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March 28 2013

14:00

At The Wall Street Journal, a smartphone app has reporters on board for shooting video

The text-based web is dead, says Michael Downing. When AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced his intention this month to transform the company into a platform for video, Downing heard a death knell — one he’s been expecting for some time. We are, after all, as he says, on the precipice of “the rise of the visual web.”

Downing has a dog in this fight; he’s the founder of Tout, a video sharing website and app that makes it easy for users to upload and share short — under 15 seconds — videos in real-time. Although originally designed as a consumer device, it also appealed to publishers: The Wall Street Journal approached Downing with the idea for a proprietary app that reporters could use as a news gathering tool. With the addition of some analytics tools and a centralized management function that allows editors to quickly vet clips before they’re published, that became WorldStream, which we wrote about in August.

“Consumer behavior has become much more accustomed to consuming the news they want as it happens,” says Downing. “The WSJ was trying to be much more in line with real-time news and real-time publishing.”

More than half a year later, how’s WorldStream working out? The Journal seems pretty happy. On the business side, WorldStream point man and WSJ deputy editor of video Mark Scheffler describes the project as a “destination but also a clearinghouse.” While all of the WSJ’s mobile videos are first published to the feed, many go on to live second lives across a wide variety of platforms. Some clips follow reporters to live broadcast appearances, while others are embedded into article pages and blogs. Andy Regal, the Journal’s head of video production, said that they don’t break out WorldStream views from the newspaper’s overall video numbers, which he said total between 30 and 35 million streams per month.

That kind of traffic across platforms draws the attention of advertisers. The WSJ says video ads generate “premium” rates, meaning somewhere around $40 to $60 CPM. Says Tim Ware, WSJ director of mobile sales, of the Journal’s broader video strategy: “We’re very bullish on the growth of WSJ Live this fiscal year, and thus the growth in video ad revenue. We’re also starting to contemplate some one-off sponsorships within our overarching video coverage of select events and stories.” (After spending about a total of about an hour on WorldStream, however, I only saw one ad — for a “smart document solutions” company — repeated about a half dozen times.)

But the surprise, both for Downing and WSJ management, is how readily — and ably — the WSJ’s reporters have taken to the new medium; getting reporter buy-in has been a struggle for many newspaper video initiatives. “It started out as an internal tool because we didn’t know how many people would be able to accommodate this kind of approach with the technology and the software,” Regal says, “but they think about it as part of their daily work now.” Armed with iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Android devices, hundreds of WSJ staffers have filed video clips via Tout; in the 229 days since launch, that’s 2,815 videos. In many cases, Downing said, the reporters didn’t even need training: “They just jumped right in and started using it.”

Charles Levinson has been reporting for the Journal from places like Syria “What are the assets that give us an advantage over the competitor? We have 2,000 reporters around the world,” he said. “How do you parlay 2,000 reporters into good video?” Levinson says the Tout app is helping the WSJ avoid print media’s tendency toward “mediocre” video production.

Christina Binkley is a style columnist at the WSJ who first experimented with the app while reporting on New York’s 2012 Fashion Week. She says there’s a lot of pressure on reporters to be producing a huge variety of content — articles, columns, blogs, Instagrams, tweets. She said, unlike some other apps, WorldStream has really stuck with her: “I can add a lot of value to my column very quickly without having to mic somebody up.”

Scheffler says some of the reporters have gained basic video shooting skills so quickly that the footage they file can be edited together into longer clips that could pass for more traditionally produced video. Going forward, Scheffler hopes to put better mobile editing tools in their hands: “Being able to be full-fledged creators on a mobile platform is something that we’re just going to continue being at the frontier of,” he said.

Regal’s focus, meanwhile, will be to make sure none of that prime footage is being lost in the ever quickening deluge that is the WorldStream feed. He’s considering a “Best of WorldStream” weekly digest, and a variety of other news packages that make that valuable content more findable, and more shareable.

News organizations have been chasing the promise of video advertising for years now, and the rise of apps like Vine illustrate the rise of social video sharing. But Downing says he isn’t worried about the competition. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the existing video sharing apps have to do with self-expression,” he says, comparing Vine to something like Instagram. Tout’s enterprise apps skip the idea of sharing with friends and focuses on fast, concise updates from outlets that users follow based on broader personal interest.

“It’s a real-time, reverse chronological vertical feed of updates,” says Downing, “Whether it’s Twitter or LinkedIn, that is becoming the standard form factor for being able to track that information that you curate yourself.”

Since partnering with The Wall Street Journal last year, a number of publishers have pursued similar agreements with Tout — CBS, Fox, NBC Universal, WWE, La Gardere and Conde Nast are among them. By the end of 2013, Downing expects to host around 200 media outlets, including some of News Corp.’s other brands. Downing says these publisher agreements are now the company’s “primary mode of business,” not the consumer product.

