Raj Das’s Casio
digital watch beeped twice. It was 9 p.m. and he got up from a garden bench and
walked inside the farmhouse that is the office of ScoopWhoop Media Pvt. Ltd, a
digital media start-up with mass following. It was as though a school bell had
rung. Others followed him inside. They gathered in front of the television set
that hung on a red wall in the newsroom. The camera zoomed in onto the man of
the hour, Arnab Goswami.
#JNUCrisis was underway, and Goswami had been on fire for the past couple of days, debating sedition, shouting down students, and raising the crescendo of the crisis to a climax.
“Bastard,” someone shouted at the TV, as they continued to watch.
A long day of writing was coming to a close at ScoopWhoop and a bank of content was lined up on Facebook to be published late into the night. ScoopWhoop never stopped and nor did the traffic on its website. Soon tens of thousands of people would come to the site, peaking its consumption around 11p.m. The content would have millennials in stitches with listicles such as “48 Signs that you are true blue 90s Child”, and in fits of frustration through stories like “This Israeli Café In Kasol Refuses to Serve Indian Customers. Not Cool At All.”
Raj Das, a programming drop-out, an ex-American Express employee who used to ghost-write for sites like wired.com is considered a king at the content factory whose assembly line produces upwards of 1,000 stories per month. He is a viral spin doctor capable of turning bland ideas into lists that you will share, share, and share. But he wants more.
“Ek kisum ki khoojli hoti hai (It’s a kind of itch),” he said after debating Edgar Allen Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald at length. It was the itch that drove him to convince his chief content officer, Sriparna Tikekar, 28, a founding member of ScoopWhoop, to let him cover the JNU crisis that was unfolding just 10 minutes away. “Let’s give the students a mic and a chance to talk without shouting at them,” he said and she agreed.
That night Das walked out covered in a hoody into the smoggy Delhi night followed by the excitable videographer and creative director, Prithwish Barman.Hours later a ScoopWhoop investigation was uploaded onto Facebook, a series of candid interviews with students that marked the digital content factory’s boldest entry into the world of journalism. It is one of ScoopWhoop’s most popular uploads of the week, with well over 50,000 likes and shares. The video hasn’t been free of criticism, with other websites alleging that ScoopWhoop is leftist, that it has openly backed the students.
“We are not this and we are not that. We just want to be India’s biggest media company,” says Sriparna, a petite woman with perfectly winged eyeliner, a butterfly print skirt and a purposeful demeanour. She has the unusual burden of managing a team that has grown so rapidly that she struggles to remember the names of all her staff. She’s quick, spewing out headlines on demand to her wing woman who types them down on her laptop while struggling to keep pace with the woman in stilettos who controls the show.
ScoopWhoop founders (Left to right): Saransh Singh, Sriparna Tikekar,Sattvik Mishra, Rishi Pratim Mukherjee,Suparn Pandey, Debarshi Banerjee PHOTO: Sneha Mitra
The numbers look
impressive: ScoopWhoop sees 20 million unique users per month, with an average
of 2.5 minutes spent on the site, making it India’s most popular digital media
house amongst the millennials. It will earn Rs 11 crore in revenue by March
2016 and currently charges Rs 1.5 lakh for a native advertisement on its site.
ScoopWhoop will be profitable in two years, its founders say.
“We are here to disrupt the game,” grins Debarshi Banerjee, 30, chief product officer, his eyes ablaze with excitement as he codes late into the night fuelled on double shots of black coffee that he sips all day while smoking inside and out. “Coding is logic. It’s the easiest thing to understand,” he says. Debarshi, a student of history, is an unlikely candidate who manages to make sense of troves of data that equip ScoopWhoop to suss out not just consumer behaviour but also find new areas to explore.
We are a threat to traditional media.
Chief operating officer Rishi Pratim Mukherjee, 32, has just returned from the office of BuzzFeed in New York, which is changing the nature of the media game in the West. He sits behind a desk, his t-shirt reads,“No 1 Cannabis Amsterdam”.
