Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Works For Online Videojournalism?

In the wake of the cheering New York Times report that online video ads are booming, Poynter's Regina McCombs offers a level-headed assessment of how well newspaper video is performing -- editorially and financially. Her conclusion? Don't Give Up on Online Video Yet.

It's a confusing time, because video has been heralded as the potential saviour of beleagured publishers -- with the sizzle of pre-roll advertising trumping the stodginess of conventional Web banner ads -- but once energized staffs have been running head-on into the harsh reality that video is more complex and expensive and labor intensive to produce than print stories. Consequently, faced with diminishing resources, some media outlets that were making inroads into this exciting new medium have now retreated and/or retrenched.

But all hope is not lost.

Combs asked industry practitioners: What's working and what's not working?

Predictably, the responses constituted a mixed bag.

While clearly there are video efforts that have failed or been abandoned, declaring it all a failure doesn't accurately reflect what's going on in the industry.

What does work: news shows. What doesn't work: news shows. What works: spot news. What doesn't work: spot news. What does work: feature pieces. What doesn't work -- you get the idea.

Of course, defining success is very slippery. A lot of traffic on one site may not be enough for another. Some places have very reliable numbers, others not so much. So for the purposes of this article, I'm not trying to define success, I'm letting each organization set their own definition of what makes video worthwhile.

All those who responded said, yes, absolutely, video works on their Web sites and is worth producing. The responses were passionate that it's much too soon to decide video's future -- that it deserves more time and effort. The responses were passionate that it's much too soon to decide video's future -- that it deserves more time and effort.

My question about what kinds of videos work best received fascinating -- and absolutely contradictory -- answers. Clearly, what works for one site does not necessarily work for others. But it's also clear there are many newspaper Web sites out there pleased with their video efforts and results.
Breaking news and sports seem to be the biggest traffic draws.

Features, however, take longer to produce -- which disincentivizes publishers from pursuing them, despite the fact that they have a longer shelf life.

Feature and documentary stories seem to be the problem children in videoland. Many complained that some of their most polished pieces consistently draw little traffic, to the huge disappointment of all involved.
And it's impossible to predict which features will lure eyeballs, adding to editors' frustration and growing resistance to allocating big resources to what might result in small rewards.

Long-planned and produced stories "almost always fail to resonate with a broad audience," complained one editor, who had no explanation.

But sometimes features actually do better, because they are more likely to be "shared" via social media (e.g. Twitter and Facebook).

Part of the problem, we suspect, can be the lack of presentation and organization of the videos themselves, making it impossible for audiences to find them -- and unenticing for them to explore them when they do. (That's why was created!)

Often the video stories are separate from the text stories they accompany, without a link from one to the other. Further, newspapers often do little to promote their best video efforts, erroneously believing that audiences will somehow discover them on their own.

Another significant trend: In an increasing number of markets, newspapers are teaming with similarly suffering local TV news broadcasters to co-produce packages that can be configured for both on-air and online consumption.

Though newspapers have a smaller news hole to fill, TV newscasters still have to fill the same number of minutes, and so the infusion of print reporters into their operations is a godsend for them. In exchange, newspapers enjoy the benefits of seasoned pros who are more comfortable in front of, and behind, a camera.

So it comes down to this: There is no magic formula to make video successful. It's as much about knowing your audience and responding to them as anything else. There is no one boyfriend who is perfect for everyone. Still, the folks I talked to had a number of suggestions about how to make a relationship with video work, which I'll write about in an upcoming article.
We look forward to reading that!

Meanwhile, the Miami Herald's Chuck Fadely responded with his own perceptions on his Newspaper Video blog:

After spending a lot of time delving into our stats, I'm extremely optimistic about online video. Emphatically, our video is on a steady growth curve upwards.
Hard news and sports are the two big draws.

Event coverage of sports as well as studio shows about pro sports get good traffic. Some high school football game videos and some football studio shows will get 4,000-7,000 plays.
And now the bad news:

What doesn't work: 'soft' features of the sort that newspapers have covered for decades. It's depressing, but 'good news' - anything involving kids doing well, charity, overcoming adversity, or similar - gets almost no traffic.
Some other observations:

A relatively small percentage of our video traffic is generated from our front-page video player or from our video pages. Most of our video traffic comes from major news events on story page embedded players, by a margin of ten-to-one over other videos...

As far as what format the video takes, it seems to make no difference. The only thing that matters is the topic.

Shorter is usually better for completion, but some of our top videos with the highest completion rates have been eight minutes long.

We run high school football games shot by a scouting service that are filmed from a distant overhead position without audio and they get a lot of traffic. Some of our sports studio shows, all shot to broadcast standards, get a lot of traffic, while others don't.

One last thing: volume is important. Our total video traffic is impressive - the last two months we've had in the neighborhood of a half-million plays each month, which makes for a lot of time on site. A lot of that traffic comes from just a few videos, but the 'long tail' of having many, many videos on site accounts for the rest.
Bottom line: Journalists and journalism institutions should not be abandoning videojournalism, but rather running toward it with open embracing arms. While there are challenges and obstacles to be navigated, it is undeniably the future of our profession.

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