Will Online Video Save the News Industry?

WASHINGTON — With news industry advertising revenue and subscription rates in free fall, some executives see online video as a silver lining in an otherwise gloomy economy.

In a panel discussion here at Google’s offices, editors from the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN and other media outlets described their early forays into Web video as a process of fits and starts.

The Post began loading its Web site with video content in 2000, when the venerable newspaper hired its first videographer. But the transition was hardly seamless, said James Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com.

“A lot of people at the paper said, ‘Why are you doing video? You’ve never done that before,'” Brady said. “Unless I’m missing some technological solution, you couldn’t actually do it before,” he added, calling online video a “golden opportunity” for news organizations.

The news industry — and newspapers especially — are in desperate need of a golden opportunity. These are dark times for traditional journalism, as newspapers across the country have been pruning content and laying off staff to cope with the harsh economics of producing and distributing news in the digital era.

The latest example comes from Seattle. On Friday, executives from the Hearst Corporation told employees of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that if they could not find a buyer for the paper within 60 days, they would move to an online-only publication model or shut down operations entirely.

But Seattle is hardly unique. The gloomy news about the potential demise of the Post-Intelligencer continues a trend of newspapers closing or curtailing their print operations. The Washington Times last year stopped publishing its Saturday edition and the Christian Science Monitor has abandoned its print publication altogether.

Among the hardest hit has been the New York Times. The paper’s parent company reported that in November that advertising revenues dropped 21 percent from the same month in the previous year. Worse still, online ad revenues for the company’s news media group dropped four percent, driven down by declines in job and real estate listings.

Buffeted by slumping advertising and circulation revenue, the Old Gray Lady is in dire straits. Among the options to infuse the company with cash is the sale of the Boston Globe, its stake in the Boston Red Sox or the Internet information service About.com. None figures to be a long-term solution.

Michael Hirschorn runs through those possibilities in a recent piece for the Atlantic, where he posits that the New York Times Company, buried under debt and with no credit available, could go bankrupt by May. While he admits that is an unlikely worst-case scenario, Hirschorn arrives at an inescapably grim conclusion.

“Regardless of what happens over the next few months, the Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon — sooner than most of us think — the print edition, and with it the Times as we know it, will no longer exist,” Hirschorn wrote.

And yet Ann Derry, editorial and video director for the Times, remains hopeful. “I guess I have this faith that things will settle down a little bit and there will be opportunities [in the future],” she said.

Next page: Video’s influence.

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Web video, the focus of the panel, remains a murky solution to the ailing news industry’s woes. The panelists generally agreed that the medium won legitimacy in the 2006 Senate race in Virginia, when George Allen, a heavily favored incumbent, lost the election after a video of him mocking a staffer of his opponent and invoking a racially charged epithet became a viral hit on YouTube.

So online video is both popular and influential. But that doesn’t mean it will save the news industry. Derry and Brady both said that their papers haven’t figured out how to make money off their Web content. Derry said that the Times’ online ad inventory is much easier to sell with video content, but that monetization remains an unsolved problem.

Nevertheless, the editors acknowledged that online video — both on the news organizations’ sites and other Web destinations like YouTube — is increasingly important as people’s news-consumption habits change.

“Our philosophy is to put our video out every single place that we can,” Brady said. Once the Post’s reporters warmed up to the idea of adding a camera to their journalistic arsenal, he said the paper’s management decided to “blanket all the possibilities” on the Web in the hopes of reaching “a whole new generation of watchers and subscribers.”

“There’s this whole generation that doesn’t think about the New York Times or the Washington Post as the automatic go-to place. So for us, we need to be where they’re spending their time,” Brady added.

In an online market where bite-sized YouTube videos carry the day, interactive Web content can be a far more effective way for news reporters to tell their stories, the editors said. Web video can be used to tease out longer-format written stories, or complement them in cases where video content could help bring to life the sorts of stories that otherwise might not jump off the page.

Still not on print’s level

But even with their sites bubbling over with rich-media content, newspapers’ digital properties are only making a fraction of the revenue that their print counterparts enjoyed in their heyday.

Factor in the fragmented content-distribution model, where news organizations feel compelled to promote themselves on the hottest sites on the Web like YouTube and Facebook, and the revenue proposition becomes a highly unsettled question.

As a more engaging format than print journalism, Web video can introduce and cultivate a journalist as a personality in the reporting of a story. This model aims to develop a following for certain reporters by building them into a brand.

To some, the journalist-as-a-brand model paired with the Web-wide dispersal of content foretells the future of the news industry. The reasoning goes that as more newspapers close up shop or prune their operations, the reporters will simply move to smaller or individual Web sites and continue doing what they’ve always been doing, just with a more economical masthead.

Of course, the individual reporter/blogger sites won’t necessarily be able to marshal the substantial resources required to investigate and report the really big stories. Could a blogger rely on a hearty CPM to sustain him while he travels and conducts the dozens of interviews that inform the reporting of stories like the Times’ uncovering of the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program or the investigation by the Post‘s Barton Gellman of the Cheney vice presidency?

“I’m not sold that microjournalism (a.k.a. blogging) can’t get the job done,” Fred Wilson, principal at the venture capital firm Union Square Ventures wrote in a recent blog post. “As reporters/journalists leave the big papers and start writing for their own blogs/brands, I think they’ll keep doing what they’ve been trained to do their entire career. Can they all make good money doing this? That’s not nearly as clear.”

“My gut tells me that microjournalists are going to have to do more than just post to their blog to earn a living. In fact, the blog will probably be the loss leader that keeps them in the game,” Wilson said.

“I am not sure that anyone has the answer to this question and that’s why it’s bothering so many people right now.”

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