Wednesday, October 28, 2009

L.A. Times: Your Videos Are an Embarassment

Forgive us if we sound grouchy, but the Los Angeles Times has put us in a real funk. Why? With each passing day, the quantity and quality of their once superlative videojournalism is rapidly declining. In fact, it pains us to say, it's become an embarassment.

Months ago, we wondered why they went so far as to remove their video player from their homepage altogether. A top exec there explained to us that they were revamping and redesigning their video player, and rethinking their multimedia strategies. He assured us that their video stories would be back, bigger and better than ever.

That hasn't happened. Mostly we're stuck with their (print-edition) film and TV critics looking into a camera and reading their latest review. So today we're handing out some tough love.

What on earth is going on over there? Sure, the paper is smarting from all the same economic woes that have befallen everyone in the journalism biz. But there are small-town papers, with a tiny fraction of their staff and budget, that are producing much better video stories.

Perhaps it's especially shocking and dismaying for us, because it was a powerful Los Angeles Times audio slideshow, Marlboro Marine, that helped inspire us to launch KobreGuide in the first place. The Times itself had done such an amazing job of hiding its own gems, that we decided to create a Website that would ferret out the best videojournalism stories on the Web and put them under one roof, so that even viewers outside a newspaper's territory could enjoy them.

But we've been scouring the L.A. Times lately for more great stories like that, and they're few and far between. Despite what they're telling us, they've clearly reversed course on making video a priority. Go to the site yourself, and see how long it takes you to find ANY video, much less any video worth watching.

So here's what happened today that really put us in a snarky mood.

First, we saw this tweet, from the L.A. Times' own Twitter feed:

Video: Reporter Alana Semuels on how the housing slump has hurt timber towns. Read more at
Well! We got excited! Sounds like a terrific concept for a video piece. If they sent a good videojournalist to one of those towns, just imagine what a terrific visual story you'd get!

But we clicked the link, and were taken here. Actually, we're going to spell out the entire URL for you, to re-emphasize how un-"user-friendly" newspaper content-management software has become:,0,3380214.story

Once we arrived, we found a well reported, well written text story, on a worthy topic, by reporter Alana Semuels:

Housing slump hits California timber industry like a buzz saw

Weak demand for lumber is forcing some mills to close and leaving many loggers and truckers unemployed.
We also found a link to an uninspired "photo gallery" -- PHOTOS: Housing downturn hits logging town -- made especially more disconcerting by the fact that the seven images are on a separate Web page, making them feel utterly useless and detached from the article itself (which is an uninviting ocean of gray text). Why couldn't the pix be scattered throughout the text, for more visual appeal, as the print version no doubt would design it?

Next we see a link to a "Graphic" :

Graphic: Lumbering along

Again, on a separate Web page, we are shown bar graphs depicting slumps in the price of wood and lumber production, and a California map highlighting towns where sawmills closed. It looks as boring and uninspired as a science textbook. We're guessing that an editor or art director was ordered to attend a Webinar on how to tart up Web stories, and now routinely assigns unimaginative charts and graphs that are exercises in civic duty, not audience engagement.

So where's the video???? Nowhere to be seen!

Adventurous souls that we are, we do what no mortal should be expected to do -- search high and low for it. Among lists of text links at the very BOTTOM of the L.A. Times Web pages, under the heading "Multimedia," you will find a tiny link for "video." We clicked it.

That takes you to a page of one of the saddest collections of newspaper video we've ever encountered. Among a batch of badly arranged and unenticing thumbnail images (with similarly blah text descriptions), we find this: "Housing slump hits California timber industry..."

Going where probably no human has gone before, we click it.

It takes us to this page:

(Again, look at that unwieldy URL!)

...with this title:

"Housing slump hits California timber industry like a buzz saw"

And there, at last, is our video. We rub our hands in anticipation. Hard-hitting investigative videojournalism, that takes us behind the scenes of the text story? Introduces us to the major players? Lets us hear the tale in their own words? Shows us the problem up close with impactful and memorable visuals?

Not a prayer.

Here's what we get for our scavenging efforts:

A 44-second video of reporter Alana Semuels, seated against a black background, doing nothing more than introducing herself to the camera, and reading a text description of her print story.

Thanks to their proprietary and problematic video player (that the paper spent months and mucho dineros developing), a huge "PAUSE" icon obscures her face throughout the entire presentation.

See for yourself:

Now, as though this isn't horrid enough, imagine if you somehow stumbled across this video, and now wanted to actually read the story it's touting? Obviously all you need to do is click the link right next to the video to take you there, right? The link that says... well... hmmmm...

Actually, there is no link whatsoever to the print story. So if you start with the video, good luck finding the story it wants you to read. Which makes you wonder: What was the point of the video in the first place? It invites you to read a story that you'll have to work hard to find. (Remember, we got to the text story via a Twitter posting that advertised "video." ) Did the multimedia department need to fill its daily quota of "Videos on $5 a Day"? Or did they just figure, screw it -- who cares about the boring old California lumber industry? It's opening weekend for Michael Jackson's movie.


Despite promises to the contrary, the L.A. Times joins the ranks of newspapers that are missing a golden opportunity to apply resources to the future of journalism. The media institution should be a shining beacon; instead it's a disgrace.

It's a chicken-and-egg situation that we know well -- the L.A. Times won't spend money on video because they say nobody's viewing it... But nobody's viewing it, because it's so lousy!... Plenty of people are watching engaging, informative, high quality nonfiction video -- and their numbers are increasing. The New York Times has wisely positioned itself in the vanguard of superlative videojournalism, having committed to a staff, budget, and Website navigation scheme that ensure an appreciative and devoted following. It's way past time for the L.A. Times to get with the program.

C'mon, L.A. Times! Here's your opportunity. Half-hearted steps lead nowhere. You've still got more resources and talent than most media institutions these days. Apply them to video. You won't be sorry.

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