As the video begins, no announcer welcomes you, no headline scrolls across the computer screen. There is no need for either. You know where you are from the logic of the images. The camera lingers on the anticipatory expressions on people’s faces at Barack Obama’s inauguration; it holds steady as endless streams of people slowly fill the National Mall. Natural sound builds the excitement. Parallels between Obama’s 2009 swearing-in and Martin
Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial are subtly drawn—in the words, for example, of a man who stands to hear Obama’s oath at the spot where King once stood.

It is a lyrical narrative, produced by a team of mainly self-taught video journalists who, at the time, worked for In a media-saturated world, the story is unique, an eight-minute journey that lives up to its promising title, In the Moment. Like all the best journalism, it brings you right there.

Online video news can do that so well, and so much better now with advances in technology: palm-size cameras, nimble editing tools, digital formats, broadband connections. We can create candid, cinematic gems that hold the promise of luring those who grew up with the Web—young people—into serious journalism.

Of course, the Web is exploding with video of all kinds. YouTube recently announced that twenty-four hours worth of video is being posted to its site every minute. Only a small portion of that could be called news, and the overwhelming majority of even that sliver of video is not quality, documentary-style essays, but bits of breaking news.

Because the Web is so fragmented—and because search tools for visual files are so primitive—intimate news narratives are nearly impossible to find unless you know the URL or something close to it. “The challenge is to try to get them in an environment that puts them in the best light,” says Bill Burke, global director of online video products at The Associated Press, which has won several awards for its video storytelling. “We haven’t found it.”

For this and several other reasons, the promise of a new frontier of great video journalism, so palpable as recently as 2007, is receding. My personal experience is rooted in twenty-five years of print journalism, but I recognize this retreat as the absolute wrong direction. Serious journalists should not give up on video. It’s far too soon for that.

Strong video journalism is caught in a vicious circle. Because it gets lost in the flood of other video, too few users find the high-quality, well-produced stories. So despite the higher rates publishers have been able to charge advertisers to place short video ads before news videos, total revenue for them remains disappointingly small. That, in turn, makes it tough for newsroom managers to justify investing in great video storytelling in the first place.

Meanwhile, search engines reward with higher rankings those content providers that update often and provide a robust stream of offerings. Time-pressed news staff members have difficulty keeping up with both production and quality demands: one or the other starts to slip. This leads to such practices as TV news broadcasters filling their sites with clips and outtakes, and shying away from unique visual stories tailored for the Web. Print news sites gin up regular video “shows” that draw loyal viewers and boost their numbers, but also drain resources from higher-level storytelling. The poor Web viewer swims in a sea of marginal content, convinced that online news video is a time-sink of spoofs, self-indulgent polemics, and shaky footage of car crashes.

The AP is one of what seems to be a shrinking handful of media companies continuing to invest in quality video. Many organizations have shrunk their staffs or shifted their ambitions. For example, several documentary-style video journalists who produced The Washington Post’s inauguration piece left the paper after their positions were eliminated. The Post’s video unit now consists of five full-time video journalists tasked primarily with quick-turnaround assignments. “Why does video have to pay the bills?” says Pierre Kattar, an Emmy Award-winning former Post video journalist whose position was eliminated in late 2009. “Do people look at print stories and ask, ‘How much money did that make?’ ” Kattar says wistfully. “We were building something.”

Jill Drew is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was an associate editor at The Washington Post until August 2009. For nine of her fourteen years at the newspaper, she was assistant managing editor for financial news.