Analysis of The Charlotte Observer’s approach to video

14 07 2009

I chose to analyze The Charlotte Observer’s implementation of video on its website. (I worked at the Observer as a reporter for two years before my position was eliminated during widespread cuts.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the Observer’s video capabilities. The video interface has improved tremendously since I last watched a video on the site. The site used to have a clunky, frustrating video player that typically deterred me from watching any videos. With the new player, videos load quickly from a simple, easy-to-use site. The resolution isn’t perfect, but it’s not noticeably flawed. The playback for the videos is generally pretty quick and smooth. You’re able to easily skip ahead in the videos without any lag time.

A couple issues: The volume control button isn’t very user-friendly, and there is no option for watching a larger version of videos. The site is slow to load when you’re clicking through pages of videos. The videos aren’t dated, which makes it confusing. You wouldn’t want to read a news story and not know when it was written.

Now that the Observer has improved its technical capabilities, it’s time to improve the integration of videos into its news and features content. For example, the Observer should embed videos in its stories. Users shouldn’t have to visit a new page to watch a video related to a story. The Observer website should feature multimedia story packages rather than treating multimedia as separate elements. Within the video archives, the video descriptions should also feature links to related stories and content. As well, videos should be displayed more prominently on the home page. The Observer home page currently features a video and photo carousel far down the page.

The Observer also needs to improve the content and production of its videos. The videos should tell a story, or at the very least, provide additional value to a story. Many of the videos on the site are segments with tips on going green and golfing. This is fine, but the Observer needs to think beyond these stand-alone tips segments. It should be shooting video with more of its traditional news and features stories. Reporters and editors need to think like digital journalists. Shooting video, recording audio, taking photos, creating interactive graphics and using social media should be at the forefront of the story process – not an afterthought.

Some of the Observer’s videos are engaging and do a good job of telling a story, such as one about a football camp and another about a new entertainment complex. But others are simply boring. One video about an event basically includes numerous shots of people partying. Instead the producer needed a subject and a to tell a story around that subject. For example, he could have profiled one group of friends as they spent their night partying at the event. The Observer and other newspapers also need to stop doing videos that feature a beat reporter sitting in the newsroom and reading a script to the camera. Videos need to have interesting footage and a far more interesting background than the newsroom.

Quality varies drastically in the Observer’s videos. Some are produced well; others are painful to watch. In some cases, the shots are not framed well and the audio levels are way off – the narrator is too loud while the subjects are too barely audible. They also need to beware of distracting background noises like the annoying beep of a crosswalk signal.

I’ve observed a mode of thinking at many newspapers that says, “People will watch and love video no matter what it is. They’re just hungry for video.” Well, the hit counts on the Observer’s videos beg to differ. As a reader/viewer, I want to see videos that relate to the news and tell a story. I want to see videos that aren’t just done for the sake of having videos to post on the website. Overall, the Observer needs to do better videos on better topics. And they need to better promote and highlight the videos on their site.

I must add…

I despise when people criticize newspaper staffs without acknowledging any of the challenges they face. So in an effort to not be a hypocrite, I want to recognize that newspaper staffs are spread devastatingly thin right now. If a newspaper has any chance of survival, multimedia should of course be its main priority. BUT that is sometimes unrealistic in today’s depressing newsrooms. I estimate that 50 percent of the Observer’s newsroom has been cut (through layoffs, buyouts and attrition) in the last three years. Reporters are struggling to cover the beats left uncovered by their laid-off colleagues. There aren’t enough web producers to meet the demands of what needs to be done to have a good website. With the copy editing and design staffs decimated, it’s a miracle that the paper goes to press every night and it’s an even bigger miracle when there isn’t a huge error in it. And management’s actions often revolve around even more cuts rather than proactive solutions. Most everyone is overworked, underpaid, depressed and — while facing the constant threat of losing their job — looking for a way out.




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