Stop me if this has happened to you: You’re in a room with several colleagues or relatives and start to speak. No response. Around the room, everyone is staring at a cellphone. One finally slowly looks up from the screen and asks, “Did you say something?”
We used to joke that they were looking at cat videos, but today the evidence is mounting that they are looking at news. A 2016 Pew Research Center study showed half of Americans between 18 and 39 prefer to get their news online. And most of them prefer to get the news through videos rather than having to read text. Our brains are wired to choose the path of least resistance and it is less taxing cognitively to be shown the information rather than having to read it and process it.
Our industry is built on the intellectually engaging exercise of a reporter distilling reams of information into the most salient ones and delivering them in 800 carefully composed words. Further, we ask a reader for a cognitive deposit—will you invest your time into the mental consumption of this article and even think about it critically, or discuss it with someone?
It is easy to bemoan this as another example of a lost generation that likes to be fed with a spoon—a generation that lacks the ability to think critically. Some would argue that this is why we have elected people who offer solutions to the challenges our nation faces with all the intellectual power one might expect from the fellow on the next bar stool who is deep in his cups.
This is, however, the reality that print journalists face. We have become the medium of choice for one in four persons between 50 and 64; one in 10 persons between 30 and 49; and one in 20 persons between the ages of 18 and 29. This might portend the end of another industry within a few decades. But adaptation is the first step in creativity and journalism is too important to die.
Rather, this should be a tipping point, a time in which a greater of our resources moves to training and production of news videos. Here are seven things to think about as you transition.
- Consumers love live news in video. They would rather watch a live walk-out by high school students protesting gun violence over the cat video. Breaking news and live video are crucial. Around 80 percent of respondents in a New Yorker and Livestream study preferred live video to social posts. And about 60 percent mostly wanted to watch breaking news.
- Journalists are great storytellers and can be trained to tell stories in video. We have trained and hired those who do this best in prose. But our standards and expectations must change. Talented producers and editors must join our newsrooms to help us create the compelling content.
- This is an opportunity for us to brand ourselves uniquely. Facebook is losing the battle for credibility. Online users say they are relying less on social media channels for news, according to Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. But closed messaging apps are picking up the slack because they offer the protection of a group of interested people. However, young people are more likely to pay for online news content. Take the still-trusted local brand for news that you own and combine it with a safe distribution method and you have an audience that is willing to pay for a subscription.
- The move is clearly mobile, so stories need to fit on screen 4.7 inches from corner to corner. And each video must work in the appropriate video formats.
- Protect your brand as unbiased. Most consumers value our watchdog role but think the national media is biased. It is very easy to slant a video in one direction, but you must apply the same standards of fairness that you use in print.
- Video consumers are more likely to be browsers. Just as people scan headlines on newspaper pages, they will scan pages of video with captions. They spot click-bait (“You won’t believe what happened…”) quickly and you will lose them.
- Remember that viewers imagine themselves in the scene. The mirror neuron mechanism in the brain makes it easy for viewers to become attached to what they are watching. “Our brains mirror what’s unfolding before us as if we were part of the scene, even if we are just passively on the sidelines,” writes Liraz Margalit, PhD, in Entrepreneur.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.