There is no need to “dumb down” hard-hitting news for TikTok and Snapchat, according to the head of digital output at Sky News.
The broadcaster is growing its reach on the younger social media platforms by using its specialist journalists to explain the news to an audience that it sees as the next generation of Sky News viewers.
BBC News head of social Jeremy Skeet told Press Gazette last month that although the broadcaster has built the biggest news following in the world on Instagram, it has chosen not to be on TikTok or Snapchat because it has to stay “true to our brand” and not do light news. It also does not have the resources to create the bespoke content needed, he said.
However Sky News head of digital Nick Sutton (pictured), who was at BBC News for 23 years until he left his role in spring 2020 to join the rival broadcaster, told Press Gazette Sky is taking a “different approach”.
Sutton said it was important to stay “nimble” in using different social platforms as a referral tool to Sky’s own website and app to get its “journalism out to as wide an audience as possible”. He added: “What’s great about some of those platforms is that they’re audiences who wouldn’t naturally come to Sky News.”
On Snapchat Sky was originally one of 17 news brand partners to launch shows for the Discover tab in 2018, one of which, Hotspots, went behind the scenes of big international stories with top correspondents like Alex Crawford.
Hotspots is soon coming back, Sutton said, on top of the Sky News daily page which has 1.41m followers and Sky News Investigates show which has some 701,000 and has just been nominated for the Royal Television Society’s Digital Award. The broadcaster also runs a weekly climate show similar to the daily TV primetime show which launched last year.
Sutton said: “What I think is quite interesting is that it’s quite often, with Investigates and the climate things, some of the most hard-hitting stories that seem to really resonate.”
For example, he said, the best-performing edition of Investigates on Snapchat last year looked into child grooming and sexual abuse in Hull, while a climate piece that performed strongly was about women in Bangladesh who were affected by climate change and had been forced into sex work.
“These are really quality bits of journalism that we’re proud of that we think we can repackage in a way that works for those audiences,” he said.
Martha Holeyman, assistant digital editor, added: “Investigates, I think, works so well for Sky but also for Snapchat as a platform because it really showcases one of the things that Sky does best which is access, and it just lends itself so well to that vertical window into a situation.”
Two-thirds of Sky News’s Snapchat audience is under the age of 25 and 90% is under 35, with a slight skew to men, according to the broadcaster. “At the BBC we used to talk about young audiences as being under 35 so seeing such a high proportion of under 25s is great,” Sutton said.
Similarly, although TikTok does not give such detailed analytics, well over half of its users are believed to be under 30. Sky News does know its audience is mostly in the UK and US, and skews female.
Sky News was doing a lot on TikTok at the start of the pandemic, including livestreaming the Downing Street press conferences, but had to stop after Donald Trump signed an executive order effectively banning US companies from using the platform in a row over its ties to Chinese authorities. Sky has been owned by US media giant Comcast since 2018.
Sky News began using the platform again this autumn and Sutton said it is seeing rapid growth, with a 178% increase in the number of followers between 1 December and the last week of January to more than 81,000. It saw 8.3m video views over the 60 days to 27 January.
There is therefore still lots of experimentation going on but Sutton said using Sky's specialist journalists and experts seemed to be working well, with science and technology editor Tom Clarke's explanation of the symptoms of the Omicron variant by far the best-performing video yet.
Other videos from the likes of political editor Beth Rigby and international affairs editor Dominic Waghorn have worked without "feeling the need to dumb down what they were saying, but just sort of provide analysis and expertise to a different demographic," Sutton said.
He added that amid the battle against misinformation and disinformation he hopes "quality will win out" and people will see these "real experts in their field talking about stuff that matters, and that that will be what the platforms end up prioritising and end up being watched by users".
Holeyman said "explainer" content was working well across all platforms: “I think definitely from the pandemic it's been clear that everyone's looking for everything to be explained a lot more and at a higher frequency as well, because there are so many questions every single day... probably another secret to the TikTok success is that it's a short-form video form of explaining really."
She added: "We don't want to try to be something that we're not in the content that we're creating. We're not having to sort of seek different faces to front [these videos]. We are using our main top correspondents from Sky News, but not dumbing down the content.
"We're not approaching the types of stories that we do trying to focus on light news - our top-performing stories are to do with Covid, they're to do with politics, they're to do with the Russia-Ukraine conflict and it's just basically proving that that audience is there, engagement is really good and that it's just a matter of focusing on creating a slightly different type of video but sticking well within the means of what we do best at Sky, which is really promising and that's pretty much the secret to how we've grown, so it's nothing complicated.
"I think it is just about approaching the platform with that authenticity and I think people can see that."
Holeyman also said that because "everyone knows Sky best for live breaking news" they have been doing more live discussions on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter to react to a story - for example with Rigby or chief political correspondent Jon Craig after Prime Minister's Questions.
She said: "It's trying to emulate the experience that the classic viewers [have]... emulating that experience on the social channels so you're trying to integrate that all together and then hopefully do that osmosis of audience over to the channel."
Holeyman said she was pleased Sky was embracing platforms like TikTok because "while your classic TV news audience might not be on that platform at the moment, I think we just see it as a really important audience to invest in if we want that audience to then grow up with us watching Sky News".
She added that some broadcasters and other media organisations "might be slightly afraid of a platform like TikTok because it is so dominated by bold characters and content creators, that might seem too far removed from what we're doing".
CNN anchor Max Foster recently shared a similar hypothesis with Press Gazette, suggesting journalism is an “insecure industry” with “a lot of control freaks”. “It’s quite hard to throw yourself in as a journalist, I think, because we talk about authenticity a lot, but it’s really real on TikTok, you have to be yourself and if there’s any veneer of you faking it, then it doesn’t work,” he said.
Sky News's digital work has led to it pursuing a "seamless approach" directing audiences between each platform, Sutton said.
This has led to Sky recently becoming the first, Sutton believes, UK broadcaster to consistently use QR codes to direct people from their TV screens to its complementary digital coverage.
Up to 25,000 people per day so far have scanned the codes to see, for example, the newspaper front pages up close during the nightly paper review or use the interactive travel tracker tool to compare Covid-19 rates around the world during TV discussions about the UK's travel restrictions relaxing.
The tool was created by the recently expanded data and forensic journalism team, now led by the former BBC foreign correspondent Matthew Price who joined Sky News in late 2020 to continue the pursuit of explaining the news.
"Again it's sort of about opening up journalism to audiences and... just trying to provide a bit more context and explanation around stories really," Sutton said.
The broadcaster is also currently beta testing a vertical version of the Sky News Live stream to around 10% of users, with the idea that mobile users will want to watch it for longer because it feels better designed for their phones.
Picture: Sky News