With video, show me something interesting and check your storytelling at the door

Angela Grant:

While I do agree that photographers are uniquely qualified to enter the video world, I know for a fact that reporters can do it too. I did it myself! Reporters must learn how to tell visual stories, but they already know how to craft a narration to tell a story. Photographers already know how to tell visual stories, but they must learn to play a more active role in using narration to tell a story. Everyone has something to learn. We can all do it. (Bold added)

Of course, Angela is right — up to a point.

Every time I read Angela or any other video blogger talk about “telling visual stories” or being “narrative,” I recoil.

Screw the story.

Show me something interesting.

It takes a damn lot of talent to tell a good story, and to really make a story sing, you’ve got to get into that whole production value thing, which as we know, has damn little ROI on the web.

If you’ve got the talent, great, but even getting to the point where you can unlock that talent takes years of practice.  We’re not there yet.  What we need right now is lots of video that people actually want to watch.

As YouTube and other video sites have proven, they’ll watch something interesting, whether it has a story or not, whether it has high production quality or not.

Compare web video to music. In the music business, tens of thousands of songs are cut every year. A large percentage of them are very, very good songs. Unfortunately, only a very small fraction of those great songs ever become hits.

Fortunately for the music industry, even in these more constricted economic times, a few hit singles can make a few people very rich (and not just from the song sales).

So all of the effort on songs that never will become hits is still worthwhile. The ROI on one hit is so tremendous, that it makes the gamble worthwhile.

Your newspaper-produced web video has a very slender chance of becoming a hit (even less than a song in this analogy). And even if it does, it’s not going to lead to riches for you or your publisher. We haven’t built, at least so far, the economics around video to make that possible.

Storytelling video takes a lot of time and talent to produce.

“Show me something interesting” video — well, anybody can do that. All you need is a cheap camera and enough smarts to go, “wow, that could be really interesting on video.”

Think relevance, immediacy and fascinating.  Things like beginning, middle and end are not intrinsically interesting or valuable to a web audience.

Keep it short and sweet, and do it often enough, you might actually get people to start visiting your newspaper.com regularly for video.

And FWIW, before anybody starts in with the old red herring about promoting crappy video, don’t bother. If you think that’s what this strategy is about, you’re approaching this idea with more ego than business sense. I don’t buy into the false dichotomy.

Just show me something interesting with your video.

If you’re in the Rochester, NY area on Thursday, stop by the Hyatt to hear me and Chuck Fadely discuss video strategy. It might be entertaining.

Previously: Video can’t win on production quality alone

23 thoughts on “With video, show me something interesting and check your storytelling at the door

  1. I’m just getting my start in journalism as a nightime crime reporter at a 20k+ circulation paper. We just started online video a few weeks ago. I was already looking into buying a camera that could shoot stills and video before I found out about the video.
    I bought the camera and no sooner than two days later—barely knowing how to use the camera— I was on the scene of a large nighttime grassfire, so I shot some video and pictures, phoned in the update and then got the video put online.

    My thinking was the video as the camera panned would show how large the fire was, something numbers don’t do.

    The response was a mixed bag with most people (editors and photographers) applauding my efforts, as I was the first reporter at our paper to do this, and then a few saying the video wasn’t any good because it didn’t tell a story.

    But I think it’s just like people who were watching the fire burn at the scene. They don’t know what’s happening. They just know something’s burning and that’s fascinating to see it. While there is a difference between being there and seeing it online, I think some things capture the eye in such a way that you don’t need to tell a story, it’s just compelling to watch. Obviously, not all scenes are such, but still.

    P.S. I’ve been reading your blog for sometime and I just wanted to say thank you. I find it a consistent motivator reminding me to do more. It’s been a gateway for me into becoming more of a digital consumer and hopefully, soon, more of a producer.

  2. – it’s not about logging more hits it’s about developing new habits.
    – it’s not about mass audiences – it’s about niche conversations.
    – newspapers are dead already

  3. @ Victor — your instincts were right, and I’m glad you like the blog.