“We are a threat to traditional media,” he says and reclines back into his chair.
Nobody is quite
certain who came up with the name but they do know the idea was the outcome of
several drinking sessions in 2013. Rishi PratimMukherjee, Satvik Mishra and
Sriparna Tikekar, three friends who met at the Indian Institute of Mass
Communication, were up late talking: why do some ideas travel across the globe
and others not? All three were working in advertisement agencies and exposed to
the rapidly growing world of digital advertising. Question was, how could they
make the most out of digital advertising when it accounted for just Rs 4,350
crore in a Rs 1,00,000-crore media and entertainment industry.
As they pondered these questions, BuzzFeed, a New York-based media company, claimed to have found a solution to the woes that plagued the media industry and espoused a new revenue model for both journalism and advertising. Its founder, Jonah Peretti who started BuzzFeed in 2006, travelled from one tech talk to another putting out a theory called “Big Seed Marketing” that draws upon an epidemiological equation for viral reproduction expressed as R=Bz (z represents the number of people who come in contact with a contagious individual, while B represents the possibility of transmission.)
Through variations of the equation BuzzFeed was changing the media landscape by engineering viral phenomena. BuzzFeed popularised a distinctive branch of kitten journalism where GIFs of kittens, listicles and memes garnered more clicks and quantifiable success than the traditional journalism of daily beat reportage and investigations.
That began to change with the hiring of storied reporter Ben Smith in 2011. BuzzFeed has taken strides in publishing seriously good journalism such as Rayhan Harmanci’s profile of a Google contractor who had to look at violence and porn all day. BuzzFeed hired Mark Schoofs from ProPublica in January 2014 and has ambitiously expanded its investigative unit.
“News is the heart and soul of any great media company,” Peretti told USA Today. His company has gone from strength to strength. In August 2014, the year it launched its India edition, BuzzFeed was valued at more than three times The Washington Post. In 2015 the company was valued at $1.5 billion.
Its tech team’s stated goal is to “develop the most innovative publishing platform on the planet” and the company is obsessed with data. According to a blog post by BuzzFeed publisher Dao Nguyen, the media company has about 80 million unique visitors in the United States and almost 200 million worldwide. It has recently announced that it is shifting to measuring engagement rather than views.
Advances in technology mean data hitherto unknown, such as number of visitors per site, their age, sex and time of activity is available in real time. Understanding how these work together could possibly result in viral optimisation, the end goal of striking the gold mine in the prospector-heavy field of digital content production. Clicks matter and some media organisations has started paying writers on the basis of clicks their stories fetched. Would this model push somebody to dig through public records or invest hours in building a narrative? Monetising writing so crudely chipped away at the integrity of a story.
Nobody was playing this game in the Indian market and BuzzFeed’s content remained alien. Thanksgiving didn’t strike a chord with the Indian public. They wanted Holi and Pujo and Eid. A biryani could start a conversation that chicken roast couldn’t.
“Tell me, who doesn’t like to talk about golgappas?” asks Sriparna while sipping Red Bull from a large glass, a habit she picked up from days spent in McCann during advertising pitches. Nobody was having these conversations with the youth in India. ScoopWhoop appeals directly to millennials, the digital natives for whom their Facebook news feed is the front page of news. While traditional media houses in India continue to enjoy revenue from print, their digital media strategy has lagged behind, failing to appeal to the millions of 18-35 users who are constantly wired to the web.
ScoopWhoop has tapped that market.
On August 15, 2013 the
friends started a blog called ScoopWhoop while working their day jobs and soon
enough their content began to go viral. “People were on our site at work, there
was such a buzz about it but we stayed silent,” recalls Sriparna who was
working at McCann as a copy writer. She remembers a viral post that poked fun
at Bengalis “because they are such happy people” that they laugh at themselves.
It wasn’t until BuzzFeed got in touch that their calculations changed. Rishi was in hospital when he got a call from Ben Smith, the high-profile news editor from BuzzFeed. “That was a big moment for us,” says Rishi. Smith was keen to discover the potential of the Indian media landscape and the possibilities ahead. Soon after the call the group left their jobs to find out the answers themselves.
