Friday, April 28, 2006

Web video is NOT dumping the notebook into a camera

The Southern Newspaper Publishers Association has a longish story in its latest bulletin about how the Shelby (N.C.) Star has reinvented itself under what is called the "Innovation Project."

Reporters now consistently work to find every opportunity to enhance a story with online content. Staff photographers and reporters carry video cameras on assignments. Editors encourage the community to submit comments, photographs and video. The newsroom has added an online editor, and web content increasing has fused with the print product. ...

The Star addressed the dilemma of time-starved but Internet-connected readers with its new paper. The new paper eliminates story jumps. The Star breaks stories into smaller, easier-to-read pieces. Instead of one 24-inch story, readers get three 8-inch stories. Also, The Star converts traditional “paragraph-form copy” into a “who, what, when, where” format.

“For many newspaper consumers, the paragraph is a dinosaur,” said Editor Skip Foster. “Why do we keep pretending most people have time to read 20-inch stories? We’re not just writers of paragraphs, we’re presenters of information, in whatever form is easiest for people to consume.”

The Star has devoted new resources to gathering local news in all its forms – pictures, videos, stories, lists – almost anything goes. Staff members gather the news for both the newspaper and the website.

“When we started posting information to, customers came calling in numbers we never dreamed of,” said Lambert. “A surveillance film from an armed robbery in uptown Shelby generated 7,000 downloads within the first 36 hours. We see this response repeatedly. People are telling us that they want a combination of raw data and journalist-produced reports with more photos, audio and video clips.”

Bravo! Experiment. Exactly what needs to be done. Try things and see if they work.

Now, let's note a few things that DON'T work:
-- If you are going to blog, as Foster does, and link to an "interactive feature" that you proudly boast about on April 11, try to remember that 16 days later it is not good to have the link come up as a 404 error. (Update: Foster sends the new link. Apparently conversion to a new Web site broke some old links. He's also updated his blog.)
-- Remember that video on the Web is not the same as the video equivalent of dumping your notbook into the camera. If you want to see an amazingly mind-numbing example of this, try this video called "Bomb Squad Pitches In" (.wmv) (which, after you watch it, will also show how lame that title is).
-- For another mind-numbing offering, try "Sheriff Candidates Press Conference" (note to paper - try an apostrophe after Candidates and learn to spell "Conferance" correctly on the intro slate to the video).
(Question: Why does a newspaper that is touting how it is breaking up its stories think that folks on the Web are going to sit and watch nine minutes of mind-numbing video?)
-- Try to keep the advertising videos out of the news front, like this one labeled "Your Taste of Home" that really is nothing more than a commercial for a newspaper-sponsored cooking show. (At least the two other links "Taste of Home Trade Show" and "Taste of Home Cooking School - Flourless Chocolate Cake" are honest about what you're getting before you click.)

Just as the newspaper industry is slowly -- only slowly -- learning that blogging isn't blogging just because you use blogging software, it has to learn that video isn't video (or useful) just because you give a reporter or photographer a camera and show him or her where the start button is.

So while the Star shows the best of things -- that it has, as the SNPA note says, "blown up its newsroom" -- it's also showing the typical worst of this industry, the idea that you can somehow just digitize the "print" mentality and it will all work.

(The Star is not alone. Recently I watched an AP video feed of more than four minutes, preceded by a 30-second commercial. No, no, no! At least that was a story that had some flow to it.)

If you want to see how video should be done on the Web, look at about anything by the Rocky Mountain News' Sonya Doctorian.

If you can't do it that way, then keep the pieces short -- think soundbites longer than TV but shorter than a minute so that each one tells an individual story or piece of it.


At 5/11/06, 3:13 PM, Blogger Skip Foster said...

Thanks for the post on our innovations in Shelby.
You're right - we have a long way to go on the ins and outs of shooting/using/editing/publishing video. We just started a few months ago and we're a lot better today than we were then and hopefully that trend will continue.
Still, the point of our innovation is that even a 16,000 circulation paper with an interactive staff of 2.5 FTE's can get a foot in the multi-media door.
Truth is, if we don't start shooting bad video, we'll never learn to shoot good video.
Regardless of their quality (and, in fairness, you picked out all the stinkers!), we have been pleasantly surprised at the traffic they have generated.
Also, if you're interested, I'll be happy to mail you or any of your blog readers some copies of our overhauled print product. Just e-mail me at I can also send you PDFs.
Thanks again.

Skip Foster

At 5/15/06, 9:39 AM, Blogger Skip Foster said...

Another point on video -- I've gotten to know a few of the folks at the Poynter Insitute, Al Tompkins, in particular. Al is the head of Poynter's Interactive/Broadcast area.

His coaching on video is this: Keep it raw. In fact, he argues against the very thing you are arguing for. In this time of easy technological access, Al contends, news consumers want unfettered access to the same information journalists have. For that reason, instead of hearing how a journalist interpreted the sheriff's news conference (which may have seemed boring to you, but was of very high interest in our market for an array of reasons and had a very nice download number) news consumers say: "just show me the whole thing and I'll decide for myself where the news was made."

A little disconcerting to journalists? To say the least! But the more we try to control the flow of the information river, the more news consumers will carve out their own canals.

Anyway, at the least, the issue of how to present video is an excellent topic for discussion and debate.

Thanks again for your original post.

At 5/15/06, 11:40 AM, Blogger Doug said...


Sorry for the delay in replying. Finally getting unburied.

First: I hope you understand that the first thing I said "Bravo! Experiment. Exactly what needs to be done. Try things and see if they work." was meant as praise. You are doing exactly what much of the industry should be doing and too few still are. But my point is that the video shows some shortcomings in the way you may be going about it.

Couple of points:
1) Whether I got "lucky" and picked out only the "stinkers," they were on your front page that day. Would you put "stinkers" on A1? I always find it disconcerting that somehow we journalists think there is a different standard for the Web.
2) Learning on the job is good -- to a point. But it always concerns me that this industry seems to eschew much formal training before posting/printing/whatever. No, I'm not saying you should have the skills of a Sonya Doctorian before you try something. But there are plenty of us around this area who could give your staff some solid pointers so that those "stinkers" -- complete with misspellings -- don't make it on the Web.

And a further thought on that: Would you let someone into your pressroom who had almost no training on the presses and say go ahead, push the buttons and learn on the job? No, at the very least you would have a very exprienced pressman mentor that person, as has been done for years. So why treat the Web as anything less?

3) I know Al too. Have spent a week with him at Poynter. And I'm also a subscriber to "raw." I've been teaching that in Newsplex. But raw does not mean dump the video notebook into the machine. It means, at the least, cut it up into digestible pieces that have a focus, not a ramble. In fact, I'm still, having listened/watched that bomb squad video several times still trying to figure out where the reference to the bomb squad truck is in the deputy's reading of the press release. (And is reading what clearly sounds like a prepared press release "raw"?)

I don't pretend to speak for Al, but I think he would agree that when he speaks of "raw" it still should have a focus and tell the story, not confuse. And I'll say I was confused when you headline a video "Bomb Squad Pitches In" and you show a bomb squad truck, but I never hear about a reference to the bomb squad (and if I missed in on three passes through the video, I apologize).

I'm sure you are getting good response. That is a natural reaction whenever you introduce new elements. The trick will be to see whether the bounce is long-term or whether the public, which through prosumer gear now has many of the same capabilities we have, continues to enjoy it or demands better quality at some point.


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