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Jan. 17, 2017, 9:57 a.m.

The Washington Post is putting a big bet on video (and trying to break into Daily Show-style comedy)

Owner Jeff Bezos is also pushing the Post to experiment with more user-friendly video ad formats.

The Washington Post is on a roll. On Friday afternoon, it announced that it was adding 30 jobs to its video team as part of a three-year plan to expand its video offerings. Perhaps most remarkable in those plans: multiple hires for what looks like a Daily Show-style scripted humor initiative riffing on the day’s news.

The Post is looking for a senior producer with “experience producing and writing comedy and will hire and manage a team of high-performing producers, writers and directors with a proven ability to deliver tightly produced, short, comedic segments on news-driven deadlines,” along with a producer/writer, director/writer, and videographer on the same project, which falls under the Post’s opinion section.

“In the Opinions space, we see an opportunity to experiment with scripted programming that will bring to life key issues in smart, humorous ways,” according to a posting for an executive producer job. “We fully understand the difficulty of success in this area and we seek candidates who are comfortable trying new things and then iterating on them.” (Way back in 2009 — a thousand years ago in web video terms — a Post satirical video show led by Dana Milbank and Chris Cilizza was killed after bad reviews and criticism.)

The scripted humor initiative is only part of the Post’s efforts as it looks to grow its presence in video, especially on over-the-top platforms like the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV. The paper currently has about 40 newsroom staffers working on video, and the new hires will bring that total to 70 plus another 10 or so on the product and development side, Micah Gelman, the Post’s director of editorial video, told me. The Post also plans to add 10 more video positions across 2018 and 2019, when it hopes its focus will be turning toward producing more long-form documentaries.

Gelman said the Post’s overall goal is to produce more video coverage that stands alone from its more traditional text reporting. “We are creating content that stands alone, that people come to and say: ‘Let’s see what The Washington Post has today in video. It’s reimagining what Washington Post journalism looks like in the future. We are placing some bets. We understand that we need to be on a lot of platforms, from Facebook to YouTube to over-the-top, and we need to deliver the type of content to those devices that people are expecting. It’s a very different experience clicking on a video in an article while you’re standing in line for coffee in the morning, versus sitting on the couch and firing up your Apple TV or Fire TV in the evening.”

The video hires come as the Post is growing its staff across the newsroom. Ken Doctor reported last month that the Post, which says it is profitable, is adding 60 jobs to its newsroom this year, an increase of 8 percent.

Gelman said that video unit itself is also profitable, and strong advertiser demand is helping fuel the growth in the video department. He also said that Post owner (and Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos is encouraging the paper to experiment with new video ad formats including shorter 5- to 7-second preroll ads, midroll ads, and video sponsorships.

“Jeff Bezos is really pushing us to aggressively iterate on the ad experience,” Gelman said. “I don’t think anyone is a fan of preroll as a user experience and he has been aggressively pushing us to test new formats, shorter formats, and video placement.”

Gelman said part of this round of hiring is aimed at creating video better able to stand on its own and more differentiated from breaking news coverage.

“We’ve been so focused on the news of the day and breaking news and doing things straight that we really haven’t been able to spend the time we want or to put the people behind it,” Gelman said of the humor strategy. “I think this is a really good opportunity for us to get that genre started. We’ll do it with Opinions, the editorial side, because we think a lot of it will fall into their wheelhouse.”

The Post currently has a staffer working half-time on video content for its opinion desk, and it plans to grow that section’s video staff to four full-timers. The expansion is happening across desks, Gelman said. The foreign desk, for instance, currently has one video staffer, but new hires will bring the total to four.

Video has long been a priority for the Post, with mixed results. In 2013, it launched PostTV, which was heavy on live political coverage and show-based programming; the paper’s president at the time, Steve Hills, said it had “the chance, over time, to be the ESPN of politics.” But the live-centric approach didn’t gain traction, and the effort ultimately fizzled out. In 2015, Gelman told the Lab’s Shan Wang that the Post was moving away from television-style “appointment viewing.” (Other newspapers and digital news orgs such as The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal also bet on live video around the same time, and they’ve also largely moved away from those formats — at least other than Facebook Live.)

Gelman reiterated to me that the Post isn’t looking to turn into a TV station even as it moves into over the top platforms. Instead, the Post is trying to condition its audience that the Post’s videos are available across devices. The Post will continue to also adapt videos for different formats — for instance, optimizing for viewing on social platforms by adding subtitles.

“We’re certainly not creating the point with television where we expect people to tune in at a certain time or in a certain place, but we are certainly creating the habit that The Washington Post will have content — whether it’s short-form news clips or long-form documentary or everything in between — that is a premium experience across all of these devices.”

Recode on Tuesday reported that Facebook planned to de-emphasize its Facebook Live efforts by ending subsidies to publishers. Instead, it reported, that Facebook is encouraging outlets to create longer, high-quality video for the platform that could possibly compete with Netflix.

Even as the Post bets on video, multiple studies have found that users aren’t as interested in news video as publisher investments might suggest. The analytics firm last week released a report that found video posts on sites in its network received 30 percent less engaged time than the average post. Similarly, a report last year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism analyzed Chartbeat data from 30 outlets across four countries. That study found that while 6.5 percent of news site webpages had video, users spent just 2.5 percent of average visit time on pages that had video and “97.5 percent of time is still spent with text.”

“So far, the growth around online video news seems to be largely driven by technology, platforms, and publishers rather than by strong consumer demand,” Antonis Kalogeropoulos, one of the report’s authors, said in a statement at the time.

Still, the Post said its video views increased 139 percent last year — though it didn’t provide the specific number of views — and Gelman said that many users come to newspaper sites with the expectation that they’re going to read an article, not watch a video. As a result, he said it’s “a conversion process of getting acclimated and conditioned to watch video.”

“Certainly, if you stack news video against a sitcom or longform, I don’t think it’s necessarily going to rank as well. I think, generally, a lot of news organizations have not done as well putting a highly relevant video into the story. I think some of our peers are more likely to just play any video into a story that’s somewhat tangentially related because they have the option of getting a clip. We’re not doing any automated video, we’re not doing programmatic decisions of what videos go into stories…these are all thoughtful editors making the decisions.”

Photo of Jeff Bezos at the dedication ceremony of The Washington Post’s new headquarters on Jan. 28, 2016, by AP/J. Scott Applewhite.

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2017, 9:57 a.m.
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