Peter Kafka

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All the News That Fits in a 15-Second Segment: NowThisNews Tries Instagram, and the Results Are Pretty Interesting

Vine is a good place to watch super-short videos. Instagram is a good place to see cool pictures and slightly longer videos.

Are either of them good places to watch the news?

NowThisNews is trying to find out. The mobile/social/video news startup, backed by the same people that brought you the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, has been experimenting with micro-length video news segments, pushing out six-second snippets on Twitter’s Vine, and 15-second spots on Facebook’s Instagram.

Here’s a NowThisNews Instagram report:

And here’s one on Vine:

People seem to like them, said Ed O’Keefe, NowThisNews’ editor in chief. NowThisNews’ Vine account, which started cranking out clips last spring, has about 100,000 followers/subscribers. Its Instagram account, which was basically dormant until two months ago, now has 52,000 followers.

Beyond crude measures like “Likes” and reposts, neither Twitter nor Facebook provide any kind of analytics to their video users, so there’s no way to really gauge engagement.

And, no matter what, the video services make up a small fraction of the 20 million views that NowThisNews said it generates a month. But my hunch is that NowThisNews is on to something here.

Not all of this stuff works. A multipart “exclusive” Instagram interview with Senate hopeful Cory Booker doesn’t yield much. And NowThisNews’ Vines often just shrug and bail with a “what do you think?” That gets old fast.

But Instagram in particular seems like a fruitful format for NowThisNews. You can definitely tell a story in 15 seconds — they do this on TV and radio all the time — and the startup is taking care to make sure the look and feel looks and feels like “authentic” Instagram stuff.

Here’s a slick look at Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei’s work:

And here’s a concise summary of a shutdown story, which conveys all the basic info a casual news-watcher would want:

Until recently, NowThisNews had been pushing up to 12 Instagram posts a day to its followers. Now, said O’Keefe, the startup is going to start breaking those posts up into different verticals, so people who want “real” news won’t get Miley Cyrus updates, as well (or vice versa). This also seems smart.

And, by the way, 15 seconds seems to be the perfect length of time for infotainment like the Jimmy Kimmel/Kanye West beef/makeup:

It’s entirely possible that all of this ends up filed in the novelty drawer. And O’Keefe and company, who have dedicated staff working on both Instagram and Vine, are playing with other formats too, including a Snapchat feed.

But, again, it seems like Instagram has real potential here. NowThisNews wants people to watch most of its stuff on a dedicated app, but getting someone to download, and then use, a news app is a long shot. But if they can scatter a few stories in your feed, alongside pictures of your pals’ breakfast? That feels plausible.

This does assume that Instagram users are willing to accept video in their feeds in general. I tend to avoid my Instagram pals’ videos, because videos are hard to make, and 15 seconds of even mediocre video is 14 seconds too long.

But if people who are good at video start showing up on the service routinely, then my habits might change.

This is what O’Keefe is betting on. “Instagram is in that transitional moment, where it moves from being person-to-person, friend-to-friend, to being about content discovery,” he said. “Users are looking to content creators, brands, all sorts of people they don’t know, and we want to be one of them.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work