There it is, the red-hot core of the difference between old school and new. I’ve never had a print editor who said anything like that out loud. But I have heard any number of editors who are struggling to figure out how to compete digitally embrace the idea that putting something up can take precedence over checking it out fully. This is no expression of tabloid amorality; O’Keefe is a serious journalist who is trying to find a standard that works in the new world. He doesn’t want to deliver inaccuracies to his audience. Rather, he wants to give them the closest version of the truth he can while still meeting them where they are, which is on their phone, right now. Wait a few minutes, and they won’t be there anymore; they’ll have moved on to the next story.
NowThis produces little original reporting; virtually all the video comes from the networks, wires, and viral content. So NowThis’s value comes from its distinctive brand of visual storytelling. NowThis adds bold graphics and conversational narration that blend opinion and reporting in a style intriguing enough that NBC in January took a 10 percent stake in the business and agreed to use its videos.
NowThis News produces 40 to 50 videos a day, almost all of them based on network, wire, and viral content. They marry a few seconds from this source with a few seconds from that one and send it out. (Sean Hemmerle)
“Speed is part of the brand,” says Ashish Patel, the vice president for social media. “It’s what we sell. So our verification is hyperfast, using third-party verifiers.” That means that “if the Times is reporting something, it’s already verified.”
That kind of statement would have caused a furor back at The Washington Post, where Katharine Zaleski was executive producer before joining NowThis as its first managing editor. Zaleski was a lightning rod in the culture wars at The Post, an evangelist for changing a print-centric newsroom into one that moved at the speed of the Web. Some Post reporters and editors equated her work with lower standards. Looking back, Zaleski doesn’t blame them: “When you’re losing circulation, money, and friends, you focus on the intangibles—your reputation and standards. That was the thing they could hold onto.” On the other hand, she says, “Old-line organizations really do have to be more cautious. I learned at The Post how much patience it takes to get really great journalism. At new organizations, you just don’t have the budget for that yet. Patience requires revenue.”
NowThis plans to do more original reporting, and then work harder at verifying the accuracy of their videos. Meanwhile, they make do with an old news standby, the question dodge: When NowThis producers considered posting viral video of a bear breaking into a convenience store and taking a cup of yogurt, the production values looked too crisp to be from a random user. Rather than report out the story, NowThis asked the audience to decide: real or hoax? (The bear bit turned out to be a clip from an ad for Chobani.)
In September, NowThis went with video of the twerking girl who falls down and sets herself aflame—a too-incredible-to-be-true viral hit that turned out to be a bit by late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel. “We thought it was real,” says producer Sarah Frank. When the truth emerged, “we did a piece saying we’d been duped.” NowThis executives say viewers are fine with that kind of transparency, but they also say they’d like to find a way to assure that those mistakes don’t get made in the first place.
Frank, at 31 a veteran of Newsweek and New York Magazine, finds it refreshing to be at a place that explores the boundaries of making the news funny and personal without running up against the defensiveness she recalls from older colleagues at Newsweek: “You’re going to tarnish the brand!” Frank is coordinating the evolving relationship with NBC and says everyone understands that for NowThis to retain its creativity, it has to steer clear of hard rules and multi-layered systems that could slow production.
NowThis’s new president, Sean Mills, just arrived in December from The Onion, where he learned that young audiences now dismiss many conventions of storytelling—anchormen, pyramidal news writing, and cautious neutrality now seem like, well, an Onion parody. But Mills says the credibility that attaches to old-line media brands teaches start-ups a powerful lesson: it’s still all about the truth. There may not be a direct line between getting the twerking story wrong and losing audience, but Mills believes getting it right is essential to building the brand. What he hasn’t found yet is the right mix of opinion and straight reporting, original work and aggregation, verification and letting the audience sort it out.