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Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
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May 14, 2014, 2:27 p.m.

NowThis News, a leader in mobile/social/video, shifts its strategy and its personnel

As seemingly every major news organization is thinking about a strategy for video, one of the most watched startups in the space is already much changed from its launch.

So what’s going on with NowThis News?

Less than two years old, NowThis News immediately grabbed attention for what seems like a bold new proposition for news: short digital video that was built for mobile devices and social media. Some called it a CNN killer and thought it could be defining a new model that could bring television news into the 21st century. Consider this TechCrunch story from March 2013:

The startup’s basic premise is this: because smartphones and tablets are eating into the time people otherwise spend watching TV, the old cable and evening news formats just don’t work. On top of that, news spreads in a different way — through social networks like Facebook and on Twitter. Clips have to be short (as in less than three minutes) and super-catchy so they grow virally.

The team was full of big names: former CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan, former ABC News Digital executive producer Ed O’Keefe, former Washington Post executive director of digital news Katharine Zaleski. And behind it all, Lerer-Hippeau Ventures — funders of some of the top companies in online media, with Ken Lerer (cofounder of The Huffington Post, chairman of BuzzFeed and Betaworks) and Eric Hippeau (former HuffPo CEO) aboard.

Barely a year later, a lot has changed at NowThis. Those big hires — Jordan, O’Keefe, Zaleski — have departed. The distribution model’s changed and the kind of videos NowThis makes has gotten shorter and cheaper to produce. At a time when more than a few other news companies — old and new — are looking to NowThis for inspiration for their own video products, it’s worth noting how much the strategy has shifted at the shop they’re looking to.

Turnover in key positions

O’Keefe had been the editor in chief of NowThis News from inception. He left the company in April, on Tuesday, CNN announced he was their new vice president over both CNN Money and Politics. D.C. bureau chief Sam Feist said O’Keefe’s “digital expertise, TV experience and progressive startup mentality will help light up these important verticals for CNN.” Much of what O’Keefe learned at NowThis News will drive the cross-platform coverage he’ll be doing at CNN. “I really honestly feel like I got my Ph.D. in mobile, social video,” he says. O’Keefe said he was grateful to Lerer and Hippeau for backing the project, but he felt that two years into a company that was starting to shift its focus was a good time to move on.

Other top level employees departed around the same time. Jordan, who is a NowThis investor and was their founding general manger, announced in January that he would be leaving the company to work for the Malala Fund. Zaleski, who was managing editor, left NowThis but continues to work with Lerer Ventures on her new company, PowerToFly.

Meanwhile, lower down the rungs, many of the young producers and video journalists hired by NowThis News have also moved on, to companies including but not limited to CNN, Yahoo, Bloomberg, Mashable, and NBC. As other companies got interested in mobile social video, they started looking at people who had experience there. Lainie Frost, who was at NowThis News before she left for Yahoo last October, says having NowThis on your resume is a great way to get noticed by media companies. “Certainly anywhere I’ve gone, people comment on it and are interested by it,” she says. “No doubt that’s an aspect of NowThis News that helped get people their new opportunities.”

Frost says she left NowThis News for Yahoo to get back into doing more field production, something NowThis had moved away from as the company increasingly began to focus on very short video for platforms like Vine, Instagram, and Snapchat. Take a look at the NowThis videos embedded in that TechCrunch story from 14 months ago: At 2:05 and 2:28 in length, they’re downright #longform compared to NowThis today:

At this writing, the 10 most recent videos posted on NowThis’ website are 19, 31, 19, 16, 28, 25, 34, 19, 30, and 25 seconds in length — and none of them appeared to feature original video, instead repackaging footage from wires, CNN, YouTube, or elsewhere. And the videos it produces for social platforms have to be even shorter, maxing out at six seconds on Vine and 15 seconds on Instagram.

Finding a core strength

Nearly all of the raw footage for NowThis videos comes from some external source — wire services, news networks, YouTube. (Occasionally, they’ll use a stringer somewhere.) “We have to be realistic about what we can do really well at the size we’re at,” new president Sean Mills says. “If we filed our newsroom into a plane and flew to Syria tomorrow, that would be an impractical way to use our resources. So we rely on partners.”

The shifts in content form are based on a desire to “increase our focus, especially based on what was working well,” he says. “The following we built on Instagram is the most successful thing we did, and those are 15-second videos. There’s much more focus than six months ago, when we were doing two minute videos and each video had a very different style.”

nowthis news app

Mills wants short news content — up to 30 seconds — to be what NowThis News is known for. That’s why NowThis’s simplified new app, which was released Monday, serves only in-line streaming videos under 30 seconds. “We’ve become much more like Instagram for news,” Mills says.

As a result, they’ve turned away from certain production elements, like videos introduced and narrated by “VJs.” “We couldn’t do a whole hosted piece effectively in 15 seconds. We were wasting time with people on camera, so we stopped doing that,” Mills says. Instead, they’re focusing on using techniques like music, text, animation, and stop-motion graphics to find ways to get a story across quickly and effectively.

“What length is really about is figuring out how to remove extraneous pieces and get your storytelling more concentrated, and your pacing up a bit,” says Mills. “So much good creativity comes out of being forced to solve for various constraints.”

