Although it’s not a candid essay, it is pretty gutsy journalism. Matthews zipped himself into a wet suit, clutched his camera, and dropped down over the side of a boat to give viewers a first-hand look at the foul miasma beneath the waterline. The swirling, reddish ooze had the consistency of cake batter, Matthews reported, and though it quickly gunked up his goggles and smeared his camera lens, he was able to record oil in every direction, in plumes and blobs, along with what one diver called “snot balls” of oil dispersants. “It was a different take on a story that was getting tedious” to cover in constant drips of breaking news, says Kevin Roach, AP’s vice president and director of U.S. broadcast news. “The story opened up a lot of eyes.”
But the AP story wasn’t anywhere near the top of my search query returns a month after it was originally posted—though the video was widely noticed when it was first shot. It had logged more than 160,000 views on YouTube, and Matthews had been interviewed on the Today Show, CNN, Fox News, the BBC, and numerous radio stations.
Executives at both YouTube and its parent company, Google, recognize that finding and categorizing news video is still an elusive goal. “Video is a rich media type and there are added complexities to making it easily discoverable and useful,” a Google spokesman says. “While we constantly work to improve our understanding of video and other information, in the meantime we encourage video publishers to submit video sitemaps so their videos are more easily discoverable in all Google’s services.” In other words, returning relevant material for video search queries is really hard.
Search today still generally begins with text, with people like me typing “BP” and “oil spill” and “video” into a query box. Google takes that query and attempts to match my key words with documents and images online that Web folks have tagged with matching key words. Although the Google spokesman says the search should be able to sense that I’m looking for news video, there’s no easy way to tell it to do that. Google is working on at least two projects that might eventually help improve its video searches. The first is a speech-recognition process being employed at YouTube that can automatically caption audio files, creating a text transcript that could then be searched. The second is Google Goggles, an experimental application for smart phones that offers hope of enhanced visual search. I take a photo of, say, the Eiffel Tower and upload it to Google, essentially asking it to tell me about this image. Google Goggles recognizes the image and sends me information about it.
YouTube, meanwhile, hired interns this past summer to curate the best breaking-news videos from around the world, creating a feed of top stories uploaded by citizen journalists and learning more about how people find and share what they believe are important videos. “It’s an experiment to understand this ecosystem better and to make it more useful to media,” says Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of news and politics. Grove also wants to gather information to help determine what search algorithms might work best to discover news video.
A few sites aren’t waiting for search to improve, but are using their own people to find and promote what they believe to be worthy videos. For example SlateV, a video magazine for those who favor Slate’s sensibilities, both produces its own videos—an average of five a week—and curates newsworthy videos produced by others, highlighting the best under the headline, “Did You See This?”
SlateV’s videos aren’t full-blown visual essays. Often they are clever takeoffs on the news. And in the curated part of its site, SlateV highlights buzz-worthy videos from all over, most of which aren’t journalism. In the curated news and politics section, users can find parodies and political ads alongside opinion and advocacy videos. SlateV’s editor, Andy Bowers, a long-time correspondent for NPR before joining Slate in 2003, said he expects more news-related videos to be produced by organizations other than the media. The question he asks himself is less “What organizations are producing this?” he says, and more “Is this responsible or is this propaganda?” He adds: “I think more and more you’ll see these organizations produce what we call journalism.”