    @ peter — if it’s about niche, all the more reason to do it cheaply, because the audience is limited; as I’ve written before, local is a niche. And you better log hits — every web site that makes money does — and if you say it’s not about logging hits, you might as well say it’s not about making money, in which case, we might as well all become communist, because otherwise we starve to death. And this isn’t about newspapers, it’s about online community sites, which newspapers still have a prayer of getting right.

  4. – you need hits to make revenue sure – but hits do not produce dollars. Dozens of youtube vids with millions of hits that have not produced dollar one.

    – focusing on hits takes eyes off the prize – the prize is not the hit. Hits that are not directed towards creating/serving habits/niches are next to worthless.

  5. Peter, I’m at a lose … if you don’t measure web traffic, you have no hope of making money because you don’t know what’s working and what isn’t.

    Page views directly correlate to revenue.

    And YouTube has produced quite a few dollars. But that’s really beside the point what a newspaper.com might be able generate in revenue with a correct content strategy.

    You say “takes the eye of the prize” without saying what the prize is.

    I’ll tell you what the prize is — creating and sustaining a viable online content business.

    And how do you do that — by building audience. How do you know you have an audience? Your web metrics will tell you.

    Say what you will about some sites inability to properly generate revenue in proportion to their audience, you sure as hell ain’t going to generate revenue without audience … I don’t care what your business model is.

  6. This is why I like reading your blog. You can be as prickly and provocative as a thistle in your hiking shorts, but generally you do it to goad us off well worn paths and on to somewhere more interesting – or at least somewhere we’ll be forced to think our way back from if we want to return to that old path.
    But, while there’s a strong point to be made about knowing the difference between your reach and your grasp when it comes to shooting video, (and adjusting your aim accordingly), I think you’re unwise to advocate such a complete abandonment of narrative in favour of this horribly ill-defined concept of “interesting”
    Absolutely we should never forget one of our prime purposes as journalists is to witness – to observe and report. Posting video of a grassfire or flood or tornado damage should be the thing we nail every time we have the chance, and you don’t need to worry about “story” there. In this case “show me something interesting” means show me something I would have stopped and watched a while (and then told people about) had I been there at the time. Witness it for me.
    But that’s an awfully small room to live in.
    Some stories need to be told in a narrative, they cry and scream for it and when you can answer that call and deliver the story with honesty and power you can move people deeply – to action, to tears, to feeling.
    The key is a combination of training, trust (i.e. give talent it’s head) and time.
    You may be right – that the return on investment for online news video is too small to give talent the time and training it needs for such stories – but it’s no smaller, I’ll wager, than the ROI on 12 part investigative or narrative print pieces. We do those things because the return is not strictly financial (we get repaid in a renewal of trust, the spending of time, and the burnishing of our reputation among readers). We tell those stories because that’s what some of us – most of us – signed on for.

  7. the prize is the habit/niche.

    this post is about web video, right? not websites.

    Your arguments about minimizing production costs don’t apply to websites – successful websites have very high production values – professional design, fast servers etc.

  8. @ Peter … the whole point of doing video is to grow traffic … and as for web sites having high production values … when Google launched, designers laughed at it … and apparently, you didn’t see my posts about NewzJunky, which is kicking the local daily newspaper’s online butt. And it’s ugly as sin.

  9. @ Bill, I was going right along with you up until the last graph. Based on the rapidly decreasing readership rates (which started decades before the Internet came along), I’m not convinced all of those well-conceived, well-executive, enterprising and through journalistic packages have done squat for readership or trust.

    And that’s what I signed on for as a young reporter, too. I now question the value.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it, or that it shouldn’t be done simply because it is the right thing to do (and even in video, there are always exceptions) … but we need a way to pay for all that good journalism, and that only comes if we can figure out how to do a better job at growing and retaining audience.

    And sorry for being prickly. I’m really a nice guy in person. But I do want to encourage the average newsroom person to challenge some of their own assumptions — isn’t the the role of a journalist? Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Some journalists have gotten a little too comfortable, a little too complacent, in their assumptions.

  10. There are two reasons that newspapers produce video for the web. l. We need to. 2. We can.
    Newsprint will become a thing of the past and the web version of the news needs visual/sound content (to be more interesting?) This is a time of tremendous change and newspapers have to figure out how to repackage the news and deliver it to consumers. The pipeline has finally become big enough for us to repackage some stuff as video so why not? Anyone who hasn’t tried it will go the way of an extinct species within 10 years.

