Video Now: Long Form


Narrator: Videos first came online nearly twenty years ago. They were tiny, low-quality, and barely worked, thanks to dial-up. Conventional wisdom said: make videos short - nothing over a minute or two.Users would be lucky to download anything at all. Flash forward to 2014. Homes are on broadband. Everyone seems to have a smartphone. But even now, many believe that video should be short, funny and hopefully viral. Even with fast Internet and fast devices, no one -- especially not young people -- will watch more than a few minutes. Long form video just doesn’t do well online.

Except that it does. Long form video journalism can be hugely popular online, and potentially very profitable.

For Video Now, we visited three organizations that specialize in long-form storytelling: very successful companies that have managed to tell in-depth stories, win awards, and develop devoted digital audiences.

FRONTLINE, a leader in broadcast investigative journalism. MediaStorm, a production house known for stunning visual storytelling. And Vice, the Brooklyn-based upstart with millions of rabid online subscribers. All three focus on serious stories: North Korea, Ukraine, sex trafficking. No lists or celebrity news, but all three consistently get tons of views and high completion rates, especially with young viewers.

Shane Smith: The biggest misconception is that American youth are not interested in a) politics or b) the rest of the world. In fact, there’s never been a generation that's more interested.

Pam Johnston: I think we don’t give young people a lot of credit in our culture today, in our society today. We’ve already decided what they are. That they don’t have any attention spans, they won't watch anything longer than three minutes, that's its got to be quick and you have to get a lot of words in per minute. And who says that that's really who they are?

Raney Aronson-Rath: We believe that the younger people who care about serious journalism are finding us. We see that to be true. They come to us on Facebook, they come to us on Twitter.

Pam Johnston: And I don't think people have changed that much, although the platforms have. I still think journalism matters, I think depth matters, and I think young people will care and sit down to watch something if it speaks to them.

Brian Storm: There’s two things that are really successful in the space that we're in right now: being really, really funny- cats spinning on a fan- or the highest quality thing that you've ever done on Darfur. Those are things that people tweet, those are the people things post on Facebook, right? The stuff in the middle, the volume, is noise. That's, frankly, most of what we do in the industry is crank it out.

Raney Aronson-Rath: We believe 20-somethings should know about North Korea. They should know about Syria, they should know about the NSA story. They should know about these important things because this is the world they're living in.

Narrator: FRONTLINE has been airing on PBS for three decades. A new episode gets about 2.5 million viewers -- strong ratings. The problem is, the median age of their audience is 56, and getting older each year. Online, however, the average age drops significantly. Sixty percent of their online traffic is between 18 and 35. This is their future and FRONTLINE has been committing more to their digital platforms to grow this younger viewership.

Raney Aronson-Rath: We needed to go away rom this model of one big anthology film site to a constant stream.

Sarah Moughty: We used to publish once a week, essentially, or 26 weeks a year. When we had a new film, we'd publish a new website. And so what we did a couple a years ago was to kind of break that apart, pull it apart, tease it apart and start publishing before and after and all sorts . . . during the broadcast. But then on top of that, we're staying on top of stories after the broadcast and continuing to report on them.

Narrator: FRONTLINE built a team of five online producers and reporters. This group acts more like a newsroom than a documentary studio: they post news stories regularly, aggregate content, and develop digital-first video. This strategy is working. FRONTLINE now gets 1.7 million unique visitors a month, up 80% from two years ago. Another big reason for this bump has been their presence on social media. Frontline no longer reaches their audience solely through TV and their website.

Pam Johnston: We aggressively look for places where people are. And that's a big shift in a short amount of time. So it wasn't very long ago where it was like, "We're on television, and we're on our website, and if you would like to find us, that’s where you can come visit us. " And I think that there's been a shift, which is, " If you want them, you better go get them. You better be where they are," and we're really cognizant of that.

Narrator: Changing its digital and social strategies has allowed FRONTLINE to explore news ways to present stories.

Raney Aronson-Rath: Digital audience is younger, but we want to say to them, "Hey, listen. This is a new space. We want to be showing you what we're doing and interact with you in a new way." You say, "Ok, we're going to do North Korea." And then you start to publish when it makes sense, right? Then the film comes on and then you continue to publish. So it's like a really steady stream of intellectual thought in journalism behind the films, before the films, after the films.

Narrator: Vice, the punk zine turned hip media powerhouse, is known for documentaries like “Heavy Metal Baghdad” and Dennis Rodman’s controversial trip to North Korea. They have over four million subscribers on YouTube, and in March 2014, Vice launched a platform dedicated to video news.

Jason Mojica: Years ago Vice News was really just kind of a logo that we slapped on all the video content that somehow related to news. Over time, that content became more and more popular and became the stuff that our audience responded best to, and really, the content that define our brand. So we decided that we would launch Vice News as a standalone digital platform.

Shane Smith: It's going to be long form documentaries that people know us for; it's going to be short form; it's going to be livestreaming; it's going to be text, it's going to be photos. It's going to be everything.

Narrator: Unlike most web-first video producers, Vice immediately went long form, rejecting both conventional wisdom and YouTube’s own recommendations.

Jason Mojica: When we created the Vice YouTube channel, we found it was those newsier documentaries that we produced that got the most attention and people demanded. And oddly, when we put up lighter fare, a lot of the comments would be people complaining about it and demanding a return to North Korean labor camps, or to the Congo, or things like that.

