Will shorter content always be free?

4 08 2009

In a Big Think talk, Harper’s Magazine Senior Editor Bill Wasik discusses modern media and suggests that shorter content will always be free.

Wasik makes an interesting argument that the Kindle is the early seed of one possible business model. “One of the things I love about the Kindle is the fact that it separates the act of choosing the information from the act of consuming it and that I think is more valuable than a lot of people think,” Wasik says. Wasik suggests that part of the reason people don’t pay for content online is because they don’t want to stop their online activity to enter their payment info. With the Kindle, people don’t have to stop. This concept makes me think about my iPhone. I quickly spend money on iPhone apps because all requires is my iTunes password. Having to stop and pay for something online does deter people, but I don’t think it’s one of the main reasons that people won’t pay for content. People won’t pay for news content because they’re hesitant to pay for something that they have always thought of as free.

Although Wasik contends that shorter content will inherently be free, he points out that you might be able to convince people to pay for longer content. I agree. I think as media consumers we can’t imagine paying for a 250-word breaking news brief about health care reform. But we might – and I emphasize, might – pay for a 5,000-word investigative report looking at America’s health care system and the various plans for reform.

I haven’t yet viewed the Kindle as much of a revolutionary device. It doesn’t seem all that interactive or appealing to me, but I understand Wasik’s point about it having potential for long-form journalism. People typically don’t read long, in-depth content on the Web. But given the ability to download that story and read it on a comfortable electronic device while lying in your hammock, long-form content might be more appealing and easy to read. As a journalist who dreams of doing investigative and magazine-style work, I’m hopeful that Wasik’s view of the Kindle is correct.


What is a show?

27 07 2009

What is a show? Why does duration matter? Why the need to classify?

A show is a video production that tells a story with a beginning, middle and end. I agree with the idea presented in the Online Video Insider post that a show is also “any periodically produced branded content.” In many cases, length may not matter as long as the show is telling a complete story. That’s the beauty of the Internet and the opportunities it has created: Shows no longer have to fit into a 30- or 60-minute time frame. As Dina Kaplan, co-founder of Blip.tv, told The New York Times, “On the Web, producers have this delicious freedom to produce content as long as it should be. They’re starting to take advantage of that.” The Times article points out that “storytelling is superceding the stopwatch.” Quality – not length – is determining whether people will watch content.

There is the tendency to classify web content because, until recently, our categories for classifying media made sense. It used to be pretty simple: There were TV shows, and there were movies, and there were those in-betweens like made-for-TV movies. Now that everyone can be a content creator – and that content can range from a 30-second clip of a baby to an independently produced feature film – those old classifications no longer apply.

Unlike a TV, you aren’t likely to have a web show on in the background of your living room. On the web, you actively seek out a show; you’re not just watching whatever is on. One reason that duration matters is that if people are watching shows online, they are not using their computer for other purposes. (Unless, like me, they occasionally watch a show on one laptop while using another laptop to surf the Web or do work.)

Personally, I’ve never been all that interested in the viral videos you find on YouTube. I watch videos made by my friends and family, and often watch them in their entirety because I’m interested in the story (my niece taking her first steps, for example). Although I think the content should determine the length of a video, I do think that half-hour TV shows work well on the web. I excitedly watch the previous night’s episode of “The Daily Show” on Hulu every day. The 21-minute episodes feel like just the right amount of time. I often watch while I’m eating lunch or when I need to take a short break from doing work on my laptop. But I generally dislike the short TV show clips that you find on Hulu and other video sites. I often feel cheated, like the site is trying to pretend it has more of a show’s episodes than it actually does. In the context of a traditional TV show, perhaps I’m conditioned to want a fuller episode. If “The Daily Show” were a web show, I might be used to varying lengths and not expect a half-hour (well, 21-minute) episode. On that same note, I often watch short clips of “SNL Digital Shorts” and sketches from “Saturday Night Live.” In this case, I’m conditioned to expect short content. I’d rather choose funny sketches than watch an entire “SNL” episode online. I will also watch short “web exclusive” clips for sitcoms I already love, such as “The Office.” So perhaps short TV show clips work better when the viewer already knows and likes the characters and background.

