News Column

Media: Barcroft Media aims for a killing with short-form videos that grab digital natives: YouTube service presents shocking and emotional clips that provoke debate

May 12, 2014

Stuart Dredge



You might not know Barcroft Media, but if you've ever found yourself watching a buffalo launching a lion into the air, a snake devour a crocodile whole or a dog the size of a Coca-Cola can, you've encountered its YouTube videos. With 68.2m views in March, Barcroft TV was the 40th biggest YouTube channel in the world that month, according to industry site Tubefilter. The channel now has more than 460,000 subscribers and 426m lifetime views.

Barcroft Media was founded in 2003 by photojournalist Sam Barcroft, who later launched a sister TV production company. Its YouTube channel was initially purely promotional, aimed at persuading more broadcasters to buy the company's content. By late 2012, the channel was averaging 3m views a month, spurring Barcroft to take it more seriously, producing more original shortform video reports "not as an afterthought", but as an important part of the business.

Barcroft TV is now the second most popular news channel in the world on YouTube, while the company also distributes its viral videos to sites like MSN, Yahoo Screen, Dailymotion and Chinese service Youku. "We formed as a picture company, and pictures were the commodity of the noughties," he says. "Now, in media, shortform video has become the monetisable commodity of online and mobile."

Is it just about shocking and/or funny animal videos? Barcroft says not, pointing to a series of videos about transgender couple Katie Hill and Arin Andrews, as well as videos tackling topics such as eating disorders. "We choose subjects that really resonate with our audience, which is massively multinational, and also young and female," says Barcroft, who adds that the channel has generated more than 250,000 comments over the last year around its videos.

"We present them in a way that connects with our audience really well: non-judgmental and in a clear and simple way. Our trick is to present controversial, shocking, emotional and thought-provoking stories, but to tell them in a very straight way," he says. "Our audience then get hold of those things and furiously debate them. We don't tell people that it's right or wrong to go and shoot elephants for sport, or to not eat, or to have a gender reassignment surgery. We present people's stories objectively and carefully, then we hope that stirs debate and interaction."

Like other online video and/or news companies - Vice, The Young Turks and Upworthy for example - Barcroft Media sees itself as serving a youthful audience neglected by traditional media. "A lot of young people have very important views about issues in the world: that's the demographic of people on their phones, and sharing and commenting and interacting," he says. "They're the native internet generation, but they have been completely abandoned by the mainstream media. Our content is designed for them."

Barcroft admits that making money from YouTube remains hard work, noting that most news companies in the space are supported by existing businesses. "Vice is basically an advertising agency with a website and YouTube. ITN is a massive broadcast network with a YouTube channel. And we are a successful content company with a YouTube channel. All of the most successful media organisations that have online video are subsidised in some way or another.

"As a news company, it's pretty much impossible to make enough money to survive just on YouTube. But it's about being clever about how you use your content: two years ago, YouTube was worth nothing to us. Now it pays a significant proportion of our monthly outgoings." He is about to expand that YouTube business significantly, launching new channels and experimenting more with longform video. The company also works with fellow British firm Rightster, which syndicates its content to online publishers and helps it squeeze the most revenues out of YouTube.

Barcroft is animated when discussing the "traditional shoe-leather journalism" behind his company's videos, with newsrooms in New York, east London and New Delhi and 20 full-time producers overseeing the pipeline of videos. "I'm passionate about our mix of content. Yes, 36m people have watched an incredible video of ours of a fight between a lion and a buffalo, but a lot of people have been moved by Arin and Kate getting on with their lives, and people are moved by our polar bear guy.

"The reason our company has done so well is that our factual content helps people go into other worlds, and enjoy stories that take them out of their 9-to-5 and the challenges of living in a recession. Why shouldn't people be excited about Britain's biggest dog or a woman who wears impossibly thin corsets? It might not win Pulitzers, but it's certainly winning hearts and minds."

And eyeballs. "We're going to do a billion views over the next year across all of these platforms, and we're a small company in Hackney," says Barcroft. "We think that's proof positive that if you've got a real understanding of what people want, and you're very energetic about creating great content, these new platforms give you the chance to be a global player."

Captions:

Snappy image . . . Barcroft Media's photo shows a crocodile trying to grab an impala


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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