A Report of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism

From October, 2013 until February, 2014, Video Now  visited newsrooms across the United States to interview and observe reporters and editors producing video journalism. Video has become an important editorial tool, as well as a potentially large revenue source for newsrooms. But, as of the fall of 2013, there seemed to be no consensus on how to produce news videos or how to profit from them. With that in mind, Video Now , funded by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, set out to answer three main questions:

⋅ How do news organizations define video?
⋅ How do they produce video?
⋅ What is their return on investment?

For this report, Video Now  called and emailed more than 125 news organizations to gather information about their editorial strategies, revenue models, and measures of success. We avoided established broadcast and cable news networks. Instead, we focused on newsrooms without a long history of video production. We wanted to explore the opportunities and challenges facing newspapers, digital-first organizations, and long-form video producers as they compete for online traffic. As expected, most organizations were not forthcoming with specific metrics; many said that they were still in the early stages of developing their video teams and strategies. We asked for specific metrics such as plays, page views and revenue, but only a few newsrooms would give us exact numbers.

We invited more than 50 newsrooms to participate in this video report, but most declined requests to allow our cameras into their newsrooms. We were eventually granted access to: FRONTLINE , The Washington Post , The Seattle Times , The Detroit Free Press , Mashable , NowThis News , Vice News, NPR, MediaStorm, and the Chicago Sun-Times . We acquired data when possible – page views, plays, viewer drop-off – but we soon realized that metrics are incomplete or inconsistently measured across organizations. When we did obtain statistics, we included them in the report where appropriate. But we relied primarily on interviews. In all, we interviewed, on-camera, over 40 producers, editors, and reporters involved in video production. Each interview ranged from 30 to 90 minutes. We spent one to two full days in each newsroom and were given complete access to shoot the day-to-day activities of these organizations. With the exception of The Washington Post , we worked directly with video journalists and avoided dealing with public relations personnel altogether (The Washington Post  had a PR representative present during interviews).

Newsrooms were surprisingly candid on the question of revenue and return on investment. None of the newspapers we visited are making any profit on their videos, and most describe themselves as in a state of investment and development. These newsrooms do earn some revenue on pre-roll advertising, but they are operating at a deficit when compared to the total cost of video production. However, at this stage, newsrooms are more focused on building their under-resourced production teams with the intention of increasing content production. The Seattle Times  only has two video editors; the Chicago Sun-Times  has four multimedia producers and will be hiring four more this spring; and Mashable, a successful and influential social-focused site, only had three full-time producers when we visited them.

Along with building their teams, news organizations are also heavily focused on increasing traffic. Mashable hopes to get, on average, 1.6 million total video views each month on Youtube. At this level, they will be able to increase their advertising rates and flexibility. But this will mean that they will have to produce more videos and get more viewers to watch each one. Mashable  hopes to get at least 20,000 views per video, while occasionally producing a million-view viral hit. Newspapers get far fewer video views than sites such as Mashable . On average, a single video on a newspaper site will get anywhere from 500 to 1000 plays. But at the current CPMs of $10 to $20, pre-roll alone does not seem to be a viable strategy for most local publications going forward.

Four of the organizations we visited did not rely on traditional advertising or pre-roll for revenue. FRONTLINE  receives funding from foundations and viewers. Like, FRONTLINE , NPR also raises money from funders and audience donations. MediaStorm has a five-point revenue strategy that includes pay-per-view, training, software licensing, syndication, and client work. Vice, even with more than 4.5 million subscribers on Youtube, still makes much of its money on sponsored content. These organizations are all operating in the black, and they hint at possible models for other news organizations.

Video Now  is divided into five sections: Purpose & Methodology, Newspapers, Digital, Long Form, and Recommendations. One caveat: video news departments iterate constantly (sometimes monthly), so the information and analysis presented here will age quickly. But, as of Spring 2014, this is an accurate look at the video strategies of leading newspapers, digital organizations, and long form video news producers.

Video Now: Purpose & Methodology


Narrator: When the Chicago Sun-Times cut its entire photo staff in May 2013, owners said the layoffs were part of a plan to increase video production. The Sun-Times was making video a big editorial and sales focus, no longer just an afterthought.

The paper’s move, while unpopular with photographers, was not completely surprising. Online video is huge, and it has the potential to make a lot of money, at least in theory.

However, the Sun-Times did not say what kinds of videos they would produce, who would produce them, and what kind of return on investment they hoped to make.

Like Chicago, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers have also been building up their video teams. Startups like NowThis News are banking on video to reverse the industry’s downward slide.

Newspapers agree that video is important, but there seems to be no consensus on how to roll it out. Organizations large, small, and startup are figuring out how to produce news videos, and how to make them profitable. TV news has been around for decades, but online video is still young.

With that in mind, the Tow Center set out to produce this report, Video Now, to find out what was really happening in newsrooms. For months, we travelled across the country. We watched journalists make video. We spoke to editors about their goals and challenges. And we whittled down hundreds of hours of footage into the stories on this site.

A few things about this report:

First, it is not exhaustive, nor complete. There are nearly 1,400 daily newspapers in the U.S. This does not include hundreds of other digital-only sites. We profiled only a handful of these places.

Second, this report is about video, not multimedia. We did not focus on photojournalism, data, or design.

Third, we were only interested in three types of organizations: newspapers using video, digital-first properties, and long-form filmmakers. We focused on places producing exceptional work, or those with interesting strategies.

We consciously avoided networks such as CNN and NBC -- they all have large, established infrastructures. Instead, we at looked news organizations without a long video production history.

1) How do they define video?

2) How do they produce and promote video?


3) What is their return on investment?

We acquired metrics when possible: pageviews, plays, viewer dropoff, but we quickly realized that metrics are inaccurate; inconsistently measured across organizations.

So, this report is more qualitative than quantitative. When we obtained stats, we included them, but mostly we relied on interviews with the reporters and editors producing videos every day.

Our first observation was that newsrooms iterate constantly. Strategies change. Game plans pivot all the time: monthly, not yearly.

With that, this report will age quickly. The organizations that we visited and feature may all have moved on to new models by the time you watch this.

But, as of Spring 2014, this is what’s going on with Video Now.