Despite Little Revenue, News Organizations Bet on Video

LaPierre appears in the Boston Globe's web series on the working lives of several of its journalists.
Written by Janco Damas

By Janco Damas
BU News Service

Scott LaPierre, a multimedia editor and video journalist for the Boston Globe, is busy planning for a future where more news is being consumed in visual formats.

“Video projects are always in development,” said LaPierre of his daily routine at the Globe.

LaPierre thinks virtual reality and Facebook’s native publishing platform will play an increasingly important role in how readers consume news by 2020.

While some news organizations are investing in producing visuals such as online video, many are wondering if online news sites can scale their video efforts profitably. They can be expensive to produce and the revenue model is still in flux.

LaPierre says he follows metrics on his work and expects to see anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 views in a video’s online lifetime, but he is unsure if this is enough to cover the cost of producing video stories.

Although companies such as Pixability are sprouting up to help companies advertise in videos, video as a vehicle for advertising remains barely tapped producing just, 10 percent of all digital ad revenue according to a 2014 study by the Pew Center.  In another study of the economics of online video journalism, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University found that the average news video gets around 1,000 views.  The survey also showed that media buyers might pay $15 to $20 per 1,000 views.  So a video viewed 1,000 times might earn $15 – $20 from advertising.

News sites seem not to be dissuaded by these economics; instead, they are plowing investments into video with no clear promise of how it will pay off.  CNN, for example, recently launched GreatBigStory as an answer to Vice and Buzzfeed’s aggressive growth in video journalism.  Some legacy newspapers are following this trend as they ramp up their video teams.

Eric Seals, a photo and video journalist for the Detroit Free Press who was interviewed for the Tow survey, estimated that producing one minute of high-quality video takes roughly 9-10 hours of labor.  LaPierre estimates similarly that a 2-minute video produced for the Globe usually takes a couple of days to produce.

The sort of videos populating online news sites seem to fall in one of three categories: video shot from a camera phone to cover breaking news, professionally produced packages of fewer than 4 minutes and long-form documentary style.

The Detroit Free Press won an Emmy in 2008 for “40 Years of Respect,” a 9-minute video portrait commemorating the 40th anniversary of Aretha Franklin’s hit song “Respect.”  After winning the award, Vice President and Editor Paul Anger said, “We hope our audience is thinking of us as a place to go for video.” Anger also said that video will play a significant part in the future of Detroit Free Press.

The finished documentary “40 Years of Respect” first appeared on the Free Press website and YouTube in 2007, according to a press release.  Recently the video had fewer than 3,500 views on YouTube or potentially $70 of revenue, according to the more optimistic range of the Pew study estimates.

From this revenue, subtract the salary cost of the 30 or so employees that the Detroit Free Press credits with having made a contribution to the story, and the economics of the video online seems less than modest.

Journalists seem to agree on the “potential” of video news, says the Boston Globe’s LaPierre.  One reason he suggests online video has not reached its earning potential is that “Consumers want news for free and are willing to accept lower quality video to avoid paying.” So the idea of investing in higher-quality video with hopes of monetizing it behind a paywall appears to be a risky gamble.

One option that is improving the bottom line for news sites is the use of third-party distribution platforms such as Taboola, which feeds a variety of content, including video, to third-party sites. When a viewer clicks on one of these links, Taboola and the site on which it’s embedded, get a small payment. This model is meant to boost traffic and views for publishers via third-party sites. One downside of this type of service is that some of the content has been described as clickbait. For example, recent feeds on the Boston Herald’s website included a story about Khloe Kardashian’s recent turmoils with her estranged husband Lamar Odom and another on how to obtain perfectly matte lipstick color.

Headquartered in Boston, Brightcove provides companies with access to a publishing tool for video and distribution.  The company serves as an intermediary distribution partner for the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Gannett properties, including the Detroit Free Press. In 2014, Brightcove charged premium customers, including news organizations, an average of $5,135 a month for their system and video player which allows news websites to display and monetize video.

A Brightcove blog post advises news sites to expect $8-13 (best case) in take-home revenue share per 1,000 video views.  For the collective 1.5 billion videos streamed on Brightcove players in 2014, the average premium customer took home approximately $8,000 before returning around $5,000 back to Brightcove as a subscription fee, according to the company’s 2014 annual report. After video personnel and expenses have been paid, the margin for news organizations does not leave much — if anything — to invest in producing new video projects.

LaPierre said that as a journalist, he is primarily focused on creating great content, but he agrees the general thinking of newsrooms is that although they have not figured out the business model for video, decisionmakers do not want to be left behind in the video evolution.

Allocating resources to video projects remains irrational economics, at least on the surface.  However, with video’s demonstrated ability to generate web traffic, news organizations are faced with deciding whether to accept a net loss for the want of traffic.  For now, news sites are choosing traffic.

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