Newspapers should jettison (most of) their web video efforts
Newspapers should take a hard look at* their largely feeble attempts to draw readers with web video. It’s a misuse of their shrunken resources. It’s not working. Though visits to newspaper websites keep growing, a small minority of visitors watches videos there.
*(Update, Oct. 14, 2011: My original post read: Newspapers should give up their largely feeble attempts to draw readers with web video. As the responses to this post flowed in, I realized I’d overstated my views in the lede. The title of the post [should jettison most of their web video efforts] better reflects my intent, and later posts on this topic [Oct. 8 and Oct. 14] further clarify my thinking as it evolved through the dialogue my original post engendered. Thanks to all who contributed to the discussion.)
Let’s be clear from the start: I’m talking about local and regional papers, not national newspapers with sophisticated multimedia operation like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (which announced an expansion of its video programming this week).
For a long time, I blamed my own aversion to web video on my inner curmudgeon. But when I ask my students how often they watch video on the web, many confess they rarely click on video links, whether they’re on a news site or on Facebook.
This summer, I read in the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s report on the business of digital journalism, “The Story So Far,” that legacy news organizations, those that existed before the advent of the Internet, aren’t making money on web video. Somewhere south of 10 percent of unique visitors to newspaper and local-television websites watch video streams. Even at The Huffington Post, which isn’t a legacy organization, “no more than 5 percent of unique visitors clicked on a video throughout most of 2010,” the report said.
The poor results for web video on newspaper websites are nothing new. Citing a study from Brightcove and Tubemogul, TechCrunch reported in May 2010 that “newspaper sites are having a real problem getting their audiences to watch videos.”
According to this year’s Tow report, the only news site that has succeeded in drawing viewers to its videos is CNN.com:
CNN.com is different than other video-rich sites because of the size and expectations of its audience. The company says it delivers between 60 million and 100 million video streams a month. In contrast to local-broadcast competitors, CNN.com can match the costs of substantial technology and newsgathering with a massive audience. “If you do not have scale, you do not have a business,” says [K.C.] Estenson [senior vice president and general manager of CNN.com].
Meanwhile, newspapers have upended their photography departments, and the lives of their photographers, in search of the holy video grail. For example: A few years ago, Newsday fired its 20-plus photojournalists, then let them apply for jobs as “visual journalists.” It hired seven. They shoot digital video, and the still shots the paper runs are grabbed off those video files.
(Also, the stock-photo portfolios that 20th-century photographers built as royalty-producers for their retirements have lost nearly all their value with the advent of “royalty-free” photo sites, but that’s another story, old news to photojournalists but shocking to many of their former print colleagues.)
While videos languish on legacy news sites, photo galleries are extremely popular—anecdotally, at least; I haven’t located reliable metrics. But the same people who tell me they shun newspaper-site video are enthusiastic about the sites’ photo galleries.
Part of the web’s essence is the short attention span it engenders. If I’m on a newspaper website, I’m probably moving fast. With a photo gallery, I control the speed at which I move from picture to picture, and I can leave the gallery if it outlasts my interest. But if I’m watching a video, I’m a passive consumer. I’m not interacting with the material while I’m watching it. I feel trapped.
The ads that sometimes precede videos are a turnoff, literally.
Bob Sacha, a friend who has made the transition from still photography to new media and visual journalism, sees the failure of newspaper sites to draw video viewers as simply a question of quality. Today’s great videojournalism is done elsewhere, he says, at sites such as Doctors Without Borders’ starvedforattention.org. Sacha is one of the world’s great visual journalists, and when you look at his work, you can understand his frustration. You can read about his career here, and you can look at samples of his heartbreaking, exquisite video journalism.
None of Sacha’s work appears on newspaper sites. Like many new-mediaites, he has little but scorn for all but a few newspapers. It’s no secret that newspaper managers on the editorial side took a while to figure out the web, and some still haven’t. On the business side, still, very few managers have a clue. They seem to be blundering, still, after 20 years.
Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, argues that some newspaper videos do well. People may tune in for local sports highlights that they can’t get anywhere else. I haven’t reported that out, but I bet she’s right. But that doesn’t rationalize newspapers’ spending precious resources on video that hardly anyone looks at.
Newspapers should redeploy their resources to focus on the hardcore, contextual local reporting they do best, the terrifically written in-depth features that make readers laugh and cry, enterprise stories, still photography, the great graphics that made 1980s papers so beautiful. They should stop spending money on video except in the places where they’re collecting viewers now, like local sports.
I’d also make an exception for enterprise videojournalism, long-term projects where the visual journalist has time to create compelling work. But let the everyday videojournalism go. Who will miss it?