Further thoughts on newspaper video
It’s been fascinating to follow the debate that sprang up in response to my Sept. 23 post, “Newspapers should jettison (most of) their web video efforts.” Thanks to all who responded. You have given me much to ponder.
In the original post, I called for local and regional papers to be more selective in deploying their resources in today’s financially straitened times, not to abandon video altogether (emphasis added; not everybody read me correctly). While some categories of video draw visitors to newspaper sites, not every story needs multimedia, and much of what’s produced on newspaper sites goes to waste. Newspapers, I wrote, should play to their strengths.
As evidence, I cited a report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, which suggested earlier this year that fewer than 10 percent of unique visitors to newspaper and local-TV websites watch video streams. Anecdotally, I’ve found this to be true not just among middle-aged people like me but also among the undergraduates I teach.
Several commenters blamed these results the feckless way too many newspaper managers approach multimedia. Giving a reporter, or even a still photographer, a video camera doesn’t make that person a video journalist, any more than handing a photographer a notepad makes that person a writer. Training matters. Some newspapers have provided the necessary education, but many editors panicked once they decided to increase the multimedia on their sites. They shoved video cameras into the hands of nearly everyone on their staffs and demanded that they start shooting.
As Rebecca Gerendasy, a veteran video journalist from San Francisco, commented:
Telling a visual story with video is very different from telling that same story with still photographs. It’s a different skill set that many upper managers don’t understand, I’m afraid. The photojournalist needs to understand how to capture action in order to build sequences, record excellent audio (a big reason why many exit a video is that they can’t understand what is being said!), and know how to put all these puzzle pieces together to tell a good compelling story. Some photo journalists (and reporters) excel at the transition, some don’t.
Newspaper managers have made so very many mistakes in trying to adapt to the Internet age. The outsized demand for video is one in a long list. As a parent, I’m reminded of the fads that I’ve watched come and go in education. One day, phonics went out the window and every first-grade teacher had to use the whole-language approach to readin’ and writin’, whether that suited her teaching style or not. Two years later: Down with whole language; it’s all about standardized testing. Where’s the common sense, the middle ground, the willingness to mix and match to find what works for each community, each student?
Gavin Adamson, a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, suggested that newspapers try organizing video content thematically, citing “Breakdown: Canada’s Mental Health Crisis,” a series produced by The Globe and Mail. Newspapers could also draw viewers with how-to videos, Adamson wrote.
Others wrote that newspapers’ web editors must give more care to how they display and promote video on their sites. “[K]eep it on the homepage much longer with a good visual placement that sets it apart from other news on those very cluttered web pages,” Eric Seals, a visual journalist at the Detroit Free Press, said.
At heart, my post was a plea for newspaper editors to think hard about how they use their resources so that they can preserve the larger enterprise of delivering news that audiences need and want. Top editors should stop trying to capture marginal readers. Go after the most loyal, the most engaged portion of your readership. Use your analytical tools to see how long the people watching your videos are staying on your site. The longer they stay, the more exposure they have to your advertisers, after all. Some categories of video may draw deeper engagement; focus on those. Be skeptical about using video with every story. Check the audience response. Keep the categories that create engagement and jettison the rest.