Reassessing newspaper video

What’s up with newspaper video today? On the news that The New York Times is preparing a big new video thrust, it’s got to be worth some thought.

Peter Ralph recently wrote 7 tips to encourage those of you in regional newsrooms across the U.S. who haven’t given up on video, and Rob Curley wrote Newspaper-produced video: quality vs. quantity? in response to a really nice post by Colin Mulvany, written just before his newsroom’s ranks were decimated.

Peter was on a rant about video awards, to the tune of “things that win awards are not necessarily things people want to watch,” which is similar to what we hear about all kinds of journalism awards. He also called for some proper measurements or stats reporting vis-à-vis video — let’s hear some real numbers, after so many newsrooms have invested so much time and so much money in churning out so many hours of online video. Come on, guys, pony up. What are your numbers?

He also called out the “time spent” hand. You say you have umpty-zillion hits on your videos, but how many of those viewers stayed in for the entire length of the video? How many clicked out before the stupid pre-roll finished? How many bailed halfway through because they were bored to death?

The final three of Peter’s tips are probably the strongest :

  • Fail fast: Are you STILL waiting for the number of videos watched to increase at your site? How much longer are you going to wait?
  • Habits: WHICH videos are people watching, and are they coming back for more of the same?
  • Telling truth to power: Peter is wary of subjects who agree to collaborate with the videographer. Have you put your journalistic integrity at risk when you have allowed this? Are you, in fact, doing p.r. in your video work?

Rob is an executive at the company that owns the Las Vegas Sun, which has a unique video strategy. In his post, he wrote:

We’ve hired skilled video shooters and editors with professional backgrounds. Our videos look great — as good, if not better than a lot of local television stations around the country, and probably better than almost any other newspaper out there … with the exception of The Washington Post and NY Times, who have basically gone with a pretty-dang polished documentary look.

One likely big difference between shooters at The Post and The Times is that all of our videographers here at Greenspun Interactive are basically expected to produce a piece a day. Everyday.

But — in my mind and priorities — more importantly than either quality or quantity in video production is this question: Are we producing videos that people actually want to watch?

That’s the “save my newspaper, please” question, isn’t it? The point IS the numbers (just like Peter said): If there ain’t nobody watching, then WHY are you shooting all this video?

One reason is to build expertise. In a priceless Curleyism, Rob wrote:

… we really don’t have a need for video of the latest car accident on Interstate 215 unless it involves six semi-trucks, one of which was carrying fuel and another was carrying live pigs. I do want video of that accident when it happens. And damn quickly.

Yeah, me too! Moreover, I want it on my iPhone, in high-def.

Rob touches on this too, and I think this is a very important piece of our future. When the stars of the AT&T 3G network are aligned just right, and my iPhone battery isn’t dead, and I have 10 minutes to kill (say, waiting in a doctor’s office), I looove watching high-def YouTube videos on that pretty glass screen. Love it, I tell you!

Now, what if I could trust your Web site to dish me up at least one interesting, high-def video on demand, whenever I catch that sweet spare 10 minutes? Or maybe not your site, but instead a smart aggregator like Multimedia Muse? (You get the click anyway.) If I developed high enough trust in your ability to amuse, surprise, or enlighten me, I’d be your True Fan.

That would be another good reason for you to be shooting all this video — if you could make me loyal to you (well, me and some big number of other iPhone users), it would be well worth it.

How many people do you honestly think go to YouTube and search for news documentaries? Let me answer that one for you: Not enough to pay anyone’s salary.

Rob has a very good point there, but I think we need to be realistic about the many and various social aspects of YouTube as well as the appeal of really silly, stupid videos. I wrote a post about this earlier this month — the point being that community, sharing, communication, identity, and self-expression are all PART OF the ginormous success of YouTube, and all of those are — admit it, please — things that news Web sites sorely lack.

In other words, there’s more to video than video.

Rob refers to sports highlights, celebrity interviews, and other stuff that might be seen as tasty, fattening, sugar-laden desserts placed next to the vitamin-rich broccoli of true journalism. “Give them what they want and what they need,” Rob wrote. I agree wholeheartedly — that’s what good newspapers used to try to do (and some still do).

What is still frigging hard about all this — a news Web site today is not the buffet table that a printed newspaper used to be. I am not browsing around randomly on your Web site, happening upon your loveliest desserts or videos as I peruse the latest miserable financial news. I am, instead, perusing news feeds and blog feeds in an RSS reader and on iGoogle, clicking URLs in Twitter, scanning the “popular” list at YouTube.

And (bottom line) your videos are not showing up there.

Update (1:21 p.m.): I urge you to read this painfully honest post about video from Stephanie Romanski, Web editor for the Grand Island (Neb.) Independent.

Update 2 (Oct. 30): The New York Times “Bits” blog just posted Online Video — and Our Attention Span — Get Longer.

28 Comments on “Reassessing newspaper video

  1. Our local NYTimes-owned paper started video stories a year ago and I rarely watch them. Usually because of the video length. I can read the information in much less time.

