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A golden age of video journalism

After lies and stumbles, what’s next for video?

In 2015, timelines, feeds and screens experienced an epidemic. As Facebook ruled the internet’s traffic, newsrooms were faced with two risky options: fall behind and risk shutting down or follow Facebook’s lead and, hopefully, survive. But these news organizations – ranging from the Atlantic, Vogue and the Guardian to newer outlets including Vox, NowThis and Mashable – had to venture into territory that many hadn’t touched – video. Still, newsrooms – each publishing several videos per day – began injecting the digital world with mass-produced, identical looking news videos, each lasting less than two minutes. Short-form video was spreading; it was nearly impossible to avoid.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, Facebook was the most popular social media site among American adults. Of adults going online, 72 per cent were Facebook users. This was 62 per cent of all Americans 18 and older. In the same year, 71 per cent of American teenagers – aged 13 to 17 – used Facebook.

With Facebook being the most used social media platform, its audience seemed necessary for newsrooms’ survival. To get their attention, there appeared to be only one thing to do: publish video on Facebook.

“A lot of different companies had to really switch up what they were doing,” says New York-based freelance video producer Vic Vaiana. “They all started on Facebook thinking, ‘Oh, okay, this is the millennial and maybe even Gen Z audience.’”

The phrase “pivot to video” is often used to describe this era of newsrooms prioritizing video on social media platforms. News organizations believed online audiences were extremely attracted to video, especially on Facebook. The reason was obvious. At the time, Facebook claimed that its video metrics were huge. In 2015, the social media giant reported that it averaged more than one billion video views each day.

Vaiana is one journalist who experienced this era firsthand. In 2016, he joined NowThis, a social media-focused news organization that today boasts 15 million followers on Facebook. (He stayed for a year, left for several months, returned for another year or so, and then recently accepted a job at AJ+, a news organization run by Al Jazeera.)

After entering the NowThis fellowship program, he became an associate video producer. He says each producer would script and video edit two short videos every day.

He calls it a “churn-and-burn mentality.”

What happened

As news organizations prioritized social media video, mass-producing short videos became a desperate attempt to find money in an unstable industry. With advertisements attached to every video, and Facebook reporting high video views, social media video was seen as an untapped gold mine.

It sounded like a logical, cost-effective plan: mass-produce simple videos, engage online audiences and increase traffic to your page and website.

But the plan didn’t work.

The Atlantic reported that from 2016 to 2018, newsrooms laid off more than 350 journalists to accommodate the pivot to video. First, Upworthy, a news organization that quickly grew because of Facebook’s video-prioritizing algorithm, in 2016 laid off 14 employees to focus on video. Later that year, Mashable let go around 30 employees as it moved toward non-news video content. In July of the following year, Vice laid off around 60 employees to increase its video production. Seven months later, Vox Media laid off around 50 employees to scale back its native social video content – videos posted directly onto social media platforms – because it wasn’t viable.

On Facebook’s side, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2016 that Facebook’s video metrics were artificially inflated. It had overestimated the average time users spent watching video by between 60 and 80 per cent. Because of the inflated metrics, advertisers and news organizations had blindly poured money into video on Facebook when, actually, there weren’t that many views.

And things got worse. Two years later, the Wall Street Journal reported that a small group of advertisers filed a lawsuit claiming Facebook’s error was even larger: the average viewership metrics had been inflated by 150 to 900 per cent. In Oct. 2019, Facebook settled the lawsuit for $40 million.

“That world of chasing the penny-per-click advertising bucket is just a losing game,” says media consultant and former New York Times journalist Amy O’Leary. “It’s a terrible game to play.”

After leaving the Times, O’Leary helped Upworthy recover from its pivot to video as a chief story officer and editorial director. Now she advises media companies and journalism non-profits on strategy and content development.

“I advise a lot of my clients,” she says, “that starting out with digital video is not a very strategic business move.

Better, she says, is “thinking about real people, how they really use stuff and making something that actually works for them.”

Next steps

Facebook was lying to newsrooms and held too much power in the journalism industry. While news organizations rely on social media platforms to reach audiences, in 2015-16 entire digital strategies were focused on one platform.

A more promising goal for video, says Vaiana, “is to make media that can live on as many screens as possible.”

But during the pivot to video, most newsrooms weren’t thinking of cross-platform video. There also was too little focus on quality content.

In 2018, Nathalie Malinarich, the mobile and new formats editor at BBC News, wrote an article titled Video – yes, video for Nieman Lab. She predicted video journalism would see a shift away from mass-produced, identical short videos to more in-depth, crafted videos.

“If you follow lots of news organizations on your Facebook feed,” she says, “you would have probably seen the same video 20 times over. The only difference was the colour, the size and the font of the text on screen, and that’s kind of pointless because you can’t compete in that way.

“So, it’s about if you’re doing video, what do you add, what do you bring to it, how do you make it different?”

If journalism does see a rise in longer-form video, how will the era unfold? For many news organizations, YouTube is an effective platform for longer-form video. It’s equipped with advertising through Google AdSense and has been a popular social media platform for all ages.

According to a 2019 study by Pew Research Center, YouTube is the most widely used online platform among Americans, with 73 per cent of adults reporting using the site – 51 per cent every day. Last year, it was 45 per cent.

YouTube is also a hugely popular app among teenagers. In a 2018 Pew study, 85 per cent of American teenagers use YouTube, as opposed to 51 per cent who use Facebook. With YouTube appearing to lead the next generation, news organizations must be smart about how they produce and where they place longer-form video journalism.

Jeremy Copeland, chair of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communications program at Western Ontario University in London, Ontario, already sees it with his own students.

“Most of them watch a lot of videos; they love videos,” he says. “They’ll watch videos with the sound off while they’re on the bus. They’ll watch videos at the back of my class with the sound off. That’s what they do on their phones.”

While Copeland has a traditional television journalism background working for news organizations including CBC, BBC Worldwide and Al Jazeera English, he embraces changes in technology.

“Students and professionals,” he says, “they just need to embrace change.

“The way of telling video stories is changing so rapidly. They’ve just got to embrace it and they’ve got to be adaptable within their story.”

Changing journalism

Journalism always evolves. New media, styles and platforms are always created. With video journalism, it’s a matter of finding the most effective way to reach and engage audiences.

“Part of the issue is there’s an awful lot of bad video out there,” says Christopher Waddell, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa. “Just because people move, or may appear to move, in a picture doesn’t mean it’s video worth watching.”

Video is also one of journalism’s most expensive media. Especially with longer-form video, journalists have to plan their story, organize interviews, shoot the video, edit, render the final version and then upload.

“If we’re moving in that direction,” Waddell says, “it’s going to be more difficult for news organizations to compete unless they’re prepared to make the commitment in bodies to allow them to produce the quality of material that people will want to watch.”

Video journalism isn’t vanishing. Instead, journalists are figuring out where video will live, what it will look like and how it’s created.

“I think video storytelling is, in many ways, the most powerful form of storytelling,” says Copeland, of Western Ontario. “The way we connect with people emotionally is through visuals, is through seeing (people) and experiencing their joy, their pain, their anger.”

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