Newspapers and web video, part 3: Choosing the stories that need video

Over the past week, I’ve been reading what newspaper photographers and videographers have to say on the touchy topic of how their sites use web video.

Seems to me there’s a consensus that less IS more, which is exactly my point.

G.J. McCarthy, a photographer at the Dallas Morning News, posted this comment on sportsshooters.com’s message board:

There was a time here, at the DMN, that there were almost as many video assignments on busy days as there were stills. Maybe half to three-quarters, but that’s still a high number. We were throwing video at tons of stuff. Some things stuck, others didn’t. I think that’s the nature of new media — you have to test as much as possible to see what gets the eyeballs interested.

Nowadays, there’s probably only a couple videos per day, and it’s usually things that lend themselves to it, or topics that always draw attention in this town (Cowboys, DISD, Parkland Hospital, etc., etc.).

Similarly, from Chuck Fadely, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer at the Miami Herald:

I’d hazard a wild guess that less than .1% of our stories have video with them.  We post four or five videos a day.  I don’t know our story count but it’s easily in the hundreds per day.  Yet we had seven million video streams last year.

Chuck sent me that comment via email. At his request, I’m posting his full remarks, as a response to this post. Thanks again, Chuck, for taking the time – but I do have a bone to pick with you. You seem to have interpreted my call for a more judicious use of video as a sign of “the mindset that video and new media [are] a sideshow to the real deal of journalism,” that I “appear to be in the category of news execs and out-of-touch educators who don’t get it. … If you’re teaching your students with this mindset, you’re committing malpractice.”

Oof, harsh! But wrong. I’m completely on board with the idea that some stories are best told with video, some with photos, some with audio, some with graphics (interactive or otherwise), some with the written word. It’s wonderful to have so many new choices, so many new tools. Some stories may benefit from using most or all of them, as in “Top Secret America” at washingtonpost.com, for my money one of the most important pieces of journalism in recent years.

At Stony Brook, we train all our students to become multimedia journalists. Everyone learns to write, to shoot photos and video, to edit video with Final Cut Pro, to use journalistic judgment in stories on all platforms. Two days ago, at our annual Fall Internship Panel, two seniors, who had interned at Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics last summer, told 50 sophomores and juniors that their knowledge of Final Cut Pro helped set them apart from the other interns at those magazines. We hear this all the time from returning interns and visiting alums who have become working journalists.

Personally, I’m a word gal, a print person, a lover of paper, a newspaper fiend, a book collector. I admit that I have never watched much news video on television, online or on my phone; I’d rather read. I don’t have an iPod or an iPad, either. So call me a curmudgeon for my personal tastes, but as a journalism educator, I fully endorse teaching visual journalism on an equal plane with written stories. I’ve advocated this approach as a member of a committee reviewing our curriculum now that we have completed our first five years as a j-school. Each spring, I co-teach a Senior Project class with Marcy McGinnis, our associate dean and a former senior vice president for news at CBS News. Every senior creates a multimedia piece with a written story, at least one video, photos and interactive elements. You can see some great examples here, here and here.

Now, back to the question of what how video can best serve news consumers—I won’t say readers—who visit newspaper websites. Eric Seals, a photographer at the Detroit Free Press, sent me links to two very different video pieces, one longer piece on a how the community of Fennville, Mich., dealt with the death of a 16-year-old athlete felled by a heart attack right after his team won a basketball game, the other a short, fun piece about “Mud Day” in Detroit.

Of the Fennville piece, Eric wrote that he spent five days planning, shooting and interviewing and another four days editing. “The piece was received really well and had thousands of hits, and the pictures and story in the paper had impact as well,” he wrote in an email. (You can see the full text of his email following Chuck’s.)

Of the minute-and-a-half Mud Day piece, he wrote:

Readers want and need to feel like they are a part of it.  We need to make them say, “Wow, that looks like fun, I gotta do this event next year with my kids.”

Here’s a piece by Chuck Fadely that brings home the frustration of the unemployed. The emotions that pass over these faces tell the story perfectly.

