Newspapers use YouTube video previews to attract readers

After the Dallas Morning News and the St. Petersburg Times debuted extensive investigative reporting projects on their websites last year, they went to YouTube to market them. The News recast existing video footage from the online features into gripping movie trailers. The Times made a music video starring its staff. In an era where even journalists ponder whether a newspaper or a TV show is better at covering social issues, are traditional newspapers ready to learn something from Hollywood? In the future, will we be looking to YouTube for what’s coming soon to a near us?

OJR spoke to Anthony Moor, Dallas Morning News’ Deputy Managing Editor/Interactive [and who is also a member of OJR’s editorial advisory board], and swapped e-mails with Leslie White, Dallas Morning News’ Director of Photography, and Christine Montgomery, Managing Editor of, about why they made the videos and how successful they were in attracting new readers.

“Unequal Justice” explores why 56 convicted murderers in Texas were sentenced to probation rather than jail.

“Texas Youth Commission” documents the scandal plaguing the state agency of the same name created to rehabilitate young offenders.

OJR: Why a trailer? What prompted the idea? Have you done anything like it before?

Moor: First of all, we shot video as part of the multimedia presentation of these projects. Both “Unequal Justice” and “Texas Youth Commission” had significant multimedia components. “Texas Youth Commission” had a smaller print component, while “Unequal Justice” was mostly print with a small Web component. So since we had the video already, we just decided to leverage that to make a trailer. Secondly, these are large projects even for the paper as a whole. We spent time on them. We wanted to give them as much exposure as possible on the Web.

A lot of our challenge overall as news organizations is to try and attract an audience for these big projects with a public service mission. Our Sunday newspaper audience is already familiar with our work – we already have them. How can we get people who don’t read the paper on Sunday, who haven’t picked up the paper? We want them to become interested and informed by news and information that matters to them. Those projects can be daunting for audience to enter in this day and age because of all the competing media out there. So we need to attract a new audience by using more effective techniques to tell them about what we were doing. The multimedia project of course is a way of getting people to enter into the story.

Secondly, we would like to have them think of the Dallas Morning News as places to go for news that matters to them, whether they’re newspaper subscribers or users of the Web.

White: Our projects editor, Maud Beelman, had suggested that we put up an overview video on a few days before publication in the newspaper. Our video editor took a crack at it, but it’s rather impossible to sum up a story as complex as “probation for murder” in Dallas County. Early attempts involved having one of the reporters narrate the story.

It was my feeling that it took what we knew to be a dramatic and emotional story and turned it into what was basically a talking head video. We suggested borrowing from our best work in videos (shot by staff photographer Kye Lee) and putting it together to pull our readers back to the site on Sunday, after the stories were published with the full video content.

The end result carried a great deal more emotional impact.

OJR: Did you know from the start that you wanted to put it up on YouTube? Did you put the video up on any other sites?

Moor: I recommended that we adapt it for YouTube as a way to get an audience interested in it. We did post different versions of the video – the YouTube version was more for people who didn’t already have an understanding of our publication.

Apart from the traditional promotions, we didn’t put the video up on other sites. We wanted to attract a new audience but we weren’t sophisticated at all about it. We’d like to take more advantage of that down the line.

OJR: What were these “traditional promotions?”

Moor: The people involved in the project sent out to our own networks, put it on our Facebook pages. We also put the trailer out on YouTube ahead of the project’s publication. The project was set to run online on Saturday and in the paper on Sunday.

OJR: How did YouTube’s style affect the tone of the trailer?

Moor: Our people in the photography department really wanted to produce the video in a very captivating, dynamic, edgy format. We wanted to make you feel not only like you want to look at this, but that you want to put nine dollars down and watch a movie about it. So quick cuts, pounding music, and trailer-like tease in the storyline.

White: Well, we didn’t shoot specifically for the trailer, but we knew the edit needed to be aggressive both emotionally and visually to capture the reader. I think that anyone who has ever seen a few movies has the basic requirements for storytelling in the specific way that trailers rely on.

If you view all the videos from “Unequal Justice”, you’ll see that we pulled moments specifically for the emotional impact and storytelling moments in each.

OJR: How successful was the video in generating interest for the projects? Were you able to track how many people visited the site after seeing the video?

Moor: I’m not sure if we could do that. We’re seeing numbers in the hundreds. It’s not a lot. I’m not going to say that this is a breakout way to reach the audience, but we have to do things like this. It’s not like we don’t understand what YouTube is about. And because of the way that news and info is being distributed on the Web, we have to gain new job skills within our current titles. For example, a traffic acquisition manager – not the types of things that newspaper or website editors do. We thought this is a good way to experiment with that.

OJR: Looking back, what lessons did you learn from making the two videos? What would you tell other newspapers who are thinking about doing this? Any plans to put up more videos like this in the future?

White: I tend to look at the trailers not just as a feature on YouTube, but a way to attract more readers back to for the whole story. We’ve definitely learned that a “summary video” of an investigation is not going to play as well as the real emotion of the subjects. I think any way you can get readers to your site to read, view and experience one of the newspapers best stories is a win-win. We’ll definitely be doing it more in the future.

Moor: I do think that down the line, newspapers will need to consider, within either the editorial apparatus or in marketing, creating a job where your responsibility is to ensure that articles are search engine optimized. That person will also have to get your news and info out on new platforms like iTunes, Digg, Drudge, Google News, NewsVine, and so on. If you think about how much news we push on a given day, if one article needs to be distributed through all those channels – how are we going to manage that?

“Gimme the Truth,” a music video created by and starring members of the St. Petersburg Times staff, is the fight song of Politifact, the Web collaboration between the Times and the Congressional Quarterly to fact-check statements made by the presidential candidates.

OJR: What’s new and unique about Politifact?

