Not that long ago, Snapchat was just another hyped-up messaging app, like Whisper or Secret—a toy that children and twenty-somethings used to send goofy photos to each other, safe in the knowledge that they would disappear after 10 seconds. Many dismissed it as just a tool for “sexting.” But that was before the company started raising money at a $19-billion valuation, launched a media platform called Discover and started staffing up to cover the U.S. election.
The job openings that Snapchat posted on its site are the first tangible evidence that the company’s head of news—former CNN reporter Peter Hamby, who was hired in April—is building a team to report on the election. Yes, you heard that right: A former sexting app is morphing into a full-fledged journalistic entity. And if you are in the media business, you should think twice before you laugh out loud.
Successful candidates will “use submitted Snaps, and their own” to tell stories about the 2016 presidential race—stories that capture “the candidates, the characters and the drama,” the company says. They will also evaluate user-submitted Snaps according to moderation guidelines, and provide 24/7 coverage of the election. Candidates should be “creative storytellers” who have a passion for news and politics, and be “advocates for free expression who aren’t easily offended.”
Also, look at how Snapchat describes its mission: it wants people to “join us in shaping the way people use technology to communicate.” It doesn’t say anything about journalism, which some media companies would likely take exception to. But it also doesn’t say anything about using mobile platforms to distribute all the existing journalism its staff creates, which is the way many companies see their apps and social media efforts.
Obviously, Snapchat’s journalistic plans could go off the rails in any number of ways. The company could decide that it’s simply too expensive and/or time-consuming, and doesn’t scale well for a VC-backed startup. Tumblr hired a team of journalists, only to shut the unit down about a year later, and Facebook also briefly got interested in employing journalists but later changed its mind. Whisper employed a journalist for awhile, but in the end that didn’t turn out too well.
That said, media companies who see Snapchat as a toy or plaything without any real competitive advantage should probably reassess their position. And that’s not just because of things like Discover, where Snapchat hosts short-form video content from outlets like CNN and VICE News. It’s because of the way that Snapchat functions, and the way it has tapped into the needs and usage patterns of young mobile users.
Across the media landscape, companies large and small are trying to wrap their heads around mobile, and how smartphones and ubiquitous networking and emerging social behavior are changing news and content consumption. The New York Times has launched multiple apps like NYT Now, and keeps trying to figure out how they should work: Will people pay for them? Are they just aggregators? What makes them unique? Newspapers are also betting on tablet apps, mostly because they feel similar to the way the media business used to operate, but with glass instead of paper.
Snapchat, meanwhile, has one hugely powerful tool at its disposal: It is brand new, and therefore it has no traditional business model, no legacy operations, no pension or infrastructure costs, and no concept of what the media industry used to be like, or should be like. All it knows is what users do, and what they want.
Even more than Discover, the “Our Story” function in Snapchat is fascinating from a media-creation and consumption perspective. Users create their own stories by adding short video clips, and then they can share them with others. It may sound simple, but during something like an earthquake, it can become a massive river of content. According to one recent estimate, a single clip from a user during the snowstorm in New York City in January got 25 million views. Media companies would kill to have that kind of engagement.
Are there journalistic issues around the kind of user-generated content Snapchat wants to specialize in? Of course—just as there were when journalism professor Jay Rosen partnered with Huffington Post for the “Off The Bus” crowdsourcing project during the 2008 election. But there’s also a lot of potential for Snapchat to become one of the primary ways that younger, mobile users get information about news and politics. Traditional journalists and media outlets may find that disturbing, but it’s happening. You can either learn from it, or you can become irrelevant.