Surrender? No! Double Down!
Publications should wholeheartedly embrace videojournalism now more than ever, not timidly abandon their halfhearted efforts.
April 2009

Most online publications paid lip service to "digital convergence" and "multimedia" (terms that have since lost all significance) by halfheartedly committing a small amount of resources and manpower to videojournalism over the past few years. They purchased cameras and software, and forced already overburdened reporters and photographers to add shooting/editing/producing video to their daily chores. Post your print stories and stills by 3 p.m., they mandated – and upload your finished video by 6 p.m. Don't like it? Plenty of freshly minted college grads who will be glad to do it – for half your salary!

As circulation dropped publishers looked toward their Web sites to pick up the slack. Newspapers were already putting all their written stories on the Web, so they were told by consultants that multimedia would help build a larger audience. Since the publishers already had half the multimedia team in place (photographers), all they needed to do was add audio to the pictures. Publications purchased audio recorders, handed them out to the photo staff and instructed them to start producing slide shows for the Web.

Media organizations weren't entirely sure why they were bothering with this new format. Their execs attended workshops and conferences that promised them that this was the future, and they were in a hurry to get there before anyone else, or at least be ready for it when it came. It wasn't that multimedia itself was so promising, but that everything else was proving to be so unpromising. And so a medium was born of desperation. With the development of Joe Weiss' "Soundslides" program, producing audio slide shows became simpler.

As still images combined with sound evolved to moving images with synchronized sound, photojournalists started morphing into videographers. As consumer access to broadband expanded, videos began to proliferate.

Unsurprisingly, that early video was not very good. But even if it had been good, who would know? Newspapers buried it on their Web sites so that nobody could find it. For a long time, readers would be surprised when they found out that their papers' Web site even featured video. When they looked at it, they were less than captivated and never returned. This further justified the newspapers' rationale for burying it because, after all, nobody was watching it anyway.

Despite this "catch-22," a few practitioners and even entire departments work hard to take advantage of this new medium, and in the process create genuinely high-quality videojournalism. Those organizations are starting to reap the rewards for their efforts – in industry recognition, awards, increased viewership, audience loyalty, and, yes, advertising revenue (For its stellar videojournalism, NYTimes.com recently won a prestigious Peabody broadcast award, which traditionally goes to TV shows. New York Times Platypus graduate Dave Franks also just won a first place in the NPPA Best Of Photojournalism contest for his video on a Special Olympics athlete). But for most of the videojournalism industry, without their company's wholehearted devotion to promoting and marketing it, and to generating ad revenue or corporate sponsorship to underwrite it, its future is bleak.

But this is not the time to retreat. This is the time they should be doubling down on their investment, to beef up videojournalism coverage and spruce up its presentation. Why? Because, unlike text stories and still images, which replicate endlessly across the Web without credit or remuneration to the original source, videos are a publication's singular distinctive asset. If they appear on another Web site, it's only because it's been "embedded" – meaning that the source site still gets credit (and ad revenue) for each viewer. Many individual local markets are producing video stories that have universal appeal, and deserve to be seen beyond their own backyard. Our collective mission should be to help those videos find global distribution to their target demographics, especially when their potential audience extends beyond geographic borders.

Further, video can enhance a media brand far beyond the capabilities of text-only stories. Sure, plenty of columnists have distinctive voices, but their text all looks the same. Not so for video. When Web viewers see a story, it instantly becomes more memorable, and they begin to associate certain styles, themes, topics, and even on-camera reporters with specific media brands, luring them back to the source Web site to see more.

It's not that busy people don't have the time or inclination to watch professionally produced video stories, it's that they aren't being given the opportunity. "60 Minutes" is still one of the most popular programs on television and has been for decades. Its ratings clearly demonstrate that video can attract a huge audience for well done documentary and investigative journalism.

So that's our rallying cry. Create great videojournalism, promote it heavily, distribute it widely … and the audience – and monetary rewards -- will follow.

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