Why Channel 4 News is partnering with Facebook – after exposing the platform and calling it 'toxic'

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.

Less than a year ago Channel 4 News inflicted one of the most damaging blows on Facebook in the platform’s history with its undercover exposé of Cambridge Analytica. Yet now the news brand is to partner with the social giant in a unique journalism project fully-funded by Mark Zuckerberg’s company.

Uncovered will be a weekly series, shot vertically for mobile viewers on the Facebook Watch video-on-demand service and showcasing the work of the bulletin’s most creative filmmakers, including the Emmy-award winning Waad al-Kateab, who joined its newsroom this month after arriving in the UK as a Syrian refugee.

The broadcaster’s arrival on Facebook Watch is the latest remarkable twist in its complex and often fraught relationship with the social platform.

Channel 4 News’s editor, Ben de Pear, has described Facebook as “toxic” and accused it of paying “minuscule” revenues to news outlets for driving traffic. The Cambridge Analytica investigation led to Zuckerberg being hauled before the US Senate.

Over the past year, Channel 4 News has pivoted from Facebook, where its popularity has radically enhanced its international profile, to Google’s YouTube, where it is uploading longer films and has found a more engaged audience. During 2018, Channel 4 News registered 693m minutes watched from 113m views on YouTube (over six minutes per view), compared to 494m minutes watched from 651m video views on Facebook (less than one minute per view).

Ahead of the launch of Uncovered later this month, Channel 4 News executives explained to The Drum why the news brand is rebuilding bridges with Facebook through Uncovered. “We retain complete editorial control – there is no suggestion, idea or inference that Facebook will have any guiding hand or control,” says Ed Fraser, Channel 4 News managing editor. “It’s funded by Facebook. It’s an opportunity for us to extend our quality journalism into that area whereby if it wasn’t funded we might not be providing high-quality foreign coverage into (Facebook) Watch.”

For Nevine Mabro, Channel 4 News deputy editor, the project is part of Facebook’s attempt to make amends for its past failings to support quality news and prioritise it over false information and propaganda. “This is their response not only to fake news but also to the broadcasters (over the digital funding model).” The Cambridge Analytica story, she says, has given Channel 4 News “massive brand recognition”, especially on Facebook, where it has 4.5 million followers. “In Facebook- land Channel 4 is a very recognised and trusted brand – that’s why they have come to us.”

Facebook Watch (which also hosts the BBC, CNN and Fox News) enables Channel 4 News to continue with the long-form strategy it has pursued on YouTube. Uncovered films will be between 7-12 minutes, compared to the 90-150 seconds clips it posts on its Facebook page.

Crucially, the series is being seen as an opportunity to change the “visual grammar” of news coverage by making bespoke films for viewing in portrait mode on phones.

“The hope for the tall screen is that you get a much more intimate and poignant (experience) and less choreographed output,” says Daisy Ayliffe, the series director of Uncovered. Instead of the traditional television approach of “shooting ‘landscape’ and seeing all that there is behind (a talking head)”, shots will be tightly cropped.

She wishes to attract “poetic” filmmakers who explore themes such as “grief, redemption and tragedy” and might have “thought the news was too choreographed and regimented for the style of stuff they were shooting”.

Ayliffe and Mabro see big opportunities with the American audience (which predominates on Facebook Watch after launching in the US 18 months ago). “Their TV news is very different to ours – it’s much more commentary and chat,” says Mabro, predicting fresh approaches to coverage of the Trump administration and stories such as the migrant caravan. Ayliffe says there is “massive scope” for Channel 4 News to break the mould. “The Americans are used to seeing much more choreographed news output and it’s really exciting for us to show viewers that it can be done differently.” She identifies climate change and the #MeToo movement in wider society as key themes.

Kieran Bryan, creative director for Uncovered and chief video producer for Channel 4 News, says the new series will have high production values so the films can “have a TV presence too”, incorporated into the nightly bulletin. Some of the filming will be in ultra high definition 4K.

Uncovered will feature a range of Channel 4 correspondents, including Alex Thomson and Paraic O'Brien. Filmmakers lined up to work on the series include Latin American-based Guillermo Galdos, Somali-born Jamal Osman, Inigo Gilmore and, most notably, al-Kateab, who produced Channel 4 News’s most successful social video material during her time trapped in Aleppo.

Al-Kateab was heavily pregnant and caring for a young child when, as an almost untrained filmmaker she made reports including The Last Gardener of Aleppo and The Barrel Bomb Baby, which is Channel 4 News’s most-watched film on social media (68m views on Facebook). She fled Syria at the end of 2017 and is now living in the UK, honing her craft at Channel 4 News. “She is probably the only Emmy award-winning trainee producer in TV news,” says Bryan.

Ayliffe praises al-Kateab for bringing “cinematography values to her work”. It’s likely that the Syrian will be encouraged to tell more refugee stories, this time from her perspective in the west.

Although Uncovered will feature films about the UK and America it is international in outlook and will seek to capitalise on the interest in global affairs among young viewers who have grown up with the internet. The Channel 4 foreign documentary strand Unreported World has found a large audience on Facebook. Uncovered will have an assigned digital producer, Delara Shakib, who will repackage the content for Instagram and other social platforms to broaden its reach.

Channel 4 News began its rollercoaster relationship with Facebook soon after Jon Laurence joined as digital editor from the Telegraph Media Group at the end of 2014. Its policy of repackaging short films as clips for the social platform took off and it briefly became the most- watched European news outlet in video, partly because of al-Kateab’s work in Syria.

After Laurence left to join US digital outlet Now This News at the start of last year, his replacement Mike Smith shifted to a longer-form video strategy that was better suited to YouTube. “An engaged audience is far more important in the long term than a large audience that turns off after 10 or 15 seconds,” says Bryan.

Facebook was not designed for people seeking video content and clips have to fight hard to be picked out by its notoriously opaque algorithm, Bryan says. “We have always been lumped in with 200 cat videos, a film trailer, plus whatever your mum is doing,” he says. “It was always about grabbing an audience’s attention as quickly as possible.”

On Facebook Watch there is less time-pressure because the audience has come to watch a film.

And then there is the user data. “The good thing about platforms like Facebook,” says Bryan, “is the level of detail you can go into on a particular video to see where people are engaging and when they are turning off. It means that you can identify visuals that work, tone that works, style that works…”

Cambridge Analytica, we remember from the Channel 4 News exposé, was saying similar things to its clients, albeit for very different purposes.

This time around, both platform and broadcaster believe the audience is being well served.

Uncovered begins on Facebook Watch on Wednesday 23 January

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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