By Douglas Grant
Building a capacity for video news online remains an exercise in faith. Despite the fact that videos aren’t directly producing revenue, they still have an important role to play in a news organization’s business strategy because they now act as the “point of entry” for many readers and viewers. For now, experts advise publishers to work out how to do video well and think about revenue later.
Avoid doing video for video’s sake
Online-video experts suggest that the first step in any video strategy should be identifying the kind of news that is suited to online video on your site. Stories that are human, about an individual person’s or community’s experiences, and stories that are local — as well as breaking news that holds the promise of good visuals — lend themselves to video (see the Washington Post’s “First and 17” about a rookie footballer). Video should complement text and open up new, creative opportunities, rather than simply re-purposing text stories and following the traditional inverted pyramid style.
Daniel Gawloski, of the Seattle Times, has spoken about identifying the aspect of the story that video can most effectively communicate: “I’m looking for something that carries emotion … what I don’t want is a video that tells the same story as the text. I want a video that helps you understand the story in a way that text doesn’t.” He was speaking as part of a panel discussion in April 2014 to launch the Tow Center’s multimedia reportVideo Now.
Rethink and reinvent
It’s also important to develop your own online approach, rather than just mimicking broadcast TV, according to practitioners and experts who spoke to the World Editors Forum for this report. Television is usually targeted at mass audiences and designed to appeal to everyone, whereas newspapers tend to have a more specific audience and so can be more distinctive in tone. Embrace this, and develop your own style, they say. Some of the panelists spoke about the different approaches at their publications:
- Popular across the world with young news consumers, Vice uses a casual, “when the cameras are off” approach to its reportage. It releases news as and when it happens, and allows viewers to watch the analysis develop. Jason Mojica, Editor-in-Chief of Vice News, told the panel, “We found our way of doing breaking news, which is this sort of meandering, ‘Let’s watch Simon [Ostrovsky, the journalist Vice sent to Crimea] find out what the hell’s going on here’.”
- The Seattle Times gives reporters the power to publish, so they can release low-quality, breaking-news videos immediately while editors focus on the high-quality documentaries.
- At Singaporean newspaper the Straits Times, Editor-in-Chief Patrick Daniel told the World Editors Forum, online means freedom from live programming. Videos can go up any time: “People don’t log on at, say, 9 a.m. each day to view online live programs, like they do for TV. It’s easy to see that people prefer to view videos as and when they have the time. It also takes best advantage of the medium.”
The long and short of it
Getting length right is vital for finding and retaining online viewers, who are increasingly using mobile devices to access news websites. Marie-Noelle Valles, head of video at AFP, echoed the prevailing wisdom that videos should be short to appeal to those on the move.
But she also told WEF that while short might be the way to attract viewers initially, this does not mean long-format should be ignored: “It doesn’t mean these people will not return to longer formats, because they remain interesting and relevant, but the point of entry is a short, agile, quick video.”
It appears that there is no “magic length” that people like: it’s true that short, funny clips are more likely to go viral, but in-depth documentaries should not be ignored. Some of the organizations interviewed for the Tow report talked about the value of “letting it run long.”
- Frontline makes documentaries for PBS. Their online audience is exploding, with 1.7 million unique visitors a month from all devices. And their tablet users watch about three times longer than desktop users, who stay on average between two and seven minutes, according to Frontline’s deputy executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath.
- Vice has 4.5 million non-paying subscribers who get regular updates from Vice’s YouTube channel, and it boasts some remarkable engagement statistics. One of its most popular videos, “Suicide Forest in Japan,” has almost 8 million views, 83,000 likes and 2,000 dislikes. When Vice dipped into shorter, “viral” clips, there was a backlash in reader comments. Mojica says his customers complained the viral videos were “bullshit.”
- The website of MediaStorm, a film production studio based in New York, is seeing thousands of views a day of documentaries it made several years ago. Founder Brian Storm told Tow, “…yeah it gets a lot of attention when it first comes out, but…years later…four or five thousand people a day are watching a story.” One of the main recommendations of the Tow report is to produce “evergreen” work that users can come back to time and time again. Storm says, “There’s two things that are really successful in the space that we’re in right now: being really, really funny — cats spinning on a fan — or the highest-quality thing that you’ve ever done on Darfur. Those are things that people tweet, those are the things people post on Facebook, right? The stuff in the middle, the volume, is noise.”
- Short videos may be the most effective way of attracting users and increasing traffic on other parts of the news website. But in terms of retaining an audience, increasing prestige and developing a video revenue stream, high-quality long-form video has an important role to play. The consensus seems to be that editors need to decide the degree to which video should be used simply as a “point of entry” or as a more developed, content-rich part of the website.
Douglas Grant is a student of French & German at the University of Oxford (UK), and he worked for a magazine in Berlin before joining the World Editors Forum and WAN-IFRA’s Press Freedom division as an intern in 2014.
MediaShift tells stories of how the shifting media landscape is changing the way we get our news and information. MediaShift correspondents explain how traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, music and movies are dealing with digital disruption and adapting their business models for a more mobile, networked world. Learn more at MediaShift on the web, follow MediaShift on Twitter or on Facebook.
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