As with photos, a “wow” factor is the single biggest driver of video popularity. In 2011, for example, the most-watched YouTube clip featured dramatic footage of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami. Sometimes, of course, what goes viral is too good to be true: As The New York Times recently reported, a September 19 YouTube clip about a pig helping a baby goat out of a pond was actually staged as a promotion for a new Comedy Central show. (Before the fakery was exposed, the clip had been promoted by Time magazine’s Twitter feed and several network news shows.)
Like text-based media companies, YouTube is in the process of transforming itself from user-requested “pull” mode to “push.” “The noun of yesterday on YouTube was video, and the noun of the future is channels,” says Tom Sly, director of content partnerships for news and education at YouTube. “We want people to actually come and subscribe to channels—to say, ‘I want to know the latest and greatest from Vice.’” Thus YouTube itself becomes a news source. Whereas before you had to know what news you were looking for, now you can subscribe to the BBC’s channel and see all of the BBC’s videos posted in reverse chronological order when you log in. Ultimately, YouTube hopes to use an algorithm that will note that, say, you watch BBC videos on the Middle East but not on soccer, and use that knowledge to refine your version of the channel, reordering the videos accordingly.
If phones seem like lousy formats for reading long magazine articles, they are even less obviously conducive to watching TV. In the age of 60-inch high-definition television, who wants to squint at a screen so small it can fit in your hand? But people are beginning to do just that, and as tablets and phones move toward a point of convergence in size and functionality, mobile will make up an increasing portion of video views.
In November 2012, Huffington Post cofounder Ken Lerer (a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers) launched a new digital video product called NowThis News, on the premise that young people would watch short news clips on their phones. “Younger people don’t dislike video; it’s just never been in their life to run home to watch the evening news,” says Drake Martinet, 29, the company’s social-media editor. NowThis News produces videos featuring condensed highlights of major stories; a typical entry is the 80-second video “KnowThis: Why Hugo Chavez’s Death Matters.” Rather than doing original reporting, it’s trying for clever packaging: For example, Martinet says, NowThis recently recut widely available NASA space-station footage in the style of MTV Cribs.
The shift toward online consumption has been slower for the television-news industry than for print, but among young people it is catching up. A September 2012 report Pew found that “among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33 percent) as saw any television news (34 percent).” That is a substantial drop in TV news viewership among under-30s from 2006, when Pew found 49 percent of them watched TV news.
“If you’re doing investigative journalism and the purpose is to have influence, digital is the tip of the sword,” says Andrew Golis, 29, Frontline’s director of digital media. For a scoop to ripple outward, it has to be linked and shared in social media, so Frontline works every angle, before and even after the airdate. Source agnosticism, he argues, is limited to short, immediate news. It’s one thing to click on a link of unknown provenance to read 200 words or watch a quick video; it’s another to commit to an hourlong documentary or a 10,000-word article. “When I see on my Twitter feed that the House voted for Hurricane Sandy relief, I’d be willing to read that from a million different sources,” says Golis. “When it comes to longform storytelling, you’re investing [time] in a serious thing, and you don’t do that without some confidence. Either someone has told you it’s good, or you trust the brand.”