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Channel 4: How serious news can triumph in a digital world of cats and clickbait 17.03.17

With 3.8 million cat pictures and videos shared every day online in the UK alone, and anyone with a smartphone able to broadcast at will, you’d be forgiven for thinking succeeding on digital platforms is a race to the bottom. In fact, the proliferation of, shall we say, ‘light-hearted’ content is leading many to herald the end of media entirely.

But, at a recent event on broadcast media by Shout Communications featuring Al Jazeera, BBC World Service, Channel 4 and Associated Press, the mood was much more optimistic. They claimed the same old arguments about media decline have been around for decades.  Video didn’t kill the radio star – in fact, the advent of podcasts has revitalised audio broadcasting. And whilst circulations are undoubtedly lower, papers still exist, and online traffic on media sites is higher than ever before.

We now just possess a more crowded and diverse media landscape, with representation from all areas. New media are telling stories that no one else is telling and finding a niche, but they’re not replacing traditional outlets. They see their challenge for surviving as cutting through the noise, and believe they can achieve this by carrying on doing a good job: prioritising good quality journalism, and focusing on their ability to explain complex issues and analysis.

Being serious doesn’t mean being unpopular. And to prove it, we only have to look at the example of Channel 4. Traditionally, Channel 4 has a younger audience than other broadcasters. However, in 2014, they were hauled in by Ofcom for failing to reach young viewers via TV. Realising that they needed to change, they brought in a new digital team and took the decision to wipe the slate with their video content.

Firstly, they stopped using digital content as a way to plug the TV programme, accepting that the audience that they were reaching on digital platforms were unlikely to engage with them on TV. After all, no one wants to share a trailer – they want to share content.

Next on the list were practical things. 85% of videos viewed on mobiles with sound off, so they added English subtitles to every piece of content. The editing team now also reviews every piece of content on a small screen – to see what the viewers are seeing. These simple things alone led to a big spike in engagement.

But the most important thing they did was to ruthlessly prioritise good storytelling, recognising that people share stories they emotionally connect with. Nowhere is this more plain than in their coverage of the Syria conflict through the Inside Aleppo series. The series had incredible impact, and contributed to Channel 4 content receiving 2.2bn views in 2016 – up from an average of 80 million in previous years.

The Inside Aleppo series showed how serious news can also ‘go viral’. The secret? Jon Laurence, Digital News Editor at Channel 4 News cited humanity and empathy. Channel 4 worked with a freelancer videographer trapped inside Aleppo, Waad Al-Kataeb, who, as well as an award-winning filmmaker, was a young mother trying to survive in the midst of the fighting and destruction.

People connected with the material because they could relate to the individual struggle even if they couldn’t understand the political situation that precipitated the fighting. By producing distinctive content that provided a window into the impact of global and political forces on real people, Channel 4 showed that the digital audience also has an appetite from serious news.

In just a few years, Channel 4 has gone from an approaching-obsolete channel to one of the biggest digital success stories. And all the while, they’ve maintained their mission to only cover serious international news. They don’t cover Royals, anything consumer, sports and, according to Laurence, have a ‘1 animal a week’ policy!

We live in an era of unrivalled diversity and choice of media, and that’s not going away any time soon. But far from a race to the bottom, new platforms are driving traditional media to innovate and improve. Channel 4’s case proves that to attract online audiences, we don’t need to change important stories, just translate them to suit a new audience’s needs. PR can learn a lesson on this too. Far from needing to dumb down content, or cater to the cats and clickbait, we must instead focus on bringing the human impact of our stories to light to cut through the noise in a crowded marketplace.

Thanks to Shout Communications and CIPR for a great event!