Our editors reveal how they crunch smart analysis for a young audience
Printed copies of The Economist have been landing on doormats every week since 1843. For the past year, our sharp analysis has been appearing on a certain yellow smartphone app once a week too.
Having launched on Snapchat Discover in October 2016, we have published more than 50 editions, on everything from the threat posed by North Korea to the possibility of alien life to the legalisation of drugs.
Snapchat gives The Economist something most publishers are hungry for in today’s media environment: an audience of young, mobile-first consumers of news and analysis. The Snapchat audience is also large: each month an average of 7.1m users visit The Economist’s Snapchat channel.
The most popular edition so far, “How Well Do You Know Your Presidents?”, which coincided with Donald Trump’s inauguration, reached more readers in a week than Economist.com does in a month. Overall, launching on Snapchat has resulted in “the biggest step-change in the audience of The Economist since 1843,” says Tom Standage, deputy editor and head of digital strategy.
The edition pegged to Trump’s inauguration embodied much of what The Economist’s Snapchat team hopes to achieve, says Lucy Rohr, the paper’s Snapchat editor. One aim is to be what Ms Rohr calls a “trusted filter” that provides analysis and context around a news event. The edition on the inauguration focused not so much on Trump, but on the institution of the presidency and on previous holders of the office.
Choosing a topic for the weekly edition requires careful consideration as Ms Rohr has to be sure that The Economist has enough analysis on a subject to be able to fill an edition — and smartly. “Plenty of what we do can’t be readily translated into a ‘Snappy’ format. We have to take the time to really think about each edition and each snap and how to do it best,” says Ms Rohr. That can also mean creating original content, specifically for the platform.
Striking the right tone is one of the most difficult tasks for the Snapchat team, whose five members are on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s something we think about in every edition,” says Ms Rohr. Balancing the rigorous analysis of The Economist with the playfulness of Snapchat takes time and is “definitely a challenge”, according to Ms Rohr. Her team must condense large amounts of reporting from the paper into a medium that is not only finishable, concise and elegant — like the paper — but also fun and interactive.
Once the topic is chosen, how does a Snapchat edition come together? After gathering material from the archives and doing more research where needed, a script is written. A Snapchat script is broken down into at least 14 snaps, with words and visual ideas for each, plus links to the articles that might be added as content that the user swipes up to read. Editors, designers and animators then build all the visuals to produce the edition. Articles are fact-checked by the research department and updated where necessary, consulting with other editors when needed to ensure consistency with the paper’s editorial line.
Snapchat’s audience is young. But the idea of giving young people what we think they want is not the guiding philosophy of Ms Rohr’s team. Publishers who talk down to the audience, she says, will be punished by poor engagement. “The readers are smart, they are interested and they always want to know more, so it’s a really amazing opportunity as a producer and journalist to serve this group,” she says.
People familiar with The Economist are often surprised to hear that the paper is on Snapchat. But is it really so surprising? The team has found its audience to be forward-looking, globally curious and highly engaged with liberal causes. “So The Economist is actually pretty well aligned,” says Ms Rohr.
Matteo Moschella is a social media fellow at The Economist.
What The Economist learned in its first year on Snapchat Discover was originally published in The Economist on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.