High Cost, Low Quality Plague Newspaper Video Efforts

Last week’s demise of 702.tv in Las Vegas generated a lot of discussion about the quality and cost of newspaper Web site video. The jury’s still out, but the verdict is not looking good.

“I’ve never seen a newspaper-produced TV show on the Web that has ever been successful,” writes spokesman.com video journalist Colin Mulvany, in an e-mail. “That said, I think the future is in the convergence of the Web and TV. When calling up the RSS video feeds from newspapers to view on a large HDTV becomes mainstream (and it will) then programs like 702.tv will have a better chance at success.”

In discussions with a handful of video journalists, these themes have emerged:

  • There’s a market for good video, especially in big cities, but good video is too labor-intensive to be cost-effective.
  • It’s very easy to produce amateurish video, but difficult to sell advertising into it.
  • As a result, video often is the first thing cut from downsizing newsrooms.

Large sites like washingtonpost.com are awash in high-dollar, pre-roll ads from companies such as Liberty Mutual, The UPS store, and Northrop Grumman. And the Post has been an industry leader in producing high-quality, Emmy Award-winning documentary video journalism. But those high-cost, low-frequency masterpieces don’t generate enough views to display all of the ads just waiting to be served.

Posties brainstorming ways of creating worthwhile video with a quicker turnaround eventually came up with the ill-fated “Mouthpiece Theater.” The political satire starring the Post‘s Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza was canceled this summer after a well-publicized segment involving the phrase “Mad Bitch Beer” and a picture of Hillary Clinton.

“Although fatally flawed, Milbank and Cillizza should be applauded for embracing the spirit of experimentation underlying it,” Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote in his post-mortem. “With the traditional business model for newspapers broken, new audiences must be found. The newsroom needs risk-takers and pioneers in new media.”

(Critics argued that simply using the word “experimentation” didn’t excuse the poor judgment involved.)

From what I’ve seen, smaller newspaper sites rarely sell pre-roll advertising. However themorningcall.com in Allentown, Pa., did sell a yearlong, sitewide sponsorship of its videos, including “On The Cheap,” to a local cable provider, according to Chad Peters, the director of digital sales. The sponsorship expired this summer.

In one recent “On The Cheap” segment, Soper learns from a local resident how to rip off a local McDonald’s restaurant by claiming a two-for-one Quarter Pounder coupon in the drive-thru lane, but never handing over the coupon (allowing it to be “used” again and again). In a followup segment, Soper is videotaped yawning and drooling while listening to phone messages from viewers outraged by the McDonald’s piece.

Soper, a business reporter, spends one day a week with videographer April Bartholomew creating the popular Web feature, without costing the newspaper any money. Soper writes in an e-mail interview that he’s marketing “On The Cheap” through Facebook. “We have more than 300 fans, mostly in the Philly/NY metro areas, but we’re starting to get more fans from around the country and around the world.”

The site isn’t running pre-roll ads on any of its videos now, though there are display ad spots on the video pages, so there is at least some marginal gain from the increased traffic. (Soper also points out that other Tribune sites that do have pre-roll advertising carry his “On The Cheap” segments.)

“On the cheap” accurately describes a lot of the video pieces being produced by newspapers everywhere, including The Roanoke Times and the Gatehouse chain in Ohio.

The Times produces a weekly Friday night high school football “Game of the Week” show on its “VarsityCast” page. There’s no reporter, no voiceover. Just a couple of minutes of nicely edited highlights, with marching band music as a soundtrack, and a brief interview or two at the end.

“We’re getting a great response from the community,” Web producer Chris Zaluski wrote in an e-mail interview. “The games, features and preseason/midseason shows are by far the most watched videos on the site.”

There’s no pre-roll advertising on “Game of the Week.” But there is (as you might expect on a page about high school sports) a static display ad for Papa John’s pizza.

The same situation applies to “FridayNightOhio,” a high school sports site run jointly by four Gatehouse newspapers. The “From the Pressbox” video feature has no pre-roll advertising. In fact, the video first is uploaded to YouTube, and the site embeds the YouTube player.

“Game of the Week” and “From the Pressbox” are great services to the local high school sports audience. That kind of effort is the foundation of local journalism. If the return on investment is too low, perhaps the answer is to lower the investment.

What happens to the overly ambitious? Chris Kouba headed the video unit of hamptonroads.tv (a project of The Virginian-Pilot) until financial realities led to huge staffing cuts a year ago.

“The video site launched in 2005 at The Virginian-Pilot with a mix of news, features and user-generated video and a standalone team that added an 18- to 34-oriented Webcast a year later,” Kouba wrote in an e-mail interview. “As best we could tell, the site attracted more online video views than local stations did, but it wasn’t growing fast enough to support a standalone staff anytime soon.” Several staff members were reassigned, and the others received severance packages, he said.

“I thought 702.tv (and HamptonRoads.tv) did a great job of showing newspaper companies can deliver broadcast- and cable-quality programming whenever that market develops,” Kouba wrote. “It was also a natural in a town that has had an independent video site for years (rawvegas.tv, going after the entertainment crowd). I had hoped that they’d be able to spread costs across both online and cable ads, but it’s been a tough recession all around.”

Steve ‘Chops’ Preiss, president of RawVegas.tv, writes in an e-mail that 702.tv failed to compete with his site for a variety of predictable reasons: their videos weren’t viral; the 30-second pre-roll ads were too long and irrelevant to the content; the accompanying TV show was only on local cable, with too small an audience to attract advertisers; and it wasn’t integrated with print products.

“I’ve always been intrigued by newspapers’ general delay in embracing new online initiatives to create a more central hub for cities,” Preiss writes. “However, 702 wasn’t really an off-shoot of the Sun or closely integrated at all, which was a major part of its failure.”

Mulvany, my former colleague in Spokane, was one of the early adopters of video. He’s watched as newspapers have scaled back video production.

“I was transitioned from being a multimedia editor back to a staff photojournalist during last year’s blood-letting,” Mulvany wrote in an e-mail interview. “Across the country, many photojournalists who added video to their storytelling toolboxes have lost their jobs.”

Mulvany said he still believes video is important to the future of digital journalism.

“When publishers turn the focus back on their Web sites, video has to be a big part of what they do. Look at what’s happening outside of journalism. YouTube delivers over a billion video streams to consumers each day. New devices are allowing consumers to view video on [devices from] cell phones to e-readers. When I first started shooting video for my newspaper’s Web site in 2004, I was an anomaly. Broadband-delivered Web video was new to both consumers and publications. Now it is mainstream.”

The question, amid all of the cuts in the newspaper industry, is who will be best-positioned to take advantage of money-making video opportunities if and when they emerge?

CORRECTION: The original version of this post presumed that themorningcall.com has not sold pre-roll advertising on its videos. That has been corrected, and additional information about the advertising arrangement has been added.

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