The team had already grown bigger. The trio had roped in Saransh Singh, a designer, and Suparn Pandey, a brand executive into their fold. They worked long nights, guzzling down can after can of Red Bull, smoking ceaselessly, unsure of what lay ahead.
By November 2013 they left their suits and offices behind. Rishi and Sattvik had found a small run-down bungalow in a farmhouse in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. A4 as it was known became their world. There were two bedrooms but the group crammed themselves into one. There was a period where Sriparna worked 20-hours shifts, constantly updating the blog. Sattvik and Suparn shared the load of writing while Rishi handled the business side of things. “Work had become life,” she says. They hired a cook named Sunil, who is still with them and cooks the “most fabulous chicken curry” and rice for the people of ScoopWhoop. There are currently 125 employees.
Viral fever was a constant and the blog buckled under the pressure and crashed often. Debarshi, a student of history with a passion for programming, was brought into the fold and a new domain was created. Debarshi, mad for coding, was madder still for algorithms that attempted to made sense of the infinite world of possibilities in consumer behaviour.
When are the boys most active? When are the girls online? What time will a happy story work? When will a sad one sell? What emotions yield the greatest engagement? A computer could mimic a poem, he said but “isn’t it all about originality,” he asked. So he began developing his own formulas.
How do you create viral success? I asked Debarshi, who is now the chief product officer, in control of the website and ensures ScoopWhoop doesn’t come crashing down on its own weight. “You want me to give you my secret sauce?” he asks after taking a puff at his cigarette.
This secret sauce has
meant venture capitalists who are traditionally hesitant to invest in media
start-ups have pumped money in ScoopWhoop. Its first round of funding raised
$1.5 million from Ignite World (formerly Bharti Softbank) in September 2014.
The second round has raised $4 million (nearly Rs 26 crore) from Kalaari
Kalaari is an early-stage, tech-focused venture capital firm with $650 million in assets under management. Partner Bala Srinivasa told The Economic Times: says, “ScoopWhoop is well on its way to becoming a highly influential new media company for India’s 200 million-plus internet and social media-savvy youth population. By combining strong editorial capabilities with technology and smart analytics, ScoopWhoop is in a position to leverage the massive shift from traditional media to digital advertising.”
bougainvilleas cascade down the white compound of the farmhouse. A heavy black
gate with a flimsy sheet of paper bears the address. There is no sign on the
door, the turquoise and yellow ScoopWhoop logo is nowhere to be seen. A slight
watchman stands guard and the six dogs that ScoopWhoop has adopted patrol the
ground, pausing only to eat from giant bowls that are periodically loaded with
food. Passing through this sedate residential area, one wouldn’t know that a
group of twenty somethings, high on energy, are bouncing off the walls, writing
up a storm. The only indicator of activity is the constant sound of banging and
drilling as an extension to the farmhouse is being constructed.
The offices of ScoopWhoop occupy a chaotic space in the house. What would be the master bedroom houses the creative team, the living room is where the news team sits, and the smaller bedrooms make up the offices of sister publications such as VagaBomb, a feminist webzine, and Gazab Post, the Hindi webzine.
The spacious house is cluttered with chairs, space so scarce that someone works in the cranny under the staircase. The stairs themselves are makeshift workstations and the rooftop can also serve as a meeting room. There is never a quiet moment at the office. Music often booms from the video room from where ScoopWhoop Talkies are produced. The only silent room is the tech room where nerds study behaviour that ensures ScoopWhoop keeps growing.
There are people everywhere. They lean against the mural smoking cigarettes. The mural pays homage to people relevant today, the gods of likes, shares and retweets. In the centre is Kim Kardashian, the queen of social media, with a smart phone that has an Instagram app. Also present is Arnab Goswami, the man that rakes in the highest TRPs in English news television today.
