if you think of a big story unfolding, the BBC might be on a balcony overlooking it and we would like to think of ourselves as right in the midst of it, telling the story in the most human and accessible way.”

Such claims are easy but Crawford regularly achieves such an effect; in her harrowing reporting from Rakhine, Myanmar, on the plight of the Rohingya (for which Sky News won a Bafta); and travelling from Turkey to Greece by dinghy with refugees to reflect the perils of migration. “Alex takes you to the heart of the story in a way no other journalist does,” says Levy.

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

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