Print biz finds viability in video

Outlets expanding into the medium as never before

A correction was made to this article on July 18, 2006.

From the sober-minded newspaper to the frivolous lifestyle mag, there’s one buzzword among print media these days: video.

It might look like an odd fit, but print outlets are expanding into the medium as never before via original Web programming, video podcasts and branded-cable shows. In the process they are creating a host of business opportunities — and plenty of journalistic questions.

While newspaper Web sites used to limit video offerings to the occasional blog and wire-service clips, video now forms a key part of their Internet strategy. A paper’s site is likely to include everything from full-on documentaries to slick commentaries, original footage to polished reported pieces.

Papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have feverishly been adding video; the Times even pulled out of its pricey partnership with the Discovery Channel largely to invest in its own video unit. And in the spring, the Times of London launched what it’s calling a virtual television service on its site that features large swaths of original programming.

The point was made with jolting clarity when the noms for the new category of broadband Emmys were announced last week. The surprise recipients of six of the eight nominations? Not broadcast or cable nets but newspapers; the New York Times earned three and the Washington Post drew two.

Outlets are trying to reinvent themselves for the iTunes age, where consumers expect every pub to have a video component, whether on the Web or the set-top., for instance, features video of such things as photo shoots from its “Most Beautiful” issue.

Among the more ambitious entries is the New York Times, which offers a slew of produced pieces not unlike packages on the evening news — everything from the video diaries of such columnists as Joe Sharkey and George Vescey to the companion pieces of investigative reports on the Sudan and child pornography (the latter two of which garnered the Emmy nods).

The paper drew up a business plan just last summer, but in the past year has worked aggressively to make the move pay off: it has created between 500 and 600 pieces of video, drawn an average of between 4 and 5 million monthly streams and — not surprisingly, given the appeal of the medium — earned the highest ad CPMs on the site.

The Times of London’s Times Online TV, meanwhile, has reporters who are writing long-form pieces on the war in Iraq also producing mini-docs for the Web site based on their reporting.

There’s a tempting revenue premise here — nearly all the newspapers can sell sponsorships to the clips and offer video ads to run with the pieces. The production costs for the content are generally low; though a professional team of cameramen and editors is sometimes employed, the paper also can take advantage of a reporter’s enthusiasm in a way that saves on costs.

But the expansion goes beyond the short-term revenue implications to a larger, more philosophical question: Will the addition of video represent a more radical reinvention, one in which even the word newspaper becomes a misnomer, and a paper turns into a kind of all-encompassing incubator in which reporting is created by staff, given the imprimatur of the brand and then put forth into every conceivable medium?

“Our present business is newspapers,” says Zack Leonard, the Times of London’s digital exec. “Our future business will be very different from that.”

The outlets are already heartened by the possibility of new audiences abroad. Times Online TV, owned by an internationally minded Rupert Murdoch, estimates it can draw as much as 40% of its traffic from the U.S.

It’s a mindset that’s going beyond the Web. Thanks to the proliferation of cable, magazines like Real Simple and Seventeen are running television operations alongside their print products, with deals for shows on PBS and MTV. Like their forebears — National Geographic and TV Guide, for instance, which each launched their own channels — the goal is branding. The revenue- and cost-sharing models vary, but in all cases the pubs get a bonanza of free advertising that they hope will kick up newsstand sales.

What is different, however, is the extent of the involvement of print editors and reporters in the new ventures. American Media’s Bonnie Fuller, for instance, has been on the front lines in developing and shopping a reality show, “One Park Avenue,” with producer Star Price. The idea? Offer up the magazines’ offices as a set and its editorial discussions as storylines. If the company struggles financially, as some reports indicate it has, cable will serve as a convenient savior.

“I think for any good service magazine, television is a no-brainer,” says Real Simple edit topper Kristin van Ogtrop.

In perhaps the most unusual expansion, tough-talking New York Daily News reporters will be the stars of “Tabloid Wars,” a reality series on Bravo bowing later this month. The paper agreed to turn its newsroom into a soundstage as a way to showcase its brand –and fire a shot against fierce crosstown rival the New York Post.

But as print media move into video, audience remains an x-factor. Will anyone to watch newspapers create or magazines debate?

And the efforts provoke questions about whether this is the most effective deployment of reporters.

Most publications say they are making hires to, and redefining roles on, their Web teams, but on several occasions edit staffers’ duties have been rewritten to include television work. In some cases, overtaxed reporters must add “cameraman” or “in-studio host” to their list of daily duties.

At the New York Times, the hope is that problems will quickly be ironed out.

“Not every reporter is going to be good at shooting video, the same way not every reporter is going to be good at taking photographs,” says New York Times deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman. “But we will discover very shortly who is.”

The paper has already sent cameras to more than a half dozen bureaus and plans on arming more of them soon.

In a sense, newspapers are in a better position than TV nets to handle video news on the Web. They may not have the history as a production unit but they have deep journalism expertise, stellar brands and tremendous newsgathering reach.

“Newspapers may become smaller and more Internet-entwined, but the actual process of gathering the news will always be needed,” says Daily News deputy metro editor Greg Gittrich, who was the paper’s supervisor for, and is one of the stars on, “Tabloid Wars.”

Still, Gittrich acknowledges there are cases in which a sharp line needs to be drawn between the media. For instance, he insisted on final-cut for any scene in “Tabloid Wars” where he thought a source might be compromised. (He says he never needed to use it.)

On the surface, these corporate synergies make the partnerships appealing. But they don’t always turn out in the way the outlets hope.

Those flogging the new potential of video for print may want to be mindful of how efforts like CNN’s programs with sister Time Warner properties Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated failed. The culture clash wasn’t worth the added brand value for either side. Sometimes, they found, one medium can be better than two.

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