In small print on the corner of the mural is a text that says it all:
Nobody knows what will
bring in the likes as well Sriparna. “Headline badal (Change
the headline),” pleads Sonali Mushahary, senior editor and Sriparna’s “right
hand woman.” She chases after Sriparna, tugging at her grey sweater-dress and
scruffy ankle boots. They sit on the wooden bench at the entrance of the office
brainstorming. The story is about a village in Rajasthan where it is the norm for
couples to live together before marriage.
The headline needs to provoke gently. It reads “In This Indian Village, Men and Women Can Live in Even If They Aren’t Married & Nobody Judges Them.” Sriparna says, “I want to start conversations, I want to challenge the way we think.” The story has 8,600 shares, and contains at the bottom a link to the original article published on Al Jazeera.
During my three days at the ScoopWhoop office, writing stories seemed like a popularity contest. The top five popular articles from Thursday to Saturday of a week in order of highest visits are:
1)Here’s How This Student Bought An iPhone 5S From Snapdeal Only For ₹68!
2) This Is Why We Love Ravish Kumar. See How He Blasts Arnab Goswami & Others On JNU Crackdown
3) The World Seems To Be Taking A Cue From India & Replacing Toilet Paper With Water. Here’s Why
4) Ever Wondered What The SBI Logo Means? Here’s The Answer
5) These Illustrations Beautifully Depict The Beauty & Struggles Of A Long Distance Relationship
David Skok, managing editor of the digital arm of the Boston Globe,writing in the Nieman Lab states: “The aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow. Those of us who care about good journalism shouldn’t dismiss the BuzzFeeds of the world because they aren’t creating high-quality reporting. Their search for new audiences will push them into original content production.”
With the pressure to be popular comes the pressure to be novel. While ScoopWhoop is essentially an aggregation website, curating news from across the Internet, it occasionally publishes a ScoopWhoop Special. One such is “If India Were a Circus Here’s What These Famous Indians Would Be Doing.”
It reads: “Firstly it would be the biggest circus in the world. 90% of the people would be unaware of how the circus actually works, but they’d be happily distracted by performers.” In the circus under caricatures are captions in a sans serif font. “Modi would be the lion, Kejriwal would be the Trapeze Artist, Sonia would be the Leader of the Clowns and Arnab Goswami would be the Ringmaster…”
ScoopWhoop stories are simple to read and designed with a mobile-first approach. Chief creative officer Saransh Singh, 29, holds his mobile out and gestures as though he is flicking. The aim is to catch the attention of a reader who is spoilt for choice, so visual is valued over verbose language. This is why he looks back to the work of Andy Warhol whose pop art with its vibrant colours arrested the hectic pace of the 1960s.
“Each story needs its own approach,” Saransh says and resists the temptation to have a fixed design. The key here is to ensure the style remains nimble and that the logos for Facebook and Twitter are placed in the most prominent position for the ultimate goal: sharing. The story passes through Joshua Moares, the associate editor, and when it is ready it gets a nod from Sriparna before it is uploaded on to Facebook. Immediately after it is uploaded the team watches the data chart. A spike within 10 minutes indicates a viral success and after a couple of years of doing this day in and out, they know whether the story will go viral or not.
ScoopWhoop would produce more content if it could, but for that it needs more people. What was once a six-member team is now a 125-member company and the explosion in size has meant the vibe at ScoopWhoop is that of a frat house and a railway station.
Editorial holds meetings on park benches next to the trampoline, advertising frequently relocates its offices to the sofas at the entrance, and the six founding members share one small cabin big enough to fit a table, a small cabinet and three chairs. On the wall is a picture of the chief executive officer, Sattvik Mishra, 28, who has spoken at Harvard and is on the cover of Fortune magazine’s February issue. “Meet the best of India’s new economy,” reads Fortune’s Facebook post.
They work silently
like elves, hashing out content for the mill. Someone is working on a story
about rich Arabs. I’ve been in their world for too long and have started
thinking in listicles. They’ve already done my suggestion of Rich Kids of
Instagram. They’ve even written about “The Most Hated Teenager on Instagram,”
to “15 Celebrity Kids You Can’t Wait to Watch in Movies,” The latter has 80,900
likes on Facebook.
