How local papers are looking ‘over the top’ as part of a new model for video

Photo: AP

The governor comes to Big Beaver Elementary. A rescue crew pulls a body from the Ohio River. There’s a rally to end prescription drug abuse, and news that a local animal shelter is at maximum capacity.

No, this isn’t the rundown for a local nightly newscast somewhere in western Pennsylvania. They are video news clips out of Beaver County, population 170,000, just outside Pittsburgh along the Ohio border, but there’s something different about them: There’s no anchor or on-screen reporter, and if there’s any narration at all it’s void of that familiar newscaster voice inflection. That’s because these segments are produced by the local newspaper, The Beaver County Times, for its channel on the Roku streaming media player, a set-top box that’s a favorite of cord-cutters.

The medium here is called “over-the-top,” or OTT, content. While the rise of Roku and competitors like Apple TV, Amazon Fire, and Google’s ChromeCast has made it easier for viewers to access their favorite shows without a cable subscription, it has also created new opportunities for media producers to reach audiences while bypassing FCC licensing and the expensive equipment of traditional broadcasting stations.

It’s an opportunity, in other words, for a newspaper to launch its own TV station—which is more or less what The Beaver County Times and its sister publications in Pennsylvania have set out to do. “We wanted to create micro-TV stations within our markets,” says Guy Tasaka, chief digital officer of Calkins Media, the family-owned parent company of the Times. “Our CEO’s mantra when he hired me was he wanted to out-TV-station the TV stations in our newspaper markets.”

As the conversation about what OTT might mean for local print news develops on the conference circuit and industry sites, Tasaka has emerged as one of its chief evangelizers. “I think it’s the future of newspapers, and they need to jump on it ASAP,” he told CJR. Even diminished newspapers have more reporting resources than most TV stations, and most print-legacy newsrooms have trained their staff to shoot video for the Web, he says—so the foundation is there. “If they do it correctly,” Tasaka says, “if you’re a dominant newspaper in a small market, as the OTT market grows you can become the TV station for a local media company, cross-platform, in your geography.”

Calkins is so all-in on the concept that The Beaver County Times offers a free Roku with a subscription to the paper. To date, the Times has more than 2,000 Roku installs, according to Tasaka. Another Calkins paper, the Courier Times in Bucks County, has about 7,500 active Roku installs. (The video content is also available via Amazon Fire TV.) The OTT video programming is offered, essentially, as part of a subscriber content bundle—or a “burrito,” as Tasaka calls it, that also includes access to stories on the paper’s website. (The company also licenses its OTT technology.)

As Tasaka describes his vision for what OTT can do for newspapers—and how it might represent the future of video more broadly—he invokes the industry’s own experience of being disrupted. Local broadcasting stations “haven’t had their Craigslist moment yet,” as he sees it. “It’s going to be when three guys in a garage using over-the-top platforms can create the next TV station in the market or the next news and information station. And it’s going to be three guys who gross a million dollars or two million dollars, and broadcasters are going to look at it and laugh, the way we looked at Craigslist. How can they have a business of two million dollars? The cost structure is so much lower, it’s a very viable business.”

‘More eyes on our video’

One reason an OTT push makes sense for the Calkins papers is that many of their markets, outside of Pennsylvania’s major media markets, aren’t especially well-served by local TV broadcasters. And so one big question to focus on, as more newspapers explore this path, is how big an opening actually exists in cities with stiffer TV competition.

One place worth watching is Naples, FL, where the Naples Daily News started moving into video about 10 years ago—“ahead of the game,” says Vonna Keomanyvong, the digital managing editor of the Journal Media Group-owned paper. At the Daily News, there’s a studio in the newsroom, and each day a reporter does an early morning newscast rounding up the stories journalists there are working on. Shooting brief clips of video on a smartphone is built into the reporting workflow, and the paper even has two full-time staffers from the marketing department who are dedicated strictly to video.

At first glance, the paper’s website can seem more like the homepage of a local TV station than a daily paper, and soon there will be another platform for those videos—the Daily News is in the process of working on a Roku channel now.

When I spoke to Keomanyvong recently, the business plan hadn’t been finalized yet. The idea was just to build another path to an audience. “I think right now we just want to get more eyes on our videos,” she told me. In a market that already has multiple local broadcasters, it will be interesting to see how the experiment pans out.

Larger newspaper chains are also on the lookout. McClatchy, which owns 29 daily newspapers across the US, is, in its own words, “in the midst of a video revolution,” and aiming to “reinvent local online video.” Last year, McClatchy was among two large print media companies to invest in a startup called WatchUp, an app that aims to “capture the power of digital journalism,” aggregating video content and personalizing it with geo-location to deliver targeted local news to viewers.

“Our video content will be a part of WatchUp, and for us, ultimately, we’re going to continue to look at the OTT space as a place for us to be down the road,” said Andrew Pergam, who’s in charge of McClatchy’s video efforts.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, the experience of The San Diego Union-Tribune shows how newspapers are searching for the right video strategy. After being bought by a local entrepreneur in 2011, the paper installed a TV station in the newsroom; a Roku channel was launched as one part of a broader video effort.

The effort found some success with both advertisers and viewers. But ultimately, said John McCutchen, the paper’s photo and video editor, “that venture fell shy of expectations, as they say.” The paper shut down the broadcast operation this spring; with it went the Roku channel.

But in May, Tribune Publishing bought the San Diego paper—and now McCutchen expects to hop back into the OTT game with a different approach. With an effective digital video operation, he said, OTT “might actually stand a chance in a larger market,” even if there are multiple TV stations covering the area. “I think newspapers take a different look at the world,” he said.

The best way to think about OTT, McCutchen said, is probably not as a singular strategy that might save newspapers, but as one potentially important piece in a bigger transition.

“I think what happens across the spectrum in print though is, historically, we look for a silver bullet, and there’s not a silver bullet—there’s a bandolier of silver bullets,” he said. As for over-the-top: “I think that’s one of the silver bullets.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.