News on Snapchat: Like old-school broadcast with ‘everyone’s camera’

Snapchat Logo 920

Working at CNN gave Peter Hamby a huge platform for telling political stories. But in the era of powerful mobile technology, even the biggest names in TV news can find themselves outgunned.

“At CNN, we would cover an event or an interview with one or two cameras, three cameras,” Hamby said Tuesday. “At Snapchat, we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

Hamby, a former national political reporter for CNN, left the network this spring for Snapchat, the popular mobile video-sharing app that has amassed 100 million daily users.

As head of news, Hamby is helping Snapchat’s in-house editorial operation turn its users’ first-hand videos into newsy, issues-based video packages. Snapchat says those news items, which it calls Live Stories, are viewed by 15 million to 20 million people per day. One three-day series of stories about the Coachella music festival drew 40 million unique viewers, the company told Re/code.

Snapchat’s Live Stories were introduced last year, part of a push by Snapchat to develop more professional video – and the advertising that can go along with it.

Although the app rose to prominence by allowing users to share quick, fun video messages that would disappear after being viewed, it has seen advertisers and media companies become eager to court its young, smartphone-obsessed audience.

Giving that audience the scoop on major news events is a much different task than trying to keep up with the daily grind of political reporting, Hamby noted in an appearance at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

But in some ways, that can be more fulfilling than chasing the latest gaffe by a presidential candidate.

“I kind of view our mission here as educational,” Hamby said. “Snapchat is not going to be the place where you’re going to break incremental staffing news or processy campaign stories. But there are millions of first-time voters using the platform.”

The chief advantage for Hamby’s Live Stories team is access – since they’re inside Snapchat, the news operation can access the flood of videos being created by its millions of global users.

When Live Stories editors want to produce a news package, they draw up a “geofence” around a particular location and allow users inside that digital boundary to submit their content to the news desk.

The best videos are assembled by the editorial team, which fact-checks the content and can add graphics and text to tie the narrative together.

If that sounds a lot like a traditional TV broadcast, you aren’t mistaken. “The way to think about Snapchat is like TV broadcasting before DVR,” Hamby said. “It’s about big-moment events.”

One recent example: When international negotiators reached a tentative deal to get Iran to back away from a nuclear weapons program, Snapchat editors compiled videos from speeches by Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and others who were commenting on the complicated proposal.

“It was this combination of video, pictures, and artwork that was all user-generated, that explained this issue to people who aren’t consuming news in a traditional way,” Hamby said. “I think there’s value in that, I really do. A 19-year-old may not come across what the Iran deal is, but if it’s in their face in Snapchat, where they’re living all day, I kind of see that as a social good.”

The curation and broadcasting aspects of Snapchat’s Live Stories project gives it a different feel, Hamby said, than Twitter or Facebook, where sniping partisans and groups of like-minded people can congregate to oppose anything that falls outside their worldview.

“As to whether it’s a truly groundbreaking, signal moment, I don’t know yet,” he said. “I don’t want to raise expectations for Snapchat too much. But I do think that mobile is 100 percent where things are going.”