What works in online video news?

How has online news video changed in recent months? Let us count the ways:

Since last November, NBC started streaming three of its news shows online. CNN launched a desktop application called Pipeline, which shows 24 hours of Web-only content. Reuters and the Associated Press launched affiliate video network programs that syndicate their content to other sites. And the New York Times, a newspaper with no great broadcast experience, made video an integral part of their redesigned Web site.

By all accounts, news consumers are eating it up. CNN.com, to take one example, only showed about 4 million streams per month last year on their Web site. Today, according to executives, they’re showing 11 million streams per week.

Other news organizations report steady traffic growth since last Fall as well. But despite all these online ventures, or perhaps because of them, publishers say they’re still experimenting with video to discover what works, and what flops.

And while most media companies are reticent to reveal exact traffic numbers for their video, they were willing to share evidence about what types of videos are popular with viewers, from breaking news to user-generated content to celebrities and sex.

The three types of popular videos

At first blush, the question of what’s popular online may seem simple. It’s the same as offline, right?

Not exactly. Media executives say yes, it’s true that you can, for the most part, map the popularity of online video to what’s popular on broadcast television. Live and late breaking coverage, celebrities and sex, and innately visual stories work very well.

Bart Feder, CEO of The FeedRoom, says that visual stories in particular are the ones that tend to be the most viral types of video. His company helps other companies and news organizations, including the New York Times and BusinessWeek, publish and monitor their online video.

“Call up the must-see-TV category,” Feder said. “It’s the car chase. It’s the guy who proposes to his girlfriend on the floor of the Philadelphia Spectrum and she runs away. Stories about the war. Any war or conflict. Stories like these don’t do as well as plain copy.”

But beyond the hurricanes, sex, and terrified would-be brides, broadcasters have discovered other types of content that work well. For example, evergreen content, or videos that aren’t pegged to a specific news event, can continue to draw traffic well beyond its air date. Over time, the residual interest can rack up large traffic numbers.

Broadcasters have also found success with exclusive, in-depth content. The Associated Press, which syndicates its video to about 1200 sites, says they’ve drawn traffic with interviews. An interview with the wife of the West Virginia coal mine collapse, and another with the wife of a Shuttle Challenger astronaut, did very well.

Jim Kathman, product manager for the AP’s online video network, said that a segment that summarizes the major news events of the day, called “One-Minute World,” has started to do very well. Reuters, which also syndicates its video, has found the same success with their “World Update” videos, and quirky segments called “Oddly Enough.”

Executives agree that site editors and producers need to strike a balance on what types of videos to surface. While big news events like Hurricane Katrina are of obvious interest to everyone, it’s important to understand the other types of news content your specific audience is looking for on your site. Play to your strengths, editors say, and you’ll do well.

Context is King

What’s popular on a site that syndicates video content may be different from what’s popular on a network’s site, or on a traditional print publication’s site, like the New York Times.

Nick Ascheim, product manager for the New York Times Online, said that their most popular content mirrored breaking news events. However, the paper also offers extensive entertainment and feature reporting, so they try to surface non-breaking news content as much as possible.

“In video right now we’re not focused on breaking news,” said Ascheim. “What we’re focusing on is something we’ve called breaking analysis. We’ll do a video piece a little while after the story breaks. This works really well for something like a Supreme Court decision.”

Also popular: Movie reviews and David Pogue. While the Times wouldn’t reveal traffic numbers, Ascheim said that Pogue’s videos about personal technology — often less than two minutes long and sometimes shot by Pogue himself in motel rooms — are very popular with consumers. That Pogue’s videos are not always high-quality productions speaks to consumer interest in highly-personal reporting experiences.

The AP’s Kathman reports a similar interest in reporting as storytelling. “We don’t typically do, like the New York Times does, a bunch of analysis,” said Kathman. “We don’t usually have a reporter with a mike talking for two minutes about a story. But there are a number of reporters who can give special insight into a story. So we’re selectively putting some of our reporters who have specific knowledge of a subject on camera.”

Site editors and producers agree that context is the most important element in drawing consumers in. Since news sites cover a wide range of topics, and because watching video is a relatively large time investment, its important to help the user identify exactly what she will be watching. Some services, like CNN’s Pipeline, aid the user by showing related videos and links to stories beside what’s currently streaming.

Ascheim said the Times’ staff was working on ways to better label videos that appear on the home page, since that video could point to content deep within another site section. Editors also have to consider the power of search in the mix.

