Audiences are moving towards private messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, to read and talk about the news. We talked to Ritu Kapur, founder and CEO of The Quint; Sohini Guharoy, the Quint’s head of audience engagement & social media; and Hannah Schwär from Axel Springer, to find out how WhatsApp is being used for news distribution in India and Germany.

Freia Nahser
Aug 23, 2018 · 8 min read

According to the Reuters Digital News report 2018, privacy is a big contributing factor to this shift: users in ‘less free’ countries are wary of expressing their political views on social media, and others worry that their social circles will think differently about them if they discuss politics openly.

How can newsrooms adapt to this change in user behaviour?

Many people use WhatsApp to chat to family and friends so invading this space comes with its very own set of challenges: content needs to be more conversational, setting up broadcast lists in WhatsApp is hard work, and monetisation isn’t particularly straightforward.

We had a look at how the Quint, an Indian digital news publication, is reaching the country’s whopping 1.5 billion active WhatsApp users. The messaging app has recently come under fire from the Indian government, as hoaxes forwarded en masse have led to a number of mob lynchings. Over in Germany, publishing giant Axel Springer has been something of a country forerunner in the world of news distribution via WhatsApp. In 2017 they played around with the platform in an effort to get young people more interested in politics. We talked to the people behind the scenes to find out more.

Voice and video via WhatsApp — Axel Springer

In the run up to the German federal elections last year, publisher Axel Springer tried to come up with ways of engaging first-time voters. Their in-house journalism school created a WhatsApp group called Shotty, which provided the target audience of 18–22 year olds with five useful shots of information each day. Their format was designed to inform and entertain, featuring a news voice message every morning, a digest in the evening, and a daily live report via WhatsApp Status.

‘In Europe, the messaging app is widely used by all ages. 94% of young Germans favour it over other social media apps. Especially in times where it’s really hard to reach a young audience via news apps or Facebook, this is a really interesting channel,’— Axel Springer’s Hannah Schwär.

Technically tough

‘The technical realisation of distributing news on WhatsApp is really difficult,’ Hannah Schwär, who worked on the project, told us. From the beginning, the team decided not to use chatbots, such as ‘WhatsBroadcast’. These WhatsApp-hosted chatbots don’t support certain features that they wanted to work with, such as Status and voice messages. This meant that the community needed to be managed manually, giving the team the cumbersome task of a adding and deleting contacts by hand. ‘Despite our diligent community management, we missed a few users’ registrations, which a few of them complained about. But most people put up with it,’ Schwär said.

Don’t be intrusive

According to Schwär, the team wanted their daily news digests to be as native to WhatsApp as possible.

‘We decided to go that way because we wanted to make sure that our news wouldn’t feel like an intrusion to the “friends and family only zone” WhatsApp provides,’ said Schwär.

Rather than recording their daily voice bulletins in the style of a traditional radio show, the team went for a conversational tone, making the news bulletins similar to the messages you might receive from your friends and family. The editor and host recorded the bulletin at around 5am every morning so that it could be delivered to people’s phones at around 7am. According to Schwär, the feedback from the community was positive: Most people described themselves as being too lazy to read the news in the morning, so a three minute shot of news fit perfectly into their daily routine.

Choose topics with your audience in mind

The team picked topics that seemed the most relevant to young people, such as radicalisation, the environment, Europe, job orientation, and the perils of sending nude photos. For example, the team posted a video of a woman who shared her experience of having nude photos shared online by an ex-boyfriend without her consent. ‘We were careful not to take the moral high ground on that topic and risk coming across as preaching. The aim was to offer constructive solutions to some of these issues,’ Marc Thomas Spahl, chief of the Axel Springer Academy, team told Digiday. The video features experts giving advice on what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation as well as your legal rights.

Where next?

Although the target audience were first-time voters, Schwär told us that they had some older subscribers who also liked the compact design of their news and the fact that it didn’t require you to install yet another news app.

‘When you look at the user statistics of WhatsApp, there’s also a great potential in older demographics’, she said.

Will Shotty grow? Schwär told us that without a technical infrastructure that is supported by WhatsApp, it will be hard to scale the product to a bigger audience. Let’s see.

WhatsApp and The Quint

The Quint recently started pushing their content into WhatsApp, becoming one of the first Indian news platform to operate via this format. ‘For India it’s a no-brainer. WhatsApp is the biggest platform for communication of any kind,’ said founder and CEO of The Quint, Ritu Kapur.

