Not long ago, some news organizations were beginning to give up on online video. It required significant resources, and it wasn’t generating as much revenue or traffic as they had hoped. News organizations that have stuck with it, though, have found that video provides them with a way to advance what they’re already doing well, increase time on site, and engage users in ways that traditional narratives can’t.
The Miami Herald is one of the media outlets that has had noticeable success with video. Last year, MiamiHerald.com saw about a 25 percent growth in video traffic, making it the second biggest traffic driver behind articles. I talked with the folks who run the Herald’s video efforts to find out more about their strategy and what other news organizations can learn from it.
Figuring out what your audience wants
The Herald, which has experimented with video for six years, has found that breaking news and sports videos generate the most views. These are areas that have always been strong points at the Herald, so it makes sense that they would carry over well into video, said Miami Herald Managing Editor Rick Hirsch.
“This isn’t rocket science, but do video on the things that people come to your site for,” he said by phone. “You may think, ‘This would be a really great thing to do video on,’ but if it’s not on a topic or area where people are already consuming content, then it’s going to be hard to draw an audience.”
The number one video on MiamiHerald.com last year got about 26,000 views and was a feature on how to handle frozen iguanas. Overall, though, the top videos were tied to breaking news and sports stories about a Playboy model who was murdered; five teenagers who were found dead in a hotel; and the construction of the Marlins’ new ballpark.
Smaller news organizations such as the Roanoke Times have also found that sports and breaking news videos are the most popular.
“Breaking news video is very much in demand in our community,” said Meg Martin, online editor of Roanoke.com. “It’s often short, and it’s often simple and it often takes people directly into the story, where they can’t otherwise go, without the filter of our production process standing between them and what they want to know. It feels very raw and direct and insider.”
In the past, the Herald has produced longer videos of editorial board meetings and of newsmakers speaking out on a topic, but has found that they drive little traffic.
“One thing we’ve learned is there’s a reason that television does two-minute stories,” Hirsch said. “Unless something is super compelling, people’s attention span is relatively short, and it’s even shorter on a small screen.”
One indication of a video’s popularity is its completion rate. On average, 55 to 60 percent of visitors will watch a video on MiamiHerald.com from beginning to end, Hirsch said, noting that this has helped lower the site’s bounce rate. Figuring out how to make videos more searchable on MiamiHerald.com and on Google, he said, continues to be a challenge.
Having a team of people who create news & studio videos
The Herald and its Spanish-language sister paper El Nuevo Herald have two full-time news videographers who focus solely on video and two photographers who spend part of their time on video. Having a designated video team frees up reporters to write and has helped enhance the overall quality of the videos, said visual journalist Chuck Fadely, who oversees the Herald’s video team.
“Three or four years ago, we were training reporters, but we discovered it was like teaching a pig to sing; it annoys the pig and frustrates the teacher,” Fadely noted, saying that some reporters still occasionally shoot video. “Back then we had a couple of reporters who got it. Since the staff reductions, they don’t have time to work on videos, and the quality level was lower, so we’ve basically given up on reporter-produced videos.”
A couple of years ago, the Herald asked staffer Karen Burkett — a former TV producer — to spearhead the Herald’s studio video production efforts. The studio now has two to three people who shoot seven to 14 videos a week. High school sports are a big draw, as are some videos of Herald staffers talking about their line of work. Burkett said videos with technology columnist Bridget Carey are especially popular. (This has also worked well for The Washington Post.)
While the site’s news videos have grown in popularity, they’re still not generating as much revenue as the Herald had hoped.
“We’re not nearly at the level that we’d like, and the pre-roll ads are still not coming close to paying for the operation,” Fadely said, “but we are getting sponsorship for studio sports shows right now.”
Finding ways to expand your brand
The Herald, which averages 60 to 80 video uploads a month, has partnered with WSFL-TV and with CBS 4 in Miami to try to extend its reach. The Herald occasionally shares content with WSFL and cross-promotes content with CBS 4 Miami, which helps drive more traffic to the site, Fadely said.
The Herald also puts many of its videos on YouTube, where they sometimes get thousands more hits than on MiamiHerald.com.
One of the more interesting ways that the Herald has extended its video efforts is by creating an hour-long documentary on the earthquake in Haiti. The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald collaborated with WPBT2, one of South Florida’s PBS affiliates, and El Nuevo videographer Jose Iglesias produced the film, working for a year with the help of independent filmmaker Joe Cardona.
Fadely said the Herald realized there was an appetite for Iglesias’ work, whose earthquake videos doubled MiamiHerald.com’s total monthly traffic to 1 million hits last January. To put that in perspective, the site’s videos generated 7.5 million hits altogether last year.
The “Nou Bouke” documentary aired on more than 70 PBS stations nationwide in January and was well-received, said Fadely, who would like to see the Herald produce more documentaries in the future.
“I‘ve been pushing for the documentary work, and I think that as long as we can retain staffing, our future lies in producing stuff for other media besides our own,” he said by phone. “We went into video years ago trying to produce stuff that would be broadcast worthy, and a lot of our stuff gets picked up. I think that’s the way to go — to do things beyond what you would just run on your own website. This documentary is the prime example of that.”
The Roanoke Times has also found that documentary-style videos do well. The photographers and online staffers have produced shorter documentary videos that they’ve embedded in stories about underage drinking, fatal crashes on Interstate 81 and Lyme disease.
“In terms of the plays on documentary-style videos, we see a pretty significant spike when they launch, and we also see that they do have some serious longevity,” Martin said by phone, adding that the Times produces four to seven videos per week. “People tend to watch the videos more and longer when they’re embedded in a story than when they’re on a separate page.”
Relying on the AP, other vendors
MiamiHerald.com produces about 40 percent of its videos in-house. The rest come from outside vendors, such as CineSport and The Associated Press. Bill Burke, global director of online video products at the AP, said 1,500 news orgs are part of the AP’s Online Video Network, which provides news organizations with a hosted video player. A couple hundred media outlets also subscribe to individual AP videos that they can add to their own players.
Years ago, Burke said, news organizations were more interested in running just local videos on their site. Now more of them seem to want to feature national and international videos that they don’t have the resources to produce themselves. Videos about the shooting in Tucson and the flooding in Australia “can be used to draw people in to a local news organization’s video,” Burke said by phone.
While there are still challenges to face in online video, there’s also a newfound sense that it’s worth investing in.
“There’s no question that there’s a new appreciation for video and its ability to really engage people,” said Burke, who thinks tablets have helped renew attention to video. “It’s gone in a cyclical manner. If you go back four years when all this kind of started, everyone was very psyched, then there was a period there where people got disillusioned. Now the opportunities in digital are starting to mature and people are starting to get better at video; I think they see the possibilities there.”
News organizations, he said, have in the past tried to pursue video without a clear goal in mind. Now he sees more outlets reassessing their efforts to figure out what their niche is and how they can expand on it without depleting resources. A willingness to “stick with it” is key.
“That’s one of the things the Herald has done,” Burke said. “We have this expectation in the Internet age that things will instantly be successful, but they require time, investment and effort. The goal is to make the effort run parallel with the returns.”