The State of Video Now

This past Monday, April 14, the Columbia Journalism School hosted a panel on the State of Video. This was the culminating event for a report called “Video Now: The Forms, Cost, and Effect of Video Journalism,” sponsored by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Knight Foundation and produced by Duy Linh Tu, Professor and Head of Digital Media at the Journalism School.

Panelists from FRONTLINE, the Detroit Free Press, the Seattle Times, VICE News and the Washington Post attended to discuss how U.S. publications, from digital startups to newspapers and magazines, are defining video, how they are producing and monetizing it and what seems to be working so far.

Here, briefly, are some of the takeaway points of the discussion. Check out the recorded panel and see the report itself at videonow.towcenter.org.

1. Length isn’t an issue if the video is good.

“The adage since the Internet has been around is that people won’t watch longform; no one’s staying around for more than 60 seconds,” prompted Duy Linh Tu. But as the Video Now report found, longform video is very much alive and doing well at many organizations.

“I think people will watch good longform,” said FRONTLINE’s Raney Aronson, and the Seattle Times’s Danny Gawlowski agreed: “When we watch our engagement curves , I’ve never seen a dropoff at 90 seconds. If a story is good, people will watch it whatever the length is. But if it’s poor, they will bail on it whatever the length is. We’ve all seen 90 second videos that are way longer than good hour-long videos.”

Andy Pergam, former senior editor at the Washington Post, added that “Just as editors have decided for years ‘That’s not a 10,000 word story, that’s a 200-word brief,’ we have to be more comfortable saying, ‘Well, that’s an amazing documentary-style video, we’re gonna do that;’ or, ‘No, that’s a 90-second explainer that illuminates some piece of a broader story.'”

“We’re making decisions at all times about what the authentic length of the piece should be,” agreed Aronson.  

 2. Newspapers aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage.

One might think that compared to digital-first publications, newspapers have a harder time producing video, but some publications found advantages to having a smaller team.

“I think being at a newspaper is a really great opportunity because we can be really picky and choosy,” said Danny Gawloski. “We have to be. We have pretty small video resources and so we get to go around and pick the best stories out of the stories that we’re producing. We get to choose the stories we think are best attuned for video.”

Moreover, he said, already having a print element was “really liberating because we don’t need to put every single part of the story into the video. So it allows us to tell the part of the story that’s best suited for video, because it’s really just a part of the audience experience.”

3. Reporters and editors need to be educated about video.

Kathy Kieliszewski, the photo editor at the Detroit Free Press, spoke about the increased pressure these days “to do video with everything,” despite the fact that not all stories are well suited to video. The problem? Reporters, and often editors, who aren’t visually educated the way videojournalists are.

“It’s this constant education and constant dialogue about what makes a good video,” Kieliszewski said.

“When somebody comes up to me and asks me, ‘Hey, we want to do video with X,’ I have a whole litany of questions: what’s going on, who are the characters, are there moments, is it emotional, would you watch it if you stumbled on it online? Is there a narrative? Do we have access? When’s the deadline?”

“All these things have to come into play, because they’ll say, ‘I want to do video.’ Well, what type of video do you want to do? Do you want to tell a story? Do you want to do a clip? Do you want to do a standup like a TV news guy?”

Because a lot of reporting staff doesn’t come from a video background, she said, it’s really important to “educate people who aren’t necessarily video literate or visually literate as to what it is they want from video.”

4. Video should have an added value.

“I don’t want a video that tells the same story as the text,” said the Seattle Times’s Danny Gawloski. “I want a video that helps you understand the story in a way that the text doesn’t, in a way that the photo gallery doesn’t,  in a way that the graphic doesn’t.

“If they can all tell a slightly different story that helps your understanding, that’s how I judge success.”

5. Voice is important.

What publications found overall is that you can’t be all things for all people. As former Washington Post editor Andy Pergam said,  “People who lead organizations often have that misperception that we have to do everything for everybody. That’s not how the web works. I’m going to go to VICE to watch a particular type of thing, I’m going to go to FRONTLINE to watch a particular type of thing. And maybe that’s okay. They more that news organizations embrace that idea, the better the product will be.”

And together with that specialization, each of the organizations at the panel honed over time a certain voice or tone that worked for them and spoke to their audience. “What you need to do is video that is authentic to your organization,” said Pergam. “When FRONTLINE starts doing 30 second hamster videos, well, that will be a terrible day.”

“That, to me, is most important: figuring out what your voice is and therefore what specific part of the industry you want to do. There’s been a lot of experimentation because a lot of things haven’t worked, and so we try all sorts of things and we go in the direction that seems to work the best. In my mind it’s still so nascent, it’s still the early days; we’re still figuring it out.”

To see more about how newsrooms and digital publications are figuring it out, visit videnow.towcenter.org.

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