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Good video content: What’s working for news publishers, what isn’t

Media scholars note that new media imitates its predecessor before evolving into its own distinct form. Early newsreels imitated movies. The first television news shows drew heavily on radio. It’s no surprise that early attempts at digital video mimicked television.

Watching online video however is a different experience than television viewing.

For one, watching digital video is more likely to be a solitary experience. The physical proximity to the screen makes the experience more intimate. Both facts influence the form.

Ed O’Keefe, a vice president at CNN, said that means “there’s little room for pretense.” Online video “needs to be authentic, you certainly can’t talk down to the audience — you need to be smart and straight.”

Listening to leading thinkers on digital video, we identified seven concepts on how to produce content effectively:

  • Drop TV conventions like putting reporters on camera or creating “shows”
  • Find the video “part” of your story
  • Get to the story quickly and keep it short — mostly
  • Find content unique to your organization
  • Understand the differences between video forms
  • When possible, build to platform or device
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment

Today’s digital video environment offers dizzying choice. At one end of the spectrum are startups like Mashable, Upworthy, BuzzFeed and NowThis. The oldest of these organizations is 9 years old. On the other end of the spectrum, are the legacy media standard bearers like the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post or networks like NBC, ABC or CNN.

Whether their founding was in this century or two centuries ago, they all now share the same goal: Getting people to watch their video.

Mashable’s former director of news video Ashley Codianni maintained that producing online video is more difficult than producing pieces for television. She’s done both.

“My responsibility in creating online video is not just to captivate an audience … That person has to watch the video, that person has to stop, they have to go to their Facebook or Twitter and share it. So our challenge is so much greater than television.”

Just because a company has its roots in video doesn’t necessarily mean it has figured out the online video world, said Bill Smee, NBC’s executive producer for digital content.

“What NBC has done extremely well for decades on television doesn’t necessarily translate … the digital side of NBC News is embracing the idea that we can take risks, do things a little outside the lines.”

Drop TV conventions like putting reporters on camera or developing online ‘shows’

“I think a lot of publishers assumed early on that the fastest way to make video, the easiest way to make video, was to put your editors and writers in front of a camera and make them talk. And a lot of them looked really unhappy,” said Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, the executive producer of video at The Atlantic.

“It didn’t really make for super shareable, compelling video,” von Baldegg added. “Our focus has been on visual storytelling.”

For example, this Atlantic video about life in Green Bank, W.Va., inside a “national radio quiet zone.”

Many outlets have traveled the reporter-on-camera route, including the New York Times. Senior Producer Zena Barakat said the Times has since become “very picky” about who appears online.

At Politico though, putting reporters on camera is still a video mainstay. For example, this piece where Politico’s Anna Palmer and Manu Raju preview Jeb Bush’s visit to Washington, D.C.

Politico faces a unique challenge. Its topics are niche and not necessarily video rich, making visual story telling difficult. Yet it faces the same advertising demands of more mainstream outlets. Politico says that they’re still finding their way.

“We don’t feel we’ve cracked the code that would give us confidence in going gangbusters into video,” said Rick Berke, Politico’s former executive editor.

The second most common imitation of television is developing online news “shows” similar to TV shows.

Putting together a visually compelling, editorially consistent show is harder than it looks. As Business Insider’s Henry Blodget famously said of his company’s foray into online TV shows, “We could get as good as we possibly can get it and we would still be bad CNBC.”

The Wall Street Journal has reduced its show-based programming from “a dozen or so” to about six but Raju Narisetti, senior vice president at News Corp, maintains that the WSJ’s show-based programming is effective. The financial markets, he said, provide a natural daily narrative.

“It fits in with the rhythm of our existing audience and what they do at a particular time,” he says. In addition, the Wall Street Journal’s shows generate video-on-demand clips.

“We’re able to edit the show into four to five video-on-demand clips, and it’s those clips that attach to the relevant stories that actually then have a long tail and generate a lot more views in the next 24 or 48 hours,” Narisetti says.

Find the part of the story that works on video

Storytelling differs from medium to medium. A print piece follows certain conventions. So does a video piece. Telling stories with video means finding the visual parts of the story and weaving them together into a new creation.

“Videos do not have ‘to be sure’ paragraphs,” said Bruce Headlam of the New York Times, referring to standard parts of print stories that offer qualifiers and cite exceptions. “They operate on a different, more visceral level and I think you have to find out what’s the part of this that’ll work on video.”

For example, the NYT’s Sunday column Modern Love has become equally popular on video. The Modern Love videos are not direct “video translations” of the column. Instead Modern Love videos extract elements from the column, mix them with other elements like the voices of the subjects and create a unique experience. You can read a Modern Love column and then watch a Modern Love video like the one below, and have two different, if related, experiences.

Get to the story quickly and keep it short — mostly

Unless your video is inherently compelling or emotional, keep it short — which means a few minutes or less. And get to your point quickly.

