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.

  1. As a micro-local news site publisher, I have a love-hate relationship with video. It’s great to be able to record video of community events not covered by any other news media. Our site users (sometimes) love it, especially if they’re in the video. I never imagined the hits something like a parade video might get.

    On the other hand, editing video and producing the final clip is an incredible time suck. In the end, what an amateur like me can produce is at best mediocre — better than most video taken on cell phones, but nowhere near the quality of professionally produced video taken with professional equipment and edited by people who really know what they’re doing.

    That’s what bothers me most. The output ranges from crappy to OK. We’ve gotten better over time, but still. I’m not one to be satisfied producing work I’m not proud of, even though some might say it’s “good enough.” I sat through enough “Newspaper Next” seminars that I no longer cringe at that turn of phrase. But still.

    My conclusion is there’s a role for video on a site like mine, but we can’t afford to overdo it, both because we don’t have the resources (equipment, people, time) to produce a lot of video and because even if we spend a whole lot of time producing video, its quality will still range from crappy to OK. Though I’m *told* that’s good enough, I don’t buy it. (And, personally, I never stopped believing in phonics.)

    One more thing. In terms of “bang for the buck,” our most popular videos (measured by hits) rank in the middle range compared to story hits in general. It’s interesting that when a video accompanies a story the story only about a third of the people who click on the story will also view the video.

    • An interesting perspective, given the even tighter resources facing a publisher at a local news micro-site.

      I’m getting a lot of pushback from videojournalists around the country, so I’ll be writing more about this topic.

      Photos, phonics, grammar — I am old-school in some ways. But I’m not opposed to video per se. I just want newspapers, and sites like RiverheadLocal, to husband their resources and survive the lean years.

  2. I do agree with Professor Selvin’s post to some extent . Being a digital native I’m always looking for some sort of multimedia whether it be pictures or video when I click on a story to read. Having such easy access to play videos from my iPhone, I figured if I paid this much money to get good quality resolution I might as well use it for all it’s worth.

    But I do feel that it is important for newspaper sites to focus on what their purpose it: producing quality content that provides the full story. So I think if journalists are pressured to have good video along with equally good facts for a written story, something is going to be neglected.

    I think that in order to draw in new readers, like myself, to visit a site video is necessary but not the only way to keep us coming back. New journalists appreciate a well written story and multimedia but sacrificing one for the other isn’t a great way to do it.

    • Tina
    • October 10th, 2011

    I know in class (I’m one of Professor Selvin’s undergraduates), a lot of the students said that they didn’t rely on video. This was also a journalism class, where we are constantly told be quick, be accurate, get to the point. This is where print is more useful than video, you can skim it. As Denise Civiletti commented, video is time consuming but in some packages it can really bring the whole story together, if done correctly.

    As for attention spans, I was suprised when other students said if they saw an ad they immediately click away. I guess I am more patient than most. You are getting most of this material for free and you can’t spare 20 seconds? Really? But that’s the reality of it, people want more in less time for no charge.

    I’m not a journalism major but I do feel bad when we are constantly reminded in class the responsibilities one person has: shoot, write, edit a package. It is great that some people can do that but I feel like backpack journalism shouldn’t be the spine of new media.

    I think that video should be a specialized job, like any other. If this was another career the idea would be absurd. Imagine if a Doctor had to treat patients, run their insurance to see if it’s legit and schedule times for them to come in. I know journalism is nothing like the medical field but there is a difference between being hardworking and being taken advantage of.

    Sorry, that was a little rant. Video could be a great tool and it is for sites that now what stories need it and can hone in on that.

  3. I agree. Newspapers should not be quick to jump on the bandwagon in depleting their limited resources to generating video content–which does not even suit their strengths. Newspapers are the stewards of the written word. They should do what they do best—write. Leonard Downie and Robert G. Kaiser in their book, The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, discuss how other mediums such as television broadcasters, continue to rely on newspapers for in-depth news coverage to develop their own content especially for morning shows). Focusing on developing video content will only take away from the valuable content they already provide.
    Also, I can’t help thinking that the rush to develop video content may be a reaction to the mistake newspapers made in the past of responding slowly to major developments (such as the internet and craigslist). But maybe this time, it’s not such a bad idea to wait it out and let the market decide what it demands.

  4. Generally, when I am interested in reading about news, I go to a newspaper website and when I am interested in viewing video, I will go to a broadcast news website. From talking to students like myself, this seems to be the consensus. I have hardly ever watched video on a Newspaper site, but the few times I have, i was not impressed. I don’t think its the fact that Newspaper and multimedia do not mix, more so that video in general is not the direction that Newspapers should go.

    Very often I watch slideshows from the New York Times or LA Times websites and they are always well done. Journalists are not videographers but i do think they can successful do different kinds of multimedia besides video.

    I do agree that newspapers should conserve their money when it comes to producing video. I think that the public doesn’t expect it to be there nor are they liking the kind of material that is being produced. To stay ahead of the game, in these changing times, I think that money would be better spent on website layouts, and social media.

  5. At first, I agreed with your post “Newspapers should jettison (most of) their web video efforts.” I concur that local and regional newspapers obviously aren’t getting back the amount they’re putting into their online videos.
    Professor Adamson’s comment emphasized the influence of Youtube on online news media websites. Youtube, Dailymotion and other sites now offer free streaming of video straight to the public’s computer screens. The quality and length of each video is different, but every upload, every contribution provides a new recorded bit of the real world to watch. There are endless possibilities.
    A 2009 poll by Harris Interactive showed that the average US adult spends at least thirteen hours on the Internet, and that’s not including email. Considering the exponential technological growth of Internet capabilities, we can surmise that this number has since risen. Now sure, national news sites like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as you mentioned, are always going to gather the highest video views because of their large spectrum of consumers and trustworthy reputations. But I think, considering the recent boom of hyperlocal websites, like Riverheadlocal.com for example, that the true potential of videos on a local and regional news sites has yet to be discovered.
    Perhaps research or polls should be recorded from these websites’ most loyal fans and regulars. We should also take the average online video attention span into consideration. I think the online visual news report can somehow be slimmed down to size and placed in a noticeable area where these videos can gain more hits.

  6. Expecting newspaper publishers to understand the nuances of how video drives online traffic is a lot like asking print journalists to become multitasking, video-grabbing, photo-taking gerbils.

    Reporters and editors are not schooled in uniques, time on site or other measures of online impact … nor should they be, necessarily. It seems a lot of effort is wasted having journalists fit their square pegs into the limited number of round holes provided by content-management programs and site designers. When technology serves good journalism, instead of forcing good journalists to adapt endlessly to new technology platforms, publishers won’t have to worry as much about proper allocation of newsroom resources. We’ll have less “post early, post often” shouting matches, and a way to populate multiple content streams that’s reliant on quality more than quantity.

    • John Hollis
    • October 15th, 2011

    Video, stills, reporting and writing – I did it all. But my problem was making the editors understand that one person cannot do it all – something was always going to suffer. As others have commented video is the most complicated of all the reporting tools (lighting, clean audio and video) and not every story lends itself to moving pics. Plus web viewers aren’t going to stay to watch anything longer than about 5-8 minutes. Editors must have the strength to decide with stories will and will not need video.

  1. October 9th, 2011
  2. October 10th, 2011

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