A Lost Opportunity at The Columbus Dispatch

How news sites can use YouTube to their advantage

By now you’ve probably heard the feel-good story of Ted Williams, the man with the “Golden Voice” who went from homeless on a highway to Kraft Macaroni and Cheese voice-over guy in mere days. And you’ve probably also seen the video that changed Williams’ life, shot by Columbus Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth III. A post on the Dispatch website described how the “Golden Homeless Voice” video went viral: Chenoweth shot the video and put it on the paper’s video page. A YouTube user copied and uploaded it, it got picked up by Gawker, and the rest is rags-to-riches history.

But Chris Matyszczyk, a blogger on the CNET Blog Network, points out that the Dispatch pulled a curious move in the course of the viral spread, and demanded that YouTube pull the unofficial video down. The YouTube user who put it up, Ritchey, seemed to have good intentions, and even gave the paper credit for the video (writing, “Throwing this video from The Columbus Dispatch out there, hoping we can find this talent a place to call home.”) But the paper cited copyright and successfully got it pulled. Matyszczyk writes:

The Dispatch says it posted its own version of the video to YouTube, which would presumably be the very same video. However, when you search for “Ted Williams Columbus Dispatch” on YouTube, the Columbus Dispatch’s official version doesn’t appear to be prominent. Instead, a posting from Russia Today has enjoyed almost 1.5 million views.

When you simply search Ted Williams, a posting from Russia Today, though it credits the Columbus Dispatch, has had more than 6 million views.

Perhaps even worse, though, is that when you google “YouTube Ted Williams,” the first video link leads you to the message: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by the Dispatch.”

It seems hard to understand, given that Ritchey credited the Dispatch, why the paper had YouTube remove the video.

Indeed. I’m guessing that the Dispatch probably felt protective of its reporter’s content, and wanted to reap whatever benefits (ad clicks, page views, positive vibes associated with a reporter who changed a man’s life) that that content would bring. The most logical way to do that seemed to be to control the content and where it appeared.

But without the unofficial versions, would the video have gone viral in the first place? As Matyszczyk notes, it’s hard to find the “official” version on YouTube even when you’re looking for it. And YouTube makes it easier for people to view, share and embed video than the video page on the Dispatch site.

I think this shows a real lost opportunity. For instance, the videographer already branded it as a Columbus Dispatch video with a title card at the end including the address of the paper’s website. But what if another title card, inserted at the end of the video—or, heck, in the beginning or middle of it—encouraged viewers to visit the news site for more on that story?

Additional content on the Dispatch site could include text stories, longer versions of the video, and other supplementary stuff. Then they could release the teaser version onto YouTube, promote it heavily, allow copying and re-posting, and see whether viewers come back to the site. Branding it heavily will ensure that whenever it gets re-posted, embedded, and blogged about, the video will have that positive association of being “a Columbus Dispatch video.”

Sure, there’s no guarantee that a casual YouTube viewer (or Gawker reader, etc.) will absolutely click over to the Dispatch website to learn more. But it’s better to give them the incentive to do so and put it out there, in whatever format, than to try to put the content on lockdown and run the risk of losing that “viral” experience altogether.

I am certainly not advocating that news sites should “give it all away for free.” I’ve written previously about how paywalls are appropriate and necessary in many circumstances, and, likewise, I don’t think news sites should ever tolerate the kind of copy-paste text-theft that is unfortunately on the rise.

But. Sometimes, sometimes, news sites would do well to acknowledge the reality of both legal and illegal content-sharing online, especially of video—and rather than rejecting it, learn to use it to their benefit. Short, eye- (or ear-) catching, “viral” video is just such an occasion.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner