Google is funding the return of RTS-award winning Snapchat channel Need to Know on Youtube.
ITN journalist Warren Nettleford co-founded Need To Know with university friend and television executive Seth Goolnik on Snapchat in 2019, producing a series of two to three-minute episodes around the general election for 16 to 24-year-olds.
Need To Know won the digital prize at the RTS Television Journalism Awards last year, beating BBC News and CNN, and was shortlisted for the Innovation prize at Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards 2020.
Nettleford, 39, told Press Gazette he and Goolnik had decided there “wasn’t really decent political news coverage for younger viewers or listeners”.
“We just wanted to shake things up a bit and do something which was, at the time and I think still now, different in terms of news content,” he said.
“Because, for us, it seems as if the major broadcasters generally have just been putting traditional TV news onto social media platforms, not really adjusting to the new way that people engage and haven’t created new grammar for news content.”
‘This is us starting again’
Nettleford, who presents Need To Know (pictured), has now been given a “sizeable sum” by the Google News Initiative for a new series, this time on Google-owned Youtube – although the team is still considering whether to expand onto other social platforms like Snapchat and TikTok in the coming weeks.
Need To Know’s new episodes are centred around big questions – for example: Is it time to wave goodbye to the royal family? Should cannabis be legalised? Should private schools be abolished? And should London divorce from the rest of the UK?
Nettleford described them as “the kind of topical issues which in some ways are evergreen, but in some ways are able to generate their own news lines… We’re on a new platform. We wanted to see what’s possible. This is us starting again.”
Nettleford sees a gap in the market for explainer-style video news created by journalists doing original research – around 40 interviewees took part in the new series of Need To Know and original polling was commissioned.
‘Innovation is going to come from independent broadcasters online’
Nettleford began his career as a trainee at Channel 4 News with stints at BBC London News and ITN. Alongside writing and presenting Need To Know, he now runs a video production company Right Thing Films and still reports and presents for 5 News and ITV News.
Despite his career background he feels the UK’s broadcasters still have room for improvement in engaging young people, saying there had not been much change to the style of TV news since 5 News launched in 1997.
He said: “…people still primarily sit behind a desk, and they still deliver in a deadpan kind of style. I think this is a real moment and opportunity to change that and try different things out and I think innovation is going to come from independent broadcasters online.”
Nettleford felt ITV News’ The Rundown, a social media news service for teens that launched on Instagram in 2019, still has “this austereness, which the broadcasters are still doing too much of” despite being styled to suit teens.
He did however praise BBC News presenter and Outside Source host Ros Atkins, whose news explainer videos have regularly gone viral over the past year.
Nettleford said: “I think what he’s done is create a style of his own where he pulls in really quick sound bites, also providing answers around it, but remaining resolutely impartial. And that is something which we [Need To Know] are doing at the same time. I think we maybe veer towards humour more than in the BBC, but then we’ve got a different audience.”
Nettleford also praised ex-Vox journalist Johnny Harris’ long-form explainer videos on Youtube, which reach almost 2.4m subscribers internationally
“But I think the other broadcasters are catching up a bit still and trying to work out their own formula,” Nettleford said.
He added: “I think there’s a real responsibility for broadcasters to provide impartial news coverage for younger people online, because that’s where they’re spending their time and they’re competing against lots of independent actors who have no real news experience.” He shared concerns about “news literacy amongst younger people who haven’t been brought up on a diet of watching the news in front of the TV with their parent”.
“They haven’t got that and so we really need to, I think, create a situation where they can know they can go online and find trustworthy news, even if that leads to new regulation…” He suggested the Government could require certain companies to sponsor or support “independent, impartial and balanced news”.
Some experimentation from broadcasters is coming on TikTok and Snapchat, where Sky News is finding success using its regular correspondents and investigative programming, and Instagram, where BBC News recently became the first news account in the world to cross 20 million followers using a four-point strategy including explainer content. BBC News also this week launched its first TikTok account to reach new audiences with its coverage of the war in Ukraine.
Other start-ups are also trying out social media-only news services, with ex-BBC editorial director Kamal Ahmed and Dow Jones chief executive Will Lewis in the beta phase of The News Movement, which already has almost 20,000 TikTok followers. Although The News Movement is still in “early days,” Nettleford said: “It shows that there’s an appetite there and it can be done.”
Nettleford said the challenge when creating native content for social platforms was for it to feel appropriate for the feelings each site sparks in the user – but not make light of serious issues.
“When you go to TikTok, you’re going there for escapism and joy, similar with Snapchat,” he said. Need To Know’s first Snapchat series acknowledged “the fact that there had to be a degree of irreverence, but not so much that it crossed the line,” he added.
“I think if you can just tease in some way and then point people towards the longer-form content on Youtube, I think that’s the way to go.”
Aside from the planned run of episodes, the team has also created a human interest episode about the Ukraine invasion since it began, and plan to do more – reacting to events rather than sticking to the content plan with the feeling it would be “crass” to ignore the war.
“I think the Ukrainian situation is one of the most important geopolitical issues in the world in the past 50 years,” he said. “For us to be doing a story about cannabis seems a bit off.”
Making money? ‘It is possible’
Need To Know, which now has six staff members working with Nettleford including ex-5 News deputy news editor Amanda Nunn as series producer, is currently fundraising with investors to keep going after the Google money runs out.
Asked how social news content can best make money, Nettleford pointed to the six-year-old short-form video publisher Brut in France which raised $75 million in venture capital last year, as well as TLDR in the UK, which is supported by a mixture of Youtube and website advertising, sponsored videos, Patreon and Paypal donations, and merchandise sales.
“So it is possible,” Nettleford said. Going on to repeat his call for regulation, he added: “But I think we want to be thinking bigger than that.
“I don’t see why Need To Know shouldn’t be making content not just on YouTube, but why can’t we be making content on Netflix and Amazon, and other services? And I think there should be real thoughts about tech companies stepping in, and not to support Need To Know but to support independent journalists in general because this is where young people’s attention is, and if we think it’s really important that they’re informed and educated then they should do that.”
Nettleford added: “We think now is the real opportunity to provide young people with the news content that they deserve because they feel as if they’ve been let down and we want to change that.”
He hopes that, in time as Need To Know grows, he can get more younger talent in front of the screen as well: “I’m in my 30s now but mentoring younger presenters to be taking the lead with the coverage in the future is what our aim and ambition is, and for us to grow to producing a lot more content.”
Picture: Need To Know