But what about this Oct. 10 video report on a fatal crash between a car and a taxi? The taxi driver died, and the other driver ran away. A cop chased him, he stole the officer’s squad car, police shot and killed him. It’s a good story. But the video captures none of the drama.  It’s all very static: a damaged car, a highway underpass, cops milling around, parked squad cars, a police spokeswoman giving a statement in a monotone that forms the sole audio for the segment. I’d like those two minutes of my life back, please.

Sorry, Chuck. It’s just that I think a fine visual journalist like you was wasted on that story. The money the Herald spent for your time? It could have been used to much better ends. There are far too many after-the-fact videos like that on newspaper websites: the burned-out house behind the yellow tape rather than the flames leaping from the window, the politician droning rather than the people he wants to help living with the problem he’s purporting to fix. If you’re too late for the shot that tells the story, don’t bother going to the scene.

To sum up: I’m all for video, on newspaper sites and elsewhere in the new news ecosystem, so long as video is the best medium for a given story and so long as a given video is compelling. I’m equally opposed to boring written stories: Don’t waste my time!  It’s up to the visual journalists to figure out which stories need moving pictures and which don’t and to fight for the proper deployment of newsroom resources. To follow one debate on this topic, check out this Carnival of Journalism discussion. Here’s the original question: What is the role of online video in the newsroom of the future? And here, a roundup of the answers.

 

  1. Chuck Fadely sent the following email to me on Oct. 6.

    I’m going to apologize in advance for what I’m going to say, but your words make my blood boil. You appear to be in the category of news execs and out-of-touch educators who don’t get it. So duck, because I’ve got the flamethrower set to high.

    If you’re teaching your students with this mindset, you’re committing malpractice.

    I’m an old-school journalist at the Miami Herald. I’ve contributed to four Pulitzers, have countless awards and have lectured around the world about new media. I’ve seen the fat and happy days of journalism and I’m living the lean and hungry days now. I don’t have theoretical knowledge about journalism. I know it intimately in all its gory details.

    If you’re teaching with the mindset that video and new media is a sideshow to the real deal of journalism, you’re way too far removed from the reality of life in media.

    There will never again be an entry-level job in any form of media that doesn’t require multimedia proficiency. Let me repeat that for emphasis: never, ever, will a student find work in any media field – whether newspapers, broadcast, publishing, new media, or even self-publishing – that doesn’t require the ability to push social media, publish across multiple platforms, create multimedia, and deal with audio and video. Those are the basic skills required in media life today. They’re prerequisites, like spelling and grammar and the five w’s.

    My son is 16, so I spend a lot of time around high-school age kids. Their search engine of choice is YouTube, not Google. Kids don’t watch TV nor read news sites in any form. Their news COMES TO THEM – from their social networks. And 99% of the time it’s in the form of a video. In other words, video is the future.

    Now, about newspapers and where they put their resources: Yes, it’s true that the “penetration,” (to use an old school circulation term,) of video is fairly low compared to overall site traffic. But the amount of video on most sites is pitifully small and the number of people who have the ability to view video is also fairly small. If 10% of site visitors watch video, that’s a way higher percentage than the number of stories on our site with video at all. I’d hazard a wild guess that less than .1% of our stories have video with them. We post four or five videos a day. I don’t know our story count but it’s easily in the hundreds per day. Yet we had seven million video streams last year. People watch video.

    Metrics are tricky and often misleading, but there is a pretty good indication that people who have the ability to actually view video often do so. (I track our video metrics.) Overall site traffic to news sites is about one-third mobile devices these days, which don’t deal with video well – mostly because we don’t put it in a form they can watch. Judging from the times of traffic spikes, another huge chunk of our site visitors are at work in their offices when they’re on our sites. And they’re not going to play any music, video, or audio that’s going to get them busted at work. Which leaves a small chunk of visitors who have both the ability to play video and are in an environment where they can watch it. And those people do watch it.

    I agree completely that poor video is a waste of time. It needs to be of consistent quality. It needs to be news and sports, not features. It needs to be the lede story of the day. It needs to be done by someone competent.