They initially used WhatsApp Business to share content with their readers. This allowed them to create WhatsApp groups of 256 members and manually send them updates. According to Sohini Guharoy, The Quint’s head of audience engagement & social media, the response was overwhelming, leading them to look into ways of distributing content beyond 256-user limit for lists.

WhatsBroadcast to reach the masses

The Quint decided to experiment with Munich-based WhatsBroadcast to automate the process of communicating with their readers through WhatsApp. The service lets an indefinite number of users sign up by saving a mobile number on their phone and simply typing ‘Start’ into the WhatsApp chat window. Bob’s your uncle.

WhatsApp for business news

They decided to pilot WhatsBroadcast through the Bloomberg Quint publication, seeing as the content is niche and very focused. People can use the service to find the latest stock news on command by typing the name of the company they want to find out more about. The service also sends out five to eight business updates a day with a link back to the Bloomberg Quint site for more information. According to Guharoy, the user base grew exponentially very quickly, leading to increased traffic to the site, in turn driving monetisation. To date, this particular WhatsApp service has more than 268K subscribers.

WhatsApp for fitness

The Quint FIT, the health and wellness vertical, arrived on WhatsApp just over two months ago and also works with WhatsBroadcast. Guharoy told us that the service received 2,000 subscribers organically in the first month and the base has now swelled to nearly 8,000. The service offers advice about health issues, such as weight loss, and it ties news stories together with practical tips. For example, if a celebrity has been diagnosed with cancer, Quint FIT explains the disease and draws attention to some of the symptoms.

Quint WhatsApp for news

The Quint itself also has a WhatsBroadcast service that lets you choose the topics you are interested in manually when you sign up: big news, editor’s pick, showbiz, tech, and auto. Guharoy told us that the options seek to give power to the reader about what information they receive, yet most people tend to sign up to all of the categories. The Quint acquired more than 62K subscribers in just four months.

Challenges for publishers

WhatsApp is not ‘share friendly’

Every picture and video that gets shared on WhatsApp takes up a lot of space on a user’s phone. Many of these photos will seem like spam and clog up a user’s personal photo gallery, which might cause many to hit ‘unsubscribe’ from a news channel. Kapur and Guharoy also told us that one of the challenges for publishers on WhatsApp is the fact that only images are easily shareable. In order for a user to share the link that takes the reader back to the publication, they have to manually copy and paste it. This is cumbersome.

Using WhatsApp for mass media distribution is a grey area

Kapur told us that WhatsBroadcast is not officially endorsed, meaning that WhatsApp does not allow commercial use or endorse the sending of newsletters. This means publishers using WhatsBroadcast risk being blocked at any time.

Disinformation and violence

The Computational propaganda research project carried out by the University of Oxford found that WhatsApp is one of the key platforms where disinformation is spreading in India. The messaging service is under a lot of pressure from the Indian government seeing as forwarded pieces of ‘fake news’ have led to several mob lynchings this year. According to the Washington Post, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology called on WhatsApp to take ‘immediate action to end this menace’ and that the company can’t evade ‘accountability and responsibility’ when its users spread false information.

WhatsApp India is listening and in August 2018, the company rolled out a new feature that limits the forwarding of messages to just five chats. ‘The feature is likely to make an impact, if it reaches out countrywide’, writes The Quint.

Debunking hoaxes on WhatsApp with WebQoof

The Quint has also been doing its bit in combatting disinformation. Their site Webqoof debunks WhatsApp hoaxes. The way it works is that readers can send in stories that are making the rounds on WhatsApp, these stories are then checked, and a verification is published on the Webqoof site and sent out through Quint’s WhatsApp.

Is opening WhatsApp up the solution?

But is the debunking of individual hoaxes enough to stop the dangerous spread of disinformation in India? Guharoy suggest that WhatsApp should ‘open up’ and become a legit platform for publishers. ‘When publishers put out fact-checked news reports, chances of those being shared instead of the fake news content is much higher. People are aware of the publisher brands and their authenticity; with a more personal model of content distribution, WhatsApp has the potential to quickly become the highest traffic driver for publishers’, Guharoy told us.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) is a community committed to sustainable journalism and media innovation. GEN runs different programmes: Editors Lab, Startups for News, and the Data Journalism Awards.

Freia Nahser

Written by

News & innovation reporter @GENinnovate

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) is a community committed to sustainable journalism and media innovation. GEN runs different programmes: Editors Lab, Startups for News, and the Data Journalism Awards.

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