What does Downing see coming in video? He confidently points to Google’s spring 2012 earnings report, when for the first time, its cost-per-click rate fell. “That was the sounding bell. That was the beacon. That was the one clear signal to the world that the era of the print metaphor defining the web experience…was over.”

August 30 2012

15:02

The newsonomics of leapfrog news video

Our political conventions reminds us that this is not the summer of love. But it may be the season we’ll remember as the summer of video.

Certainly, video’s — news video’s — growth has been noteworthy for awhile. But now there’s a bursting of new news video forms, a hothouse of experimentation that is both refreshing and intriguing. The blossoming has implications far and wide, not just for “news,” but for tech companies like Facebook and television brands from Ellen to Piers to The View. Within it, we see the capability of non-TV companies to leapfrog the TV people.

Just Monday, both The Wall Street Journal (“The Wall Street Journal wants its reporters filing microvideo updates for its new WorldStream”) and The New York Times made video announcements. A couple of weeks ago, the ambitious Huffington Post Live launched, hiring the almost unbelievable number of 104 staffers. In these three forays, and in the thinking in and around them, we see the boundaries of old media being slowly broken. We’re on the edge, finally, of new ways to both create and present news — and how to talk about the news.

It’s funny: “Video,” as a term, as a category, barely defines what we’re seeing. All video means is moving pictures, and we’ve had those since George Méliès (as Martin Scorcese reinterpreted in Hugo). We’ve known broadcast news and then cable news, witnessed their triumphs and now the declines of both. Because of twin technologies — all the iGadgets reintroducing us to the world as we know it and the behind-the-scenes digital pipes making content creation and distribution increasingly seamless — we’re seeing what creative people can do with moving pictures.

While this week’s Journal’s announcement focused on WorldStream, that semi-raw feed (all staff contributions are okayed one-by-one for public view) is but one of the full handful of Journal experiments with video.

Watch video now better embedded into stories (as the Times also has done with QuickLinks). Get appointment programs on WSJ Live (“The newsonomics of WSJ Live”). Watch on demand, in a variety of formats. Go directly to a video page, where all of the video output is categorized. And now, WorldStream, that rawish feed the Journal is doing, because it can — and because such video becomes great bait for the social web. Pick up the url, tweet it, and the Journal has happened on a social video strategy that is curiously akin to Upworthy’s.

It’s a multi-point access world for video producers. The Times will tell you that its viewing is roughly divided in thirds among its video center, its homepage video player and embedded-within-stories video. The Journal says more than half its views are now coming from embedded videos, with less than five percent of its views come from its video page. It makes sense that “video center” usage will decrease over time; these are transitional pages. Convergence is now becoming real, and we expect to see the content, text, voice, and pictures delivered in context. Finally. We don’t go to a place on sites called “Words.”

What’s most important about we’re seeing flickering before our eyes? Try these, as we look at the newsonomics of leapfrog news video.