    Video should not be an afterthought. It can’t be done by untrained malcontents nor by non-visual dinosaurs.

    But newspapers MUST be putting efforts into video. And though most newspaper staffs have been slashed to the point that no one can put any effort into anything, let alone video, if there is to be a future it includes video. That is very clear.

    You hit the nail on the head when you say that newspapers need to calculate where they put their resources carefully and shouldn’t be trying to do video with every story. But your overall tone seems to indicate that you view video as a secondary or tertiary priority in the grand scheme of things. I contend you’re completely wrong. New media – including social media, multimedia, photos, videos, audio, and audience engagement – has to be our top priority, or we will no longer have an audience.

    all best,

    Chuck Fadely
    Visual Journalist
    Miami Herald

  2. Eric Seals sent me the following email on Oct. 8:

    I just think there are a very small number of newspapers that are doing good video storytelling and being given the time and resources to do them well and do them right.
    The papers that throw cameras at reporters to get shaky at best video of a talking head or expect photographers to do it without the training and time commitment end up putting out a bad product that is not seen by many and frustrates all, right down to the person behind the camera.

    At the Detroit Free Press, our editors understand the power of good video storytelling and give us that time to shoot, interview, get good b-roll, then of
    the time to edit. They say to do good video the right way, for every one minute of video it takes 12 hours of production. A HUGE time challenge and commitment, but when it works it really works and strikes a chord with our readers and viewers.

    Here are two examples of mine on video storytelling.

    “Death in Fennville” was a piece that I did in another part of the state. I spent 5 days planning, shooting, interviewing, etc., and then spent 4 days editing. The piece was received really well and had thousands of hits, and the pictures and story in the paper had impact as well on the story of a high school player who died of a heart attack on the basket court after winning the game.
    Here is the link to it, hope you’ll have time to watch it.
    http://www.vimeo.com/channels/ericseals#21244596

    ON THE OTHER HAND

    The short, quick-hit videos that populate many newspaper websites are not fun to watch, and the effort into them is bad, either because the person behind the camera doesn’t know what they are doing, doesn’t care about it and thinks
    “this is stupid” (yeah I’ve heard that before), or the editors tell them “we just want something quick and basic,” which in my mind is already putting in people’s minds to get it over with quick.
    We do short, quick-hit videos at the Free Press, but I prefer to still have some style and fun with the shooting and production of it.

    http://www.vimeo.com/channels/ericseals#26351681
    This piece is only a 1:32 video on Mud Day in Detroit, but it’s much better than just sitting on the edge of the mud pit shooting with Flip camera or something and panning back and forth.

    Readers want and need to feel like they are a part of it. We need to make them say, “Wow, that looks like fun. I gotta do this event next year with my kids”

    I think the really quick thrown-up-there video can have its place on the web, like a big building on fire, cars slipping on an icy road, etc., but to increase the traffic on the web and get/keep people watching videos, we have to put some passion, fun and storytelling into it.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Looking forward to reading your blog, hope you’ll have time to check out the two links.

    Take care

    Eric

    Eric Seals
    Staff Photographer
    Detroit Free Press
    cell 313-530-2596
    eseals@freepress.com

    Some videos Eric has shot and produced;
    http://tinyurl.com/A-Death-in-Fennville
    http://tinyurl.com/Protests-In-Wisconsin
    http://tinyurl.com/Autographing-a-Baseball
    http://tinyurl.com/Restitution-for-Crime-Victims
    http://tinyurl.com/RC-car-racing
    http://tinyurl.com/Ernie-the-Sandwich-Man
    http://tinyurl.com/Missing-People-in-Detroit
    http://tinyurl.com/Harley-burnout-performer

  3. Barbara, I think that part of the misunderstanding is your use of the word, “jettison,” which means to cast off or eliminate – not reduce.

    With a few notable exceptions, much of newspaper video is poorly assigned, poorly executed and poorly presented. At the same time, broadband penetration and video-friendly devices are still working their way into the market.

