On election night, video was everywhere — and not just on television. Dozens of news sites and mobile apps also featured video, and there was no shortage of places to watch the election results roll in without ever having to touch a remote control.
An amazing number of newspapers put on a full-court press of election night video. The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (edited segment here), The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times (to name just a few) had wall-to-wall coverage. There were editors and reporters on set, reporters doing live shots, and interviews with experts — many of the trappings of television newscasts. It was an impressive amount of effort.
Some had very polished “talent” on camera. But too often the journalists in front of the camera weren’t comfortable there — they didn’t look at the camera, didn’t dress for the camera, or had untrained voices that were tough to listen to for stretches of time. There were lots of smart journalists saying interesting things, but information often got lost in technique.
Broadcast journalists have skills that are often undervalued by newspaper folks, and performance is one of them. Think of it like writing. Great information, written poorly, is hard to absorb. Great information poorly delivered is tough to understand.
There were some nice-looking sets, or interesting locations, like the staircase at The New York Times. On the other hand, many sets were in the middle of a newsroom. Newsrooms can be grey, messy places that don’t look great on camera — even with good lighting.
By and large, the television networks were giving me exactly what I wanted throughout the evening — the state of the election returns. So the question that came to mind over and over again as I watched online video was, “What need does this meet?”
A few places had clearly chosen a niche to fill. Huffington Post Live had smart young people in party clothes expressing their opinions on the returns, often quoting breaking news from other outlets. Instead of covering instantaneous results, they were “waxing philosophical,” as one anchor said.
Some outlets, like the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, NewsOK and Omaha.com chose to produce shorter segments throughout the evening and focused on local elections. NewsOK has a lovely set and a very polished anchor, and it used Google hangouts for short newscasts on the hour to talk about local results and issues. Omaha.com only showed live streams from campaign headquarters when candidates took the stage.
On mobile apps, there seemed to be a stronger sense of strategy behind the video streams. ABC News’ iPad app let you choose from four streams, including live video, maps and results, and the network’s social media stream. CNN also gave viewers a choice of multiple streams. The Washington Post’s Politics app highlighted video stories that had been produced based on the election.
By the time the election was called, I felt like I’d overdosed on caffeine from watching video on multiple platforms — at the same time — all night long. That’s not how most people watch. News consumers are constantly using multiple screens, watching TV with their laptop open and their smartphone in hand. But we know that most of the time, they’re sending email or using social media on the second device, not watching video on two screens at the same time.
Which brings me back to the question I raised earlier: What need are we trying to fill? What are we doing with our online video that’s not being done as well or better somewhere else? Are we assuming our audience isn’t watching television on election night? As people connect to the news on multiple screens, what is the job to be done? Great video is hard. It’s expensive. It takes people with a lot of skills.
It’s also important. People are watching more and more video on more platforms. Time spent watching not-on-TV video is growing exponentially. News organizations need to be doing this, and doing it well. As it continues to grow and get better, let’s continue to develop our focus.