Journalism experts: Snapchat isn’t a snap, but it’s worth a try

Jan 19, 2016
Journalism experts: Snapchat isn’t a snap, but it’s worth a try

To help capture the New Year’s Eve revelry in Times Square, The New York Times relied on the usual means but also turned to an emerging avenue for storytelling -- Snapchat. The Times is among a growing number of media outlets, including NPR, CNN, ESPN and The Wall Street Journal, that are adding Snapchat to their storytelling toolboxes.

Snapchat, a mobile app introduced in 2011, lets users send and receive videos and photos, but the content can be viewed for only a short period. The content’s brief lifespan isn’t deterring some professional storytellers from giving Snapchat a go, though.

Chris Snider, assistant professor of multimedia at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, says Snapchat holds promise for journalists “because it’s a great storytelling platform with some creative tools like drawing, adding text over photos and mixing photos and videos to tell a story. And it has a very engaged audience that is paying attention to what is posted there.”

So, what does the rise of Snapchat in journalism mean for media outlets of all shapes and sizes?

Snider recommends that journalists, bloggers and others in the digital information realm download the Snapchat app and learn how to use it.

“Snapchat is not easy. You can’t just throw up some links like on Twitter and Facebook and call it a day,” says Snider, a former editor at the Des Moines Register. “You have to understand Snapchat and know how to use it the right way.”

Robert Quigley, senior lecturer in the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism, suggests experimenting with Snapchat and shaking off any preconceived notions about Snapchat.

“It can be a powerful storytelling tool and the audience is there,” Quigley says, “so now is the time to jump in.”

While Snapchat may involve a learning curve, it does offer versatility in reporting about everything from college bowl games to presidential campaigns, according to Quigley.

Several major media outlets have signed up for Snapchat’s premium Discover feature, which Quigley describes as a hybrid between print and broadcast. Outside the Discover feature, any journalist or blogger can set up a Snapchat account and tell stories, he says. Snapchat Stories, which last just 24 hours, involve a series of videos, photos and text.

Quigley says some of his University of Texas students employed Snapchat when they contributed to a recent Austin American-Statesman series about the tech culture in Austin. Nearly all of Quigley’s students at UT use Snapchat each day, he says. According to comScore, 71 percent of Snapchat’s American users fall into the 18-34 age group -- a group that practically has grown up with social media.

“Snapchat is a natural broadcast medium, which is a first for social media. By that, I mean the person posting a Snapchat Story is broadcasting out a nearly live video news feed,” says Quigley, who previously worked for the Austin American-Statesman.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar, a member of the digital innovation faculty at the Poynter Institute, says Snapchat represents a reprieve from the short attention spans that plague much of the digital world.

“Even though there's no fancy camera work or editing, the intimate nature of Snapchat makes it feel like the story you’re watching was made especially for you,” says Hawkins-Gaar, a former editor at CNN.

Of course, given the relative newness of Snapchat, the technology isn’t without its potential faults as a storytelling tool for journalists and bloggers:

  • Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Snapchat isn’t designed to drive traffic to a website or blog. Snapchat content doesn’t contain links, Quigley says, and Snapchat lacks the ability to tap your smartphone screen to get more information or take you outside the app.
  • The Discover feature, which Quigley describes as “the slickest way to display content,” is available only to major media partners.
  • You can’t go back and edit Snapchat posts, Quigley says, so you’re stuck reshooting clips if you’re not happy with the way they turned out.
  • Much of the content on Snapchat leans toward the light-hearted, so journalists need to be careful about striking the right tone when covering serious stories, Hawkins-Gaar says.

Snider says: “So there are lots of excuses not to use it, but I say jump in anyway and see where the current tools lead you.”

John Egan is editor in chief at LawnStarter, an Austin, Texas-based startup that helps people find, schedule and manage lawn care services.

Photo: Snapchat logo screenshot via

About the author

Content marketer, Austinite, world traveler, lover of laughter, lover of words. Proud KU grad.

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