    If newspapers want to stay relevant, they need to produce high-quality content and present it well. Then they need to be patient while the market rises to meet them. This means that they will be spending more money for a while than the content generates.

    Waiting for the market will mean that competitors will dominate the market to the point that newspapers will not be able to play at all. Continuing with substandard content and presentation will mean the destruction of their brands.

    It really a matter of “all in” or STFU.

  4. Mark,

    Point taken: “Jettison” was a strong word, though I did follow it with “most of.” That subtlety got lost.

    I’ve modified the original post to strengthen that point, making note on the post of the original text.

    Best
    Barbara

  5. Boy, I was gonna write a heck of a comment here, but Chuck Fadely pretty much said it all.
    Let me just add that we’re headed toward convergence now – iPads, iPhones, Computers, TV – it’s all the same thing and at the end of the day, screens cry for video. That’s it. Paper cries for text, but screens demand video.
    In the 19th Century railroads were kings. The super rich were the rail barons. When cars and highways appeared in the 20the Century, the railroads died.
    They died because they forgot what business they were in. The were in the business of moving stuff. They should have gotten into trucking. They didn’t. The love the big iron stuff.
    Likewise with papers. They are in the news business, not the paper business.
    But then was then. Now is the moment when they have to decide if they will live in the future or die as hopeless romantics.

  6. Barbara, thanks for engaging in an extended discussion on video.

    You found two of my videos on our site and singled one out for praise and one for criticism.

    You couldn’t have picked two videos that better illustrate my contention that you just don’t get it.

    The police-shooting news video with the monotone PIO voice that you wanted your time back from? It was posted on our site within a very short time of when the PIO finally showed up – within a half hour, before the TV stations put it on their noon broadcasts. The video gave the full details of the story at least six hours before a text story had similar detail. (Our GA reporter was tied up on something else.) It got traffic – about 4,000 views that day – and more importantly, all those views were local and were spent on our site. That video had value both for our viewers and for the Miami Herald. I don’t disagree about the quality of the video, but the value of it was absolutely worth the time spent.

    The unemployed video, on the other hand, which you liked, had little value for us or for our local readers/viewers/consumers. It got little traffic when it was posted and though it eventually also got around 4k views, they came from links/embeds on other sites, which don’t have as much value to us, especially when they’re not local. I felt it was a story worth doing so went out and did it, but in terms of value derived it trails way behind the boring cop video.

    These two videos are perfect examples of the dichotomy we face; the ongoing soul-searching we’re doing as an industry. Metrics tell us what our readers want but our brains and hearts tell us to do the important (at least to us) stories that our audience doesn’t want to look at. We obviously should do both, but the numbers don’t lie: a straight-forward news story, done promptly, is way more valuable to our readers than a long take-out on an issue that’s not burning down the house. And our readers will still put a priority on that news story when it’s in video form.

    all best,

    Chuck Fadely

    • Chuck,

      Just wondering if you know how long those 4,000 viewers stayed with the PIO video, and how much you think the length of their engagement matters.

      Best,
      Barbara

  7. There are some news stories that don’t work well as photos. There are some photos that convey the news so completely that they don’t really need stories. The same standards should be appliedwhen deciding when video is appropriate. In these days of shrinking news department resources, it’s important for editors, photographers/videographers and reporters to be thinking about the most effective way to report the news.

    • Lauren Cioffi
    • October 22nd, 2011

    As I sit in front of my computer, after reading Barabra’s post for the second time, I struggle with how I should respond. My name is Lauren Cioffi and I am a recent graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Currently, I am employed as Broadcast Associate for CBS News. I owe that career to Barbara Selvin as well as a handful of others who have devoted their lives to teaching the new generation of journalists. To those quoted in this piece, as well as those who have commented, I appreciate and respect all of your opinions. So many of you have shaped and impacted the world of Journalism, and after three years, I am proud to say I am now a part of that world too. But I think it is important that the voice of the new generation of journalists is heard on this issue. So since none of my fellow graduates or current students of Stony Brook have responded to this post, I guess I feel obliged to do so.