  11. >>As YouTube and other video sites have proven, they’ll watch something interesting, whether it has a story or not, whether it has high production quality or not.

    My immediate response was this quote explains why a lot of people who are journalism for something more than $$$ are abandoning it. to emphasize the point, if you;’re going into journalism for dollars you haven’t got the smarts to be a good reporter.

    The comments here helped take me a step or two away from that blackandwhite. Victor there reminds me what I’ve done a few times myself but was never able to put it online at a newspaper. With something like a fire, much less a forest fire there’s A LOT of down time.

    But I want something more than interesting. News needs to be, you know, news, which, yes, should entertain but above all inform. Just being a place for pure entertainment, well, I think a million and 1 other places have that same goal.

    The best writing tries to present the five senses. I can’t say whether it’s accurate that people today just NEED the audio and MOVING visuals due to lack of an imagination or lack of time. Or a combination of both.

    Something local, like a forest fire, falls into the right area where news is news and entertaining. (Especially if it catches a house and people fleeing and screaming outside, amiright?)

    I don’t visit often enough but I remain a(n often slightly disagreeing but not disagreeable) fan.


  12. Hi from high school….
    The trend of newspaper decline passes through my doors every day. When I have students who say, “I don’t read” as they walk into the first day of English or “I don’t write” when they enter my broadcasting class. Now more than ever media needs to think about their current and future audience…and it looks like there will be at least two choices. The elite who can read and want to run things and the nonreaders who will consume. Who will have the money and who do you want visiting your site?

  13. It’s not such a strange concept to think of videos as breaking news, general assignment, columns, narratives and special projects, with different structures and time allotted for them.

  14. “Screw the story” is not a winning philosophy for newspapers during this transition. Period.

  15. Howard, I agree with that sentiment (the constancy of change.) I just don’t see a high potential for competing by copying what others are already doing much more successfully with greater brand recognition (I.e. Crappy video – You Tube. Social networking – facebook.) I don’t suggest you shouldn’t try but there needs to be a core value proposition.

  16. Nobody is talking about “copying.” That’s not how innovation works. Innovation is about looking at what other people or doing, or what the customers are showing they want via what other people are doing, and figuring out how to adapt it to new uses and new ideas.

    Not to mention the red herring in the room of “YouTube = Crappy Video.” That’s a rather simplistic and often enough incorrect formulation.

    The core value proposition is serving the community that you chose to serve in the way that best suits their needs.

  17. Seems to me your definition of innovation relies on following others. True enough that ideas evolve (I am sure you are familiar with the concept of the ‘network effect’) and the first to market isn’t always the best.

    But what about leading the way…finding new ways to apply those attributes that make newspapers unique? Can you name a significant newspaper-led innovation?

    My point is, in my opinion, I hope newspapers never forget they are a storytelling medium. I am not talking about 62-part printed series. I am saying, use the technology to explore different methods of storytelling.

    As for you tube, if I understand your point, yes it does offer a different way of communicating and connecting. However, I think most people would agree the content there is not exactly intellectually challenging. All I am saying is, the “post something” idea doesn’t seem a valuable differentiation.

    I would echo others, however, in that I appreciate your challenge of the status quo.

  18. There is definitely something to be said about compelling content when it comes to video, or anything for that matter.
    Take blogs for instance.
    In this case it isn’t really anything compelling that makes this content interesting. Instead it is controversy. Which I believe is something it shares in common with the worst of the mainstream media. “If the content isn’t compelling at least make it controversial and you’ll get eyeballs.”

  19. As usual when someone wants to sell you something they only tell you half the message.
    It’s not just “show me something interesting” when you deal with the web. It’s “show me something interesting every day.”
    The only thing the net really has over other forms of media is its immediacy. People hook up for their daily, sometimes hourly fix and if you don’t have the next thing they will move onto another blog, forum, opinion site or whatever.
    If you can’t give them something interesting then give them something nice to look at while they wait for the next interesting thing.
    A picture is worth a thousand words and the internet is filling up with people who only bothered to learn how to say four letter ones.
    Some people think that’s all they need but personally I want to use the whole dictionary

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