How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bite-Sized News

Last week the BBC launched Instafax, a short-form video newswire designed for Instagram where videos are limited to 15 seconds. For now, the BBC is describing their project as an experiment, but the move is part of a much larger trend that, at one point, I scoffed at.

I have long complained about inch-deep media coverage of current events that provides little time for meaningful debate and focuses instead on sound bites. By all accounts I should hate news being delivered in 15 second Instagram videos. And yet, as organizations, old and new, develop new kinds of storytelling for new platforms the ultra short form factor is winning me over for some topics. Bite-sized news today goes beyond sound bites, but could go even further as an on-ramp to other coverage.

As a news junkie I was curious about NowThis News and started following them on Instagram late last year. I was soon hooked on their clever, punchy, well-produced videos. In a post on NowThis News’s Instagram strategy Caroline O’Donovan said “NowThis News is building video content that fits in where the audience lives.” She continued:

There’s a willing audience in people who would never think to turn on a TV to get their news, but refresh their Instagram feed multiple times a day. It’s not that these people aren’t interested in news — it’s that they’re accustomed to the big stories finding them rather than the other way around.

And indeed, editor-in-chief Ed O’Keefe says that they are “finding an appetite for hard news,” he says. “Not just soft, entertainment news — hard news on Instagram.” NowThis News recently split off their entertainment and sports coverage into separate Instagram accounts responding to feedback from their followers.

Long form and short form can co-exist

photo 2 (1)photo 1 (1)Having NowThis News in my Instagram feed is a bit like skimming the day’s headlines. It gives me a quick sense for the details of a story, a few key facts and a bit of background. It’s like asking “Who, What, When, Where and Why” and getting one word answers to each. The thing is, sometimes that’s OK, with the flood of information we all face, sometimes that’s all we need.

But often, a NowThis News clip will pique my attention, and I’ll go digging for more context, a longer story, or more background on the issue on other sites.  Unfortunately, NowThis News (within Instagram) is not the best on-ramp into a story because, even though the team often writes useful captions, links don’t work within Instagram. In their mobile app they often do link out to at least one source or longer article.

I like how Circa tackles sourcing and links in their version of bite-sized news, which strings bit and bites together. Circa launched as a mobile-first news app in 2012, around the same time as NowThis News. Earlier that year the CEO and co-founder Matt Galligan described their mission as “trying to make it so that people educate themselves for 5 minutes as opposed to play Angry Birds.” To do this, the Circa team “atomizes” the news, breaking it down into distinct elements, facts, quotes, photos, and so on. Their approach is clearly popular, landing the app on numerous year-end best-of lists in 2013. (Read my take on Circa’s breaking news features here)

Like NowThis News, Circa is rarely the end point of my news consumption but it is often the starting point. I can easily skim through the app, check headlines, dig a little into stories that interest me, and go deeper into those that I’m really following. Circa occasionally has links in their individual elements but they list (and link out to) all their sources at the end of each of their storylines. Sprinkled throughout the storylines are also links to other related Circa content.

More news in more places

photo 1photo 2There are plenty of other news orgs on Instagram, and people like NPR have used Tumblr expertly as a bite-sized news platform to drive engagement and interest in their journalism. To some extent, This American Life predicted this trend when they broke up their episodes into individual elements on the web. Even though the entire idea behind This American Life is an hour of radio carefully built around a common theme, the staff there came to understand that “the atomic element is the story, rather than the episode.”

Long form and short form can co-exist. I wouldn’t want a media ecosystem made up entirely of bite-sized news, but nor would I want every topic to get the long-form treatment. In the end, I think bite-sized news puts more journalism in the hands of more people, and that’s a good thing. We should want people to encounter news across different platforms, as a ubiquitous and natural part of their day. That can only help build a demand for news in the long run.

I’m not suggesting these bite-sized news experiments are a replacement for other kinds of reporting. Investing in deep and ongoing coverage of a beat or issue over time is critical to accountability journalism. However, sometimes small pieces loosely joined can add up to more than the sum of their parts. Different topics, different audience, and different platforms will demand different approaches. I think the opportunity lies in creating bridges between different forms and formats of journalism, helping people dig deeper and understand stories more fully.

UPDATE: For a great example of a news organization that marries long form and short form, check out The Verge, especially their 90 Seconds on the Verge series.

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