Navigators of Change: Kamal Ahmed of The News Movement
The News Movement is a UK-US start-up on a social media mission. It is providing factual and impartial news alongside simple explainers for the TikTok generation. Its approach should please audiences and alarm traditional news publishers. Instinctif’s Chief UK Media Strategist, Jeremy Durrant, speaks to co-founder Kamal Ahmed about his zeal for zoomers and the importance of authenticity.
- Kamal Ahmed’s The News Movement aims to meet young audiences on the social platforms where they live
- Fundamental changes in the rules of engagement for news providers in recent decades have called for new ways of listening to audiences and gaining their trust
- In seeking success, TNM will separate editorial and commercial functions and look to create deep relationships with advertisers, online payment platforms and audiences
Here is the News – but not as you know it
“For some audiences, there is a sense of helplessness with the news and that’s often a really bad end point for the viewer. Audiences don’t always want to watch something and afterwards feel scared, pumped full of the stress hormone cortisol or not knowing what to do with the information they have just seen.”
Former BBC Editorial Director and now co-founder of start-up The News Movement (TNM), Kamal Ahmed, is discussing evidence that there is a growing disconnect between traditional news offerings and young people’s wish to consume information on their own terms.
To illustrate the point, he recalls a conversation with his son a few years ago who had been watching his father’s economics reporting on BBC News:
“My son said to me ‘I didn’t understand a word of that’ and then he asked me ‘why is that the news?’”
Blunt criticism of how traditional news works, and an insight that lies at the heart of Ahmed’s fully funded new venture (which also has the considerable oomph of Will Lewis, the former CEO of Dow Jones, Editor of The Daily Telegraph, and Sunday Times Business Editor, behind it). TNM is in beta testing ahead of a full launch later this year and is powered by a small team of young journalists operating from the ITN building in London. ITN is providing support to the new venture.
TNM is targeting the 18-25 age category but with an approach likely to appeal to an older, increasingly tech-savvy audience. Its proposition is simple – bias-free news with original, quality reporting, when and where you want it.
Kamal Ahmed is building on a background in traditional news media
Ahmed knows what he’s talking about. Apart from the BBC’s editorial director role, he has also headed up the Beeb’s business and economic output. Before that he had a successful career in newspapers taking in the Telegraph, Observer, and a royal correspondent role at The Guardian. He understands how the news industry works and believes that while the traditional, heavyweight news providers fulfil an important role, when it comes to innovation and the news propositions of the future, they can sometimes struggle.
He said: “I have two children who are 21 and 18 and their experience and consumption of news is vastly different to my own at their age. When I was 18 you could literally miss the news if you didn’t tune in at 9pm or read a newspaper. The news industry told you the news and it was appointment to view. Since then, there have been three big shifts in the industry:
“CNN pioneered 24-hour news in the 1980s – it was news that never stops. Then we had internet-driven news in the ‘90s which meant the news could go on and on and on. In the 2000s we had social media which dramatically changed consumption and creativity.
“Yet the news industry struggled to move fast enough since, and nor for that matter have a lot of brands when faced with such total disruption to content consumption. We now have a creator economy where everyone has a distribution channel. Our mission is to create news for TikTok, Instagram and other social media outlets where our target audience lives and consumes.”
In other words, the universe in which people live, work, and play has utterly changed, and so too have the rules of engagement for news providers.
While praising traditional media – “It’s been my whole career, I love it” – Ahmed believes there is room for new offerings focusing on audiences which do not engage with the news he used to lap up a young person.
“Young people are consuming information on their phone through social media and we believe there is a real opportunity to bring high quality, no-bias journalism to those spaces. We have a different notion of what the news is. We believe in a fact-based approach and impartial information – we are here to help.”
Gaining audience trust by telling stories that reflect their lives
Ahmed is quick to underline the importance of trust in his model. He believes trust is being eroded, in part because of young people’s scepticism about issues as fundamental as “who decides what’s news?
“Entering social media, you need to be authentic – you can’t just turn up in their space and expect to be accepted. It would be like a parent turning up to a party and asking for the music to be turned down. You need to know the cadence of engagement, the vernacular. We also need to show our journalists are young people. You gain trust by being like the audience we serve. This is a generation in discovery mode. We call our approach horizontal storytelling, and we want to be seen as trusted friends who are discovering things together.”
So, expect to see more open editorial conference meetings, news lists driven by reporters more representative of their audiences, succinct (not superficial) content in social media formats and none of the tribalism that dogs so much of the traditional news industry. Stories TNM covers are wide ranging and include women’s health and sport, drugs, politics, entertainment, and the environment. Its approach is notable for the lack of columnists, op-eds, leaders, and general tub-thumping so central to modern news media. It also includes content on major geo-political issues such as the war in Ukraine. Some of the most watched content has been simple, short explainers such as “Who is Volodymyr Zelenskyy?”
Audience listening and tailoring content to specific channels
Ahmed adds: “We want to use sophisticated audience listening tools which stops us shouting into the wind. I have always been surprised how little audience listening is utilised elsewhere. As a team of people, we are from a diverse range of backgrounds who look like the audiences we are serving. Transparency is also critical, and we are going to be recording our news conferences to show audiences how we reached editorial decisions. Show our working if you like. The audience is net sceptical, and you cannot sit behind a castle wall and hope people won’t question why you are telling them something in a certain way.”
Content is created and crafted to suit the nuances of the different social channels it sits on.
“When we tell a story we are taking out the sensationalism but keeping it meaningful. We also don’t just stop there, we are in the comments, we report different relevant opinions, provide information, context, and signposts so the consumer can keep following this story and make sense of it.”
Kamal Ahmed’s The News Movement’s structure for success
So, will this approach resonate with young people and prove to be a threat to traditional news propositions?
Damian Reece, the first Group Head of Business for The Telegraph Media Group and now Senior Counsel at Instinctif Partners believes so. “The scope for innovation in the news industry has always been vast but always held back by traditional business models and the chronic fear of cannibalising large, legacy audiences. Publishers are in the market for controversy rather than news and that’s a problem because it’s turning future audiences off. The question for TNM is not whether it will succeed but how quickly it can grow before its success sparks the inevitable imitations.”
“I want to be part of a team which creates great journalism that really matters”
So, what about the commercial structure of TNM? The business splits along traditional lines with editorial functions entirely independent of commercial functions (a distinction which traditional news operations have been criticised for blurring in recent years). Revenue will come from multiple sources. TNM will charge other media companies for creating effective, social media-relevant news content for their output. They will generate sponsorship deals and event income around key topics.
There will be content creation for brands and on the news side there will be the opportunity for core TNM audiences to subscribe for deeper content relationships, not to mention the advertising revenue that comes with the platforms TNM uses to publish. The company is holding serious talks with online payment companies to make micro-payments for certain content a reality which, at scale, could be another game-changer for the economics of news.
Kamal Ahmed is clearly passionate about the new movement: “I want to be part of a team which creates great journalism that really matters. I want to rebuild the way news functions for young people and I will feel a profound sense of failure if we don’t achieve that.”
Read Jeremy’s interview with Times Radio business correspondent and former Sunday times Business Editor, Dominic O’Connell