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July 8, 2009, 10 a.m.

Ledger Live: How a newspaper webcast became less like a news show and more like a blog

When Ledger Live, The Star-Ledger’s webcast, debuted last July to critical raves, it was about as conventional as a daily video podcast from the newsroom could be. Host Brian Donohue spent most of his time behind his desk, in classic anchorman style, and the rundown of stories resembled a cable news show. Interaction between Donohue and his audience was limited.

A year later, though, the show has evolved into something almost entirely different. For starters, it’s no longer daily and (no matter what the name says) no longer live. Donohue is rarely immobile now, and the format hardly resembles your grandfather’s newscast. Audience numbers are way up, and Ledger Live has even attracted one of the most obvious markers of success: a sponsor’s ad for 15 seconds before every show. The show’s evolution shows the limits of borrowing from an established model when building something new. Just as early TV had to evolve its own formats and get past just being radio-plus-pictures, newspaper online video is evolving beyond the metaphors television has handed it.

“From a newscast, it got a lot more bloggy, which I like and have more fun doing — and I think it works better,” Donohue told me. “What we wanted to do was just go back to doing a video show the way reporters talk to each other. It’s more conversational. It’s snarkier. It’s a lot more fun. What you need for video to work on the web is more of a voice. For the web in general, you need a voice.”

Perhaps the best way to think of Ledger Live these days is as a state-centric video blog. Donohue and his team chase offbeat features and comment on the news in a casual, inviting manner. Instead of adhering to a rigid schedule, they tape shows when they have ample material, which averages out to about three or four per week. The webcast is light but not shallow, informed but not ominiscient, topical but still newsy. And by the numbers, it’s more successful than ever.

Impetus for change

Ledger Live might not have found its voice without a set of grim external circumstances. In October, the newspaper saw about 40 percent of its staff take a buyout, which affected the video department as much as any other. (The video staff, led by Seth Siditsky, now boasts Donohue, Siditsky, multimedia editor Bumper DeJesus, two full-time videographers, and a handful of interns.) Roles were compressed and shared.

More critical, though, was when Ledger Live began to comprehend how its audience consumed video. The show used to broadcast live at noon, but few viewers remembered to pull up the live stream on the newspaper’s schedule. Others didn’t understand they could watch past episodes on demand. Over time, the newspaper found that the Ledger Live audience was not particularly interested in watching a videotaped version of print news, which forced the show to become more topical. Donohue still addresses important news, but not in the way the newspaper does. He’s more dynamic — he even takes calls sometimes — in an effort to let readers and viewers peer into the newsroom.

“People want to watch two, three, four minutes of video on the topic they’re interested in,” Donohue said. “They don’t watch it in the linear fashion they watch on TV.”

Ledger Live traffic doubled in three consecutive months earlier this year, jumping to more than 30,000 monthly pageviews by January. By the end of May, Star-Ledger videos as a group had already eclipsed their total statistics from 2008.

Some topics tend to draw more of an audience than others. Bruce Springsteen, New Jersey’s poet laureate, always does well, and in our conversation, Donohue spoke proudly of one Ledger Live episode featuring a debate between a Springsteenphile and a daring cynic.

One of Donohue’s favorite episodes focused on another Jersey-born rocker — Bon Jovi’s fundraising concert for Gov. Jon Corzine — while another spotlighted the abundance of Canada geese in New Jersey. In both, Donohue reports outside the newsroom and interviews sources while offering his own perspective with a sense of levity.

Still, it’s one thing to pull in viewers when The Boss releases an album or Bon Jovi rocks a concert hall. It’s another to maintain that type of traffic consistently.

Marketing the show

Like most blogs, Ledger Live depends on viral marketing and social media. All of the newspaper’s videos are crossposted on its YouTube and Blip.tv channels, where view counts are often low, but the chances of an occasional video going viral are higher. (The aforementioned statistics only include views on nj.com, which recently went through a redesign that dropped videos lower on the page.) Donohue reaches out to viewers on Twitter and he actively presides over the show’s Facebook page. He also expenses the occasional Facebook ad, which can be highly targeted. For a recent a Springsteen-related episode, he bought a $10 ad targeting Springsteen aficionados in New Jersey. About 50 people became fans of Ledger Live’s Facebook page, which means their news feeds will include links to all subsequent episodes, Springsteen or no Springsteen.

Building audience remains a challenge for today, but an asset like Ledger Live could become even more valuable when people start watching web video on their home TVs, Donohue said. Some Star-Ledger video content will be making that transition soon: the newspaper recently announced a partnership with Verizon FIOS in which it will provide high school sports video on a hyperlocal station for FIOS subscribers.

The Star-Ledger is the state’s newspaper of record, but Jim Willse, the newspaper’s editor, said it already boasts the biggest video newsroom in the state. The fact that most homes tune into New York or Philadelphia telecasts for their local news has created an absence of quality, local video journalism in the Garden State, and Tony Soprano’s morning newspaper — Ledger Live, in particular — is already tapping that market. Because of that potential, Willse said that he foresees two revenue streams for a webcast like Ledger Live: advertising and broadcasting rights.

“If we didn’t think that this had both journalistic and economic value, we wouldn’t be doing it,” Willse told me. “Our degree of confidence in this is extremely high. We’re not just experimenting to see what works. This will work.”

POSTED     July 8, 2009, 10 a.m.
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