ScoopWhoop writers face no limits, they curse and opine as they wish. The only check is Facebook which once refused to carry a post because the image violated norms. ScoopWhoop isn’t afraid of offending people as it brings to the public sphere conversations the youth have in private.
VagaBomb, which takes stands on feminist issues such as abortion while calling out Vogue India. “Vogue’s Ageless Cover with Rani Mukherjee is Anything but Age Sensitive,” reads the headline. Scroll past photoshopped images and the text reads, “Stop trying to be a supporter of real women and real beauty when you’re in fact, not. And seriously, stop with these fake, photoshopped covers. If you were trying to appreciate and acknowledge Rani Mukherjee and her two-decade long career—you shouldn’t have made her look like just another babe from the block with perfect collarbones, jawline, cleavage, and an overly retouched face. Just Stop. And get real.”
Too many people have
an eye on Google Analytics to see the activity online. When the traffic dips,
they go into their reserve pool of stories and publish ensuring that a few
thousand readers are on the website at all times, not just consuming content
but also engaging with the material.
On February 12, both Indian Express and ScoopWhoop carried the same picture of Hollywood star Chris Hemsworth on holiday in Goa on their Facebook pages. Of all the uploads on Facebook, the picture of Hemsworth garnered the largest number of likes on Indian Express. The total likes were 583 and it had four comments. That same picture on ScoopWhoop, posted four hours earlier, had 11,000 likes and 502 comments.
It seems as though legacy media in India with its age-old traditions, its heavy reliance on a fixed format, and strict adherence to style isn’t too concerned about ScoopWhoop. And ScoopWhoop, a farmhouse full of hipsters—big beards, mini-dresses, ankle boots and extreme partings—that smoke and drink tea and coffee on tap aren’t too obvious a threat.
But when Facebook launched a new product called “Instant Articles” Scoop Whoop was one of the first organisations be on board with other publications such as The Hindu, The Indian Express, old media houses which have decades of brand value attached to them.
“We were able to get into that. That’s a pretty big deal,” says Kriti Gupta, vice-president strategy and audience development. She tracks all the data at the backend to ensure that stories conform to Facebook’s rules and regulations while deepening the relationship with the social media behemoth.
This is the second
list a writer on the creative team has made (she spoke on the condittion that
she not be named) today and wants to stop. Sometimes the lists get absurd and
often she has to write material that is editorially unsound. But it sounds good
and will sell. “Just get me the likes on Facebook and clicks,” she says.
“We don’t differentiate in content,” says Suparn Pandey, managing editor, 26. “Everything we produce is equally important to us, be it an ad or an investigation or a listicle.”
ScoopWhoop founders are advertisers at heart and are unworried about departing from the once sacrosanct division of advertising and editorial. Advertisers meanwhile pump money into more and more complex audience metrics that focus on engagement and writers sometimes produce clickbait. A lot of noise has been made about clickbait which is a term used for something that lacks value and merit but is published principally for the purpose of tricking people into reading it. AdarshVinay, a senior editor who is part of the creative editorial content, says there is only so many times a reader will click on something titled “You won’t believe how amazing this is…” So writers in the brand team produce ads which are engaging as the stories produced by the creative team and in a sense revive the excitement of working in advertising that is seen in TV series like Mad Men.
ScoopWhoop publishes native advertising. The native component is through the promotion of branded content to the readers in a style that looks and feels like other editorial content on the website but is in fact paid for. Such content has a small disclaimer that says “sponsored” at the bottom. Native advertising—pushing ads in the garb of editorial content or news—is not unique to ScoopWhoop though. It is now accepted practice at world’s top media organisations, including Indian publications.
Companies ranging from Pepsi, Flipkart, MakeMyTrip, Maybelline to the hugely popular Goa Sunburn Festival have approached ScoopWhoop to create content and advertise on their site. One slot costs Rs 1.5 Lakh and ScoopWhoop carries up to four ads in a day.