    I know I’m not the usual audience. I prefer words. But if newspapers want to do video…give me a different approach than I can find on TV. Five minute short stories with no talking heads. Split longer pieces so I can watch each part as I have time.

    And please remember a rule they seem to have forgotten. Teach the talent. Not every experienced journalist makes a good videographer. Have them create in-house pieces until they understand the process. Don’t ask me to watch their training videos. That will quickly turn me off your site.

  2. Well, in our mid-sized town, where Gator sports will give you 5,000 to 20,000 video views per video in the first few days, it is the car wrecks and anything associated with crime that moves the needle. I watch the numbers on everything everyday and it is not the award-winning journalism and projects as we’d hope. After all, that’s what readership surveys had been telling us for years they wanted. Analytics say differently. Sports and crime, thank you. Las Vegas, your work is amazing. How do I justify all the hours of work for a video like that? It is all a balance, like Mindy quoted, between the wants and needs of the readers. Get the hits on what viewers demand so you can pull off and do something different and see what sticks. So far for us, projects haven’t stuck. Well-told event stories have done well. Maybe Twitterpic will evolve to Twittervideo and feed us more?

  3. My first thought on reading the headline was, “Wow, a technological breakthrough that puts video in my actual newspaper? I want to read that.”

  4. Thanks so much for the information (Brian) and opinion (Chuck). I would love to hear more like this. I wonder if some kind of viewer surveys would help newspapers — if Chuck doesn’t like crime and sports, is it okay with you that he never watches your video? Or, if you want him to watch, what can you do for him? (I’m one of those who never watches crime or sports video.)

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  6. How do you evaluate the metric “completes”? I know many of the videos on our website are too long, but I also know I don’t necessarily watch an entire newscast on my television, nor do I always finish a 10 page article on Doesn’t mean I didn’t get any value from my 10 minutes of watching the news or my 4 page read of the article?
    What is a respectable “completes” number? Is it 30%, 50%, 80%? Help.

  7. Quality is what we do. Why do we accept a different standard for video Vs text? I don’t think we should put up crappy video for the same reasons we should put up crappy stories. We are journalists and reporting, either text or visual, is what we do- we should do it well. We can’t post a poorly written story and say, “We are just learning how to do this, so its ok.” If you put up poor work, are you not just teaching viewers to expect poor quality work from you?

    Also, while I’m at it, the battle of “what they want Vs “what they need” frames the question the wrong way. As a news consumer I don’t always know what I want, it’s the job of the journalist to explain to me why something is important. Make me care and I will watch. But you have to state clearly what the value of the video is, what I will get if I watch. Just having video with a story doesn’t guarantee that someone will watch it, the viewer needs to know that they will get something that wasn’t in the story.

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  9. Karen B. I’d say “complete” was the amount that led a viewer to later say “I saw this video over at…”

    More important than “completes” I’d want to know how many times my video was recommended or forwarded to another.

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  11. When I worked at the Sun-Sentinel I was involved heavily in the web video efforts. I sat on the online video strategy team but knowing what I now know about the internet…we didn’t even have a strategy. I was the only only with a broadcast news background at the paper and my GM and leader of the pack was a full-fledged print guy. Our directive was simply to shoot a lot of web video and get it edited and posted. The one thing I made sure we didn’t do was shoot everything a TV news station would shoot and we did have videographers turn one pkg per day. But it was done just to say we were doing it and that we had more video than everyone else. Print photographers were used to perfection and having days to work on a project so it was very new to them. And the big bosses just wanted to make sure we had that Dolphins locker room video once they learned of the stats. New shift in strategy! If I had the opportunity to go back there and be in charge, I could employ some of my new knowledge . I agree that analyzing and understanding the stats is important and can help you make important decisions about the future. So many print newsrooms are working just to stay alive and smart decisions just aren’t being made because of it.

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  14. Thanks for the wonderful comments, everyone. @Angela Connor – I love the part “but knowing what I now know about the internet … we didn’t even have a strategy.” That speaks volumes about what has been going on in newsrooms — not just last year but for five or six years.

  15. Many interesting points – but where do they lead?

    There are problems that require urgent solution. I am a videographer not a journalist, but I share one thing with all of you: we follow a trade, a craft – not an art-form. Dieing scorned and penniless is not an option.

    Regional newspapers in the US are going bankrupt at an alarming rate. There are many causes, several distinct problems. One is undoubtedly the failure of newspaper video to gain the expected traction, despite the fact that “niche video” views have exploded exponentially.

    Why is this?

    my .02:

    In the US most newspapers serve distinct geographic locations. They serve communities rather than “associations”. Niches are voluntary associations – members opt-in and out at will.

    Geographic communities are not niches.

  16. Being persistent. Anyone out there got any feedback or guidance on how to deal with “completes.” That is the new metric that is haunting me. Chuck Welch, thanks for your response.

