Are Newspapers Better at Online Video than TV Stations?

Former TV newsman Randy Covington: "If you look around the newspaper world today, I'm seeing innovation that I'm not seeing in broadcasting."

As a former TV newsman who has now turned his attention to media convergence on the Web, Randy Covington believes that TV news is asleep at the switch.

“The TV stations don't see the train that's about to run over them,” says Covington, who now teaches at the University of South Carolina and serves as director of the IFRA Newsplex, a new media convergence study and training center. “If you look around the newspaper world today, I'm seeing innovation that I'm not seeing in broadcasting,” Covington says.

As newspapers seek to make their Websites more engaging, they have latched onto Web video with an enthusiasm most TV stations haven't matched, he says. While many TV stations make video from their newscasts available on the Web, newspapers are using video to add value on the Web, enhancing and expanding on their news reports for print. And while TV stations assume that their proficiency in producing on-air video gives them an automatic advantage when it comes to putting video on the Web, “they don't see how easily their strengths can be replicated,” Covington says.

Kenn Venit, a former TV and radio news director and broadcast industry recruiter who now teaches at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., is seeing much the same thing. TV stations are moving “somewhat reluctantly” to post their newscasts to the Web, he says, “but I don't think they've made the commitment that says ultimately this may be the driving force.” Newspapers, in contrast, are taking concrete steps to shift resources to the Web. As an example, he points to The Day of New London, Conn., which used an early retirement program as an opportunity to bring in new people focused on producing material for the Web, with video as one significant component.

On Sunday, for example, the newspaper's feature “A Long Way from the Sea,” about the Navy's role in Iraq, was accompanied by a short video entitled “Sandbox Sailors” that featured Navy Capt. Bruce A. Derenski from the submarine base in Groton talking about his work at a prison camp in Iraq.

The Web, in combination with low-cost technologies from the world of consumer electronics, is making it possible for newspapers to become broadcasters without duplicating the broadcast engineering overhead of a newspaper, Covington says. He is helping accelerate that trend through his work for the Newsplex, which is backed by IFRA, a global association of newspapers and publishers headquartered in Germany. One current project, in cooperation with the Shelby Star newspaper in Shelby, N.C., is the Star Car, a rolling multimedia newsroom. In contrast with a traditional TV microwave truck that might cost $400,000 or more, the Star Car cost about $30,000, plus the cost of the vehicle, to pack with equipment that in many respects is more modern and better-suited to quick-and-dirty reporting for the Web. In addition to still and video cameras, the setup includes a file server, a portable Wi-Fi network, cellular transmission equipment, and laptops for video editing (as well as writing and editing stories). In one case, when reporting from the scene of a plane crash, the Star Car enabled the newspaper to get its video from the scene on the Web first, while the TV trucks were still struggling to get a signal.

Even without such a fancy setup, many newspapers are producing innovative video and multimedia content. One of his favorite examples is the “Going Down the Crooked Road” multimedia site the Roanoke Times of Roanoke, Va., produced to accompany a feature on mountain music. In addition to videos of the musicians talking about and playing the music, it features an interactive guide to bluegrass instruments where you can click on the icon for a fiddle or a banjo to read about it while watching a demonstration of it being played. There's even a Flash-based music mixer that lets you dial up and down the volume of the instrument tracks for a music sample. Covington calls that “rich, deep content, using the medium to the fullest.”

Covington advises newspapers whose staffs are not comfortable with video to start with slideshows, which can be shot by the paper's professional photographers, taking advantage of their skill at producing compelling still images. Using software such as Soundslides, they can easily add an audio track with narration or clips from an interview and publish the result as a Flash file that plays like a video. The results can be powerful. For example, in 2006 the Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler won a Pulitzer for his work on “The Final Salute,” the story of the U.S. Marines charged with telling families that their loved ones have been killed, and the Pulitzer committee specifically mentioned the accompanying online feature that paired the photos with audio from an interview with one of the widows.

Newspapers are acting partly out of desperation – they are motivated to invest in making the Web work for them because they need to compensate for the steady erosion of advertising dollars as money flows from print to the Web, Covington says. TV stations are also feeling the pressure, but not to the same extent. And most of them probably look at the quality of the average newspaper Website video as amateurish by TV standards. But they shouldn't take too much comfort in that, in an era where amateur videos distributed through YouTube can command huge audiences, he says.

The real advantage for newspapers is that they tend to have larger staffs than TV newsrooms, and as they put video cameras in the hands of more reporters and photographers, Covington says they have the potential to beat TV stations in terms of quantity, if not quality. And he adds that smart stations will need to invest more resources if they want to protect what by all rights ought to be their natural advantage in Web video.