Ian Burrell: The News Business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

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ITV News turns to Instagrammers to build a brand and bulletin fit for teenagers

For ITV News, an organisation built on six decades of tradition, it has taken a giant leap of faith to base its vision for a new national service on the instincts of a group of two dozen teenagers.

But the constant reinvention of modern media into new platforms and formats means that any news outfit that resists change risks losing touch with a new cohort of consumers who relate to 9/11 as an event that happened before they were even born.

It is 14-17-year-olds who ITV News is targeting with its new social media-based news service The Rundown, skewing even younger than youthful digital outlets such as BuzzFeed News and Mashable, which are focused on an earlier millennial generation that is now having children of its own, while Vice, 25-years-old this year, is now a silver-whiskered heritage brand.

When ITV’s research unit ITV Village pulled together a batch of 24 Instagram-using teens to help define its new daily digital bulletin, they told news executives that – for all the content washing through their social feeds – the news industry was entirely failing to target them.

“All the individuals in our group constantly said there wasn’t anything that really served them,” says Stephen Hull, who as ITV News head of digital oversees The Rundown. “We feel that this is the only national news product that is made for them, in those very formative and important years of their lives.”

Six weeks in, it seems to be finding an audience. Published on Instagram Stories, Facebook Stories and Snapchat, it has so far racked up a total of more than 5m views.

The teenage focus group – which was recruited by Survey Bod and skews 55% female – chose the bulletin’s title from a dozen suggestions that also included Need to Know and The Pulse. It persuaded ITV’s marketers to abandon the teal ITV News brand colours, familiar from its television and mainstream digital output, and instead embrace a pink and royal blue combination that they thought a better fit with the younger end of Generation Z.

And it also decreed that The Rundown should be presented not by the household name newscasters of ITV News, such as Tom Bradby and Julie Etchingham, but by the kind of early twenty-somethings who they might trust as confidantes in other areas of their lives.

In all these decisions, ITV News was prepared to follow the voice of youth. Where it would not compromise was on its journalistic values, says Hull, who is adamant that The Rundown will avoid the cynical clickbait material that characterises much of the popular news content seen by teenagers. “There are loads of news brands that produce all kinds of content just to get a scale of audience but our core value is around trust,” he says.

The Rundown is “a long game” play which ITV News hopes will ultimately build a loyal new audience across its formats.

Even public service broadcasters can no longer assume brand recognition by teenage consumers swamped by digital content. ITV Village assembled its focus group for The Rundown by targeting youth defined as ‘non-rejecters of ITV’, Hull says. “They are people who say they are aware of ITV and say that they value it.”

The Rundown is currently published each weekday at 3.45pm (when the group said teens were most likely to engage with content as they finished school or college). Each daily bulletin is just two minutes long, containing six stories of 15-20 seconds.

There are already plans to extend production to seven days a week from January. Hull is keen to introduce new formats, such as podcasts and longer-form videos, but says this is dependent on the view of the young advisory group as the project progresses. “I know what I want but I am not the audience,” he says. “If we are asking [young people] ‘What do you think is going to be best?’ that’s a good way to keep us honest about what a young audience wants rather than us imposing on them what we think they want.”

He is adamant that the new brand must continue to evolve if it is to last. “We have to grow and develop and can’t just say ‘We have done The Rundown and it goes out at the same time for ever and a day’…that’s not how this world works.”

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The Rundown is currently hosted by Amani Ibrahimi, who was joined this week by former ITV Central colleague Mojo Abidi. Rishi Davda will arrive from ITV West Country in December. All three will present the show on rotation. Hull says that the advertised roles attracted 500 candidates but that he is happy that all three of the team are schooled in ITV’s journalistic values. “Those really established newsrooms put out serious news programmes every day of the week and these guys are involved in that production process.”

Monday’s edition began with an environmental story on air pollution in Delhi and then included snippets on Greta Thunberg, Lewis Hamilton, Kpop star Jungkook, and a quirky video of a bear in a swimming pool. “We will always start with an amazing picture, we will always have that human interest story in there, and we will generally always have something which refers to the entertainment or sporting world,” says Hull. Despite the international content he says the product is firmly aimed at the UK audience.

Ibrahimi opens the bulletin in informal style “I’m Amani and this is The Rundown…” The research group asked for a show hosted by someone “a little bit older than them, a little bit wiser and someone they felt they could trust and aspire to being like,” says Hull.

Presenting the show is a “unique experience”, says Ibrahimi. “Coming from ITV Central I was very familiar with the process of TV news, but it’s an exciting and fresh challenge to broadcast on a purely digital platform. Each day we get to create and fine-tune something which speaks directly  to today’s teenagers and it’s amazing to see how intelligent and engaged they are.”

Although it does not use the main TV presenters, The Rundown’s launch coincided with hype around Bradby’s film ‘Harry & Meghan: An African Journey’, which has delivered ITV News its biggest video hit, with 30m viewers on Twitter alone. “A lot of those would have been young people,” Hull suggests.

While The Rundown team has autonomy to make its own story selection, the show doesn’t exist in isolation from the newsroom. “We have a robust editorial process in place, we will have a senior editor who is checking and signing off the stories, scripts and picture use, and we have lawyers who will comply any legal stuff,” says Hull.

The new service is getting its deepest engagement on Instagram, Hull says, though he argues that Facebook remains valuable. “Instagram is the one where, percentage-wise, most people are watching. Facebook was the star of the show five years ago and for us it’s a steady performer.”

Prior to the creation of the ITV Village focus group, ITV News worked with the London-based research company Jigsaw to outline its strategy for a social media bulletin. “We knew we wanted to launch something but we were very conscious of the fact that we weren’t sure exactly what it was,” Hull admits.

It is likely to retain the 24-strong team for further appraisal of the show’s progress, because being able to consult those individuals directly is preferable to using a larger sample base, Hull says. “We can actually talk to them and have proper conversations and understand some of the nuance of what they are saying.”

Giving up consistency in brand colours wasn’t easy for an outlet that is trying to build its recognition on digital platforms (it has 2 million followers on Facebook and 270,000 on Instagram). “We gave them different colours and they said they preferred this pink and this blue because it felt different and more like something made for them rather than another audience,” he says. “I think it was great that the company can put the power into the hands of the consumer on this and show we are very willing to listen and take their views.”

He notes that ITV News branding “is very prominent” and a swipe-up feature allows the young audience to transfer to the main ITV news website to get further depth on big stories. “It’s more in the hundreds than the thousands at the moment but it’s a really good indicator that there is that appetite for more news and knowledge.”

What happens next with The Rundown will largely be determined by the feedback ITV news gets from its target demographic. “We might look back in six months and think ‘Does this group want something very different?’” Hull admits. “We have to be open to the idea of embracing that and changing because otherwise we will end up producing something that looks out of date – and who wants to be doing that?”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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