When I saw Danish broadcaster TV2 Østjylland’s innovative meme-driven Instagram strategy to reach younger audiences, I immediately wanted to know more. So I spoke to Head of News Louise Petterson and Art Director Kristine Helms to find out how the organisation took on the challenge of a new language on a new platform — and what they have learned along the way.
With TV audiences ageing and public service broadcasters struggling to retain mass appeal, many news organisations have looked to new platforms to reach younger audiences. At TV2 Østjylland, Instagram was part of the mix — but they were acutely conscious that the organisation could no longer rely on traditional approaches to storytelling that journalists were used to.
“We couldn’t take a TV narrative and just put that onto Instagram or Facebook,” explains Louise Petterson. “We had to define a new narrative, a new way of communicating with a younger audience.
Instagram and memes: a new audience for TV journalism
The organisation’s graphics department had already been experimenting with Instagram when it hired Kristine Helms as its art director, and the focus explicitly turned to visual memes — images that tap into a common visual culture and are designed to be shared.
“We did these graphics — funny graphics,” says Kristine, “and it was kind of the same as memes. But it was a little bit awkward because they were a little bit off the ‘real’ feeling [that a meme has].
“So by the time I came in we began talking about it more as a meme — talking about memes we could get inspired by, like [meme sharing site] 9GAG.”
Louise Petterson picks up the story:
“We had to try to communicate in this language that young people understood. But it was also important to us, because we are a public service, that it had an element of journalism in it; that it wasn’t just entertainment. It had to be journalistic stories that we wanted to communicate, just via memes or graphics.
“So it was OK that people laughed but there also had to be an element of journalism. When young people see our memes they also get a story.”
“They didn’t really hear about the local area before”
Kristine, noting how much time younger audiences spend on those platforms, feels that there is a huge opportunity to be grasped:
“[For example] I’m the target audience and I really love memes and somehow I know everything about the Kardashian family and everything about pop stars — and I don’t really care about those things, but I just know them because I see so many memes about them.
“Therefore I thought it would be cool if people, without even noticing, could know a lot more about our local area”
As a result, she says, her friends — “and this is why I think it’s working” — now say they understand TV2 Østjylland much better than before. “They didn’t really hear about it before.”
Louise puts it more strongly: “They considered us to be dusty and old, and we didn’t have anything for them.”
“The beauty,” continues Kristine, “is when young people write ‘we love TV2 Østjylland’ [in the comments] because they don’t expect it from us. We put a lot of material on Instagram but the things people share — it’s the memes — so that’s where we can be seen by more in the target group.”
Meme journalism challenges: copyright, culture and speed
It’s clear from talking to Louise and Kristine that adapting meme techniques to a journalistic environment is no easy feat. The time pressures in news, its unpredictable nature, and the legal aspects of trying to tap into a common visual currency all present different challenges.
“There’s always a grey zone,” says Kristine. “Some news stories you can’t make a meme out of. Now [with more experience] we have more of a feeling, when hearing about a story: this is not a meme or this is a good meme.
“The stories that are easy to make a meme out of are the stories that everyone has heard of before — and that’s the hard part, it’s hard to tell something newsy that’s new for them. We might know that this story will not get as many likes as this story but we have to use them both: it’s not always about likes.”
The team also faced dilemmas around copyright, Louise says:
“We do not own the copyright for the images that were used in these memes — these are pictures that are spread all over the internet.”
“In the start we tried to be ‘right’ about the copyright,” adds Kristine. “But you cannot really do anything funny if you have to own all the pictures, or use stock photos, because they are not funny.
“So you have to use these pictures that everybody knows from movies. It’s really a grey zone but we couldn’t really join the meme [culture] without joining that grey zone”
Louise agrees: “There has to be this identification immediately: when you see it you have to know what it means, and there are some very powerful pop culture references that you can draw on. And you have to do that if you want to speak the language.
“If you are not using the language like it should be, that the target audience are used to, they will know that ‘We do not want to be associated with that'”
“Humour and identification” — and simplicity
Louise feels that their experiences with meme journalism have really contributed to the organisation’s development more generally, because, she says:
“You can use this approach, this other way of producing stories, of using another language, on another platform — on TV, on Facebook.
