A Year After the ‘Pivot,’ Video Still Rules Content and Advertising

By: Rob Tornoe

Video. It’s a $17 billion industry that has both invigorated and frustrated a media industry attempting to navigate a quickly changing sea of content initiatives and emerging technologies in the hope of creating new revenue streams to support journalism.

One thing is certain—video content has never been more popular. According to a HubSpot Research survey conducted earlier this year, the popularity of video content is increasing, especially among young adults age 18 to 24. Nearly 60 percent of advertisers’ digital budgets are allocated to video, according to new research by the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

As a result, more publishers now than ever are looking toward video to help bolster their digital revenue. According to a survey of 49 publishers conducted by Digiday in March, 86 percent of publishers indicated they plan to increase the video output of their newsroom within the next year, with most favoring YouTube for distribution.

Did the Pivot Work?

While many traditional print media companies began dabbling in video content for years, the term “pivot to video” gained new meaning in April 2017 when Mashable laid off its entire politics team and eliminated its world news coverage in favor of making video a focal point of its business. Vocative and MTV News quickly followed.

But in June 2017, Fox Sports became the largest media organization to make the pivot, laying off its entire staff of writers and removing nearly all written content from its website in favor of a complete move to video.

At the time, media critics came down hard on Fox Sports, blasting the sports media company as taking sports journalism to the woodshed by eliminating coveted reporting and writing jobs at a time when the entire industry appeared to be downsizing. Ken Rosenthal, the network’s high-profile baseball analyst, is now also writing for The Athletic specifically because his platform on FoxSports.com was taken away.

But a year later, did the pivot to video actually work out?

Michael Bucklin

“I’ve been fairly happy with it. We’ve seen success,” said Michael Bucklin, vice president of digital/audio and video content at Fox Sports. “We’re still rallying around video.”

Bucklin confirmed that page views and unique visitors dropped dramatically on the site after the switch to video. But Fox Sports no longer considers page views a meaningful metric after also dropping all the website’s display ads. Instead, it focuses on video views and time spent viewings, which have posted year-to-year gains in video consumption on all platforms.

On Twitter alone, Fox Sports has seen triple digit percentage increased in views for all but just two months. Its success growing its video views, and the pre-roll ads that come with them, has generated enough revenue to make up for the advertising dollars lost by eliminating the website’s traditional display ads. It’s also enabled the sports giant to better monetize content on social media, especially on platforms like Instagram.

“I don’t think you can really have any type of video strategy these days without having a strong social media strategy,” said Bucklin. “You’ve got to fish where the fish are.”

Obviously, Fox Sports is in a well-suited position to benefit from an all-in-approach to video, since the company’s editorial side is first and foremost focused on television (FS1 alone accounts for nearly 10 hours of live studio television content a day). But as both the Washington Post and the New York Times have shown, there’s a great deal of opportunity in the video ecosystem from newspapers to flourish.

“Video is core to the mission of the Washington Post and just an essential part of the storytelling that we do,” said Micah Gelman, director of editorial video.

Gelman oversees a sizable staff of about 70 people on the editorial side devoted solely to video, with a handful more that work on the product and engineering side. Nearly everyone on the video team is embedded in a specific section, so video journalists who cover politics sit with the politics team, and so on.

The Post’s primary goal with its video content is engagement, since the business strategy is to get readers to move through the funnel from consuming free articles to purchase a digital subscription. But the newspaper also monetizes its video content with pre-roll advertisements, both on the Post’s website and on YouTube.

Obviously, pre-roll video ads aren’t exactly a favorite of readers, but it does remain the dominant form of monetization, and Gelman said the Post’s internal ad-ops team works hard to optimize the ads, which run through Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers.

“They’re high quality ads, but they’re not delaying your phone or hanging up the video player,” Gelman said.

Challenges of Live Video

The Post has been very aggressive when it comes to live video, airing as many as 200 live events a month, ranging from the daily White House press briefing to big events like the March for Our Lives, which the newspaper carried live for nearly six hours.

But even small newspapers, like the Alexander City Outlook, a five-day-a-week newspaper in Alexander City, Ala., can get in the game. With just five editorial employees, the Outlook really punches above its weight when it comes to video. (The paper was recognized this year as one of E&P’s 10 Newspapers That Do It Right.) The newspaper airs all city council meetings live, produces pre-game shows for the local high school game-of-the-week and films in-depth interviews with local newsmakers. Nearly all the video produced is shot on iPhones and edited in iMovie.

