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Snapchat hires former Onion president to lead original content

Sean Mills, the startup's latest high-profile hire in recent months, will lead the messaging app's increased focus on original content.

Snapchat's Discover feature aims to attract more users with original media content. Jason Cipriani/CNET

Snapchat wants to use original content to attract more people. Now it has someone to lead that effort.

The company behind the popular messaging app of the same name has hired Sean Mills, the former president of satire website The Onion, to be its new chief of original content, Snapchat confirmed Wednesday. Mills, who has also served as president of video startup NowThis and CEO of erotica site Nerve.com, will be tasked with growing Snapchat's original video content division, according to Business Insider, which first reported Mills' hiring.

Mills joins a list of recent high-profile hires Snapchat has made to bolster its original content offerings, including the addition of CNN national political reporter Peter Hamby in April and, a month earlier, Marcus Wiley, the former co-head of comedy development at Fox Broadcasting.

The new hires underscore the 4-year-old startup's ambition to move beyond an app that lets people send missives that disappear after a set time and to become a major media provider. The Venice, Calif.-based startup made a big bet on content with the launch in January of Discover, which serves editorial and multimedia content from major brands such as CNN, Yahoo News, National Geographic, the Food Network, ESPN, Cosmopolitan and more.

Snapchat described Discover as an effort to "build a storytelling format that puts the narrative first" and emphasized that "this is not social media."

At the Recode Code conference in May, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel revealed more of the company's emphasis on content in announcing that Snapchat attracts nearly 100 million daily active users in "developed markets."

"What's important is that 65 percent of (those users) are creating content," Spiegel said. "That gives you some sense of the investment that Snapchatters are making."

Snapchat has so far generated little revenue, but industry insiders clearly see it as a force to be reckoned with. Facebook offered $3 billion for the company in 2013 but was rebuffed.

Snapchat has seen its valuation skyrocket in the past year, thanks largely to a $20 million investment from venture-capital investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers that helped value the Los Angeles-based company at $10 billion. In March, Alibaba made a $200 million investment in Snapchat, giving it a possible valuation of $15 billion.