Online Video – A little of what we have learnt so far

By April 2, 2015online video

What makes great online video? It’s a question that’s puzzling businesses and news organisations around the world.

We know what people want to watch online: cats, cute children called Charlie biting his brother’s finger and posh people shouting at dogs chasing deer in Richmond Park. But how can we marry the popular with the valuable?

Over the past few months I have had numerous conversations with friends and fellow journalists – mostly from the newspaper industry – who are desperately trying to find the holy grail of quality, popular online video.

The answer is simple: produce quality content. Make engaging films that tell a story; that draw people in and show interesting, powerful footage.

This is of course easier said than done. How often do we see this type of video online or even on TV news programmes? Not as often as we should do – and there’s no real reason why.

We are in a golden age of video. Affordable, high-quality cameras, smartphones, intelligent apps and add-on kits mean everyone with the right skills can make excellent video. User-generated content (UGC) means every single event of note in the world is filmed from a vast array of perspectives and angles. Live-streaming makes it possible for everyone to broadcast. This is true of news, features, sport and entertainment. We have never had it so good.

It’s an area we all need to master. Video is the key to the future of the news industry – on a local, national and international stage. Some incredible work is being done but there’s also a great deal of confusion about what works and what doesn’t.

Here are a dozen or so thoughts based on the conversations mentioned above:

Online news video is not the same as TV news

Just because something works well on TV doesn’t necessarily mean it translates to different platforms. The grammar of TV journalism has evolved over more than 60 years. It is a template that seems to work: telling an entire story in a one and-a-half-minute package. Online, you don’t need to be constrained by these rules.

The moment I realised this was nearly 10 years ago when I was working on the BBC’s (ultimately) ill-fated Local TV pilot. We had set up six local TV services in the West Midlands and were broadcasting online and on digital satellite. One afternoon we got some excellent footage of the collapse of a big screen that had been set up for fans to watch the 2006 football World Cup. We ran two versions of the story.

The first was a traditional TV report. As you’d expect, the opening shots were of the screen falling over, followed by clips of eyewitnesses, the police, the organisers and the obligatory reporter piece to camera – lasting about a minute and 45 seconds.

The second was 45 seconds of raw footage of the screen at first wobbling and then gradually – getting more and more dramatic – falling over.

The most watched by far was of course the latter. It’s obvious really: if you’re doing a story about something happening you want to see as much of it as possible. The detail and information are still there, it’s just online; it’s in text. On TV you do need the clips and interviews to tell the whole story; to give it context. You don’t online.

UGC is excellent but don’t rely on it as a whole video strategy

Too many news organisations are relying on UGC to drive their video strategy. It’s a very important element but not the only answer. To be sustainable you need to produce your own quality content.

The future is mobile

Tablets and larger screens on mobiles are changing the way we watch video. However, only when improved mobile and wi-fi coverage is universal will we see the true revolution. This is already happening in South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong where robust coverage is everywhere. Audiences can watch live video all over the place – and they are in huge numbers.

New kids on the block

Vice News (above, with a recent video dispatch from Debaltseve, Ukraine) is excellent – that’s it. For years we have been talking about the threat to mainstream media from new platforms and the ease of producing video. The threat has become a reality with Vice News. The journalism and films it is producing are a breath of fresh air. It’s definitely scaring the big beasts.

Don’t oversell video

Video has got to be worth clicking on. You might see something sold as: ‘She looked like a normal woman walking down the street – but what happened next will blow your mind…’ More often than not it doesn’t blow your mind – and that’s the last time you click on a link sold in that way.

Video for the sake of video

There are too many examples of news and media organisations putting video online because they can rather than because they should. This appears especially true of radio stations and newspapers.

Each piece of video should be worth it. There is no point making a film of something that works better as a still image. Video is the future but it needs to be appropriate to the platform.

Zoe Barnes and Frank Underwood have changed the world

I know this is drama but journalism can learn a lot from House of Cards. It was the tipping point when Netflix and online video went from interesting concept to a vision of how we will all watch programmes in the future. The schedule is dead.

Newspapers are doing great stuff

Well, some are. The New York Times (whose Heartbreak in Gaza video is pictured top) and the Guardian are producing some fantastic and compelling films. The Guardian’s Comment is Free film about revenge porn, by Danish journalist Emma Holten, is a very good example. Sadly these films are not being viewed by anywhere near the number of people they should be.

Shelf life

Online videos are a long game. Their success should be measured over months – not instant hits.

Live-streaming can be very powerful

I was glued to the events surrounding Charlie Hebdo – first on my computer and then on my mobile.

TV News – the best bits

I love the way Channel 4 News shares the most interesting clips online. How many people saw theRichard Ayoade interview with Krishnan Guru-Murphy (above) live on TV, and how many online?

Remember, short is sweet

Vine and Instagram have shown how online video can be very powerful, in a short and succinct way. All news organisations should learn from this.