“Before we had really good search, publishers were focused on the browser metaphor: tabs, contextual links, story packages,” said Stephen Smyth, Reuters vice president of media. “Now as search has become more popular, it’s more of a 50/50 proposition. It’s not just packaging the story right, it’s putting the right metadata in and making sure all the video search engines get the feed.”

Time Well Spent?

Executives and editors agree that short content, by and large works best on the Web. The short time period allows users to continue “leaning in” and interacting with the site.

ABC News Now, for example, streams about 14 hours a day of video. The average consumer spends 10-12 minutes on the site, but gets about 8 stories in that time as they click from video to video, according to Mike Clemente, executive producer. Compare that to broadcast television, where the audience watches no more than 5 or 6 stories in that time.

“We don’t just do straight TV on the Web. Why would you watch something in linear form when you could choose the order?” said Clemente. “If I have a VCR from 25 years ago I can do that too. I just don’t think doing straight TV on the Web makes sense.”

NBC might take issue with that. NBC was the first network to stream its nightly newscast online, and recently added “The Today Show” and “Meet the Press” to that online lineup as well. The network publishes the “netcasts” after the original broadcasts clear the West Coast.

Mark Lukasiewicz, NBC News vice president of digital media, acknowledges that NBC Nightly News streams about 250,000 times per month and generates far less traffic than shorter news clips on msnbc.com. But, Lukasiewicz argues, the online shows are an important part of the network’s news arsenal.

“There’s no question that news consumers prefer shorter content online,” he said. “But there’s a roll for time-shifting and a role for netcasting and a role for shorter clips. What we need to do is understand how each of these forms work and be where the consumer wants us to be.”

That was part of the strategy behind CNN’s launch of the Pipeline application, according to Sandy Malcolm, executive producer of CNN.com. Pipeline, which streams unique and sometimes unedited content 24 hours a day, complements CNN.com’s free video, which is shorter and freely accessible.

“I’d say one of the most popular Pipeline experiences so far was Coretta Scott King’s funeral,” said Malcolm. “We had multiple camera angles, it was commercial free, there were no reporters talking over it.”

Up Next: Pulling the Audience In

Traditional news isn’t the only type of video that’s booming on the Web, of course. Publishers say they’ve also taken note of the popularity of user-generated content on sites such as YouTube and MySpace.

But while they’re eager to jump on the user-generated content wagon, publishers have to ensure that type of content fits into their editorial vision and process.

YouTube, for example, can host any type of video without following an editorial directive. “But we cant just put on every Joe who says ‘let’s get out of Iraq, it sucks,'” said ABC’s Clemente. “We have to wait for someone who’s thoughtful, and we put that into an appropriate context.”

CNN’s Malcolm and NBC’s Lukasiewicz agreed. All news organizations have to judge whether user-generated content is accurate, vetted and real. That vetting process can remove the immediate feedback of seeing your video online that Web users are becoming used to.

Luckily for publishers, online video is in its nascent stages. The economics are still uncertain and the users still fickle. Unluckily, the challenge now is to be everywhere users want them to be.

About Steve Bryant

Steve is a writer and editor living in New York City. He runs the publishing news site publish.com and writes about online media on his blog, Intermedia (http://blog.eweek.com/blogs/intermedia/).


  1. I’ll tell you what works, or in this case doesn’t work. On at least half the sites I try to watch any sort of video news the videos either don’t work, are slow to download, clunky, or aren’t supporting Firefox or Safari. Even some of the major news companies have very poor online video feeds. Get something that works cross platform on any modern browser and you stand a good chance of getting more viewers.

  2. As far as technology, Flash is ubiquitous and painless.

    As for content — I loosely curate a regional videoblog called Minnesota Stories. Local content, with personality and diversity. Definitely striving for authenticty over slick production values or predictability. So far, it’s doing well and has a loyal following.

  3. Billy, I agree. I’m amazed that content providers don’t understand this simple problem. I think I know why they don’t, though: The television industry has been obsessed with video *quality* ever since cable operators starting impinging upon local broadcast stations. In their minds, quality is what trumps all, so they don’t understand why users would prefer, say, ugly Flash video (that works) over prettier Windows Media (which doesn’t). But old school TV viewers were only interested in quality because **TV always worked.** There was no other part of the TV experience to judge, except for how good the content itself was.

    I think the biggest lesson everyone’s learning now from sites like YouTube is that quality is playing second fiddle to accessibility. I just got back from the Streaming Media East conference, and that was definitely a big motif.

    Thanks for reading,