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July 28, 2022updated 29 Nov 2022 12:01pm

Youtube for publishers: Sun and Guardian explain how to succeed on video platform

By Bron Maher

In Press Gazette’s latest Platform Profile we look at how publishers can succeed on Youtube.

Ofcom’s most recent report into the UK’s online habits found the platform had an average daily adult audience of 20.9 million in September 2021. Across that month, Youtube reached 92% of British adults.

But despite its ubiquity there are few news publishers who have purposefully gone after the enormous audiences on Youtube. 

As Press Gazette revealed last month, the very biggest news outlets on Youtube tend to be broadcasters.

There were, though, some traditionally text publishers who appeared conspicuously high on the list.

Previously in Press Gazette’s Platform Profile series: Tiktok, Twitter Spaces, Twitter Moments, Pocket InstagramNewsNowSubstackShutterstockUpdayLinkedInApple News/ Apple News+TwitterAcast and Authory.

Among them were The New York Times (4.1 million subscribers), The Sun (3.1 million), The Guardian (2.6 million) and Vox (10.7 million).

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All but one of those (Vox) is associated with a legacy newspaper, but each has dedicated video staff working on content that will predominantly be consumed on Youtube.

Press Gazette has spoken to each about their Youtube success, and found that despite their differences, there are patterns to be found in their work as to what makes a Youtube news effort effective.

Why should news outlets bother with Youtube?

Phil Han, The Sun’s director of video, does not have a classic tabloid background. He joined the red-top from Buzzfeed, and before that worked for Monocle magazine and CNN.

He told Press Gazette: “When I look at all our competitors, they all have Youtube channels, and they all upload content. So I think that they all realise that it's an important platform for them to be on.

“But what I think is somewhat different from some of the other people that we traditionally competed [with is] that you can't necessarily tell if there's a strategy behind the stuff that they're posting [or if] they’re just posting because they feel like they need to be posting to that platform… to reach a certain amount of people.”

Han said there was “so much great, original, exclusive journalism here at The Sun", but the site "needed to be producing a lot more" original video.

“So I wanted to still serve the core of what we do at The Sun - which is that high turnaround content that people use to get entertained or stay informed on what's happening - but also have some original content to start making it seem a little different to, let's say, people like the Mail.

“So I had original video producers embedded in the different teams.”

At first the videos that resulted were being produced for articles on thesun.co.uk. But, Han said, “as publishers evolved, they realised that Youtube is a very important platform for us to be on, both from an audience point of view as well as from a revenue point of view.

“It's still by far and away bigger than Tiktok and the amount of content that's uploaded to Youtube every single minute… it's a crazy, crazy amount.”

[Read more: Journalism has suddenly taken off on TikTok - What publishers need to know]

The Sun scored a recent video coup when, in collaboration with fellow Rupert Murdoch property TalkTV, it hosted a debate between Conservative leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

The Sun told Press Gazette that the debate, which aired on its Youtube channel, got 100,000 live views and had a total of 400,000 views less than a day later. (That figure may have been helped by presenter Kate McCann’s dramatic fainting midway into the debate, halting proceedings.)

Han said the investment in video continues: when he joined The Sun’s video team “we had roughly half a dozen people. And now we probably have over two dozen”.

Katie Lamborn, The Guardian’s head of video, echoed the point about evolving toward Youtube.

She told Press Gazette: “We're always about finding new audiences, right? Like, in order to survive, you have to go to where the audiences are and you have to give them the news in a responsible way that they understand.

“And I think how it's changed is kind of us realising that, and senior editors realising that as well, and realising that the first time people may even come across The Guardian will be off-platform…

“I always say the journalism may look different, but it oozes The Guardian’s values, like honesty and integrity and trust. And everything reflects that.”

The New York Times’ head of Opinion Video, Adam B. Ellick, told Press Gazette shortly after the Times won its first Oscar that the publisher was “putting stuff out there as a touchpoint for people who might not know that the Times is making stuff it didn’t make ten years ago or 15 years ago, and it looks different, and it feels different and it talks to you differently.”

[Read more: Oscars, CGI and Jonathan Pie - Inside The New York Times’ award-winning Opinion Video department]

The Guardian has also won an Oscar for its video work - the year before the NYT did. Lamborn told Press Gazette: “We are the only news organisation to win an Oscar and a Bafta.”

Bringing a news voice from the page to Youtube

Lamborn’s point about The Guardian’s values touched on a relevant question for publishers born in print: how does an outlet that might have established a written editorial voice decades or centuries ago rework it for video?

In The Guardian’s case, Lamborn said: “It depends where the video is. So I think that, say, with Tiktok - which we are literally just testing this summer, like we haven't got onto it yet - but how we get The Guardian’s voice on Tiktok is by using our expertise. And when it comes to Youtube, it's about access...

"On Youtube, what works really well is human stories and being on the ground with real people who are living that breaking news story.”

Han told Press Gazette that, for The Sun, it was more about the subjects of the story. He cited a half-hour documentary the outlet published to Youtube last month covering Finland’s possible NATO candidacy - not necessarily the most traditionally Sun-esque story.

In that video, Han said, “we took some of the humour that a lot of Finns have around being invaded from Russia, and how they kind of train with Civil Defence units firing guns, or - there's an amazing clip of us down in the nuclear bunker. And they were talking about, there's actually no food down here. You just have to survive.

“But it's kind of taking that tongue in cheek way of telling a story that is very unique to what you'd expect with the personality of The Sun. So I think that we use the people that we speak to to try to express some of [what] you might see in our paper.”