Mitch Sneed

The Outlook is monetizing all of it, including live video, which is sponsored with ads that run across the bottom of the screen similar to a news scroll, added using a free phone app called Switcher Studio.

“People who groan, ‘Oh, we can’t do that, we can’t do that,’ I just don’t buy it,” said editor Mitch Sneed. “You’ve got people that don’t want to do it because they don’t see the advantage of it. But we’re getting a lot of advertising dollars off our stuff.”

According to information provided by Sneed, the Outlook has gone from making no money from video advertising in the middle of 2017 to averaging nearly $3,000 per month by the end of the year. Thanks to the success of their video sponsorship strategy, digital advertising revenue climbed 83.9 percent from 2016 to 2017, from $56,000 to $104,000.

The Outlook isn’t the only small newspaper making an impact with live video. The Robesonian, a daily newspaper in Lumberton, N.C., has also made waves in its community by making the decision in March to provide live-stream video coverage of meetings held by the city council, the board of education and the board of commissioners.

“They’ve been remarkably well-received,” said Donnie Douglas, the newspaper’s editor. “We have some real dysfunctional government down here, we just think there’s no better way to hold these people accountable.”

Well-received is an understatement. Douglas said for some of the meetings there were as many as 7,000 people watching concurrently, which impressed him considering it doesn’t take too much heavy lifting to film and share the meetings live on Facebook.

“I’m 60, and I’m not a guy who’s really technically attuned, but all you need is a smartphone and a tripod and you’re good to go,” said Douglas, who said sponsors have been impressed with the number of views the videos are getting, though not every city council meeting will garner lots of interest from the community.

“Quite frankly, the last county commissioner meeting was quite boring,” Douglas jokingly admitted. But for now, it’s full speed ahead on more video at The Robesonian. Though it does mean having to get his staff of seven full-time employees company-owned phones.

It’s not just small newsrooms that have been forced to deal with issues involving live coverage. NowThis, the social media company popular among millennials, has been investing in breaking news on the ground for years. They were the only non-local news organization on the ground in St. Louis after the acquittal of a former police officer accused of shooting and killing an unarmed black man, and went live almost immediately, covering the protests.

One thing they learned from the coverage is by not having an editor on the ground overseeing coverage, it created a better storytelling filter, in order to prevent stories from being overdone. The birds-eye view also helps when it comes to coordinating coverage.

Robert Hernandez, a professor at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who previously was director of development for the Seattle Times, said the ethical issues facing newsrooms are only going to multiply as they transition from doing traditional video journalism into more experimental areas of video storytelling, which includes 360 video and virtual reality using 3D technology.

“It can be as simple as in 360 video, how high should the tripod be?” Hernandez said, explaining that there could be a significant storytelling difference between a viewer looking down on a subject and looking eye-to-eye.

There’s also a fine line between properly telling a story and using new technology to sensationalize facts to create a larger emotional impact. In 2016, Hernandez and his students created a virtual reality experience that allowed users to experience what would happen if a large storm surge hit Houston’s vulnerable shore. But he had to tap back some of the ideas his students had of being inside a house and seeing the roof being ripped away.

“VR can illustrate that in a way that great writing and visual illustrations may not be able to achieve,” Hernandez said. “But it needs to be fact based. This is journalism, not Hollywood. They’re going to get the gravity of the situation when they see that 30-foot wall of water next to a house.”

An Unlimited Array of Platforms

One quick Google search reveals such an enormous number of potential video partners it might make you run under the desk and curl into a ball.

Stephen Bach, the CEO of the video distribution platform company Vemba, understands that world of video content can seem a bit overwhelming, especially to small publishers with limited staffs. But on the local level, Bach sees a lot of opportunity for newsrooms to stand out with video content, especially on social media.”

“There is a ton of scarcity at the small and mid-sized publisher level,” said Bach. “Direct ad sales teams need to be pushing video to existing clients and converting local market TV buys to online video campaigns.”

The sales angle is important. A local sales team will always be able to monetize unique content like this better than large programmatic video platforms, especially when a newsroom is producing a limited amount of content. As the team at the Alexander City Outlook has shown, having both editorial and sales working on the same page can yield impressive results even in the smallest of newsrooms.

