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July 16, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Major news organizations find they have to lighten up to thrive on YouTube

Tsunamis and celebrities drive new audiences to traditional media brands’ YouTube content.

In 2006, the year after YouTube was founded, comedian Dane Cook had a bit about how every whim of your imagination, anything you could blindly type into a search bar, was already posted to the site.

“Here’s a test: Go home, go to YouTube, go to the search engine, and punch your keyboard,” Cook said during his Saturday Night Live monologue in September 2006. “Punch it twice, hit search, there’s a video for that. Type in something random, ‘A:F6,’ hit search, there’s a fat 10-year old with ‘A:F6′ painted on his chest, and he sings the song, ‘A:F6, A:F6.’ (Obviously, it didn’t take long for the video Cook described to materialize.)

Back then, YouTube was still a relative novelty. But it was also an immediate and pervasive hit. (Remember this?) Last year, YouTube celebrated its one trillionth video upload. The site is now the third-most visited site online after Google and Facebook, with more than four billion video views a day, according to a study out today from the Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism.

“Have you seen CNN’s ratings? TV in general is dying. Newspapers are just about dead.”

Pew set out to examine news consumers’ habits on YouTube and its place in the larger news ecosystem. Seven years since its inception, YouTube has created “a new kind of television news” that embraces an interplay of professional- and citizen-produced content, according to Pew.

But YouTube’s reach in the journalism world extends beyond broadcast television, especially as more media organizations outside of television focus on video production. As far as YouTube is concerned, any format of news — be it breaking, spot, investigative, live, long-form documentary, etc. — can work on the site. “The beauty of YouTube is that it makes all of those things possible,” YouTube’s head of news and education, Tom Sly, told me. “A week or two ago, during the Colorado wildfires, one of the local stations was livestreaming coverage of the wildfire on their YouTube channel…Then there’s the produced pieces that people are creating for YouTube — and for other broadcast formats that make their way onto YouTube — the video on-demand component. There’s also this area of what I would call eye-witness reporting, when someone who happens to be in the right or wrong place gets raw footage. When you put all of these things together, we have a really powerful platform.”

But what’s possible all in one place isn’t always the same thing as what works best. News organizations are still trying to figure out what consumers want in order to find the balance.

Yes, in an ever-expanding universe of cats, Drunk History, and nostalgia for old commercials, people really are turning to YouTube for some news and information — mostly in search of stories with dramatic visuals.

Five times in the past 15 months, the most searched term of the month on YouTube was related to a news event, according to Pew. The most popular news videos were related to the devastating earthquake-triggered tsunami that hit Japan last year. Sly says the site reliably sees big spikes in traffic after such global news events. (That tsunami also demonstrates how YouTube has changed the way journalists operate. I was a reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat when the March 2011 tsunami hit Japan, and at least one staffer’s sole job during our overnight breaking news coverage was to find and post YouTube videos to the Civil Beat live blog.)

The top five videos in the 15-month period that Pew examined were uploaded by professional news organizations, and all of them had to do with the tsunami. (Other popular news videos were related to the Russian presidential election and unrest in the Middle East.) Here was the most watched news video, surveillance footage of the tsunami uploaded by Russia Today that got 12.7 million hits in the 15-month period Pew examined (it has since surpassed 20 million):

Even though news organizations uploaded heavily trafficked videos, Pew points out that “the power of the raw pictures and images” — not the expertise or skills that come with professional news training — are what made them popular.

Tracking the 260 most popular news videos on YouTube in a span of 15 months, researchers found that citizens contributed more than one-third of the videos. Citizens also did their fair share of uploading professional content. Pew found 39 percent of the popular news videos that originated with traditional media organizations were actually uploaded by citizens. (One big caveat: Pew examined videos posted in the “news and politics” section of YouTube, which means the overall sample was determined by people who uploaded and labeled the videos in the first place.)

So-so numbers for YouTube’s Original Channels of news

In the past 18 months, YouTube has taken steps to try to extend its relevance in the news world beyond huge global news stories and large-scale catastrophes. Last year, YouTube invested $100 million in what it billed as YouTube Original Channels, featuring content from about 100 partners who make videos about news, style, beauty, comedy, dance, entertainment, gaming, health, and other topics.

Here’s how it works: YouTube cuts a check to partners, who produce videos under an agreement that lets creators keep the rights to their videos but promises exclusivity to YouTube for one year. In the news world, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and the web-native Young Turks Network all have YouTube Original Channels. Sly says by “giving them an advance against future revenue, we basically took the risk out of the equation.”

