Opinion

Jack Shafer

Reinventing video news for your smartphone

Jack Shafer
Sep 12, 2012 16:39 UTC

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!”

BuzzFeed gets serious

Jack Shafer
Dec 12, 2011 23:21 UTC

BuzzFeed, the aggregation/social-media site, has thrown itself into the content creation business with some big hires. Today, BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti crowed about picking up Politico’s Ben Smith as its editor-in-chief. Smith, as Politico readers know, breaks news the way rioters break glass: Frequently and with glee. Last week, BuzzFeed added Whitney Jefferson and Matt Cherette from the Gawker enterprise, and a dozen new editorial hires are promised.

The addition of original content (also known as “journalism”) to the aggregator model isn’t without precedent. There are plenty of large Web sites that devote themselves to both, such as Huffington Post, Mediaite, Business Insider, Atlantic Wire, and Gawker, to name a few. But for an established aggregator like BuzzFeed to enter the original content sweepstakes at this point is a little like a slaughterhouse attaching a storefront to its entrance and opening a steakhouse in hopes of selling even more meat.

Actually, the BuzzFeed transition will be even bigger than from slaughterhouse to steakhouse. Today, it’s essentially an entertainment site, a place best known for its goofy distractions and silly videos. Smith tells Nieman Journalism Lab that his goal is to “hire reporters who get scoops the same way they have always have” with phone calls, “trips to Iowa, drinks with political operatives.”

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