Newspapers Find Online Video Niche

Dailies stake out Web territory with broadband newscasts. But can they make money?
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In the race to capitalize on the popularity of broadband video, newspapers are continuing to take a page from TV stations’ playbooks by producing increasingly sophisticated newscasts and other Web programs. And although the newscasts may not pose a threat to stations’ ratings, newspaper executives are hoping they will help secure their lead over broadcasters in the battle for local ad revenues on the Web.

Indeed, stations have been aggressive with their own online plays; last week, Hearst-Argyle Television announced a deal with Google to run local news on dedicated YouTube channels. But when it comes to online advertising, papers have the upper hand: According to a study from Borrell Associates, they control 36% of all locally spent, online advertising, well ahead of TV stations’ 7.7%.

And although newspapers have long offered Web video, they are turning to newscasts to grow that online stake. The Roanoke Times offers a daily afternoon program produced in a new multimedia studio and control room. The Naples (Fla.) Daily News produces 30-minute daily “VODcasts” on its online channel, Studio 55. And Gannett’s Wilmington, Del.-based News Journal offers the twice-daily Delaware Online, which features a dedicated Web anchor.

“We have more reporting power in our market than anyone,” says Henry Freeman, VP of news at Gannett’s Journal News (N.Y.), which launched a 5 p.m. newscast this spring. “The question was, how do we get it into people’s hands?”

The newscasts, many of which are available as downloads for mobile devices, largely cater to a young audience that eludes both newspapers and traditional broadcast news. They are often short and irreverent (such as the Miami Herald’s daily “What the 5!”) and are as likely to cover a local rock concert as a serial murderer.

“We cover stories that broadcast TV might not cover, or cover them in a way that broadcast might not,” says Chris Kouba, director of strategic content at the Virginia Pilot. (Its parent Landmark also owns the Roanoke Times, The Weather Channel and a pair of CBS stations in Las Vegas and Nashville.)

At the Naples Daily News, Multimedia Director Andrea Lynn sees the Web programs as “a platform between the Web and the newspaper, somewhere between breaking news and the more analytical approach.”

But newscasts like the Journal News’ two-hour NewsCenter Now are more directly emulating traditional broadcast news programs. A partnership with the local Regional News Network (RNN), NewsCenter Now runs daily at 5 p.m. against the New York market’s evening newscasts.

For their part, The Roanoke Times and Delaware’s News Journal roll their newscasts ahead of the local broadcast lineups, at 3:30 and 4 p.m., respectively. “It’s meant to be before the day’s major newscasts,” says Roanoke Times Multimedia Editor Seth Gitner. “After the noon news but before the 5 p.m.”

And at a time when stations strive to out-local their rivals, the newspaper newscasts often concentrate on a narrower slice of geography. The Journal News, based in the New York City suburb of Westchester, had partnered with WCBS New York for years. But newspaper executives found that RNN—located a few miles from the paper’s headquarters—could offer far more local stories than a newscast serving NYC and the broad tri-state area.

Meanwhile, Delaware’s News Journal launched its twice-daily Webcasts largely because there are no commercial stations in the state. “Residents here must get their TV news from either Philadelphia or Baltimore stations,” says New Media Editor Robert Long. “Rarely can they find much Delaware news on those stations.”

“NOT TERRIBLY CONCERNED”

But station managers, for the most part, don’t see the newspaper Webcasts as stiff competition. Allan Horlick, president/general manager of Gannett-owned WUSA Washington, says newspaper anchors have a way to go before they’re considered “talent.”

“A lot of what goes into a TV newscast is the appeal of the presenters because of their communication skills,” Horlick says. “If you don’t have credible presenters, [the user] can just click on the stories. I’m not terribly concerned with newspapers as competition with their newscasts.”

Another station general manager, who asked not to be named, also zeroes in on the talent issue. “What people want is better personalities, and the [newspaper anchors] are really bad. You have to deliver content in an entertaining way.”

Indeed, few of the newspaper-produced newscasts show profit, and numbers like the Roanoke Times’ Timescast program’s 200-500 unique visitors a day aren’t likely to worry the local stations.

But many newspaper executives find the traffic numbers encouraging; since the NewsCenter Now launch, Freeman reports a 44% spike in online traffic, year-over-year, at the Journal News, although that reflects a Web overhaul that includes blogs and discussion groups, too.

And many industry insiders applaud the newspapers’ efforts as a clever move. “It’ll take a long time to beat stations at their game, but at least they’re experimenting,” says Gordon Borrell, CEO of media- research firm Borrell Associates. “Newspapers are tired of being the disruptee, so they’re trying to be the disruptor.”

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