When Ed O’Keefe was the managing editor of NowThis News, he developed a list of practices common to online video. “Ruin the ending” was one. O’Keefe said that unlike in the typical television piece that builds to a conclusion, online audiences want that conclusion up top.

“You might have a 7- to 15-second lead-in to the story and you’d watch the graph just precipitously fall off as people were bailing until the story started. So that influenced us early on in terms of editing — you know, get to the story quickly,” O’Keefe said.

“Our research would suggest that our consumers, interested in news and information, want a shorter video,” said Steve Schiffman, the general manager of video at the Washington Post.

The exception? “Emotional” video.

“Some of our biggest, most viral pieces were really long actually,” said Andrew Forrest at Upworthy. “We’ve found in our more emotional pieces that the length doesn’t necessarily matter.”

For example, Upworthy featured this 22-minute SoulPancake piece about a 17-year-old with cancer has been viewed over 13 million times:

Screen size also contributes to time spent viewing. Basically the bigger the screen, the more time spent watching. According to a report from Ooyalah, viewers spent 65 percent of their time watching videos 30 minutes or longer on TVs connected to the internet. On tablets, viewers spent 23 percent of their time watching video of 30–60 minutes in length, more than on any other device.

Know what content is unique to your organization

Most media organizations consider themselves unique. Mission, location, demographics, geography, talent — when defined, those characteristics can suggest ways one can differentiate themselves with video.

Politico won its first Emmy for an 8-minute mini-documentary called “Dukakis and the Tank.

The story focused on one moment of the failed campaign, the photo-op that helped derail Dukakis’s bid for the presidency. It’s a story that perfectly fit Politico’s strengths.

“What that means is focusing on video that’s relevant to the coverage areas we care about, that doesn’t duplicate but gives added value and enhances the coverage in a way you couldn’t do through text,” said Rick Berke, Politico’s former executive editor.

Started in 1996, Slate is among the oldest digital-only publications. Slate has developed a video style whose edginess and humor mask serious social issues. In addition to its original videos, increasingly Slate uses video embedded in its text, like this article about New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton.

“If you’re writing about a particular movie scene wouldn’t it be better to be able to see that scene? Yes it would,” said David Plotz, Slate’s former editor in chief.

Differentiate between different forms of video

There exists a natural spectrum of video possibilities within any news organization, driven by available resources and talent.

Zena Barakat, a senior producer at the New York Times, explained: “I’m thinking about 2 things. Quick relevant news items that people are really interested in, and higher quality thought-out pieces that are going to be really shareable and interesting to people. Everything in between is the thing we struggle with most.”

Drake Martinet from Vice News agreed.

“We’ve stopped thinking about the news video we produce as all one lane,” he said.

When possible, build to platform or device

Back in the early ’60s, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the medium itself shaped the content it carried, which in turn shaped society. For publishers, this translates into practical advice: If possible, shape the video to the medium on which it’s most likely viewed.

CNN.com is in the unique position of having both scale and an abundance of content. Former general manager KC Estenson says his staff is developing a shared understanding of what video works best where.

“We’re going, ‘Does a 7-minute piece work here? Do we need a quick bite? Is this a social play, a mobile play? That’s the type of craft that comes out when you have the scale…we can play with different formats in different ways.”

Most publishers won’t have the abundance of resources necessary to make such decisions. Still the idea that the certain stories are best told in certain forms represents a natural evolution in online video.

Experiment, experiment, experiment

The biggest difference between TV and online video, according to Bill Smee of NBC News, is the variety of things his online teams try.

“Sometimes it’s an epic fail and sometimes it’s kind of good,” Smee said.

One of NBC Digital’s biggest hits so far is an online video titled, “Everything you Thought You Know about Packing is Wrong.” Smee was taken by surprise by the video’s success.

“It’s all about originality of thought,” Smee says.

Experiment quickly. Since good content is often shared and finds audiences, those who lag behind can miss out on opportunities.

Andy Pergam led video at the Washington Post. He now steers video strategy at McClatchy. He says, “You launch things not fully baked so it’s 80 percent of the way there … if you wait until everything is 100 percent done, you’re in trouble.”

The risks for legacy organizations are higher, according to Bruce Headlam, the managing editor for video at the New York Times. “If we do something that is not up to our standards, we get slaughtered. People really let us know. So you have to be aware of the value of your brand, what it means to people … you can’t violate the basic trust of your loyal audience.”

The Atlantic executive producer, von Baldegg, likens finding the “perfect” online video to skipping rocks.

“You can pick the perfect rock. You can put the perfect spin on it but at the end of the day there are conditions out there beyond your control. There’s wind, there’s ripples, there’s waves and sometimes it goes for miles and it’s awesome and sometimes it sinks to the bottom of the lake.”

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