For larger publishers, Bach thinks the key is working with an outlet like Vemba that can be a one-stop shop to distribute original videos produced by your newsroom along with relevant video created by other news outlets. But in order for outlets to have a successful video strategy, they need to do more than create cheap video clips with text overlays with the intention of going viral.

“I think investment in original content and licensing high-quality relevant content continues to win the day,” Bach said. “There aren’t shortcuts here…In other words, don’t put all your eggs in that basket.”

Sports is always among the most popular sections at most publishers, both large and small, so it’s not surprising there are a number of ad networks and platforms that work with publishers to help distribute and monetize content.

One of the most popular platforms is SendtoNews, which acts as a one-stop-shop for sports departments to help monetize and distribute their own videos while offering an immense library of relevant highlights and interviews for their own pages.

Two of its clients are the Boston Herald and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who produce high-quality videos that SendtoNews helps monetize by syndicating to other publishers, garnering more impressions and page views than either could generate on their own.

Philippe Guay, SendtoNews chief revenue officer, recommends that publishers interested in experimenting with video on their pages should look into the dozens of high quality video syndicators in the marketplace and pick one with content that matches the interest of their readership.

“This will allow you to dabble in video without really creating any cost for production, editing and everything that goes with content creation and see how the audience reacts,” he said. “The syndication partners are the ones taking all the risk. We don’t charge a penny.”

Guay also said the industry is currently in an upheaval dealing with publishers and networks that attempt to game the numbers to defraud advertisers. So, traditional publishers with longstanding ties to the community are exactly the type of places advertisers want to promote their brands.

“If I’m advertising on the Union Leader, I know they’re not buying fake traffic or generating traffic by working with Russians,” said Guay. “There’s a lack of quality inventory, so if I’m a newspaper publisher, I’m trying to find a way to create more quality video. There are certainly buyers.”

Where Video is Heading

Even though some publishers are only now beginning to dabble in creating video content, the ever-changing nature of the industry means there will almost always be the need to constantly tinker with your video content and business strategy.

At the Washington Post, more videos are being created centered around a personality in the newsroom. The flow of content ranges from Libby Casey’s series on how to be a journalist to pop culture editor Hannah Jewell hosting an eclectic mix of videos, including one where she underwent an MRI to find out if “The Bachelor” was actually making her dumb.

Micah Gelman

“I think a big part of where we see growth opportunity is with videos that have a bit more personality and a bit more voice than what we were traditionally doing,” Gelman said. “I think meaningful videos that are unique and true to the mission of your organization are going to become much more important than the viral hits.”

Tina Exarhos, the chief content officer at NowThis, thinks the next few years will continue to be dominated by social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. In May, NowThis announced the launch of NowBreaking, where it will create breaking news videos produced exclusively for Snapchat Discover.

“The amount of people using their phone as their primary screen, including to watch television, is only going to continue to grow,” said Exarhos. “It’s all about engagement and creating a desire to share. That really only comes when you tell stories people care about.”

On the business side, Vemba’s Bach thinks the imbalance between demand for video content from advertisers and the lack of quality video content being offered by publishers might be an indication it’s time for media companies to think outside the box when it comes to the distribution of their video content.

“We’ve seen many new opportunities emerge beyond desktop and mobile web, notably really interesting opportunities on OTT platforms like Roku and Pluto TV,” said Bach. “I’d also look at new media companies like Cheddar that have really focused a sponsorship approach, versus an impression-based CPM approach.”

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Published: June 4, 2018

One thought on “A Year After the ‘Pivot,’ Video Still Rules Content and Advertising

  • June 12, 2018 at 10:55 am
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    Personally I am a news and article READER not a video watcher. If the clips are short, MAYBE I will watch but I truly prefer reading/skimming. I like the article formats that include an executive summary of key points/bullet list at the top best.

    I do like some of the mixed media formats that supplement some of the NYT Magazine or long form features (mainly flash with graphic elements I believe).

    I can move at my own speed when reading. Do not like the wasted time needed for video unless it a very succinct how to or cogent analysis piece, especially roundtable or multi-person.

    Some cute or funny animal videos are however, acceptable exceptions 🙂

    Thanks for this piece. I shudder to think that the trend continues away from actual written language. digital Fahrenheit 451 anyone?

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