Breaking news video—regardless of quality—is building audiences for a select few sites. According to the Web research firm comScore, news is keeping pace with the explosive growth in all online video viewing. In May there were 566 million views of what comScore classifies as news video, which includes weather sites. That’s about double the 278 million views recorded for May 2009. CNN.com and MSNBC.com are the two biggest news sites in terms of video traffic, says a comScore spokesman. The two sites, plus Yahoo News, make up 70 percent of comScore’s video news category. (ComScore’s data is really just a rough approximation of news viewing online, given the difficulty in classifying what’s news. For example, everything on YouTube is considered entertainment by comScore and is not included in its figures, although YouTube does stream a lot of news uploaded by media organizations as well as individual users.)
The problem with traffic as the main measure of news video, though, is that great video stories that don’t attract big audiences are perceived to be failures. David Leeson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who began shooting video in 2000 for The Dallas Morning News, says publishers initially backed video “because they had visions of YouTube fame. But with 80,000 to 90,000 videos published every day, going viral is like winning the lottery. Good luck with that.” Leeson, who took a buyout in 2008, acknowledges that a thirty-second clip of an eighteen-wheeler that crashed and burned gets a lot of hits. But he argues that managers need to take their eyes off the number of streams and instead look at the larger, changing market for news. “Over time, people will recognize quality,” Leeson says. “People will know to go to your site for credible news and information. That’s how papers built circulation. You didn’t know if everyone read an inside story on page four of Metro, but we still covered it.”
Photographers and video journalists like Leeson are increasingly attracted to work for advocacy groups and corporations that see the value of powerful visual storytelling. With that exodus, serious journalism suffers. In journalism, “ultimately, video was viewed as window dressing, a fundamental misunderstanding of its potential,” says Tom Kennedy, a former managing editor for multimedia at Washingtonpost.com, who stepped down in early 2009 to teach and consult.
Kennedy, who will begin teaching at Syracuse University this fall, recently authored a white paper on video journalism for Bill Gentile, an independent documentary filmmaker and journalist-in-residence at American University. Gentile has launched the “Backpack Journalism” project at the school, a program to teach people to act as one-man journalism bands on video stories: report, interview, shoot, edit, narrate, and upload their files for publication.
Kennedy and Gentile make a powerful argument for this as the storytelling of the future, but the white paper adds, “Backpack journalism may afford interesting future career opportunities, albeit perhaps most strongly in fields other than journalism.” Ugh.
On July 18, I did a Google search for video of “oil spill” and “BP.” I specified “high quality” in my query, but didn’t limit the length or narrow the date range. No videos from major news organizations appeared in the top ten returns. What did appear seemed random. Search is a real problem when it comes to quality news video.
My search’s top-ranked video was from a site called Hollywoodbackstage.com: a silent, fifty-nine second montage of aerial images from an oil-slicked Gulf. Numbers two and four were entertaining, but not news: two was a Saturday Night Live skit via Hulu.com and four was a funny spoof of BP executives dealing with a coffee spill during a meeting, performed by UCBcomedy.com. Number three was an informative snippet from Al Jazeera’s English-language broadcast, with a host explaining an animated graphic of the engineering needed to cap the blown well. The other top ten picks included a couple of souped-up home videos, a couple of apocalyptic screeds, and an excerpt from ABC’s The View, with the hosts discussing BP’s apology.