    Barbara, I would like you to know this post has been the talk around town and has concerned a handful of Long Island Press Association members (from what I hear). I will not quote directly, for this is only hearsay, but at a recent meeting, someone posed a question: How does this post make Stony Brook look? And by Stony Brook, I think they mean its journalism school. While I agree with the idea that this post misrepresents the teachings of our school, I must defend my professor by following this question with another:

    If Barbara had voiced her opinion in a video essay, or perhaps an audio slide show, do you think the message would have been as
    powerful? Would her story have resonated with so many reporters – young and old – the way it did? This speaks directly to the power of print and even more directly to Barbara’s statement: Some stories are not videos, and not every video is a story.

    But perhaps Chuck Fadely’s statement deserves some recognition as well. If I may, Chuck, I am about to put another notch on that flamethrower of yours. Just because there is a new platform in the world of journalism does not mean that any and all journalistic news judgement goes out the window. Let me elaborate: I have taken several online journalism and broadcast classes, where we learn that not EVERY story is a good video. Things are different when you are telling a story that can be seen and heard. Sometimes, a print story just isn’t as affective in the visual platform because it doesn’t meet certain criteria, which would make “GOOD” video. I think that is the point that Barabra was trying to make. As students, we are educated on this. We find stories that are visual, stories that catch the eye, stories that can be heard and seen.

    What Barabra forgot to mention is that she also teaches a mandatory class called “Journalism 24/7,” in which students learn about the evolving world of Journalism. Barbara is a print gal, as she has said herself, but nothing about her teaching practice is “out-of-touch.”

    I, however, come from the other side of the world. I live for telling stories through pictures. There is something so beautiful about a finished “packaged” video. But I am not naïve. I know that a story about the State Budget, for example, is simply not as effective in the visual platform. I respect my platform of journalism. I know that a video shouldn’t just be a space filler on a news organization’s website. A video shouldn’t be posted just so that a consumer has a choice between watching or reading. It should make an impact. It should matter.

    I think I will end my rant there, closing with one last and final statement.

    Barbara Selvin, please refrain from copy-editing this post.

    -Lauren Cioffi

    • Lauren,

      I think you’re basically agreeing with me. You wrote: “A video shouldn’t be posted just so that a consumer has a choice between watching or reading. It should make an impact. It should matter.” Absolutely.

      I’m confused by your comment that “this post misrepresents the teachings of our school.” In what way? I’m not objecting to video per se, whatever my personal tastes in news consumption. Of course I agree that our students should be trained to shoot and edit video as well as to write, copy edit, take still photographs and work on the web. I wish we had the resources to offer more courses in visual journalism, infographics and HTML. My point is exactly the point you made in the sentences I quoted in the preceding paragraph: A video should matter.

      Finally, “How does this post make Stony Brook look?” That will never be the deciding factor for me in choosing the subject of a blog post. If I disagreed with something the university, or the journalism school, was doing, I’d write about it – as I did, you may recall, when I criticized the university’s media relations operations about a year ago. In this case, whoever said that misread or misinterpreted the point of my argument.

      Best,
      Barbara

      • I guess I wasn’t all that entirely clear on my views.

        “I’m confused by your comment that “this post misrepresents the teachings of our school.” In what way?”

        I can’t seem to find the quote now, but I remember reading something along the lines of this:

        There is an overwhelming consensus that less is more.

        I think what you were trying to say is “quality over quantity,” which I agree with, but I don’t agree with the statement, less is more. I think newspaper reporters should be seeking stories that they know will be good examples of video journalism. This is the remark I feel misrepresents the teachings of Stony Brook. Video is the future, and I think we learn that in school. It just wasn’t expressed clearly in these posts. Newspapers should be producing Tons of videos. They just need to pick the right stories to cover.

        Does that make sense?

      • Yes, that makes sense, Lauren, and you’re correct: “Quality over quantity” is the point I intended to make.

    • lcioffi247
    • October 22nd, 2011

    One slight correction: “someone posed a question: How does this post make Stony Brook look? And by Stony Brook, I think they mean its journalism school.”

    it should be
    “I think he or she means its journalism school.”