Montgomery: While fact-checking isn’t new, fact-checking statements presidential candidates make on the campaign trail and then actually making a ruling on the veracity of the claims is different. A lot of political coverage merely repeats what the candidates, pundits, support and opposition groups say and the readers are left to figure out for themselves what’s true, sort of true or outright false. When Politifact editors select a claim to fact-check, they dig deeply, going to original sources and documents. We try to be transparent in our reporting by linking to source docs whenever possible. We database all the claims and our rulings, making the site very easy to search. We have six different rulings, by the way, ranging from “true” to “pants-on-fire” liar.

OJR: Why a music video? Whose idea was it and what prompted the idea? Have you done anything like it before?

Montgomery: Definitely our first music video. Here’s how it came about: Our Marketing department was putting plans into place for marketing, using tried and true means like in-paper ads and some radio spots. We knew those would be effective in reaching our core newspaper readers and people interested in politics. But is the kind of site that makes politics accessible and interesting to lots of people. Especially young people, we thought. So a few of us on the editorial side started brainstorming ways to get the word out in a more viral way — that is, ways that would be easy for people to share with each other. It was about that time that the Obama Girl videos (one and two) were such a hit on YouTube. One idea lead to another and before we knew it, we had an original song called “Gimme the Truth,” composed by one of our metro editors. It was catchy!

Then one of our web editors with excellent video skills story-boarded an idea for the video. We booked a place to shoot the video, built and gathered the props, got dozens of people from inside and outside the company interested in participating, and shot the thing in a day. Editing took a couple more days. From idea to launch, it took about one month.

OJR: Did you know from the start that you wanted to put it up on YouTube? Did you put the video up on any other sites?

Montgomery: Yes, we made this video for YouTube specifically. We also seeded it on over a dozen other video sites, such as Crackle (where it was featured as their top political video for some time), Yahoo!, MySpace and MetaCafe. It has appeared on our main site, and is still linked off the home page.

OJR: Tell me about the newspaper staff involved in making the video. What special skills or interests did they have that made the idea work?

Montgomery: I mentioned the metro editor, Chris Ave, who is a musician/songwriter in his off time — and has a cameo appearance the video as guitarist/back-up singer. The Web editor is Adrian Philips. He had run his own video business before joining the Times in 2005. He came up with he storyline, shot, directed, and edited the video. His editor Anne Glover, helped gather props, manage the project and rally the troops throughout the organization to appear in the video. The only special skills those staffers needed were a sense of humor and the willingness to give up part of their Saturday. We hired a local producer and singer to record the song. Our singer appears as the lead in the video, the song’s producer is playing bass in the video. Playing drums in the video is our media critic, Eric Deggans.

OJR: How successful was the video in generating interest for Politifact? Were you able to track how many people visited the site after seeing the video?

Montgomery: So far the video has been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube. Unfortunately, we can’t track how many of the viewers then clicked to our site. We did see a week-over-week spike in traffic of 67% when the Gimme the Truth video was featured on YouTube’s homepage. Of course, it was also the week we hosted a GOP debate in our hometown and we were doing a lot of other promotion of the site. That said, I’m thrilled with the response and consider it a successful marketing effort.

OJR: Looking back, what lessons did you learn? What would you tell other newspapers who are thinking about doing this? Any plans to put up more videos like this in the future?

Montgomery: We learned that YouTube is indeed an effective way to reach people in a way that traditional marketing can’t. We learned that we can do “serious journalism” and poke a little fun at ourselves at the same time. As sort of atypical as “Gimme the Truth” is as promotional content, it does a good job of showing people what the site’s mission is all about. What would I tell other papers thinking about doing this? Go for it. It was a lot of fun and it gave many of our staffers a fresh outlet for their work. Also, all in all, it was a fairly inexpensive endeavor.

About Jean Yung

Hi there, I am a Master's student in Print Journalism at USC Annenberg.

After seven sublimely bone-chilling, atom-stopping years in Chicago (as an undergrad at the University of Chicago and a business consultant for Deloitte), I can truly appreciate LA's tedious sunshine!


  1. First let me say kudos to everybody involved in these video experiments. Moor, White, and Montgomery are pushing the boundaries of online content in a way that benefits both readers and the larger online community. This is the exact kind of positive outreach that news organizations should be doing more of.

    Statistics are definitely needed to give substance to claim that readership is increasing as a result of these videos. It is not true that, as Moor suggests, it’s not possible to track where users come from when they follow a link. Tracking users from one site to another is commonplace online. Sites typically track HTTP referer addresses or post links that lead into an on-site tracking system, which in turn takes visitors to the actual content. (for instance, passes a GET variable that tells your site where this particular click is coming from)

    You could even go one step further and track the conversion rate (say, subscribing to the paper) of video viewers. Another valuable thing to track would be how long video viewers stay on the paper once they arrive. This would be a good measure of the “stickiness” of the videos.

    Without these data, it’s difficult to speculate on how and why these new and valuable convergent news forms are working.

    Posting a video on Saturday to lead into a Sunday print version may not be adequate time for a sizable number of viewers to find it online. Responses to viral videos take time to propagate, especially when posted through channels that don’t yet have a large readership.

    It’s important not just to get content on video sharing sites, but also to seed it out to sites and get it seen. Otherwise, you’re going to put a lot of effort into an emotional, coherent video that isn’t going to be seen.

    For instance, the “unequal justice” videos have a few hundred hits each, while the music video has over 200,000. Why? I can only speculate, given lack of tracking data, but it probably has a lot to do with the music video being featured on the main Politifact site. I’d imagine numbers would be significantly more for the “unequal justice” videos if they were propagated out to sites focused on social issues and equality, or if they were timed and tagged to coincide with events such as MLK day.