Watch This Space

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By: Andrew Blum | June 1, 2009

Image courtesy of Monocle.
Image courtesy of Monocle.

When President Clinton appeared—in video!—on my laptop screen in the fall of 1998, his index finger jabbing at Kenneth Starr, the future arrived with a shock: The news was no longer something you either watched or read. Somehow, the web was going to make it both, simultaneously.

Nine years later, we’re living in a YouTube world, and video has suddenly become a must-have for print publications—even the ones struggling to have an online presence at all. According to Bart Feder, president and CEO of The FeedRoom, the broadband video company of choice for many magazines and newspapers, “Over the last 18 months, every media company has begun to believe they need to be a digital media company.”

That goal still seems a long way off. Bringing online video up to the quality that most publications are producing in print remains a challenge, even for the best financed. Concierge, Condé Nast Traveler’s online home (and a FeedRoom client), has integrated video across the site, but the footage itself looks like an A/V club spree, a standard that would never fly in the magazine itself. And The New York Times may be adding web-video components to a remarkable number of stories, but much of it still looks like the local news—a substantial notch below the paper’s print reporting and photography.

Clearly, there are many obstacles for traditional media outlets to overcome: Strong-voiced documentary video is as expensive and time-consumingas ever, cheap video looks cheap, and neither the internet’s data pipes nor most computers’ processing power is ready for true TV-quality viewing. But some publications are beginning to get it right, establishing a strong editorial voice for their content and implementing video with as much rigor as they bring to their print design.

Often the secret lies in dismantling the longstanding print/online divide, which is inevitably an easier task for start-ups. No wonder Monocle, the stylish international affairs magazine founded by Tyler Brûlé, has been able to bring its identity and voice so powerfully to its online video. It’s a good case study: Brûlé started as a broadcast journalist, and Dan Hill, the director of web and broadcast, was formerly head of interactive technology and design at BBC Radio and Music Interactive, so “an understanding of what makes good televisual content was certainly in the DNA,” as Hill puts it. But, he adds, so was the intent “that the website would have the same quality threshold as the print magazine.” Hill ticks off everything that means: video shot on professional HD cameras and embedded in 16:9 aspect ratio; graphics fully matched to the magazine’s identity (by Richard Spencer Powell and Ken Leung), right down to the end marks, pull quote styles, and numerals;and even a house style for video footage that embodies the same cool, steady aesthetic of the print design—meaning, in particular, no handheld camera work.

Hill and his team designed their own video player, with “bespoke” play and pause controls. When the video zooms, its new size reinforces the site’s overall grid layout. Even the play head earned attention. “We actually made it slightly larger in a second iteration, to make it feel more malleable, more confident as a control,” Hill says. “It had just been a small vertical line, as stripped back as we could get it—perhaps stripped back too far.” Video and slide shows are played against a black background, but the text is white. That decision is meant to increase the legibility of each, but also to lend “an almost cinematic feel to the site, of ‘dimming the lights’ to watch the broadcast programs,” as Hill describes it. It’s becoming a popular move: The New York Times recently shifted to a black background for slide shows, as did the Atlantic Monthly.

Monocle’s example shows what know-how combined with ample resources can do for online video. But less glossy publications are finding that skills and dedication alone will make the difference. Seth Gitner, multimedia editor at The Roanoke Times in Virginia, has won the paper a number of national awards over the past few years. At a regional newspaper with a circulation of 100,000, elaborate multimedia creations offer the opportunity for glory, but, Gitner says, the editor-in-chief and publisher wouldn’t be supporting it if it wasn’t clear it’s what their readers want. “We’re seeing more and more people each month watching video online,” Gitner says. And not just in Virginia: “Whether you’re a TV or a newspaper executive finding your audience moving to the web, you need to get there to recapture the eyeballs you’re losing in your traditional space,” says The FeedRoom’s Feder.

The Roanoke Times has created an informal and folksy daily video news roundup called TimesCast and has also been using Flash to create full-blown interactive features with themed interfaces. The packages, on subjects like Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail and childhood obesity, create a new online environment for each story, just as a magazine would create a new layout for a print feature article.

Clicking through—reading, listening, and watching—reminds one how rarely publications achieve that level of multimedia storytelling online, even though it’s common enough on high-end commercial sites for cars, hamburgers, and so on. The disparity highlights just how weak the template-driven online design world is for most print publications. It’s a sad result of the status quo: Regardless of readership or the current state of advertising dollars, many publishers still maintain a double standard when it comes to web production. Too often, that manifests itself in very different print and online budgets. It may be 10 more years—and another laptop and a new president—before the media masters this medium.