Will video resolve newspapers' crisis?

According to Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website, newspapers and broadcasters are set to ‘meet in the middle and battle it out for the audience”. The arena for this conflict is, of course, online. And although the fight is not new, there is a new front: video.

Rupert Murdoch gave the call to arms in his 2005 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, calling the industry ‘complacent’and saying ‘the emphasis online is shifting to text with video”.

By 2007 UK newspapers had rallied, with the likes of Trinity Mirror announcing a ‘greater emphasis on multimedia”, and The Daily Telegraph, launching a news-on-demand video service”.

The editor of FT.com, James Montgomery, told us what’s at stake: ‘As the TV-spend moves online we hope some of that money will come to us. That’s what convergence is all about”.

But how can newspapers compete against broadcasters with their vast audio and video assets? The editor of Mirror.co.uk, Steve Purcell, believes that newspapers have an opportunity because they are not weighed down by the production values of the broadcast media.

What’s more, broadcasters like the BBC have internal battles to fight, as the cultures of TV and online clash in the newly converging newsrooms. The BBC’s head of editorial development for multimedia journalism, Pete Clifton, talked about ‘people from BBC TV news and newsgathering who don’t really get what we’re doing”.

Opportunity

One of our most startling findings was BBC News online’s admission that its web video had not performed ‘a very useful function at all”, duplicating rather than complementing text stories.

BBC trials showed that online news video was typically watched by only two in every 100 visitors. In part, users were put off by the shovel-ware approach, but also because the clips lived in a standalone player.

When Flash video was embedded at the top of the stories, conversion rates leapt to between 25 per cent and 40 per cent, the BBC told us.

Newspapers have had the opportunity to see what works, and The Guardian’s strategy reflects this approach. It stole a lead on the BBC by playing video straight off the page.

But The Guardian might not have the upper hand for long. The BBC is rolling out embedded video as fast as resources allow. According to Herrmann, embedding video will require journalists to learn how ‘video integrates with their story”.

The editors we spoke to were less interested, however, in multiskilling on the newsgathering side. Marc Webber at theSun.co.uk said: ‘This is not robo journo – journalists having a pen in one hand and a camera in the other. They are distinctive disciplines”.

But what of the content and character of the video being run by newly multimedia news sites?

Telegraph.co.uk’s Ed Roussel said popular video stories ranged from the dramatic to the quirky. And Sky’s Steve Bennedik said viewers were going for the ‘lightweight”.

The BBC’s plans to embed video are likely to accelerate the tendency to provide what Clifton called the ‘quick fixes”.

All this seems to support the view that convergence means less process stories and investigative reporting.

Convergence has also been criticised for the monotony that results from the partnerships that allow newspapers to offer a broad range of video streams. Indeed, at UK newspaper sites there is a heavy reliance on a small number of third-party providers, in particular Reuters, ITN, and Sky News.

High standards

But there may be reasons for optimism. Firstly, the editors we spoke to were determined to maintain high editorial standards. Bennedik insisted that Sky wouldn’t put its international coverage ‘under the carpet”.

Secondly, some were not entirely happy with their partners and were encouraged by the popularity of in-house video.

Purcell said Mirror.co.uk’s experience with Roo had been ‘a bloody mess relying on American led-content”. Webber told us theSun.co.uk’s would give priority to its own content, which was proving to be more popular.

Although commentators like Bill Hagerty believe that multimedia is an answer to the ‘crisis’printed newspapers face, users’ appetite for video should not be overestimated. It is easy amid the hype to forget that moving images are only part of the content jigsaw.

Herrmann said that ‘the vast majority of the BBC’s audience comes for text”, Times Online editor-in-chief Anne Spackman said that video was not ‘the first point of contact’for all stories – especially because TimesOnline’s expertise was in specialisms, like business, which are not picture-led.

Dangers

So to what extent can the shift from text to text with video allow newspapers to avoid, in Rupert Murdoch’s words, being ‘relegated to the status of also-rans”?

Well, content is crucial here. Murdoch has also talked about the need for newspapers to ‘differentiate’themselves in a ‘world where news is becoming increasingly commoditized”, the dangers of avoiding ‘bland repurposing”, and the need for ‘deep, deep local news”.

In our study we saw plenty of bland repurposing of commoditised news – not least from companies within Rupert Murdoch’s own News Corporation. But we also saw hopeful signs that, with the original content they are producing, mainstream newspapers are acknowledging what a recent IBM report called the ‘world of increasing consumer control and niche content”.

Neil Thurman leads the master’s programme in electronic publishing at City University’s department of journalism. His full 8,500-word report, Convergence Calls: Multimedia Storytelling at British News Websites’, written with Ben Lupton, is available from: www.pressgazette.co.uk/thurman

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