TV news is the most expensive kind of news to make. Doing it with one of the smallest budgets in the business is even harder.
Whatever Channel 4 News is doing, it’s doing it against the odds. It’s the seventh most popular source of news in the UK, according to research from Reuters, behind the BBC, ITV News, Sky News, local newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Mail.
In 2012, it broadcasted 234 hours of news at a cost of £23 million – at the same time the 24-hour BBC News Channel spent £45.2 million in 2012/13.
Some 75% of all TV news viewing in the UK is on the BBC, according to Ofcom - and the 16-34 age group that Channel 4 News is keen to reach is more than twice as likely to not watch any TV news compared to older viewers.
The programme mixes deathly serious reports from war zones and foreign crises, domestic news and live interviews with a playfully irreverent streak.
So how does a TV news designed for a younger viewers make sure it stays relevant?
3. The day BuzzFeed visited, anchor Jon Snow was celebrating 25 years on the programme. He started presenting Channel 4 News in 1989. We asked him to sum up what the show means to him.
In the depths of ITN’s vast headquarters in London, from where the show has been produced since 1982, we ask Snow what he’d tell a younger version of himself starting out in the role now.
“I would tell them, if they were doing it now that they would be on the threshold of the golden age of journalism. I’d tell them we used to work in a one-way street in which the viewer had to receive whatever we told them and they never had any way of getting back to us.
“Now it’s fantastic, there’s traffic, there’s conversation, there’s social media - it’s democratised the whole process. We know very quickly what viewers think of a story.
“And I’d tell them that at first you might be a bit mystified, then intrigued, then excited. Then finally, you’ll find yourself saying ‘I can do it’.”
4. This is from Snow’s first ever Channel 4 broadcast.
Snow cringes at the mention of this early broadcast and impersonates himself doing some plummy Queen’s English to show how his accent has changed.
He says he’s as happy now anchoring the show as he ever was. He’s looking forward to reporting from Scotland this week, testing the nation’s mood on the forthcoming referendum.
He was at the fall of the Berlin Wall but the 9/11 attacks stand out as the most memorable story so far, he says. But do news presenters understand, in that moment of telling viewers about world-changing events, the gravity of the situation?
“9/11 was unfolding live in front of us and we had no idea it would change the whole dynamic of the world. You had a sense that what’s happening is big, but you didn’t think it was tectonic.”
6. A day later, the two Jon Snows met in person.
7. Channel 4 News employees insist that the programme punches well above its weight when it comes to resources vs output.
Editor Ben De Pear tells us: “There is a homogeneity in TV news which is really dominated by the two 24-hour channels (BBC News and Sky News). ITV follows their lead too.
“I used to work at Sky. People think Sky News is important because everyone in newsrooms and people in Westminster watches it. But about 50,000 people watch it.”
De Pear repeats what Mark Thompson, then CEO of Channel 4, once said about the BBC “basking in a jacuzzi of cash”.
It’s a misconception, he says, that Channel 4 gets public funding like the Beeb - it’s owned by the government, but it gets no public money. The news programme is produced by ITN, a large, commercial organisation that also makes ITV News, which remains a bitter rival for scoops and attention.
8. More young people and those from ethnic minorities watch Channel 4 News than any other news programme.
The programme prides itself on reaching a younger and more diverse audience than its competitors. Some 18% of viewers in 2012 were aged 16 to 34, compared BBC News’s 9%.
Black and ethnic minority viewers represent 12% of the total - a figure that’s growing every year.
The challenge TV news faces, however, is that some 30% of people aged 16-24 say their most important news source is a website or an app – compared to 14% of all UK news users.
9. But, overall, young people aren’t that crazy about TV news – getting them excited remains a big unsolved challenge.
It’s a big part of Channel 4 News’s mission to cover foreign news. On De Pear’s office wall is a clock featuring Liberian football legend George Weah (which doesn’t work) - a souvenir from his time as a correspondent in Africa when he covered Liberia’s bloody civil war.
