Why the time is right for The Washington Post & others to boost video initiatives

The Washington Post will formally launch PostTV today — a big gamble that it can widen audience and win significant advertising revenue by producing digital video programs and distributing the segments to various partners.

Announced in concept in June, PostTV includes an existing news summary show called “The Fold.” “On Background” — an interactive news discussion hosted by Nia-Malika Henderson — will debut today at 12:30 p.m. ET, its regular time spot. Later in the week, “In Play,” a political show anchored by Chris Cillizza and former USA Today reporter Jackie Kucinich, will be added.

These three are just a start to a much bigger venture, senior editor for video Andrew Pergam told me in a phone interview. Additional shows will follow, and all will be chopped into segments that can be viewed individually and, over time, made available on other platforms.

The Post is not revealing specific staff and cost numbers or what new advertising revenue it expects to take in. But Pergam did not dispute talk I’ve heard from the newsroom that this is one of the paper’s biggest expansion investments in a decade.

I have written before that there is a try-try-again quality to the Post’s video initiatives. In the past, the Post hired star videographers like Travis Fox (who’s no longer with the paper) to produce ambitious top-of-the-line pieces — an artistic success that did not draw enough audience or advertising to work as a business.

But now the time is right with audience moving from desktop to mobile, where video accounts for a much larger share of news consumption, up to 50 percent according to one study.  Advertiser demand is robust and expanding, and the going rates ($25 per thousand impressions is typical) are multiples higher than what static banner ads command.

The Post will be entering an arms race of sorts with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, all dashing headlong to expand their video offerings for the same reasons.

While PostTV has poached production hires from CNN and MSNBC, Pergam is taking pains to differentiate his programming from typical cable news fare.

For instance, Henderson’s show, he said, “is an attempt to rethink what an interactive show should be.” A topic or a question (for example, “What is one thing the city of Detroit should do?”) will be posted throughout social media platforms early in the day. The live conversation comes during the lunch hour, but the discussion chain stays open after. The aim, Pergam continued, “is to weave social media into the show,” relying principally on PostTV’s Twitter account and the hosts’ individual accounts.

Similarly, Pergam wrote in his June preview, the Cillizza-Kucinich show will aim to “cut through the noise to help you better understand what’s ‘In Play’ in politics right now, and what’s ahead. We’ll give you a sense of the day in Washington, the stories you may have missed and an informed look ahead.”

The Fold” started as a Google TV program, Pergam said, aimed at so-called “cord cutters,” a mostly younger demographic who think they can do without the considerable expense of cable watching time-shifted entertainment shows on alternative platforms like Hulu.

The Wall Street Journal was early to the video party in 2010, with both produced newscasts and training hundreds of journalists out in the field to make brief, rudimentary videos shot on cell phones or simple cameras. 

In the Post’s plans, Pergam said, “there’s room for on the ground reporting, and you’ll see that from us, too.” But for right now, the emphasis is on “going for quality, a higher level of analysis and production.”

Video has been a longtime presence in The New York Times digital editions, ranging from spot analysis of breaking news like a major Supreme Court decision, to David Carr and A.O. Scott’s Friday chats on arts topics to, more recently, actual performance clips. Most are in crisp two- to five-minute segments. 

But the Times too has indicated that lots more is on the way. In its April announcement of a new growth strategy, the third of four planks was:

The development of a more robust and comprehensive video presence is another strategic initiative, which is still in the early stages of development. The company recently appointed a new general manager of video production to lead the effort to scale The Times’s video business to satisfy the demands of both users and advertisers.

USA Today has spent several years developing video segments in its topical specialties, including travel, technology and sports. Sports clips on major league teams and big college programs also have been a hit for many metros.

The Post, which is phasing in a new porous paywall this summer, intends to offer all the video for free. The Times also changed its policy in April so that video views do not count against a monthly quota of open access articles. The company has said videos will remain free for the foreseeable future.

What that says for the developing video business model is that advertising demand and rates are so strong that organizations will make more money by maximizing viewership than extracting subscription revenue from regular users.

PostTV dovetails with another strong trend of the last several years — the rising importance of individual brands (much in the news last week as stats-guy Nate Silver announced he is leaving the Times for ESPN).

Cillizza is an example, as the lead reporter among several for The Fix, a quick-format collection of political tidbits. Other cases in point include Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook at the Times, the Journal’s AllThingsD, featuring Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher with 10 other reporters, and Bill Simmons’ Grantland at ESPN. The Post also announced last week that it is launching its own tech blog and another on state and local government.

To me, this suggests the top national news organizations are still building their franchise on comprehensive reports and editorial judgment but they also want a piece of the action in personal brands like those Andrew Sullivan or Josh Marshall have built on digital-only sites.

I would also take the PostTV debut as consistent with a quickened pace of innovation since Marty Baron became editor the first of the year. Pergam joined the Post to develop the project almost two years ago, after stints teaching at American University and earlier work as a reporter and editor at NBC.

But the pace picked up in 2013, he said. “Seven months has been a pretty aggressive schedule to get this done. It’s been exhilarating but it’s also exhausting.”

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