A year ago, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram launched “Titletown, TX,” a real-world version of “Friday Night Lights.” Over 20 mini-documentaries, the Star-Telegram followed the Aledo Bearcats as they rebounded from defeat and won a Texas state football championship.
When the season came to an end, so did the documentary. But in the past week, “Titletown, TX” saw an unexpected resurgence on a format that’s swept the publishing industry overnight: Facebook Watch.
When the social networking giant announced the initial roster of publishers that were joining the platform, there were some big names: A&E, Condé Nast, National Geographic and Major League Baseball, to name a few. But there was also the Star-Telegram, a McClatchy newspaper in North Texas with a show that was still relevant months after it ended.
So, they allowed Facebook to use the video in exchange for the possibility of earning future revenue from the midroll advertising it might generate on Facebook Watch, said Lauren Gustus, executive editor of the Star-Telegram. Facebook didn’t pay McClatchy or the newspaper up front. But that’s OK, she said, because the show was a success “before Facebook Watch ever came along.”
“We did ‘Titletown’ because we believed in the story,” Gustus said.
Many other news organizations have jumped aboard Facebook Watch, an on-demand video service that has been billed as an alternative to YouTube and cable news. Although publishers interviewed by Poynter declined to disclose the specifics of their arrangements with Facebook, early reporting has filled in some of the gaps: Some publishers are being paid by Facebook to produce shows; they retain their rights to some of them; some publishers are being compensated with a revenue split and ad buyers are bullish on the platform.
Publishers pay close attention when Facebook debuts a new product and occasionally rearrange their editorial priorities around them (remember the furor over Facebook Live?). Poynter interviewed journalists at news organizations that are experimenting with Facebook Watch to get a better sense of how the new product fits into their overall strategy.
Mashable is producing two shows for Facebook Watch through Mashable Studios, its Los Angeles-based video production outfit. They’re lighter, more entertaining fare: “What’s Your Mutt,” a weekly talk show where Mashable hosts use DNA testing to determine a dog’s true breed, and “DIY Costume Squad,” wherein cosplay experts show viewers how to make do-it-yourself getups.
Like many other publishers interviewed by Poynter, Mashable views Facebook Watch as yet another platform to create video for. Whether it’s YouTube, Facebook News Feed or Snapchat Discover, publishers have to customize their video for that experience, said Greg Gittrich, chief content officer at Mashable.
“We make sure the video that we send for Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter is designed to be enjoyed in that user experience,” Gittrich said.
Mashable Studios will continue producing video designed to be consumed on Facebook’s News Feed — non-serialized, short clips that can be understood without sound.
“For us, this is additive,” Gittrich said. “… I think the mistake a lot of people make is viewing video as one thing, or believing that video can move from platform to platform without being for that platform’s audience.”
The Atlantic is also producing two shows through its video production arm, Atlantic Studios. “Animalism,” a show hosted by science writer Ed Yong, will explain new discoveries in the animal kingdom. Another series, “Myths You Learn In School,” will bust myths in American lesson plans and explore “what it really means to get a good education.”
The Atlantic is not planning to build a separate team to create Facebook Watch videos, as some publishers did with Snapchat Discover and Facebook Live. And they’ll also be adding to their Facebook Watch page some video that’s not created explicitly for the new format.
Like Gittrich from Mashable, Atlantic Studios views Facebook Watch as a new platform within an existing one. Videos on Facebook Watch are serialized, meaning they require a much longer story arc than a typical video on the social network.
“All these platforms have nuances. We like to lump all video into the same category,” said Kim Lau, senior vice president and general manager of Atlantic Digital. “But … every platform is a little different. If you think about video for the Facebook News Feed, it’s very different from video that you might produce for a series.”
It’s “way too early to tell” whether Facebook Watch will endure or not, Lau said, noting “there aren’t many things in this business that we know for sure a year or two from now.” For The Atlantic, there is value in experimenting, she said.
Because Facebook Watch has only been rolled out to a fraction of users, there hasn’t yet been a lot of opportunity to determine how viewers engage with the video, said Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, the executive producer of Atlantic Studios. But its serialized nature makes it a good fit for deeper stories, she said.
“What’s appealing about the watch platform is it seems like it’s a quality viewing experience where people are engaged with the video,” she said.
Quartz is launching several shows on Facebook Watch that examine forces shaping the future of the global economy. The platform fits in with a strategy at the Atlantic Media-owned publication to create video that reaches people where they are — regardless of whether they can make money from that content right away.
“All of these questions, from monetization to viewership, who knows?” said Solana Pyne, executive producer at Quartz. “We want to do it because Facebook is investing in a place for a different kind of video than has typically dominated the News Feed.”
Like The Atlantic, Quartz will be adding video content to Facebook Watch that was originally published elsewhere, Pyne said. Judging by the serialized format, videos on Facebook Watch are “not your standard news feed videos,” she said. But Facebook has been deliberately holistic with its selections, throwing a lot of ideas at the audience and seeing what resonates.
While being on Facebook Watch may pay dividends down the line, the video journalism created by Quartz justifies itself, Pyne said.
“Our view is that video is worth doing just like any other form of journalism is worth doing,” she said. “We don’t think about each video in terms of how much it’s going to pay back, just like we don’t think about each print story in terms of how much it brings us.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Right now, “Title Town, TX” is the only video that the Star-Telegram has agreed to allow on Facebook Watch, Gustus said. But they’ve identified another story worth telling in the same format, rolling out in November, that they’re hoping might attract Facebook’s interest.
Facebook Watch is likely part of a wave of serialization coming to news organizations as over-the-top video becomes more popular, Gustus said.
“If you look at news publishers in general, we tend to do feature-length documentaries,” she said. “And I think what we’re seeing with both podcasts and the Hulu/Netflix model is people are interested in serialization.”