Judging by viewership numbers, with the exception of The Young Turks Network — which routinely nears 10,000 hits per video and already had a well-established audience on the site when it launched its original channel — YouTube’s special news-themed channels look a little underwhelming. None of Reuters’ five most recent news videos (at this writing) have cracked 1,000 views. (Though a video about Lady Gaga’s social network got more than 1,400 views, and its footage of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney getting booed at an NAACP convention was watched more than 4,000 times.)

Slate’s videos get anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand hits. Same goes for The Wall Street Journal. Many of the videos on its special channel have only been watched a few hundred times, but there have been a few standouts. One WSJ video in which a Spiderman stuntman gives parkour workout tips has been watched more than 30,000 times. Another, featuring tips on how to wear makeup like Emma Stone, has been watched more than 7,000 times since it was posted earlier this month.

The Wall Street Journal’s deputy managing editor and executive editor online, Alan Murray, acknowledged that views “definitely look low if you look at the news content” because “there’s just not a lot of interest.” Murray, told me that he sees the Journal’s Original Channel as one of many things to try in a period of “massive experimentation.” Finance, business, hard news — the Journal’s bread and butter, coverage-wise — “doesn’t do all that well.”

But YouTube’s Sly says he’s “actually quite excited” about how the news channels are faring. “We didn’t have the expectation that every single one would be a home run,” Sly said. He also says that news partners have “adjusted their program and format based on comments from users.”

But it’s not all superheroes and pop stars. The Young Turks, a liberal network that focuses on news analysis, says its success on YouTube shows the appetite for serious coverage there. “Traditional media’s response to your question is incredibly predictable,” the network’s chief operating officer, Steven Oh, said in an email. “Have you seen CNN’s ratings? TV in general is dying. Newspapers are just about dead. The Internet is increasingly becoming a more accessible and reliable source of news. As for YouTube in particular, it is one of the main sources of news for people around the globe.”

Oh says he thinks Americans may be “behind others” when it comes to YouTube, but sees The Wall Street Journal and Reuters as leaders. “Paradoxically, as the world is becoming more globalized, the viewing audience is also becoming more fragmented, meaning that people are seeking out very specific areas of interest and thereby creating more niche markets to be served,” he said.

Trailblazers or not, some traditional media companies argue YouTube still isn’t a fundamentally newsy place. Murray says the bottom line is that there is “no indication that people are coming to YouTube for news.”

“They are coming for entertainment,” he said. “And we’re happy to provide.”

For Bill Smee over at Slate, the search for new audience demographics is the same but the Original Channel approach is a bit different. Tone-wise, Slate’s core site is already more buoyant and less buttoned up than the Journal. The “playfulness” and “attitude” that’s already central to Slate’s brand easily travels to YouTube, Smee says.

“We don’t have a YouTube hat and a Slate hat,” Smee told me. “The hope is they’ll work in both venues. The core of our YouTube custom channel is this topical daily stuff that’s really a little more grounded in the ephemera of the Internet, which people seem to really respond to on YouTube.”

One of the key things Slate has learned through its Original Channel is that early fears about driving traffic away from Slate were unfounded. “Where we may have once feared cannibalizing, we now feel like wherever we can put our wares is a good thing,” he said.

Reuters Global Head of Programming Dan Colarusso said it’s critical to create content for the company’s original channel with a “distinct Reuters feel,” but he also says that videos have to be made with the way people experience YouTube specifically in mind.

“I think regular news shows — unless you’re ESPN or SourceFed — don’t play as well with the YouTube audience,” Colarusso said in an email sent through a Reuters spokesman. “I think you need content that has a longer shelf-life and has the room to be a little more based on perspective, context or images to really succeed.”

The other key, Colarusso says: Keep videos short. “If you decide to go long, you’d better have something great in there every 15 seconds or you’re going to lose the viewer. It’s not television, they just click away. Still, our enterprise stuff has done well, but we’ve had to keep it tighter than I thought we would at the outset.”

YouTube is still only part of the strategy for news companies. That’s true even for The Young Turks Network, which also has a presence on satellite radio and on Current TV. This try-everything approach is a necessary bet against stagnation during a period of rapid change in journalism.

In Murray’s words: “Anybody who tells you they do know where we’re going to end up doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

POSTED     July 16, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
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