When Stony Brook Journalism Professor Barbara Selvin suggested that small newspapers should jettison most of their video efforts, she started a debate between video journalists and small newspaper editors over what the future of the business should look like.
The debate primarily played out in Selvin’s inbox and on her blog. Chuck Fadely, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a video journalist at the Miami Herald, was easily one of the most prominent and enthusiastic commenters.
In an email to Selvin, he accused her of “committing malpractice” for “teaching students with this mindset” and warned her that he had “the flamethrower set to high.”
Newspaper websites, under pressure from advertisers and changing trends, have overwhelmingly chosen to add video. eMarketer predicts that advertising on videos will represent 17 percent of online ad revenue by 2013, as opposed to its nine percent in 2008. But as most newspaper’s budgets have been shrinking, many like Selvin are questioning the wisdom of increasing focus on video journalism, a medium which is often inconvenient for readers who are at work or on a mobile device.
As newspapers struggle to find the right balance between print and web, or text and video, the stakes are becoming higher and higher. With readers turning to the internet, where media organizations are ultra-competitive and struggle to profit, the debate on how to attract the most advertising dollars while spending the least money and still produce quality journalism is reaching full force.
While many video journalists have disagreed with Selvin’s theory, she does have some defenders. Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News who now works as a consultant to a number of news sites, sometimes specifically on the topic of improving video, recently visited Selvin’s class. He defended her, saying that when online, “video is kind of a linear orphan in a non-linear environment,” meaning that visitors to news sites want more control over their viewing experience than what video allows them.
He went on to explain that the low quality video Selvin was referring to wouldn’t help a site any more than low quality writing, though it would cost more to produce.
Selvin’s project started out as an examination of the changing life of the photojournalist. Her research led her to examine video from small local newspapers where photojournalists were mostly likely to be asked to shoot and edit video without training, thanks to the papers’ small staff sizes and low budgets. It was from those videos that she developed the idea for her three blog posts, which she wrote from late September to mid-October.
Selvin wasn’t discouraged by the criticism. “I think the people who disagree with my position misinterpreted me,” she said. “He seems to think I disrespect video.”
Fadely also pointed out that a video about a breaking news story Selvin described as boring was more popular among readers than one she liked a lot more.
“A straight-forward news story, done promptly, is way more valuable to our readers than a long take-out on an issue that’s not burning down the house. And our readers will still put a priority on that news story when it’s in video form,” he wrote on Selvin’s blog.
Selvin said she benefited from the conversation and adjusted, but didn’t change, her opinion. “I wasn’t as attuned to the value of breaking news videos as I am now,” she said. “It has the quality of being new.”
She pointed out that she teaches courses involving multimedia at Stony Brook, a school that requires all its journalism majors to take classes in print, online and broadcast journalism. “I think that’s what we’re doing here,” she said. “We are training people to be multimedia journalists.”
But Selvin retained her viewpoint that sometimes on news sites there is “video for the sake of having video.”
Heyward described this phenomenon as a “not quite mindless, but unfounded infatuation with video.”
Fadely describes video as the future of online news, citing the high percentage of young people who consume video online. He also argues that a main point of Selvin’s argument, that video costs too much to produce compared to the small percentage of people who watch it, is invalid.
“I’m not sure what percentage of the Herald’s overall budget goes to videojournalism, but I’m sure it’s a tiny fraction of one percent,” Fadely said via email.
The two agreed that better trained video journalists could cut down on both the cost of making video and the amount of low quality video on the web. “A cheap point-n-shoot camera or flip cam is adequate with the proper technique,” said Fadely.
Despite some agreement, Selvin still feels that reporting, not making video or getting page views in the short term, needs to be seen as the goal in more newsrooms and that video should only be used when it enhances the story or is of high quality.
“In the long run,” she said, “it’s been shown time and time again that quality pays off.”