It is not easy to know if you have just witnessed a ‘seminal moment,’ particularly in the fluid and dystopian landscape of modern journalism. The 2012 presidential campaign looks, though, like a seminal moment for video, in the same way the 2008 campaign was one for social media.
Suddenly, the live broadcast coverage and analysis shows are no longer the preserve of the main networks and cable broadcasters. Huffington Post Live, the video streaming outlet which began in earnest last month from the eponymous website, has been joined by a hail of other new and legacy news organizations investing in video on a far grander scale than before.
At the Republican National Convention, Google subsidiary YouTube has turned its politics channel into an Election Hub, where it is using video from eight partners: The New York Times, BuzzFeed, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera English, Univision, ABC News, Larry King, and Web star anchor Philip DeFranco. These partners are making live and on-demand programming for the ‘channel.’ Storyful, the social newsroom site that combs social media and sources and verifies content, adds ‘video of the day’ picks to YouTube Politics. The Washington Post, not in the YouTube partnership, is also making use of studio space at the RNC for its own expanded video efforts.
Big events are always the trigger for innovations in the news industry. Many are quietly shut down, but some change the game for themselves, or others. Not everyone currently dabbling their toes in the streams of video will still be doing so in four years time, but the disruption this time feels real.
Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, recognizes that this disruption marks an abrupt change for the newspaper and for others.
“I think we are in this big time now,” says Roberts. “We have been using video for six solid years in creative and energetic ways, but live is really of a different order.”
The Times is producing shows throughout the two conventions and then into the general election campaign. Roberts admits the experimental nature of the output and describes the production logistics as “like an iceberg—you only really see the tip of what is a really much more complex operation.”
Here is the rub for those used to producing text-based journalism when confronted by an opportunity to produce video: It is not a small shift, but a stretch in language, culture, process, and resources. To date, most non-broadcast or cable news outlets have struggled to make much impact with online video, and audiences have had neither the bandwidth nor the devices to make it a worthwhile investment. But both sides of the equation are changing to the benefit of new entrants. Video consumption, especially on YouTube, is increasing exponentially. A younger audience expects to be able to sample and consume news away from broadcast networks. All this means that mobile video is poised to become as disruptive for broadcast as the Web has been for print.
For producers, the costs of production are dropping rapidly. HuffPost Live has put 100 people onto the project and is investing heavily, but its contributions and discussions are mediated through Google Hangouts. The extra technicians and Web teams that text-based operations need for video seem an onerous addition to a “one journalist and a laptop” approach, but those add-ons only represent a fraction of the overhead needed by traditional broadcasters.
Roberts says it’s important to ask whether news companies’ move toward a continual video presence represents a distraction news organizations can ill afford or a strategic imperative.
“I think we would be irresponsible not to ask ourselves that, and we have to keep asking ourselves that,’ he says, adding that he defines success as extending the Times brand successfully into another format. “We want to retain the brand identity of the Times for quality and insight, but also to be able to be a little more conversational, looser,” Roberts says.
One element to this for the Times is a surprisingly fruitful editorial partnership between the paper and BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti’s post-Huffington Post project. BuzzFeed caused a sensation by hiring Ben Smith from Politico as editor in chief just ahead of the Primary season. The New York Times’s starched collar is certainly undone a notch by the addition of BuzzFeed staffers joining segments to discuss whether delegates at the RNC are “fab or drab.”
This peculiar partnership of highbrow analysis and penguin aggregation is another first in this realm of remaking the news. It came out of a conversation earlier this year between Roberts and Smith. Imagining a politics page in the Times with “added BuzzFeed” on the masthead is impossible, but watching their remarkably similar correspondents swap anecdotes on camera seems perfectly symbiotic.
The wave of video experiments coincides with the original innovator in cable news, CNN, tanking in the ratings. Earlier in the summer, the network slumped to its lowest ratings in certain demographics in over two decades. CNN’s worldwide president, Jim Walton, resigned, and the network is posting precipitous slumps whilst Fox News and MSNBC post double-digit growth.
The figures for consumption and revenues are thin. YouTube’s Election Hub shows 1.6 million convention video views and 26,000 subscribers—at a time when Fox News is scoring over 7 million viewers a night, these seem anemic. But sheer numbers at this stage is not quite the point. More relevant perhaps is that the quality of the shows, though rough in terms of production values, are editorially a match and more for cable; the Times and Wall Street Journal can out-analyze CNN; Philip DeFranco can out-quirk MSNBC. If the quality and regularity is maintained, the audiences are likely to follow.