Newspaper video: Will it survive?

Newspaper produced video is at a crossroads. As U.S. publications turn inward to focus on their traditional print products, many online producers are wondering if they should continue to invest the extra time it takes to shoot and edit video. It’s such a crazy time to be a visual journalist. Newspaper photo staffs are being slashed and devalued, as publishers try to protect what’s left of their bottom lines.

Video was hot a year ago, but now, as newspapers gut their newsrooms, the resources devoted to video storytelling are being scaled back.  Many wonder  if video storytelling has a future at newspapers.

I believe it does. In the next several years, newspapers will have to address their viability for survival. Some won’t make it. The one’s that have a life will need to make massive structural changes in order to continue to publish. Online needs to be addressed right now. Denying that online is the future is wasting everybody’s time. The excuse of, “We can’t make enough money online,” needs to be banished from the lexicon of publishers. Figure it out for Christ’s sake.

Marc Andreesen, co-founder of Netscape Communications, made a great point during this conversation with PBS’s Charlie Rose. He said, “If 90% of a publisher’s revenue comes from the newspaper, then 90% of their time is being devoted to the print product.”  If online is the future then this focus will need to gradually reverse. Andreesen advocates that newspapers need to kill their print products right now. I’m not quite there. Yet. But I do think a shifting of resources needs to be infused into newspaper online sites.

Right now, most newspapers still use their online publications as shovelware sites. They are still mostly text based. Sure, they have some photo slideshows, but the pictures are usually too small to have much impact. Video and audio slideshows are usually lost in of sea of links on the home page. The quality of video storytelling is uneven.

If the shift of resources into online happens, then proper use of video will need to be addressed. In an earlier post called “Video quality vs. quantity rages on”, I asked ten questions to ask yourself if video is right for your publication. These types of conversations need to take place now. The big problem with the growth and deployment of video on newspaper websites is that there is a huge void of people in charge that truly understand web video. It’s new. It’s complicated to learn.  Many producers I’ve talked to who invested the time to master video production, now say they just beat their heads against the wall in frustration. Newsroom structures still favor the old ways of doing things. Editors who don’t understand video tend to devalue it.

I still cling to these realities:

  • Anyone younger than 30 will probably never subscribe to newspapers.
  • The subscribers we do have are dying off everyday.
  • The consumption of web video is growing. Dramatically. If your website does not have a steady stream of quality local video, then consumers will go someplace else to find it.
  • You can monetize video– if you try.
  • As TV news stations get more web-savvy, newspapers need to compete by offering breaking news video. If not, you just gave up a whole market segment to somebody else.
  • Mobile is a disruptive tsunami that is about to hit. These second generation web-connected devices will revolutionize how we consume information. No longer will we be tied to laptops or desktop computers, now the world will be in your pocket. Video, I believe, will drive the adoption of these mobile devices.
  • The coming high-speed 4G cell phone networks will accelerate the demand for video.
  • Finally, where visual journalists are now being slashed and burned from newsrooms, I think the survivors will have a bright future in the online world. The web is becoming more visual. There will be a demand for quality visual producers.

My plan? Hold out as long as I can. I know this downturn will end. The transformation of newspapers is accelerating. Will publishers make the right choices in regards to video? Let’s hope so.

21 thoughts on “Newspaper video: Will it survive?

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  4. You really nailed it in your list of realities. The real question is how soon traditional thinking gives way to investment in the evolution that is surrounding the newspaper industry. I don’t see much investment in anything in Portland’s newspaper market.

  5. Totally agreed. And you used a key phrase, “local video”. I don’t understand why newspapers (and local TV news for that matter) continue to neglect the ONE advantage they have over the rest of the Internet and 24-news channels: they are local. Local news organizations are the only ones that can provide local journalism. They need to let go of the wire services and national and world news, except where it truly impacts local interests. (And I really don’t mean stretching it to do a puff piece on one local person who has some tenuous connection to a bigger story.) If I could get focused, hard news on the local business, government, community – even in print – I would be subscribed, even though I have never been a newspaper subscriber.

    I keep thinking if one news organization would buck the trend of celebrity news and lowest common denominator content they would make a mint off those of us interested in something different.

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  7. As usual Colin, you are right on the money.

    I spoke with our ME about how far we are pulling back from the web and how we probably will find it hard to get back audience we are losing there right now. There is no debate where things are going, just a question about time frame.

    What saddens me is that we were averaging 5,000 minutes downloaded a month now down to 1,000 in just four months.

  8. Interesting post overall, but I would like to read more about the facts behind your realities.

    “# The consumption of web video is growing. Dramatically. If your website does not have a steady stream of quality local video, then consumers will go someplace else to find it.”
    Yes, general Web video is growing, but what is newspaper video’s growth rate?