Abutting the founders’ office is the conference room from where the brand team operates. Days of back and forth between the beauty product giant Maybelline and ScoopWhoop has resulted in a listicle: “18 Thing Every Girl Can Do to Beat The Summer”. Craftily placed in the GIF-listicle is the “suggestion” that Maybelline lip gloss could beat the summer. Similarly, “Path Breaking EDM Song that Defined The Genre” a cool collection of popular dance tunes is another listicle written by Suparn. The listicle is a digital advertisement for the Sunburn festival.
Andrew Sullivan writing in The Dish states, “Maybe I’m old-fashioned but one core ethical rule I thought we had to follow in journalism was the church-state divide between editorial and advertising. But as journalism has gotten much more desperate for any kind of revenue and since banner ads have faded, this divide has narrowed and narrowed. The ‘sponsored content’ model is designed to obscure the old line as much as possible (while staying thisclose to the right side of the ethical boundary). It’s more like product placement in a movie—except movies are not journalism.”
Arun George, senior
editor of ScoopWhoop News knows exactly whom he would hire if he had a free
rein. Ritu Sarin, The Indian Express reporter who has a mobile
loaded with contacts that can crack the trickiest of investigations. Instead
Arun, with 15 years in journalism has to shepherd interns straight out of
journalism school teaching them the basics of desk work.
Arun followed Ashish Magotra from Firstpost. As the editor-in-chief of news operations, Ashish attempted to build a team. As a member of the team that launched DNA in Mumbai, he knows the grind and has an idea of the stories he wants to do. Ashish wants to look at the Indian porn industry for starters, and that’s a cracker of a story. He wants new emphasis on sports but he needs to keep the demographic in mind. He’s always second-guessing what his readers want to buy, always thinking like a 20-something year old even if he is 35. He is a grandfather in ScoopWhoop where the average age of employees is 24.
In this desperate search to connect with the readers, matter is dumbed down, photos are privileged over text, and ideas are killed because the “readers aren’t ready”.
For now, however, ScoopWhoop will publish a news report from a reporter they have sent to cover JNU; they will discover and present Saudi billionaire Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal to their readers; carry a listicle of things you thought are bad for you but aren’t; and publish a summary of the feud between newsite TheWire’s founder Siddharth Varadarajan and Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami.
After three days at the ScoopWhoop office, I fear that I’ve permanently started thinking in listicles. When I see the chief content offcier in a pair of stilettos I think: 10 places where you can wear stilettos in Delhi without twisting an ankle. That will get the likes. That will get the clicks. That will get the shares. More often than not it is the mundane that gets public approval. Stories that would have tanked, set standards, and despite monitoring the data there is no real guarantee about success.
Sriparna strides across the farmhouse debating whether to put Modi on the banner of a story or Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor wins this battle. “The BJP can get touchy and Tharoor has a following,” she says. With background in advertising the team knows how to sell. People will identify with certain emotions: love, anxiety, curiosity. Complex stories are less rewarding.
Writing in the Scientific American Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, professors at the Wharton Business School seek to answer “The Secret to Online Success: What Makes Content Go Viral?”
Their study concludes: “While content may be shared for many reasons, overall, content that elicits an emotional reaction tends to be more widely shared. In addition, stories stimulating positive emotions are more widely shared than those eliciting negative feelings, and content that produces greater emotional arousal (making your heart race) is more likely to go viral. Also, anger-inducing content is more likely to be shared than sadness-inducing content because it produces greater emotional arousal or activation.”
Aside from tugging at emotional strings, technological advances have meant that algorithms exist that track the amount of time people spent on an article after opening the link.
“Serious articles don’t do as well, the readers leave the page” says Sriparna. In September last year ScoopWhoop published a video documentary investigating the myth surrounding guns and the northern states of India. Though it has views in six-digits, the story underperformed according to ScoopWhoop’s standards.
“Do you create content just so its shared” I ask. Nobody chooses to answer the question.