Unfinished media business for 2015 -- will non-broadcast news video become a force?

I am neither a fan nor a maker of sweeping future-of-media predictions. But I will lighten up this holiday season with a few thoughts on business trends of 2014 likely to gain momentum in 2015.

Top of my list -- by a wide margin -- is whether non-broadcast video can mount a serious business challenge to the news offerings of the networks, local stations and cable.

This one takes a little explaining. Leading national news outlets -- The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Associated Press -- have been offering video reports online for at least a decade.

CNN, the Today show and a host of other news/talk programs have well-trafficked digital sites.

And by now we all know of a little company named Vice, whose principal news product is longish first-person video reports, many from abroad.

A trio of lurking questions intrigue me:

*How close are we to a build-your-own newscast from a single provider or multiple ones? Is that even what users want, as opposed to self-contained stories?

*Does smart-phone ubiquity juice up the market for watchable segments, arguably a better fit for how people use the device with quick bursts of consumption than for broadcast or desktop/laptop?

*Is there a chance that a year hence digital news video will be positioned to disrupt broadcast/cable just as digital text reports have already done to print newspapers and magazines?

For an established, if imperfect version of an easy-to-assemble newscast, one could check out AOL's main report. It consists of a slide-show formatted deck of 40 stories, from a variety of sources, most including a text and video version, the latter running 45-seconds to two minutes. And each of the videos is preceded by a non-skippable 3-second pre-roll ad.

After a couple of hard news items, the selection veers to soft topics -- health, fashion, celebrities, wardrobe malfunction. You could allot 10 or 15 minutes to a browse or instead watch several stories on your smart phone while waiting in line. The ad-to-content ratio is not user-friendly, but I assume AOL and partners are making money with every click.

More ambitious and serious-minded digital newscasts have had a checkered record. For instance, The Washington Post launched Post TV with a substantial investment in the summer of 2013. Its centerpiece was a group of three shows with regular hosts, formats and sets.

It soon became evident, though, that these digital shows were not developing much audience. The Post closed them down within months and reverted to segments displayed carousel style.

Yahoo's high-profile hire of Katie Couric hit the same wall, according to last Sunday's New York Times Magazine take-down of CEO Marissa Mayer. Couric's reports, appearing on an aggregation site with little other original content, haven't gotten much traction.

Vice has become too big a business to ignore, spawning a number of efforts to define what makes it successful. My own tentative list would include access in a number of formats, deals with brands and other services like YouTube, a home for Vice News with a number of racier sister sites and the little share button at the bottom of the window for cuing up a segment.

As legacy sites try to figure how they might borrow the best of Vice's best practices, CEO Shane Smith's answer in an October 2013 interview with Fortune is noteworthy:

You can’t retrofit it. If there’s a bunch of old dudes in a boardroom that go, “OK. Let’s start making video,” what they try to do is hire pedigreed people. What you get is a shittier version of TV. You really have to rip out the pipes. You have to make things in a different way, hire people who have never worked in TV or commercials or film, get people straight out of schools, get people who don’t know what they’re doing, form your own school and train these kids. The reason I’m telling you all this, the reason I’m giving away my secrets, is that’s it’s nearly impossible to do.

If you think you’re going to raise $50 million or $100 million and go out and hire people who’ve done it before to do TV online, you’re going to fail.

Late 2014 brought a flurry of moves to establish a digital news presence.  A representative example -- Reuters announced in October it would reconfigure its video services as Reuters TV, an algorithmicly-assembled digital broadcast targeting 27 to 47 year-olds, I was invited to a gala rooftop cocktail launch party in Manhattan in November. But when I called to ask about details, I was told the product was still under construction and executives preferred to wait until early 2015 for a demo and discussion.

So there will be lots to watch in 2015 -- not just more digital video but competition for audience and ad dollars that should yield both winners and casualties from an array of players.

A half-dozen more ongoing media business stories on my radar for 2015:

*Do the big guys like Google and Facebook get into generating their own content or stick with refinements of their aggregation offerings?

*Has the "less is more" style of Internet news begun to displace a superabundance of choices that has become unmanageable.  If so, the aggregators, human or algorithmic, stand to become "gatekeepers" like the dominant legacy editors who were theoretically overthrown by the digital revolution.

*Newspapers will become fully unbundled in 2015 from from local broadcast at companies like Gannett and Scripps-Journal. Will that help find them find their footing with enough growth in assorted digital revenue streams to outweigh continued print advertising losses? For that matter, will local broadcast continue to look like a juggernaut in a down year for political advertising?

*Native advertising continues its boom but with standards of disclosure (and possible regulation) no closer than before. The Federal Trade Commission, mostly silent since a December 2013 workshop, promises a report and suggested practices in the new year.

*Likewise broader digital audience metrics made progress in 2014, but I am betting on slow rather than transformational change in 2015.

*The health of the non-profit news sector and its ability to revitalize community news "ecosystems" merits close attention in 2015 and beyond.

You may notice that my list does not include whether 2015 will be the year of mobile, as has been predicted each year since this decade began. In retrospect, mobile got big year-by-year rather than in one swoop, but that still leaves on the table the question of how it can best be monetized for news applications.

Disclosure: Poynter has a grant application pending with the Knight Foundation to study non-broadcast video.


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