Mills says NowThis retains its focus on serious news stories, and that seems to be true — Ukraine, China, and climate change all feature prominently, along with Juggalos and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “The core tenant of the business is to create differentiated content — hard news, topical content that stands out in the marketplace,” he says.

But there are some considerable differences in the kind of work they’re doing, which featured more original reporting and less repackaging. For example, remember when Cory Booker did the first Instagram interview with NowThis News?

The Booker interview — it won’t win a Peabody, but it was an original idea — was part of a political reporting strategy that O’Keefe says turned heads in Washington. Other stories he’s proud of include their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing last spring.

“We dispatched resources to Boston, we had them shooting on their iPhones as well as a DV. We had them recording longform and short form content. We did a lot of engagement on social. There was a full-fledged, realtime plan,” he says.

Producing content like the Booker interview, or like NowThis’ Mean Tweets segments (which were a Jimmy Kimmel spinoff) is still interesting to Mills — he says they’ve gotten some traction for video op-ed pieces around a minute long called NowThis Rants — but that’s not the main focus. “You’ll have hits with experimentation, but you don’t want to be a hit-driven business where you’re trying to create a viral video all the time,” he says. “We’re focusing on getting really good at one core thing.”

This shift has manifested itself in a few ways, including a change in the hiring strategy at NowThis News. “We’re hiring all sorts of new and different people, not only from news backgrounds, but also, by design, from non-news backgrounds. That’s a little bit of a shift, in that we’re expanding to different types of people. But the core goal of what we’re doing hasn’t changed at all,” says Mills. “We might have somebody who is thinking about a story from a journalistic standpoint partnering with someone who was making music videos before this job, or short films, or documentaries.”

Another big change for NowThis came at the end of April with the launch of NowThis Studios, which aims to apply the NowThis skill set in the service of companies and brands. Steven Belser, vice president of production, heads that side of the business; he’s been with NowThis from the beginning. Recently, the company announced that it’d brought the Mondelez brand family in house and were planning to develop a real-time marketing agency within the company. (You may not know Mondelez, but you’ve probably heard of Oreo, Chips Ahoy, Toblerone, and Trident.)

“You need a partner that can identify those early stories that map on to what your brand’s goals are and then expertly distribute them out to social streams,” Belser says. NowThis Studios uses proprietary social insight tools to track opportunities for brands to release content made by NowThis producers specifically for native platforms.

“It’s a way to help them reach an audience that’s become difficult to reach through the traditional method,” Mills says, “and an audience that we’ve gotten very good at reaching on the editorial side, so we can help them now on the studio side.”

With little of its original staff, new leadership,and a content shift, plus the expansion of its creative services, it’s clear that NowThis News has pivoted. (While it’s hardly a definitive count and likely includes part-timers and freelancers, LinkedIn lists more than 30 people who list NowThis as a former employer.) “It’s a crowded space. We want to find the area that we can be most distinctive, so we can offer people things that they can only get from us and are most original from us,” Mills says.

In social media, NowThis has follower counts many companies would be thrilled with — 179,000 likes on Facebook, 98,000 followers on Instagram, 44,000 on Twitter — but which might be considered a disappointment given how big a bet on social NowThis has made. Mills says, for the moment, he’s more interested in a small, passionate audience than a broad one. “That’s the kind of thing you can expand on. If we try to go too wide too fast, we might get pulled in directions that get us into a crowded, noisy space,” he says. “If you look at companies that have scaled successfully, it takes time. The ones who do it fast do it not through building content, but more figuring out ways to game social networks to get traffic. That’s not what we’re interested in at all.”

Finding enticing and creative ways to package news content, be it animation or stop-motion graphics, is a potential path to scale — a path that might be traversed more quickly with a lower-cost content model. Mills says they’ve had some success — since he came onboard in January, NowThis has increased social engagement by 65 percent, he said. “On Facebook alone in the last 30 days, I think it’s almost tripled,” he says.

O’Keefe described the inherent challenges to building a new video business, with its inherent high costs, in an ecosystem with rapidly developing technologies and distribution. “Three of the five social platforms for which we created original content didn’t really exist until we were a good year in,” he says.

Despite those challenges, NowThis is building out partnerships. Its deal with NBC, announced in January, has allowed the network to learn from NowThis’ content experiments and given NowThis amplification for its name and brand. “We’re co-producing a number of pieces every week. We have content daily they put on air,” says Mills. Down the road, NBC might expand the partnership to include some of NowThis Studios’ brand content — Belser called it the “natural progression of our relationship.”

pope francis snapAnd at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, Lerer announced a new partnership with Snapchat, with a “deal to be done shortly.” (NowThis execs declined to expand on what that would entail, as Snapchat did to TechCrunch.)

Can we read anything from the shifts at NowThis? It seems a safe bet that mobile, social, and video will keep growing as trends in news consumption. That NowThis in May 2014 is notably different from NowThis in March 2013 is hardly a crime — plenty of startups have pivoted in far more radical ways. But for the fast followers who have been thinking of their own new products, it’s not clear that NowThis has unlocked a strategic answer for the field. In a sense, NowThis resembles Circa: another news startup with smart ideas, tech cred, high-profile staffers, and buzz — but also not as many users as some had expected.

“We’ve been trying to get more creative, more unconventional, in terms of what we do. It’s this idea of art and news colliding that excites us,” says Mills. “That’s been a big part of the evolution.”

POSTED     May 14, 2014, 2:27 p.m.
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