What do I want to be when I grow up?

21 07 2009

I’ve had the same answer to that question since I was 11 years old and joined my elementary school newspaper: a journalist. And I’ve been a journalist since I made that determination, whether I was working at a student newspaper, doing an internship, reporting for a metro daily or freelancing. But the job I’ve dreamed of doing most of my life is ceasing to exist as a full-time profession. I don’t mourn the death of newspapers. But I do mourn the effect that death is having on professional journalism. I am confident that a new, functioning business model for journalism will emerge. But whenever that does happen, it’s likely there still won’t be many positions for full-time journalists. Right now, there are numerous opportunities to do journalism, but few pay you for your work. When I explain this problem to people, they always tell me to start a blog. But I think they’re overlooking how much unpaid work goes into developing a good blog and how long it takes before you might even break even on your efforts.

Still, I hope to stay in journalism. My dream job is to do investigative projects (ideally, for an online magazine) and create in-depth multimedia packages to tell those stories. I plan to build an arsenal of multimedia skills and focus on interactive storytelling while attending MCDM. My busy summer schedule has gotten me off to a good start: In this class, I’m learning about the business of streaming media, shooting and editing video, and telling stories on the web. I’m learning Adobe Audition and how to create engaging audio stories while interning at KUOW Public Radio. And I’m helping manage and grow Newsgarden, a social-mapping application, while interning for tech startup Serra Media.

But realistically, I know there might not be any full-time jobs in journalism when I complete this program. (And yes, I could try to start a hyperlocal blog or freelance…but student loans don’t pay themselves.) So I’m open to other professions. I love journalism, but I think I would also enjoy using my skills to assist nonprofits or working as a community manager for an interesting niche website. That’s a big reason why I chose to attend MCDM – to gain the skills and knowledge I would need for other professions within digital media. I’m interested in all aspects of the digital media revolution and perhaps I’ll discover another field I’m equally as passionate about.

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.

Response to “Free”

6 07 2009

After reading this debate over Chris Anderson’s forthcoming book, “Free,” I’m even more intrigued and looking forward to reading it (ideally, for free).

We’ve seen examples of successful instances of “free” content within the music and digital realms. Bands that give away music downloads have seen a rise in concert ticket sales, merchandise sales and even music purchases. I’ve certainly downloaded free music, fell in love with a band and then dished out cash for concert tickets and posters. Within the digital realm, “Google gives away its search and e-mail and makes its money on advertising,” Anderson writes. But there has yet to be such a success story in journalism.

The debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Anderson looks pretty typical. The old-school journalist is threatened, but raises good points. The new media thought leader responds, “You just don’t get it.”

I need to read “Free” before I can decide whether I agree with Anderson. I likely will agree with some of his points but find fault with others. For example, Anderson argues that, “Distribution is now close enough to free to round down.” But Gladwell correctly points out that YouTube, despite its popularity, has yet to make any money for Google. YouTube tries to sell ads alongside videos, but must pay for professional content that advertisers want to be associated with.

Mark Cuban’s take on the situation most resonated with me. Cuban correctly points out that we are experiencing “Better Than Free” right now because we assign value to media based on how much it used to cost. “We value all those TV shows on Hulu highly because we assign a value to what we pay for cable or satellite,” Cuban writes. “We assign a high perceived value to newspaper and magazine reports based on the years we spent paying for them.”

Cuban makes a solid point that the music, TV and movie industries have learned they can give away content for free but “they don’t have to allow it to be freely distributed.” The industry sets the terms for where you get the content, such as Hulu, which often requires registration or your attention spent on ads.