    See Barbara… I am find my own errors!

  8. Dear Lauren

    I probably should not respond to this, but somehow, I just cannot help myself. 🙂

    Your sentiments as a recent graduate of the Journalism School and a new employee at CBS are.. how shall I put this?… charming.

    Alas, the news business is not about the ‘news’ as some purist sense, it is about the business. No business, no news. No revenue, no job. The stories that you love so much are actually just the filler that holds the advertising together, whether it is on TV or online or in a newspaper. That’s it.

    Now, as to video.

    For better or for worse (and undoubtedly for worse, in my opinion) we are rapidly headed toward becoming a video based culture. The average American watches 4.5 hours of television/video a day, and that number is climbing. Among some demographics it is as high as 7 hours a day. If we all read 4.5 (or 7) hours a day, we would be a very different kind of society- but we don’t. The average American also buys 1 book a year. You went to journalism school, so you are not the average American. But out there, they are. And it is likely only to get worse. Do you know what the number 2 search engine in this country is now? Youtube. Do you know that among 15 year olds (and younger) Youtube is the number one search engine.

    We are a video based culture. With the advent of iPads, smart phones and mobile screen based devices, the demands for the consumption of video is only going to escalate.

    How many of those 15 year olds who are living in a world awash in video are going to become subscribers to Newsday in the next 10 years? Would you say ‘none’ would be a good guess? I would.

    If you want to survive in this world (let along thrive) you have to accept the fact that journalism (unless you want to work for The Nation or NPR) is a business. If you don’t have an income, you don’t get to do anything, except perhaps blog.

    Your own employer, CBS News (also my old employer) is entirely ratings driven. Shows and content are intimately tied to the ratings. If it doesn’t rate, it doesn’t get on the air. Period.

    If you don’t believe me, take a look at what CBS (and every other network) does put on the air that passes (barely…. or not even) as ‘journalism’.

    So yes, the State Budget story does not make great video. But my guess is that probably .001% of the readership/viewership has any interest at all in the State Budget. (I don’t see a whole lot of State Budget stories on CBS News). The State Budget story is great for journalism school, but in the real world it does not attract eyeballs – except when you take a minute to warp some teeny tiny percentage of it so that ‘cuts’ impact on ‘poor families’ or ‘close a library’, but nothing is really contextualized. It’s a kind of State Budget Pornography – if that’s possible. The real info, of course, is all available online, but I doubt more than 5 people actually read the state budget in any given year.

    So there we are.

    Trust me, video is the future.

    It may not be a pretty future, but its the one we’ve all voted for.

  9. PS. Full disclosure. Not only did I go to Columbia J School with Barbara, but I currently employ a handful of her former students.

    • lcioffi247
    • October 22nd, 2011

    Michael:

    I completely agree that the news business is about the business and that ratings drive everything. And I also agree with your statement that the future is in video. As my fellow graduate and friend once said, “When I majored in broadcast journalism, I did that on purpose.”

    If the future is in video, then, I must say, I ended up right where I was supposed to be 

    Maybe my opinion is “charming,” due to the fact that I have been in the news business for all of five short months. For now my view of news is all lilacs and butterflies, and, honestly, I like it that way. When the picture I’ve painted tarnishes over the years, as it does for so many other journalists, I hope I still love what I am doing.

    It may be a business, but video drives that business, and that fact suits me just fine.

  10. Hi Lauren
    That was quick!
    nice.
    It is good you are so video-centric, but allow me (if I might) to make two comments:
    1. “video drives that business”. I would rather say that business drives the video. That is, the cost/revenue relationship drives what gets made and also how it gets made. Not the reverse.
    2. Being that you love video and you want to do video in the future, I would also argue that CBS is exactly the wrong place to be. The networks are dinosaurs, still making television and video the way they did 30 years ago (if not more) and in a most cost-ineffective way. They are, in my opinion (and not just mine) the walking dead. However, it is a good name to have on your resume. Just don’t stay there too long.
    m

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