“You are opening your way of considering how to tell a story. So it’s not just on Instagram, it’s not just for these stories, it’s a way of thinking how can I tell a story – use graphics, use gifs or memes to make better storytelling.
“It’s all about humour and identification,” she emphasises. “This way of seeing something and immediately decoding it and understanding what it says to me”
And simplicity, too, according to Kristine.
“That’s why the graphics are so bare: it’s just a white background, some text and a picture.
“And that’s actually the hard part for graphic designers because people always want to [make extra detail or graphics], but it’s just a joke and it should not look like a commercial, because if you do that you are old school and awkward and embarrassing because you don’t understand it and we have done that a lot.
“I think it’s really hard to do that because you can easily do it wrong. People seeing these would have a really hard time making them because you just have to ‘get it’, and it’s so hard.”
Memes that a target audience will understand
Another challenge that TV2 Østjylland faced was making sure that the memes would resonate with their own target audience.
“Our older target group like the memes we make,” explains Kristine, “but they don’t necessarily know the inside jokes that younger [users of memes] would.
“Every time we take one of these images we have to know that [our target group will understand them]. I always think: if my mum read this, would she think it was funny? Because she hasn’t seen it before.
“So a lot of the time we use a reaction [image] because it’s easy to read. So that’s why we use a lot of kids and animals because they are just more likable.
“But often when you see memes on the internet it’s more like something from The Office or Game of Thrones — and we also use that a little bit — but it’s something with a context, and that’s the hard part with our target group because they don’t have the same context.”
Taking visual journalism seriously
The organisation has sometimes been ridiculed by other media companies for its experimentation with new platforms.
“At the same time we were experimenting with Instagram we also wanted to experiment with news and public service content on Snapchat for a much younger audience,” says Louise. “And I think that a lot of media branches thought that we weren’t serious, that it wasn’t journalism.”
Louise sees this as a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that new platforms can play in news distribution. “It might seem like entertainment but it has another level of content underneath the appearance of the meme.”
“I think a lot of media can’t see themselves doing this but I think it’s necessary if we want to play a part in the lives of the younger audience.
“We have to embrace the way that they communicate, and stop thinking that one kind of communication is better than another.”
Creating an environment for experimentation
Kristine puts the organisation’s ability to innovate down to a change of leadership and an influx of new, younger, hires — as well as a history of experimentation.
“We had an environment where it was a good thing to experiment and be a little bit bold,” says Kristine. “I would say we understand Instagram better than most other media because from the start it was okay to try something very different.
“We could do what we wanted — not ‘this is how it’s always been done’ — and that’s the hard part in a lot of companies because if they don’t understand memes they wouldn’t get it. It would just get awkward.
“And I sometimes think some things the BBC makes [on social media] — they don’t go ‘all in’ in what they do, because they like to add some background, and the voice of it is too ‘family’. I think if you do it right you have to be bold.”
Head of News Louise Petterson feels that the size of the organisation helps: “We have a size where we have muscle but are small enough to shift course when we want to; we can move quite fast.”
That relatively small size means that Kristine gets to sit among reporters — and both groups benefit from the exchange.
“When I sit in the newsroom and we talk about their stories I sit alongside all of these serious journalists doing all this serious stuff — and look for the perfect cat, or dog, or gif to show the feeling [of reading their story]!
“And that’s — in the start it was so embarrassing, and I still [feel like that] sometimes but most them now understand why we do it.”
“And they respect it,” adds Louise.
“Because we talk openly about it,” continues Kristine, “and they sometimes brainstorm and come with good ideas.
“So it’s a really big contrast, and it’s the platforms that make that contrast, but you can’t do it without that contrast.”
“But it works,” says Louise, “and it also starts conversations, you can see that: people tag each other and they talk to each other and it’s just because you instantly smile and laugh and you get the story and you actually talk about it, you relate to the subject.
“You are triggered by the meme but you actually relate to the subject and I think that’s the beauty of it – it’s storytelling but it’s also journalism”