  17. I ask because we are living and dying by these figures. What is a success when it comes to completes?

  18. The problem with newspapers is the ‘paper’ part of it, but we are always cutting the news part. Big mistake. 75% of the cost of a newspaper is the physical manufacture of the paper – newsprint, ink, presses, distribution. Papers are trying to build a digital presence while keeping the paper going. Does not work. Example: let’s say you were publishing World Book Encyclopedia (remember that?) in 1990, and you were approached by two Stanford students who had developed a search engine for the burgeoning Internet. They offered to sell the whole thing to you for $1 million. (which they offered to Yahoo, who turned them down). Your business, they would say, is information search and delivery. This does it great, but.. and here’s the but… you have to stop publishing the World Book books. No more books. Would you do it? Or would you throw the Google boys out of your office as hare-brained idiots? Probably the latter. Anyone want stock in World Book ….or Google? Newspapers are not in the paper business. They are in the business of reporting on communities and delivering. But they have to have the courage to change. Or they die.

  19. @Karen Burkett – I don’t know how any individual site deals with “complete” views. But when Stephanie Romanski writes, “a large majority of our videos are getting maybe 30 or 40 views,” I have to wonder if there’s any point to doing most of this video.

    If you’re seeing thousands of views, at a site of your size, then I guess you can imagine that some decent number of people watch to the end. But if the numbers are down in the low hundreds, and some number of those are certainly “Watch 10 seconds and quit,” then I’d want to re-examine the resource allocation — if I were you.

  20. @peter ralph – Man, you sound like you’re reading the same book about democracy that I’m reading. 😀

    Much has been written about commitment and loyalty to online sites. You can abandon your online community with few or no consequences — all you do is quit going there. Geographic communities are different. Even if you don’t like it, it’s still where you are.

    A lot of what people do with video online is about “voluntary associations,” as you said. It’s kind of like the old saying, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives.” Online, it’s all friends — and no relatives.

  21. Mindy thank for the great discussion topic. Sorry I have been away, trying to save my newspaper.

    A two-part reply.

    The metrics I measure, keep and eye on and share weekly with the staff are minutes downloaded. If use that with click out rates, I can generally tell what videos people watch and can tell why. We had been steadily growing minutes downloaded for the past seven months.

    Part of what we serve are the quick hit spot news video, but we have slowly moving away from that toward longer form (2 minute) profile, event, news and character driven pieces.

    Part two is what keeps me up at night. If folks haven’t read the Xark post on the “10 reasons newspapers won’t reinvent news” they should go and do that right now. It the basis for whatever news/photo/video/multimedia journalism manifesto I may write in the future.

    Right now papers are trying to save the print version and they are pulling resources from the web (ie. the future) to survive the present without thinking about how this impacts the future.

    So any conversation about video or video’s place at newspapers needs to address part two and how we live, tell stories and report in this environment.

    There is no doubt in my mind that video holds a place at newspapers. There are some stories that just scream to be told in video. I did a daily quick project, the hand grip on the camera was broken, don’t ask but this email went out: “When I read today’s centerpiece on the Hinojosa family’s struggle to make it to graduation, I imagined readers all over town tearing up as they read it. I didn’t expect the video could match it. I was wrong. After you’ve seen the print package, check out the video in our new video player.”

    That is why video can be important at a newspaper.

  22. @Michael Fagans – That Hinojosa family video is beautiful. If every video I clicked on was that moving and the story that tight, I would never do anything other than watch video. It’s the kind of caring and professional work that is the exception, not the rule, in newspaper video overall. Maybe it would seem pointless to a lot of people — I’m not sure — but I liked it, and I think a lot of people in your audience would like it.

    How were the “minutes downloaded” on it?

  23. @ Mindy – yes it’s the old Tonnies > Durkheim > Weber Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft schtik – relentless rationalization. But with a twist.

    Video is rarely the most efficient way to deliver information. Niche-identification adds value by raising the “Return on Attention”.

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  25. Thanks for the compliment.

    “One last wish” actually did quite well despite being played on our then new Brightcove set up. It had 747 plays for 1,522 minutes downloaded. If you do the math the click out rate is fairly low. That being said it is roughly in the top 20 of videos as far as minutes downloaded. The funeral for a local pastor who had served the same church and community for 30 years that same month broke into our top 10 with 2,369 minutes downloaded.

    Up until last week 3,000 minutes were our best performers although a local county high school District Trustee kicked and punched a protestor and the new ceiling is now 10,000+ minutes downloaded.

    The problem as many of us have noted is that quality takes time. The other problem is that quality does not always fit into the current economic model. That being said, I know that many of us video/multimedia/photo journalists will keep preaching the “gospel” until they ask us to turn out the lights.

    I am hopeful, partly because I have to be, that ultimately the tide will change. Good storytelling, fundamental journalism, work that elicits emotion has worth. Newspapers are just trying to figure out where and how right now. I guess my job is to keep doing good work and encourage our staff to keep doing solid journalism.

  26. Thanks, Michael. I like seeing the logic of minutes downloaded divided by number of plays — not exactly “completes,” but possibly a fair substitute.

    I think the better videos are more likely to be e-mailed from one satisfied viewer to several friends, and I would suspect that might have something to do with the increased number of plays.

  27. MB downloaded will always be lower than minutes watched. By a factor of 2, 3 , 5 , 10 – who knows? It depends largely on bandwidth. As long as you don’t rely on the figures to make important decisions you should be fine.

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