Tonight, Matthew, I will be a TV reporter

We’ve only had TV in Britain for, ooh, 75 odd years but give anybody a mobile or a video camera and suddenly they’re the next Cartier-Bresson or John Simpson.

Now newspapers have woken up to the idea that news + pictures = more people visiting their website. Possibly. I wouldn’t like to make any assumptions as to how many extra hits these things add [1].

A quick scan around local paper websites on the net will show you the majority of them are now including some form of video news, be it clips sent in by viewers, video or interviews shot by their journalists on site or, with some papers, actual news bulletins read by one of their reporters.

The editors, executives, or whoever has taken the decision, clearly thinks this is a great way to draw more users to their webspace and enhance the paper’s brand.

But the Croydon Advertiser’s Ian Carter has a few reservations about the current levels of service [2]:

A lot of newspapers already have quite a lot of video online, but to be honest much of it is shockingly amateurish.

The worst examples tend to involve reporters sitting at a desk in the newsroom reading stories from the latest edition of the paper – I’ve yet to see one of these that isn’t unintentionally hilarious.

I honestly think you run the risk of damaging your brand by putting out sub-standard material like this – the same quality control should apply online as in print.

I’m hardly a Luddite when it comes to new technology – I spent four years working in an entirely online environment – but I’m not convinced sticking a video camera in somebody’s face and then putting it on your website represents a great leap forward. You might as well stick to youtube for that – we need to be more creative.

Every editor of a local paper in the land should read Carter’s words and take note. He has hit the proverbial nail on the head.

It’s not enough to just get reporters shooting content and sticking it on the web. Even user generated content only has a limited application if the same is done with it. As Carter notes, its not a hell of a lot of difference between that and Youtube. To be honest, why bother with the middleman?

But there is the potential for an untapped resource there. In some respects these tinkerings with the broadcast medium aren’t a million miles away from the BBC’s Local Television Project [3] in the West Midlands, which has now ended. You can see why local newspapers were up in arms about this. Here was a market they were trying to move into, and suddenly a much larger competitor comes along.

But what the BBC had that local papers don’t appear to, is experience, technological know-how and professionalism. The content I’ve seen on newspapers sites is often a mish-mash of ideas, some good, some terrible with a lot of them apparently making it up as they go along.

Now the question is how much do local papers want to throw at these operations. Carter is right when he calls some of the efforts embarrassing, especially getting a reporter to read the news headlines, an example of which can be found here, at my local paper’s website.

At the moment, it’s difficult to see what it actually brings to the table. If you want to find out more about the stories, you’d be better off buying the paper. If you prefer to get your news from the TV, then you’d be better off watching the local BBC and ITV bulletins. Sticking something like this on your website is not new and exciting, it’s just pointless.

But it needn’t be. I’ve had basic training in TV news, so I don’t claim to be an expert, but there are several simple things any newspaper could do to markedly improve the quality of their ‘news in video’ services.

I’m not entirely sure what sort of resources they have at any given local paper, but I’d hazard a guess that a lot of the editing is left down to the reporter, or certainly there’s no person specialising in the office.

If they’re serious, each paper should have one dedicated person to editing all the video that comes in from their reporters, writing the cues and producing their ‘TV’ headlines they put up on the site.

For example, take a look at the footage on the Westmorland Gazette, which is often pretty but a bit dull. You’ll notice both they and the Echo have interviews related to stories in videos as well.

Now how easy would it be to combine all this? All you need to do is instruct the journo to spend a few minutes getting a few cut-away shots if they’re taking a video camera out, combine this with any footage sent in by viewers, dump it all at the video editing desk, go away, write story. In the meantime your video editor could have chopped the material into a nice OOV and clip or, if they’re feeling really brave, a short package.

But that’s not to say they should chase after stories just on the basis they may get good video. That would turn them into an online version of their local TV news. Whatever is produced video-wise should supplement the strengths, reporting and values of the paper.

Even just OOVs would look so much more professional than just getting the reporter to read while photos or shots of that day’s paper flash before your eyes. AVID isn’t difficult to master and if you’re prepared to get in somebody who knows what they’re doing with it and can teach the other journos then you’re well on your way to getting something approaching decent and not at all embarrassing on your site.

Hell, you don’t even need production values or a smart logo in the background. Get them standing up somewhere in the news room holding the scripts, even if they’re reading from an autocue. Again, that’ll add to the buzz around the place.

[As an aside, I’d also think it worth investing a small bit in voice coaching a few of the readers. When you’re on screen its a performance, not a straight read, but that’s just a pet hate of mine]

Using video news on their websites is a real chance for local newspapers to seize the BBC’s Local TV baton. A small amount of investment and bringing in the right person could reap dividends.

I’ve no idea if these papers have orders on high from their owners, or the editor develops the idea on an ad-hoc basis. But if somebody, somewhere finally gets around to joining up the various strands and making a serious push on this then local TV, and possibly radio stations, should be worried, especially because local papers are such strong brands and have reporters who know their patches and can generate ultra-local content.

And we’ve not even touched on the possibilities of podcasting [4].

That day, I’m sure, can’t be too far off. When it does, broadcast journalists should start getting worried. Until then my job is safe, for the time being.

[1] And its possible people could have really taken to them.

[2] Via the ever excellent Martin Stabe. If you don’t have him in your RSS feeds and you have a passing interest in the media rectify this now.

[3] And this report into the project is well worth a read.

[4] Which I think might even be a better avenue to go down. You need time and effort to watch the news. Stick it on a podcast and you can get the day’s news while you travel to work, at work, wherever, without being burdened by the physical nature of a newspaper.

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