Reinventing video news for your smartphone

September 12, 2012

Sooner or later, every expensive thing finds itself supplanted by some technology-driven thing that’s cheaper: Ivory billiard balls were replaced by plastic, silk by nylon, mainframes by desktops, your local recording studio by GarageBand, and so on. Ivory, silk, mainframes, prestigious recording studios, and other luxury-class goods survive, but cost-cutting technological advances have steered them into niches.

That’s precisely where Web video news producers intend to steer broadcast and cable news – into niches. And they’ve got a shot at it. In 1980, CNN began exploiting the falling costs of broadcast gear and satellite time. By decade’s end the upstart network had not only equaled the traditional broadcasters but exceeded them, becoming the vital source for breaking news. Fox News Channel and MSNBC provided the next lesson by adapting talk-radio culture to cable news. Now, falling bandwidth prices, incredibly cheap video gear and ubiquitous smartphones  – 45 percent of American adults own one – lend similar economic advantages to those looking to displace cable.

One new news-and-information prospector is Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer, who this week bestowed a name on the cable-news slayer he has been assembling in his skunk works since last spring: NowThisNews, shooting for a late-October launch. As AllThingsD reporter Peter Kafka reports, NowThisNews will chart a different path than its fellow video pioneers at HuffPost Live, namely 12-hour blocks of talk-show chat. Lerer promises “short video pieces that will hopefully be very viral and very social, one at a time.” His general manager, Eason Jordan, a CNN veteran, told Kafka: “There’s an abundance of talk. We intend to report the news.” As distribution partner, Lerer and company have enlisted click-whores (and I use that term with complete admiration) at BuzzFeed, which will also assist in the creation of NowThisNews’s clips.

The Web-news thicket that NowThisNews is entering is so densely populated, an army of hackers launching a thousand DDoS attacks couldn’t clear it. Practically every legacy media operation (online services, TV networks, local TV and radio stations, daily newspapers and wire services) boasts a Web-news adjunct that both repackages old reports and streams original material. Native-to-the-Web operations such as Slate, Talking Points Memo, SB Nation, Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze TV, SB Nation, and others have aggressively applied their news-info talents to the screen. Viewers who get Al Jazeera (or other foreign broadcasters) on their cable systems can often stream it on the Web or download an app for their smartphone.

The baby steps of HuffPost Live, which debuted in mid-August, demonstrate the challenges of making watchable video. At its worst, HuffPost Live resembles a “karaoke version of what’s on cable,” as my Reuters colleague Sam Jacobs puts it. Its telegenic, young anchor/hosts mouth journalistic lyrics to match the backing tracks of their interview subjects, who appear in the flesh or via Webcam. It’s such a bush league venture right now that Monday, when American Idol judge Randy Jackson dropped by HuffPost Live to talk about diabetes, he volunteered that the music that preceded his segment was “low level, really cheap, inexperienced, student film music that you found extremely free somewhere – not just free, extremely free, like somebody please take this music!”

If the first iteration of HuffPost Live tends toward the cheap and inexperienced, its guests don’t seem to mind. In its first month its hosts have chatted with journalists Matt Taibbi and Thomas Friedman, activists Sandra Fluke and Erin Brockovich, politicians Michael Bloomberg and Rand Paul, actors Jennifer Beals and John Cusack (which the New York Observer called “painfully long”), fusion artists Eliot Spitzer and Michael Moore, and other notables.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent watching HuffPost Live. It reminds me too much of my early encounters with MTV, which joined the cable-TV family a year after CNN. I’d watch two or three disappointing videos but still stay tuned to MTV thinking that the next one might be good. So it is with the HuffPost interview segments, which tend to run about 30 minutes. I wiggle in my seat, hoping that the host will intercept this guest – or one of the HuffPost “community members” – before they unfurl their usual mattresses of words and put me to sleep.

The open-mic amateurishness of HuffPost Live reminds us how hard it is to fill a screen with watchable video chat. Among the prerequisites are good writers, deft and clever hosts who know how to guide a conversation, guests whose freshness date hasn’t expired and production values that match the content. Setting Randy Jackson’s slam aside for a moment, I’d say that HuffPost Live’s production values lead its content by a furlong or two right now.

In its early incarnation, HuffPost Live tries too hard to fill the Oprah place in your head, where a discussion of whether wives should take their husbands’ names can flow into a chat about whether stripping is a form of art or even into a debate about the Federal Reserve. Like Oprah, HuffPost Live isn’t that demanding of your attention, and can be absorbed as you multitask over lunch, ironing or Pilates. If you treasure your sanity, I don’t recommend you stay too long on the site: A whole afternoon of HuffPost Live feels like watching a 2-by-4 of taffy melt and drip down the side of a hot oven. I’d like to say that HuffPost Live would be twice as good half as long, but that gives the site’s producer false encouragement. Twice as good one-sixth as long is more like it.

It’s always easier to give a good review to something that hasn’t launched than one that has, but doesn’t NowThisNews’s bigger aspirations to break news into smaller, more digestible units produced in an artisanal way a couple of times a day sound more appealing? Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like to tote on your smartphone?

The smartphone, I predict, is where the new news-and-information battle will be fought. For this reason, I would be surprised if Arianna Huffington (who must never be underestimated) shrank HuffPost Live to fit inside a smartphone after NowThisNews launches. But the speed with which HuffPost Live ports itself to phones or the degree to which NowThisNews (and other news sites) devotes itself to the smaller medium will probably be determined by advertiser enthusiasm, which I expect to soar as Madison Avenue comes to respect its demographics. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s pollsters, 66 percent of those between 18 and 29 years of age own a smartphone, as do 68 percent of households earning $75,000 or more. Unlike a television, a PC, or even a tablet, a smartphone lends itself to portable companionship that can be enjoyed everywhere but the shower. The smartphone commands attention in a way that big screens rarely do these days. Serving smartphone-size media chunks for intense consumption between longer, more casual, big-screen meals might be the most efficient way to build audience for a new news-and-information venue. Don’t be ivory. Be plastic. Don’t be silk. Be nylon.

My advice for big news thinkers everywhere: Think small.


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