  • It’s about money. Video advertising rates are holding up far better than display-around-text rates. “Give me inventory” is a cry heard from the salespeople, who find agencies and top advertisers’ pre-roll appetites nowhere near satiated. For top premium brands, $45-60 CPM (cost per thousand views) are still available, as display rates fetch as little as a tenth and as much as one-half of those numbers. In addition, companies are selling video packages and sponsored tile ads in addition to pre-rolls to sweeten their take. So production of video makes financial sense — even as news companies cut back, lay off, and pinch, pinch, pinch. The smarter companies are investing in video — staffers, training, technologies — even as they make those cuts, while other companies find themselves just stuck. Video is the second-fastest growing ad category in the U.S., according to IAB, up 29 percent year-over-year. It will be worth about $2 billion this year.
  • It’s about platforms. The Journal’s Alan Murray, who heads digital news efforts, says the company’s video traffic has doubled in six months. Why? It’s not mainly because of more use on Journal platforms, even though it’s been an innovator on the tablet. Most of that growth comes from the deals the Journal has done with an astonishing 26 “platforms.” They range from the ubiquitous iPad and Kindle to lesser known 5Min and LiveStation.1 By way of comparison, The New York Times is currently using three (Hulu, Google TV, YouTube).
  • It’s about technologies. The Times and the Washington Post have been using Google + Hangout, to facilitate conversation, and we’ve seen the fruits this week at the Republican Convention. As well-described by The Daily Beast’s Lauren Ashburn, Google Hangouts are a major, disruptive force; “no longer needed are satellite trucks or underground cables to beam talking heads to people’s living rooms. A simple Internet connection and a camera are rendering expensive gadgets obsolete.” The Journal is touting Tout, a Silicon Valley start-up that has taken much of the “friction” out of the business of video production. “Make it drop dead simple,” CEO Michael Downing says is his goal. That means taking the background tasks of uploading smartphone video from the field, “transcoding” it and then translating it to work in all the various formats (devices, screen sizes, operating sizes). That removes the work from media companies, and lets them focus on content and audience. In addition to the Journal, broadcasters including CNN, CBS, and ESPN have become customers.
  • It’s apparently not about appointment TV. HuffPo’s Live is the most interesting here. While it has 10 telegenic anchor/producer/hosts, those hosts don’t have standard daily program times. Segments will last between 12 and 35 minutes (most average 20-25), HuffPost Live president Roy Sekoff told me this week. Yet, they are fluid, with segment length adjustable on the fly. Readers pick topics — before, during, and after “Live” — from a reader-activated conveyor belt at the top of the page. “It’s the Internet,” says Sekoff pointedly, meaning it’s a flow, not a TV Guide-like grid in how readers/viewers use it. The Journal agrees. Even with on-the-hour blocks of News Hub programs, the majority of its viewing is on demand. Even for HuffPo, all of that live programming is then chunked into segments, and Sekoff estimates that he’ll have about 10,000 of them archived and ready for long-tail viewing by year’s end. We want what we want when we want it — and expect it to be there. Thus, findability becomes the issue, and the multiple points of access now being offered are very much a live test of consumer behavior and want.
  • It’s about simplicity. The Times’ announcement basically said this: You’ve proven you like video. Now we’re cleaning it up and making it more pleasurable to watch and easier to find. In the cleanup, the Times moved to 11 “navigation items” from 25, says Peter Anderson, director of video product. We see that translation in more uniform positioning of video panels on NYTimes.com pages, and a more elegant 16 × 9 video player format, replacing the oh-so-20th century 4 × 3.
  • It’s about the news — and talk about the news. In the approaches of the Times and the Journal on the one hand, and of HuffPo on the other, we see two quite different philosophies and strategies, but ones that may find meeting points. Both the Journal and the Times see their reporters as the foundation of the video process; Murray calls Dow Jones’ 2,000 journalists “the core asset.” So both are putting cameras into the hands of journalists, or enabling them to better use smartphones, thereby creating more impactful, multi-dimensional, multi-platform journalism. HuffPo, from its early days of being mainly a curator/aggregator, has had its pulse on what its progressive audience is wondering and talking about. Those topics, mostly off the news (Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy, veterans and poverty), are the ones front and center in its Live pages. Some, of course, derive from its journalists’ work, and now staffers like Howard Fineman are suggesting video segments as they prepare stories. By and large, though, the talk-about-news drives the 12-hours-a-day site (5 days a week), with actual news supplementing. Sekoff says some 1,300 HuffPo community members have “raised their hands” and been featured as talking contributors on its segments. They’re unpolished and a far more diverse (for all the good and bad that implies) lot than we see among the too familiar faces of cable TV. For the Journal and the Times, traditional stories drive the video, and then, as Peter Anderson describes it, “The New York Times starts the conversation.” (Here, the Times brings civilians more prominently into its Opinion pages.) How these somewhat opposite approaches come together will be something to watch.

Maybe, most intriguingly, this video revolution may be morphing into a social revolution.

Watch a few of the HuffPo Live segments. Call them semi-slick. The technology works. The production values are okay, even if blogger/contributors faces seem a bit low-def, as TV itself moves moves from HD to Ultra. Some raise interesting, unorthodox issues and views; some are deadly boring. They are not, though, the lookalike programming of traditional news outlets. In their socialness, they cross lines.

Here’s what I find fascinating as I watch those, and smaller steps toward engagement taken by the Times, Journal, and others. As we all watch more video, where will the minutes come from? They may come from other news, text news. They may also come from Facebook. Compare HuffPo Live to Facebook and we see lots of social/sharing commonalities — but in picture form. Discussions — less in linear words than with in-motion video. They may come from morning talk shows like “Ellen” or “The View,” or compete with The Young Turks.The minutes will come from somewhere, as these technologies are more universally adopted and the world of competition only gets more complicated. This is the world in which news companies now compete.

For the news industry specifically, we see that legacy lines are written in disappearing ink, as the Journal, for instance, out-innovates ABC. One dirty little secret of broadcasting is being revealed, as technologies like Google+ Hangouts even the playing field for the print guys: it’s a game of numbers. The number of journalists in newspaper newsrooms still far outnumber those in broadcast ones. In addition, traditional TV has demanded many staffers to do the technical work of creating the broadcast. So, newspapers — if they can rapidly connect their workforces with the new technologies — have a chance to do what seems illogical: leapfrog broadcast and outflank them in the move to fully available, multi-platform news video.

Notes
  1. The full list: YouTube, iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee, Roku, Hulu, Ustream, DailyMotion, Panasonic Internet-connected TVs, Samsung Internet-connected TVs, Sony Internet-connected TVs, Vizio Internet-connect TVs, Yahoo Internet-connected TVs, Windows Phone, Xbox (announced, not yet launched), Kindle Fire, Google Nexus 7, Pulse, 5Min, TouchTV, Flud, WatchUp, LiveStation, Tout, Etisalat.
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