Of course, if you were never in print in the first place, developing a voice becomes substantially more straightforward.

“We're not trying to rush information out the door, but we're always very prepared to be the best place for explanations that include a lot of clarity and context for people,” Vox executive producer Mona Lalwani told Press Gazette earlier this month.

“And the way that Vox video, in particular, executes on that is through visual clarity, that is just such a big part of what we do… The way that news comes at us is hard and fast and splintered. And I think Vox does a really good job of glueing that information together.”

[Read more: How Vox became world's top news publisher on Youtube]

So what goes into a good Youtube news video? First thing: experimentation

Every online video chief who spoke to Press Gazette in recent months said constant experimentation had contributed to their success.

Ellick said that at The New York Times, his team “spent four years playing around in various sandboxes, from comedy to satire to original reporting with creative, voicey storytelling, in order to figure out how you can marry New York Times reporting with visual storytelling”.

Asked what’s in the recipe for a Sun Youtube video, Han said: “We've kind of experimented over the last three years in terms of what we think has worked and what hasn't.

“We've done everything from two series of life with Peter Andre and family, which is an original, 30 minute, reality-type show… which was a huge success for us from an audience point of view.

“And we did so much stuff around Covid, especially with Dr. Hillary [Jones] who’s the Good Morning Britain on-air doctor, and we did a lot of Q&As and public information videos with him.”

Similarly, Lamborn said: “You shouldn't put all of your eggs in one basket. Because if you do that, then you're not in a place to constantly innovate. And that's what we always want to be able to do - innovate, but in a very responsible way, which is something that I feel very passionate about.”

She cited as an example The Guardian’s Made in Britain Youtube series, which involves the subjects of the stories in the production process. During the Covid lockdowns, Lamborn said the team often asked those subjects to go further and present the videos.

“So it's being open, I think, in how you're making your journalism, and bringing the audience along with you.”

Second key to success: building trust with the casual audience

Both Lamborn and Han mentioned that being reactive and authoritative helped to build up subscriber numbers.

Lamborn said: “Whenever you’re providing important, valuable, trusted, verified video on a breaking news story that people are searching for - then of course you see people [going] ‘Oh, okay, right. That's what I wanted.’ And they will subscribe.

“And I think it's about being there when there's breaking news stories, but about not doing video for the sake of video and making sure we're really thinking about every single video clip that we put up. Doesn't matter how small it is.”

On a similar note, Han said: “What I think that we've been able to really discover is that, a lot of times now when there's a big breaking news story, people still obviously go to The Sun, they go to BBC, they go to traditional publishers.

“But a lot of the time if they hear there’s an amazing quick video, they'll just pull up the Youtube app and just type in whatever that news story is so they can view that piece of content.

“And I think that's what we've been able to really tap into, especially around big breaking news stories... we noticed a lot of people searching out on Youtube, just trying to find out what's happening in the world. And they go to that platform, I think, as a source of news, and I think that's what we've been able to really tap into.”

Any other tips?

Lamborn emphasised consistency as part of The Guardian’s Youtube strategy.

“Having videos that fit in particular strands so people know what they're expecting can really help.”

She cited the distinctly packaged “strands” - shows, in effect - that The Guardian puts out on its Youtube channel, including explainer series It’s Complicated and the On The Ground strand, which follows Guardian reporters on their patches.

“That is how we're looking at Youtube at the moment. Building consistency through those strands, but as well, just being open to different ways of working to bring in new audiences.”

The On The Ground strand was an example, Lamborn said, of something she thought was integral to Youtube success.

“I think it's about access… We have so many amazing reporters who would be writing stories for The Guardian website. And it's about unlocking their stories on Youtube.

“For example, with Luke Harding: he was in Ukraine and he was going around the suburban cities [near] Kyiv after the Russians had left, and he was there doing a written piece and then obviously, we were with him, and we filmed with him to create a video that then kind of opened up his storytelling."

For Vox’s part, Lalwani emphasised that a striking mix of style and substance helped it to success.

“I think a lot of places can tend to be very heavy on style,” she said, “or their priority is to get information and substantive journalism up there, but often visuals and style aren't accompanying that.”

And contrary to Han and Lamborn’s news sensibilities, Vox has become a consistent Youtube hit machine by eschewing breaking stories altogether.

“At Vox we aren’t expected to or want to be the first to get something out, we always want to be the place that gets the most important and meaningful piece about a news event out. We're okay with not churning out videos.”

What's next?

These news publishers are already doing well on Youtube. So what are they doing next?

The Guardian's Lamborn said: “For me - cut me, I bleed news. News is key and integral to The Guardian and who we are...

"Really pushing, basically, on the ground reporting, and being people's eyes and ears and helping them connect with the world."

Over at Sun towers, Han said The Sun's US market had seen promising growth "almost on parity to what we're doing in the UK".

Otherwise, he was looking to do more long-form original programming and mentioned that the publisher had "done a few dabbles with true crime series, which we've had some success with".

Lalwani told Press Gazette Vox wanted to branch out from its mid-length (five to 15 minute) videos into both longer and shorter ones. And The New York Times' Ellick said he saw CGI as the next frontier.

“It's inspiring, I think, to see competitors if you will - other people - doing so well on Youtube," Lamborn told Press Gazette.

"Because that's what we're all trying to do, right? We're just trying to inform and educate people as much as we possibly can about the news.”

Press Gazette is hosting the Future of Media Technology Conference. For more information, visit NSMG.live

Picture: The Sun Youtube channel screenshot

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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