Shane Smith: You know, they told us to do short, sort of snackable content. They did about sub two minutes on YouTube in general, and we were doing two minutes and it was all our news content. So we did long form content. We did exactly the opposite of what they told us to do and we became the number one channel for time on site, the number one channel for video completion, the number one channel for likes versus dislikes.

Narrator: Vice News plans to produce a full-length film each week, as well as a mix of shorter reports, live feeds, and their HBO show. Vice is brash, opinionated, and unconventional, but with billions of views, they are undoubtedly successful. Their attitude and approach attracted criticism.

Shane Smith: What’s happening is that traditional news media are going to the way of the dodo. And as they go they're saying, "Well, we're the only ones who know how to do news. You new kids don't know how to do news. It's only news if I do it." And that's further alienating Gen Y.

Jason Mojica: We take this very seriously. And these stories are very serious and very important to us, otherwise we wouldn't do them.

Narrator: Brian Storm, founder of MediaStorm, has produced stories on PTSD, immigration, and sex trafficking. MediaStorm helped to popularize longform audio slideshows years ago, and recently produced its first feature-length documentary, “The Long Night.”

Brian Storm: We spend a lot of time reporting on the projects that we are covering. We spend a lot of time in post. We don't publish very often. And what we have found is that, you know, doing a few things really well, actually, the benefit over time is great. As opposed to spending those same resources just churning stuff out. I don't think you move the needle that way.

Narrator: MediaStorm doesn’t do breaking news. Because of this, their stories continue to be popular years after publication -- a big benefit of the Web.

Brian Storm: We're not doing event-based, time-based publishing. We're trying to do stories that will matter over a long period of time. Non-perishable storytelling, universal issues involved in it. One of the things that’s really important about the way in which we work is that when we publish something, yeah it gets a lot of attention when it first comes out, but it’s years later that its still getting. . .four or five thousand people a day are watching a story.

Narrator: The Web also makes it possible for documentary filmmakers to play with style and length. This sometimes means going shorter.

Raney Aronson-Rath: Our bet is that the digital version, which can go on for a longer time, or be shorter, will start to adapt because we're just going to say, "Ok, that one really deserves to be exactly what it should be and we'll make it that length." That is incredibly freeing to us. We only make the hour documentary because the broadcast slot is an hour.

Brian Storm: I think we've created a lot of artificial frameworks about how we do what we do as an industry. Why does everything on TV have to be the same duration? So you know, everything’s got to be 28 minutes and 25 seconds to leave room for ads. Well, not all stories need to be 28 minutes and 25 seconds, and I think the Web kind of blows that out of the water because what you're up against on the Web is peoples' attention.

Narrator: The Web, and their millions of followers, have given Vice the license to avoid traditional TV-style reports, going for a grittier approach.

Shane Smith: So we show our ass, warts and all. We approach it more from the documentary filmmaking standpoint of: press record and see what happens.

Narrator: So, how do Frontline, Vice, and MediaStorm afford to produce expensive, long-form journalism? Frontline is largely supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, foundations, and viewer support. They have also begun to form partnerships with other broadcasters like Univision, an important move in gaining new viewers.

Vice Media, the owner of Vice News, was recently valued at 1.4 billion dollars. They generated revenue of $175 million in 2012. They make real money through sponsored content and consulting, so unlike most publishers, Vice News won’t rely on pre-roll or display ads to pay the bills.

Shane Smith: We hated ads, cause they destroy our user experience. So we developed a whole agency of going to brands and saying, “Cut out the noise, get rid of all this crap. Don't do any banner advertising, don't do pre-roll. We're going to have innovative sort of integration solutions. You sponsor the show, you do this, you do the other thing." And what they wanted to be next to is a cultural phenomenon. What they want to be next to is real traffic. So if we come up with, let's say a show called Far Out, for example, which is going to the most remote places on Earth. We go to North Face, cause it's a no-brainer and say, "Hey, you want to sponsor the show?" They say yes, boom.

Narrator: Even for a much smaller publisher like MediaStorm, traditional advertising doesn’t work. MediaStorm has a diverse, five-point strategy. They make money through client work, workshops, syndication, software and publication.

Brian Storm: The whole model around the publication always was what I call the crack cocaine model of publishing. Give it away for free, build an audience, help people understand the type of storytelling that we're trying to do. Get them hooked, then you charge them for it. We had to build that baseline audience first before we turned pay on. And yeah, we lost a big chunk of our audience for sure, of course we did. But it was a pretty great conversion. It was much better than what you read about, because we have such a loyal following. The people who like our stuff really like our stuff.

Narrator: So where do MediaStorm, Vice and Frontline go from here?

Raney Aronson-Rath: My guess is that we're just scratching the surface on visual storytelling in digital form.

Shane Smith: People want to watch longform video. They don’t want to watch things that are two minutes long. They want to watch things that are 20 minutes long or an hour long.

Brian Storm: It’s the tools, it’s the distribution, and it’s the viral capabilities of social that have created the perfect opportunity for us as storytellers to tell any kind of story we want to tell now. Because you can shoot it, you can produce it, you can distribute it and if it’s really good, people will spread it for you.

Raney Aronson-Rath: As soon as filmmakers and visual storytellers really put their eye towards how to tell a story in non linear form, things will change yet again. Things will start to really take off.

Brian Storm: You have to surround yourself with talented people and you’ve got to believe in it and you’ve got to bleed for it, but you can do it. You can actually practice journalism the way you want to practice journalism now.