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Friday, December 20, 2013
Generation J Toolbox

Journalists weigh in on original Web programming

By Rob McLean

Video on the Internet has come a long way in the last decade. What was once an hour wait for Real Player to stream five minutes of clumsily shot footage is now instant access to Emmy-winning episodic dramas.

David Fincher took home the Emmy for best director for his work on Netflix’s original series “House of Cards.” The win solidifies Netflix’s position as more than a streaming video server. The company and other streaming services with originally produced programming, such as Hulu, are legitimate players in directing popular culture.

But what does this shift in how audiences consume media mean for journalism? Young people seem to be abandoning cable television for streaming services in droves. Is it time for news managers to adopt a streaming strategy?

I asked four industry professionals what their thoughts are on Internet original programming and what it could mean for the way audiences consume news.

Dennis Kellogg, news director for NET News: “I believe the success of some original programming on the Internet is a reflection of the changing expectations of the entertainment consumer. Those consumers are open to considering different channels of distribution. That puts more pressure on the producer to develop quality programming so it can break through the myriad of choices now available on multiple platforms.

“In regard to journalism, the news consumer also has choices across numerous platforms. The quality of the journalism — or perceived quality of the journalism — will attract attention, much like a quality entertainment program will do also.

“A viewer can judge an individual entertainment program on its own merits, regardless of the company behind its production. In journalism, if a viewer comes to develop a trust relationship with a particular news organization, I believe that viewer is more apt to develop a loyalty toward that news brand. Again, it’s a loyalty that is more quickly lost than earned, but it’s a positive for news organizations committed to quality journalism over time.”

Lynn Walsh, investigative producer for WPTV: “I do not think it is a matter of if it will change the way people consume media; it already is. I don’t have cable or any local television stations on my TV. I rely solely on Hulu, Netflix and other video streaming sites or applications for all of my media consuming needs. I have been doing this for over two years, and at first my friends did not understand the concept. But, now when I mention this to people, especially younger friends, they are doing it too.

“If journalism organizations do not adapt and start providing content on these streaming platforms or in similar ways that are just as convenient for consumers, we are going to miss reaching an entire generation and basically make ourselves irrelevant. We have to provide content where consumers are going to get content. With so many choices and the convenience that new technologies provide, we cannot force or even expect them to tune in at a certain time anymore. I just don’t think that’s realistic.”

Victoria Reitano, digital producer for Bethenny: “Original programming on the Web has changed the way people consume television and, indirectly, the way people consume TV news. I, as an industry professional, have a cable plan for one thing: to watch the news. If I could watch the news via a streaming device, I wouldn’t be paying for cable.

“Newspapers used to do this — they used to give people the story in the lede paragraph. Now, we need viewers to ‘stay for the hour,’ so the industry is enforcing a policy of ‘tune in later for’ and teasers of ‘greater things in the next half hour.’ As an industry professional, I get it, but I think we’re going to have to truly evaluate what it means that on-demand programming is being watched by so many that it is actually recognized at the Emmys. If that doesn’t say something about this ‘future’ becoming a reality, I don’t know what will.”

Michael Todd, managing editor for HearNebraska: “I’m trying to think of ways in which journalism can be presented similarly to a series like ‘House of Cards.’ Perhaps the special editions publications produce — such as the Lincoln Journal Star’s Pinnacle Bank Arena edition — have succeeded on the same idea before first DVDs and then the Internet changed the way television can be consumed.

“Rather than releasing each story on a subject over a period of time, a large body of stories are released in the same edition. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, the increasing popularity of Internet ‘original programming’ will encourage more theme-based editions.

“The comparison breaks down a bit when examined more closely, though, because there isn’t a narrative thread that develops from a first episode to a final episode in a special edition. It’s a collection of takes and perspectives. Maybe to pattern a story off this format of Internet ‘original programming,’ though, long-form stories could be presented as episodes with accompanying frictionless multimedia: I’m thinking of stories like The New York Times’ Snow Fall.

“Either way, though, I’m stretching a bit to make the comparison between fictional video series and journalism pieces. The connection seems to be tenuous to me, but it’s good practice to think about how online ‘original programming’ works and how we as journalists might be able to somehow learn from that, however small the takeaway we find is.”

Rob McLean is a digital managing editor with Hearst Television and member of the Generation J Committee. He’s been an SPJ member since 2010. Interact on Twitter: @robertmclean.

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