    “# You can monetize video– if you try.”
    What ideas haven’t been tried? I can think of a number of newspapers that sell various types of ads (display, pre-roll and sponsored player pages), that aren’t doing so hot. Of course, there are a lot of factors in play, so that doesn’t prove anything. I’m curious what you think newspapers need to do to if they decide they’d like to “try,” for a change.

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  10. naah

    the dream of doling out cheap video cameras to journalists and having them produce ratings-busting videos incidental to their regular work – that dream is dead.

    But it was not a dream – it was a frikkin nightmare. Imagine if newspapers had been able to stave off bankruptcy with 4th rate video. What would have happened to journalism?

    The whole thing was based on an absurd fantasy that when the technical barriers to entry are lowered then “any idiot can do it”. Any economist will tell you that when barriers to entry come down competition intensifies, and quality goes up.

    All the best.

  11. Ryan, Peter,

    When our online dept. built our new newspaper CMS from the ground up, we worked hard at building a video player that could serve out pre-roll as well as targeted ads underneath the player. After a seven second ad would play a narrow static ad under the player would stay up for the duration of the video. It was designed to not piss people off. We programmed the player to be able to serve viewers a different ad or no ad if you continued to watch other videos. It’s not rocket science. Think the marketing dept. would at least try and sell it? Nope. Not one ad has been sold in three months. Everyone in the advertising dept. is still pretty much print focused.

    As to the growth of newspaper video–yes the internet is full of video now and will only intensify with time. Newspapers could capitalize on this (some have) by providing a steady stream of breaking news, sports, features and weekly theme programming like gardening, food, and music scene. We have three local TV stations that have ramped up their websites with tons of local produced video and breaking news. That is compitition that my paper has given up on because of layoffs. All I can say is good luck with that.

    Late last year, we were about ready to launch all of this when most of the people I trained to shoot and edit video content were let go. I guess we will never know if it would have made a difference.

    I never looked at our videos as being fourth rate. I worked hard at coaching the fundamentals of video production with everyone I trained. I saw growth with each video they posted. Video producers had the cameras, computers and software and passion to make it all happen. I don’t look at the fall off of video at my newspaper as an “absurd fantasy”–just a missed opportunity.

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  13. I never suggested yr videos were 4th rate Colin.

    I suggested that it was the promise of “something for nothing” that encouraged many organizations to embark on campaigns that they were not willing to underwrite.

    – the allure of video to newspaper publishers was essentially the notion that “quality doesn’t matter”, “it won’t cost us anything”, “any idiot can do it”.

    That was a fantasy. If management at your paper acted on those assumptions – they were deluded.

    Sure newspapers can produce great video – but this requires a different mindset: resources do have to be allocated, talent does matter, and it’s absurd to expect video to reverse newspapers decline singlehandedly and overnight.

  14. Cuts cuts and cuts. We, a small UK weekly paper have just entered a period of cuts and centralisation of desks.
    My job is out.
    I have driven our online multimedia content single handedly to a pretty good standard, Investing alot of my own time and a considerable amount of money learning to produce good features then switching to harder news as it got more hits. Other photogs here have taken my lead and I have helped them develop their skills.
    ‘Upstairs’ have decided to restructure and are for some unexplaind reason decided to return to the core print edition as they can’t see the web being of benifit. !???! This I can only assume will save a few quid, bucks or schekels but what retrograde thinking. I still may have a job as a stills shooter but they will loose the passion, pride and dedication of what was once an enthusiastic and hard working inovator.
    Its a damn shame these accountants are failing to plan for the summer that will follow this winter of recession.

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  16. I think survival is going to depend on factors that are out of our control. Videos on our site are popular. We routinely get great amounts of praise from the public and from within the company about the quality of our work. But they’re still not getting seen. It’s still more common for me to meet people who don’t know we have video on our site.

    I think success (survival?) depends not only on producing high quality content, but also on having an organizations that promotes the content, displays it well, and makes it accessible (via sharing, mobile devices, etc.). We’ve had video on the site for almost two years now, and there has been lots of talk about selling ads, but it hasn’t happened yet. In addition to producing the content, I’m now in charge of DVD sales, but I can’t go out and sell advertising too.

  17. All great points Peter.
    One thing TV news does way better than newspapers is promote themselves. I, and most every video producer I’ve talked to–is frustrated at the low hit counts their videos are getting. I get the same response from viewers once they discover we have quality video. They are appreciative and like the content. They just didn’t know it was there. I think the lack of promotion and inability to sell ads for video are more a problem of newspapers not really understanding the web. They are still running their organizations like print newspapers not multi-platform companies.

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  20. I was the only full time video journalist at my newspaper. For short while I thought that meant I was going to be one of the last people laid off. I ended up being one of the first. It was kind of sad. I had decided to push video more than trying to be just a still photojournalist with the hopes that I would be saved.

  21. Wow, your replies scare the hell out of me. I must agree with your comments on ad selling – the staff selling them are so focussed on print that they don’t care about online, never mind online video.

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