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Oct. 9, 2012, noon
Reporting & Production

Election season gives major daily newspapers ripe testing ground for video work

As The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post continue to experiment with video, the challenge is not to reinvent television.

This election season has continued online news’ march toward video — particularly video produced by news organizations that haven’t historically been known for it. Here’s a look at how three major U.S. newspapers treated the political conventions as an opportunity to produce video that isn’t television.

“None of the things we’re doing now even existed four years ago,” The Wall Street Journal’s Alan Murray recently told me. Murray and I were talking specifically about how the Journal approached video coverage at this summer’s political conventions. Comparing this year’s coverage to what the Journal did in 2008 is, Murray says, “mind boggling.”

For starters, WSJ Live, the paper’s multiplatform video hub, is only a year old. (In that first year, the Journal has forged more than 25 partnerships, so you can watch videos on Apple TV, Roku, Xbox, et cetera, et cetera.) “We now have more people watching our video off our site than on our site,” Murray said. “So these conventions were certainly the first in which we had this huge outside audience.”

“There is no optimum length. People will watch a two-hour movie on a tablet, but on mobile phones, all the evidence is that people snack.”

Wall Street Journal programming out of the conventions ranged from livestreams of key speeches to live-from-the-convention spots during each of the Journal’s six daily live shows. (YouTube also carried all of WSJ’s live shows, which helped contribute to WSJ’s largest to-date live audience, though most people still seek out the paper’s videos on-demand.) Murray says video views in August were four times higher than they were the year before, but that reflects “steady and rapid growth in our video, not necessarily a convention ‘bounce.'”

More recently, WSJ produced a variety of videos related to the presidential debate. One example: A WSJ Live conversation about the Internet jokes — from Big Bird to @SilentJimLehrer.

Also newer in the WSJ’s bag of tricks is WorldStream, which is a reverse chronological stream of super short reporter-generated videos that can be filtered by topic. It’s a neat product from a consumption side but the real value is for Journal reporters.

With the click of a button from a smartphone app, Journal reporters can submit footage to the stream — pending approval from an editor — so that it can be viewed there and subsequently embedded into other stories. No more phone calls to editors to describe the video you shot but may or may not want to embed in a story. No more multi-step uploading process. From the production side, WorldStream makes filing video simple and efficient. Murray says the conventions were the “big test” for WorldStream because it had launched just before Republicans gathered in Tampa. (Murray: “With WorldStream, we knew it was going to be big, but it’s even bigger than I expected.”)

Not everything about convention video went as smoothly. One of the lessons the Journal learned had to do with connectivity. At the start of the first convention, a slow Internet connection and a high-quality livestream camera produced a delay that sometimes lagged as much as 10 seconds.

“It was just a killer,” Murray said. “So we made some technical adjustments and got the delay down to a few seconds. And we changed the nature of the interview because you couldn’t really have any exchange or back-and-forth. If we have a reporter reporting live from the streets of Athens when protests are going on, and he’s using Skype and it’s a very grainy picture, we find that people are very tolerant of that. But if you have someone sitting in our bureau, or sitting in the bureau at the convention, they’re much less tolerant.”

Four years from now, he anticipates the Journal will likely invest in its own hard line connection at the conventions. Already, Murray says he’s beginning to rethink some of the beliefs he held about the kinds of video people want to watch.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said we were beginning to get some early evidence that people’s tolerance for longer videos was increasing,” Murray said. “That was a function of the tablet. But as more and more video is on mobile phones, the pressure’s in the opposite direction. People want short, quick bites. I have been doing some rethinking. There is no optimum length. People will watch a two-hour movie on a tablet, but on mobile phones, all the evidence is that people snack.”

Producing video without reproducing what’s on television

When it comes to producing video for a major news event like the political conventions, the key for major daily newspapers like the Journal is not to simply emulate television. Television networks have more money to spend on video production, not to mention the sheen that comes with broadcast native expertise.

“If all we’re going to do is create our own TV station, what’s the point?” Murray said. “We try to think hard about what we can contribute that’s unique. Always at the top of that list is the expertise and knowledge of our workers. Our main assets at the conventions were our reporters.”

That’s a familiar refrain, and one that both The New York Times and The Washington Post echoed. Newspapers aren’t going to distinguish themselves by producing wall-to-wall video coverage or the highest production quality videos. They have to rely on their brands, which are largely shaped by editorial observations and analysis. “We’re not network news, we’re not cable news,” New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts told me. “We want to exploit certainly our knowledge, but also the medium. Web video gives you more freedom than cable or broadcast. I’d like to push us more in a social direction.”

