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Snapchat Discover could be the biggest thing in news since Twitter

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A few weeks ago, Snapchat updated its app. The new version had a little purple dot in the upper-right corner of the app’s Stories screen. If you’re a normal, casual Snapchat user who uses the app to send goofy selfies to your friends, you might not have noticed the dot at all. Or you might have tapped it, seen an unfamiliar menu with a panoply of weird logos on it, and gone back to your selfie-taking.

But if you’re a media executive, that little purple dot — the gateway to Snapchat’s new Discover platform — might represent a big shift in your thinking.

There’s a ton of chatter in the media world about Snapchat’s foray into news. And the media is right to gossip: Snapchat Discover is huge. I’m not privy to Fusion’s Snapchat metrics (and even if I were, they wouldn’t be representative of the platform as a whole, since we’re only on the non-US, non-UK versions of Discover) and Snapchat isn’t giving out any specifics. But from speaking to people at several other news organizations, I can tell you secondhand that the numbers, at least for the initial launch period, were enormous. We’re talking millions of views per day, per publisher.

Part of that may have been novelty value that will fade as Snapchat users get acclimated to the little purple dot. But mostly, it’s a numbers game. Snapchat has (or had) something like 100 million monthly active users, two-thirds of whom reportedly use the app every day. Even if only five percent of those people use Discover, that’s still 3 million viewers a day. Unlike Facebook, there’s no algorithmic filter on Snapchat — all the channels are equally visible, whether you’re CNN or Warner Music Group. And there’s no real advantage for platforms with large pre-existing social media apparatuses, since there’s no good way to share Snapchat stories, anyway.

Discover’s user interface is devilishly clever. Just open the menu, pick one of twelve channels, and browse animated story teasers from that channel. Swipe up to read/watch the story, left to go to the next story, and down to close the channel entirely. (And no, you don’t have to hold your thumb down the entire time.) The next day, you get an entirely different set of stories. It’s a good medium for browsing while you’re on the bus, in the bathroom, or waiting for someone at a restaurant. And, at least for now, the channels are putting a lot of effort into making their stories visually appealing. Most post five or so stories per day, though I’ve seen as many as fifteen.

What are these stories, you ask? Well, right now, most channels are a mix of news, videos, and listicles repackaged from the publishers’ websites, along with the occasional original story.

Fusion’s channel (which, again, is only available outside the US and UK at the moment) is a mixture of international news, pop culture, and video features.

ESPN’s channel has a lot of SportsCenter-style video highlights.

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Cosmopolitan‘s channel is a mixture of Buzzfeed-y lists and lifestyle pieces with headlines written for #teens.

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Vice’s channel is mostly video features from its various sub-sections.

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The Daily Mail is Discover’s resident tabloid.

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Yahoo’s channel is a hodgepodge of national news stories, with intros narrated by Katie Couric.

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The National Geographic channel is nature porn and human-interest features.

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And the Food Network is mostly recipes.

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It’s hard to tell what Snapchat Discover will look like in the future. (These platforms have a way of wandering from their original purpose.) But here are some lessons we can take so far:

— Making good stories for Snapchat is harder than it looks. I can’t speak for all organizations, but at Fusion, we have a small team working on Discover stories. (And sidenote: we’re hiring!) Repackaging stories for Snapchat is harder than repackaging them for Facebook or Twitter, since it often requires custom animation, voice-over, and significant editing of the text itself. If you’re a news organization hoping to get on the platform, you’d better be ready to hire a full-time staffer or two — simply heaping Snapchat onto your social media editor’s plate won’t cut it.

— Long stories don’t work well on Snapchat. The ideal Discover story seems to be about a few hundred words long, or a maximum of about two minutes of video. It’s a medium designed for short attention spans, and content will need to be chopped accordingly. (My story on Waterloo, Ontario, for instance, was more than 4,000 words in its original web version — for today’s Snapchat Discover edition, our team repackaged it as a handful of bullet points, while directing readers to our site for the full story.) Interestingly, the Daily Mail is running the longest Snapchat stories of any outlet — its Kim Kardashian story, for instance, has more than a dozen iPhone screens’ worth of text and photos.

— Love them or hate them, vertical videos are about to make a huge comeback. It’s possible to put horizontally-oriented videos on Snapchat — most channels do, at the moment. But it’s awkward to have to turn your phone sideways each time you want to watch one at full size, and I find myself gravitating toward the videos that are shot vertically in the first place.

— In some ways, Snapchat Discover is a throwback to the days before the continuous, 24-hour news cycle. Channels update their stories only once a day, and the effect is that it’s not really a good place to find breaking news. The lightly-aged nature of the news on Discover, coupled with the limited selection of channels, makes it feel more like watching broadcast TV than browsing your Facebook feed. And the daily publishing schedule also presents some dilemmas for news organizations. If a Snapchat Discover story contains a factual error, do you correct it the following day, using one of your precious story slots? Or do you simply change the story on the web, and hope nobody notices?

— One big question, for publishers, is how open Snapchat plans to make Discover. Now that they’ve got the infrastructure in place, they could open it up to dozens and dozens of organizations, with limited additional work on their part. But I suspect they won’t. Part of the appeal of Discover is that it’s a tightly curated variety pack, not an all-you-can-eat buffet. And I imagine that Snapchat will be picky about who it allows in.

— There are no links on Discover at all. (Or anything clickable, for that matter.) That’s by design — Snapchat wants it to be a self-contained showcase, not a content middleman like Facebook or Reddit — and as a result, it’s not sending any referral traffic back to the publishers’ sites. For the moment, then, it’s best for publishers to think of Discover as a brand-building tool, rather than a distribution engine. The teenager who sees a Snapchat video from Fusion isn’t generating any traffic for Fusion.net, but he is learning that Fusion is a place to find interesting stories. And the next time he sees a Fusion link on his Facebook feed, he might be more likely to click. That’s the idea, anyway.

— Perhaps the biggest news about Discover, if you’re on the business side, is that Snapchat is allowing publishers to share in the advertising revenue generated by their content. (Publishers reportedly keep 70 percent of the revenue from these ads if they sell them, and 50 percent if Snapchat sells them.) That’s not an ideal deal, from a media company’s perspective, but it’s better than nothing. Publishers have been pushing for a revenue-sharing model with Facebook for years, and if Snapchat’s version succeeds, it could give them more leverage in those talks.

— In its current form, I don’t think Snapchat Discover is a threat to most digital publishers. It’s not a replacement for the New York Times homepage, or the Facebook news feed. It might be a threat, though, to apps like Circa, Yahoo News Digest, and NYT Now, all of which distill news stories into easily chewable pieces. (Again, though, Discover’s once-a-day nature means that it’s never going to be the place you go for the latest information.)

As with Facebook or Twitter, news organizations investing heavily into Snapchat Discover are taking a big risk. Snapchat could decide to axe the program at any moment, if it’s not juicing the app’s engagement numbers in the right ways.

But that’s true of every social platform. And if publishers are willing to build a castle on sand, Snapchat Discover is probably a firmer sand pile than most. It’s sleek, it’s engaging, and it’s serving a very large pre-existing user base. Making stories for Discover is almost certainly cheaper than taking out a billboard or running a big paid Facebook ad campaign. And if it works, it has the potential to shape the news consumption habits of a whole group of (mostly) young people. Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that Snapchat is on every forward-thinking media mogul’s mind.