But the biggest problem facing broadcast news of all stripes, he says, is that young people aren’t tuning in to watch those kind of reports.
“People are becoming their own editors. There’s a dichotomy between the BBC and public service broadcasting on one side and people having ultimate choice on the other - including the choice not to watch at all. They might make the choice not to be informed. It’s a big concern to us, it’s something we think about.”
De Pear does talks at schools, colleges and universities and while students say they think news is important, very few ever say they’ve watched a film about the Syrian war, for example, that lasted longer than five minutes.
10. Channel 4 is less bothered about following the overall news agenda and more interested in making its own.
Shaminder Nahal is the deputy editor, a former executive at BBC’s Newsnight. She says it’s her business to “put my nose in everyone else’s business” and generally make sure that a good programme will go out.
Today the programme is in the rare position of having no pre-recorded material from the previous day nor any pre-arranged interviews. Everything that will go out today will be made today.
Reporters and editors have to pitch to her and her team if they want something to go on the programme. So what makes a good story?
“Something that makes the news. Something that gets picked up elsewhere,” she says. “We’re looking for things that people go ‘wow’. It can just be something that’s an amazing piece of TV.”
11. We asked some of the show’s journalists, presenters and producers to tell us what Channel 4 News means to them, including Cathy Newman:
12. Head of online Anna Doble, who told us Channel 4 News is now happy to break stories online first.
Doble has been with Channel 4 for four and a half years and runs a team of 10.
“Doing things digital first is the way we are now. When I first started I would have to force editors to give me a clip to put online, but now it goes up there first,” she tells us.
13. Foreign correspondent Jonathan Miller told us of the difficulities in reporting on some of most dangerous places on earth.
Miller (above) has spent the day trying to wire money via Western Union to a freelance journalist in northern Nigeria, who has been covering the story of 200 girls who were kidnapped by Islamist rebels. After hours of trying, the money got through.
This story was the first item on the show two days earlier, something that wouldn’t happen on BBC News or ITV News, he says.
“Can you imagine this happening in Europe? A bunch of mad extremists take the girls at gunpoint in the middle of the night, burn the school down, and disappear into the jungle?” he asks. “I was pleased Channel 4 had the guts to lead with what was a difficult and quite obscure story, without that strong a picture (to put on TV).
“And the reaction from viewers is good. People appreciate that we didn’t lead on the Manchester United story (the sacking of its manager, David Moyes), we led with 200 girls being kidnapped in Nigeria.”
14. This is Rhodri Jones, head of home news.
Yet another editor to have joined from the BBC’s Newsnight, Jones compares Channel 4’s approach to choosing its news agenda to Mao Zedong’s theory of guerrilla warfare: “We have to fight where our enemy is weak. Channel 4 News is, compared to some of the behemoths of broadcast news, very, very small.
“By design and by purpose we’re forced to look all the bits of news that everyone else is ignoring. That has to be our lifeblood.”
15. The presenters come up with their opening lines with very little time to spare – they’re changing it until they actually go live.
“We need to lose a word,” says an editor as Snow rehearses his lines. “Can we say child? Or should it be pupil?” Snow asks. “It has to be pupil, it’s an Ofcom thing,” he says.
While this is happening at 6.30pm, 30 minutes before the show is broadcast, not one but two lawyers are watching the team at work. “When I joined you’d be lucky if you saw a lawyer in a week,” says Snow. This is to make sure the programme complies with Ofcom’s broadcasting rules, he says.
16. And where does Channel 4 News sit in the media landscape in 2014?
It’s a well-respected and aggressive journalistic institution that breaks stories and reaches a part of the TV audience that other news programmes don’t.
Its funding model is secure, for now. Although it peaked around 2000, the UK’s TV advertising market has not seen the same levels of advertising declines that newspapers and magazines have suffered.
Jon Snow told us that despite his view that we’re on the cusp of a “golden age” of journalism, questions remain over whether people are going to continue to make a living from news: “The only worry is how we’re going to monetize it. But it’ll come.”