It makes sense, then, that Roberts was behind the Times’ conventions collaboration with hyper-social BuzzFeed, which he said was not an easy sell, internally.

“We did a number of things with BuzzFeed that I thought were creative,” Roberts told me. “Matt Stopera doing his ‘Fab or Drab’ reports, Ben Smith and I did our own nightly show. Ben and I attempted to sort of create a portal into the way the conventions played out on social, and we engaged with the audience.”

The New York Times also hired artist Christoph Niemann to animate the conventions.

Roberts said the Times’ video strategy at the conventions was “hugely ambitious” in part because it represented the newspaper’s biggest step into livestreaming yet. (Previous “baby steps” include some streaming of last year’s Oscars coverage, he said.)

“Compared with what MSNBC is doing, it’s not that bold,” Roberts said. “So in some ways we were thinking about counter-programming. We thought we would give them something different, use the conventions as a time to talk about politics in general, report from the scene, use the knowledge that our reporters were developing. The feeling was, our people have a lot of knowledge.”

All in all, the Times produced more than 20 hours of unique video out of the conventions. There were one-on-one interviews, nightly shows, live standup shots, pre-produced segments, and so on. Like the Journal, the Times participated in YouTube’s elections hub, which Roberts says drove a lot traffic. Roberts said he’s not allowed to disclose any numbers about video traffic, “but I would tell you if I was disappointed, and I was ecstatic.”

The biggest challenge the Times anticipated was finding ways to produce unique content in a news environment saturated with reporters trying to do the same thing, but the Times also struggled with finding the best way to show its audience that the videos were there in the first place. “One thing that we tweaked a lot was the design and presentation on our site,” Roberts said. “We iterated a lot with just how to get people to click on it. That was a pretty big testing ground for us. Videos are hard. Videos cost money, and it’s a significant commitment. A lot of people don’t associate us with video, they still see us as a text-based reporting outlet. So we got ever more aggressive as the conventions went on, trying to promote the video content.”

Roberts said the Times also adjusted its tone over the course of the conventions. By the end, it had found a “looser,” more conversational style that helped engage its audience. The paper has continued its video experiments into debate season, with an interactive feature on candidates’ body language and side-by-side videos assessing how Romney’s message has changed since the debates during primary season.

Socializing conventions coverage

Finding ways to connect with readers and viewers was also a priority for The Washington Post, which experimented with Google+ Hangouts. “We want to be able to connect with folks,” said Andy Pergam, director of video for The Washington Post. “We get big name newsmakers, a few journalists who are not just Washington Post journalists but other journalists, so the average person living in Columbia, Missouri gets to ask [Democratic National Convention Chair] Debbie Wasserman Schultz about the convention. It’s been pretty cool to experiment in that space.”

Pergam said the conventions showed that the Post is “finally at a place where mobile live video makes sense” — live videos from the convention did “really well” in terms of driving traffic, he said. Like the Times, The Washington Post wanted a “more casual, living room-style” set than you’d find on cable TV. “We can sit a reporter down to talk about a story they’ve been working on in an environment they’re much more comfortable with,” he said.

The biggest challenge for the Post came down to the logistics of coordinating coverage of multiple events in multiple places. At the Republican National Convention, for example, the arena where key political figures gave speeches was a five-block walk from the work space where Post reporters were filing stories.

“We don’t have unlimited resources so we can’t have full sets everywhere that are interconnected,” Pergam said. “We’re not doing an MSNBC-level production. It’s just a matter of choosing our battles and figuring out what we can do really well.” The other thing to figure out: How to not only attract viewers but how to keep them hooked.

“It’s hard to build an audience that would stay all day,” Pergam said. “They’re not necessarily watching a significant amount of live interviews.” Viewers seemed likely to tune in to livestreams of speeches but they watched most other videos on-demand, he said.

Check out this Washington Post video that portrays both conventions, side by side, in a series of moments:

The Post also produced a series of interactive video packages to accompany speeches by political leaders, so that people could watch the video and track Twitter reaction as it happened over the course of the speech. That was one way the Post worked to “differentiate our stuff from the competitors.” It’s also a signal of the kind of work the Post is continuing to try to produce — straight reporting under a layer of analysis, all in real time.

“That’s one of the challenges that we always have,” Pergam said. “How do we cover an event differently? What do we do that’s uniquely Washington Post? We have video journalists on the ground, produced pieces in video form, sit-down interviews, the livestream, people collecting voices from delegates and from the public — kind of firing on all cylinders. There’s a big difference between the people who are legacy broadcast brands and digital or print brands. We’re sort of bottom-up. Being able to provide live video and analysis at the same time, I think that’s the next big thing for us.”

POSTED     Oct. 9, 2012, noon
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