Cuban contends that newspapers should take back control of where their work appears. “They should distribute their content for Free where they believe it maximizes return, but should do everything possible to keep it from being distributed Freely,” he says. This move won’t save newspapers or magazines, he says, but it will ultimately make their websites stronger. To an extent, I agree. If newspapers required that other news sites link to their stories (rather than reprinting them), they would direct content to their site and help build their traffic and brand. But stories are often reprinted through a content-sharing agreement with other media outlets. Unfortunately, the staffs and quality of most newspapers have diminished so greatly, that newspapers need these agreements. Without stories from other papers and the wires, there would rarely be fresh, timely content on their sites.

“If they can’t make their content stand out from the open source masses and convince enough people to transact with them in a way that makes them money they don’t deserve to exist,” Cuban says. Sadly, this will be the case for most newspapers.

I agree with Godin’s description of what people will pay for. “People will pay for content if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.” People will not, however, pay for “by-the-book rewrites of news” or “yesterday’s news,” he says.

I particularly enjoyed Seth Godin’s blunt response to Gladwell and other critics: It doesn’t matter if we want the future to be free. It is. It doesn’t mater how the new business model will support our current world. “…The world will change around it, because the world has no choice.”

Response to Clay Shirky’s TED speech

1 07 2009

The combination of global messaging systems such as Twitter and the ability to upload a message, video or photo from anywhere in the world has transformed the audience into the content producers. In his TED speech, Clay Shirky pointed out that the one-way communication of TV and print dominated the 20th century. But things have changed dramatically. Not only can the audience talk back, the audience can also talk to one another, Shirky said.

I agree with Shirky’s view. Everyone can now take part in the conversation, and everyone has a role in telling the story. Through Twitter, Facebook and other means, thousands of people can contribute to the collective consciousness of a story at once. I first learned about Michael Jackson’s death from a college friend’s tweet (and soon after, hundreds of tweets from news organizations and other users). I had left work at around 2 pm and closed Tweetdeck. When I got home at 2:30, I opened Tweetdeck and quickly realized how much the global conversation had changed in just half an hour. (Of course, were I fortunate enough to have an iPhone, I would have discovered this immediately.) TMZ had reported Jackson’s death, mainstream media sources were trying to confirm it, and millions of fans were expressing their grief. A few weeks earlier, I learned of the shooting at the US Holocaust Museum from a tweet posted by an editor at NPR in Washington. Soon after, Twitter users who worked nearby were posting their accounts and adding to the story.

“It isn’t when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society,” Shirky said in his speech. “It’s when everybody is able to take them for granted. Because now the media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we’re all in this together. We’re starting to see a media landscape in which innovation is happening everywhere and moving from one spot to another.”

I think we’re nearing the point when everybody will take these tools for granted. I’m no longer amazed when I learn about news from Twitter or when someone uploads a video of a train accident. I expect to get my news from Twitter; I expect to see cell phone video footage of news events.

Class Production Proposal: The “Locavore” Movement

1 07 2009

I propose that our class production focus on Seattle’s local food movement. There is a strong interest in this topic in Seattle and nationwide as the “locavore” movement gains momentum. Our production would inform the audience about the pros and cons of producing and buying local food; restaurants and stores that focus on local food; and ways to get involved in the local food movement. The production will answer the question, “Should you eat locally?”

The “locavore” movement offers a variety of characters and story angles, including:

  • profiles of restaurant owners/chefs who focus on serving local food
  • profiles of local farmers
  • profiles of urban farmers (ie. city residents who raise bees and chickens)
  • urban farmers who barter with local restaurants
  • restaurants that are just getting started with offering local food
  • stores that sell local food
  • proponents of the movement
  • opponents who say that buying local isn’t important
  • local food production
  • farmers markets
  • people who make it a point to only buy local food
  • how do you define “local”?
  • the economic development argument  (http://sustainableseattle.org/Programs/LFE%20Files/LFE%20REPORT%20FINAL.pdf)