Not long after the Newtown shootings last December, Ed O’Keefe was in the NowThis News newsroom when a Facebook profile some claimed to be the shooter’s circulated on social media and via some news organizations. The profile was Ryan Lanza’s; the gunman turned out to be his brother, Adam Lanza.
“I remember very distinctly standing up in the newsroom and saying something doesn’t smell right,” O’Keefe told me in a recent phone interview.
O’Keefe is the editor-in-chief for the video news startup funded by Lerer Ventures and others. The Newtown shootings came when NowThis was just one month old.
“We are a new news brand,” O’Keefe said. “We cannot afford the luxury of commonplace mistakes. I don’t think that the big news brands can either, but in particular who’s going to possibly believe a new news organization if they’re tripping all over themselves making silly mistakes? So I just said don’t do it. Don’t tweet it, don’t Facebook it, don’t ‘like’ it, don’t do anything until you’re sure. It has prevented a lot of problems.”
O’Keefe calls NowThis “the first and, at this point, only digitally native news network”.
It produces video for NowThis’s mobile app, website and partner sites such as BuzzFeed and The Atlantic. The NowThis team recently began producing short news videos and infographics created specifically for its Instagram account, as well as content created specifically for other platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. It plans to expand on those efforts.
O’Keefe said NowThis is acutely aware of the need to constantly reinforce that it’s a credible source of news for its target audience of 18- to 34-year-olds.
To do that, O’Keefe, who previously had a long career at ABC News, said he’s established “two overarching principles” for the team.
“Number one, we have to be completely and totally authentic in everything that we do, and that extends from the content through to any corrections that we would need to make,” he said.
“We have our credibility at stake in every social-media post that we do and every piece of video that we produce,” O’Keefe said. “So it’s essential that that authenticity in our tone extend to being genuine and true when we get something wrong. If we make a mistake or if we say something that turns out to be different than it actually is, we need to be very, very up front and honest about that.”
O’Keefe’s other overarching principle? Transparency.
“It’s a very fast-moving, fluid entity that we’re working in and we just need to be authentic and honest with the audience and completely and totally transparent in the event that there is an inadvertent error,” he said.
The principles of authenticity and transparency don’t just govern accuracy and corrections. The NowThis team keeps the first principle firmly in mind when creating content that’s native for — and thereby “authentic” to — whatever platform it’s focused on. So the team creating a video package for the app, website and YouTube is going to approach that task separately from the group creating Instagram content.
O’Keefe said someone looking to get information on Twitter or Instagram expects it to be offered in a way that fits the platform. And he knows that savvy young media consumers will tune out a news outlet that seems not to understand what they want and how they want it.
Instagram, Twitter, video corrections
The approach of mapping content to specific platforms also means NowThis has to think about what a “native” correction should be for each platform.
“We’ve treated corrections like we’ve treated everything we do,” O’Keefe said. “We iterate. We don’t pretend to assume that we’ve got the perfect solution. We try to come up with the best policy and then don’t let it feel like it’s written in stone and can never possibly be changed.”
So far, NowThis has had to issue corrections on Twitter and Instagram. The first Instagram correction came last month when a user pointed out an error via a comment on an Instagram post. (It was in a short video feature comparing Obama and Reagan.) NowThis responded by issuing a correction in a reply comment:
O’Keefe said NowThis has so far avoided making any major errors requiring a correction in a video report.
While saying that “I’d love to give ourselves credit for that,” O’Keefe noted that the lack of errors likely reflects the fact that “we’re producing anywhere from 25 to 30 pieces of content a day and the volume just isn’t such that the quality control has lessened.”
“We’re much more likely to make a mistake on a social platform simply because of the volume of things that we’re doing,” he said.
For video, NowThis’s policy is that “if there’s something that is wrong in the piece, we need to take a few steps.”
A) note it in the piece itself and B) take the contextual area around the piece, whatever it happens to be, and again try to make it clear that something has changed within the piece, which I actually think is probably more powerful than the first part because that’s where people are going to read the contextual information, that’s where they’re going to look for additional supporting facts.
(In the case of a major error in a video, NowThis would likely need to re-upload a new version without the mistake, and note the change.)
The contextual information O’Keefe mentions could take the form of the video description text on YouTube. On a partner site such as BuzzFeed, the team has the ability to write as much additional text as they like.
NowThis’s experience shows that as news organizations adopt different platforms for creating and spreading content, they also have to think about how to apply their ethical principles and correction policies to those platforms. A correction in a web story won’t be the same as one made to a tweet. (I offered some guidelines for social media corrections in a previous post.)
Increased frequency and reporting = increased error?
The volume of content being produced by NowThis is increasing at a steady clip, which of course increases the likelihood of errors. O’Keefe said one of the team’s new initiatives is an hourly video news update available through their app.
“We thought about it from a mobile sector perspective, trying to understand where in the world can you go now and find out the two or three most important things that are happening,” O’Keefe said, adding that “it’s kind of strange” that a lot of traditional news outlets have stopped doing that.
Along with increasing its output, NowThis is also staffing up to produce more original reporting. The network recently hired reporters to cover Capitol Hill, and have other reporters traveling and filing from different locations.
It’s one skill to sort through the content coming in from wires and all sources and decide how to curate and package it. But when you have your own reporter in the field offering something that no one else has, you face a different kind of verification challenge.
O’Keefe said the young reporters NowThis is hiring for the field have a broad and impressive skill set, but lack experience.
“They can write, they can shoot, they can produce, and in some cases they’re very comfortable going straight on camera because they spent their life to a certain extent on camera,” O’Keefe said, adding that “because of the skill set, the temptation is to just toss everybody in and see what comes out.”
The key, he said, is to recognize that many of those young reporters “are still learning about how to report and how to correct it when you make a mistake,” and then to provide the guidance those reporters need.
That’s brings O’Keefe back to the principles of authenticity and transparency. He also mentioned a third principle NowThis has adopted when reporting stories like Newtown.
“Our principle will be: better to be right than first,” he said. “And on the other side, if and when something happens, again it’s as simple as honesty, authenticity and transparency. I can’t prevent every error from making its way through the system, but if it happens, we’re going to be honest about what happened and why.”