Friday, March 03, 2006

Dreaming: Advertiser "TV" News Operation?

Yesterday's Advertiser ran a letter that predicts the paper's ascendance as the area's top producer of video news:
The Advertiser and will develop videocasts and podcasts that will at first attract only a trickle of viewers/listeners, then a bayou and finally a flood of Katrina proportions that will sweep all competition away in a torrent of quality webcasts.
That sentence provoked a smile and not only because of the local reference. The use of the word "torrent" is a clever touch. (Bittorrent being the distribution protocol that powers most video downloads, popularly called "torrents," these days--much to the chagrin of standard TV outlets.) In most places this suggestion would be thought-provoking but pretty much impractical: only a small slice of the demographic necessary to making a newscast a fiscal success would have the bandwidth to stream a quality videocast. Videocasting for the few is not a viable business plan...Especially not for a newspaper whose advertising base is built on the presumption of a mass market.

But when LUS' fiber-optic network comes in in Lafayette with a huge 100 meg in-system service for any LUS internet subscriber the "market" for such a "product" is suddenly credible. If LUS does capture 50% of the market it could put HD quality videocasts in front of enough people for someone to fantasize about a city market share that could easily rival the broadcast stations. (Yes, that's not enough, I know. Broadcast stations and the cable company hit a much larger number in the region. Still that'd be a real market; not a fantasy one. You cold have low quality streams for folks who persist in using Cox.)

So, for the moment let's treat the idea seriously that we could all be watching videocasts of smart, well-reported, specific stories at our leisure instead of occasionally tuning into the evening news. I'd certainly be happy to be freed from the tyranny of the newsreaders.

The Dream
A videocast regime built on the model of newspaper reporting could make for great video news: Instead of a talking head reading a headline you could have a real story written by a real writer and told with a beginning, a middle, and an end--whether that took 2 minutes or 10 minutes. Like the daily paper you could watch it anytime you had the time and look back through recent issues to settle any questions you might have. The writer would illustrate his or her points by using snippets of spoken interviews or bits of video footage. Not sure you share the author's interpretation of a crucial event or comment? A "digging deeper" link would carry you to previous stories, a fuller interview, and the raw video footage.

How might we get to such a place? What would be necessary? How could its development be encouraged?

There'd seem to be at least two paths: Up From Technology or Down From News Institutions.

Up From Technology; AKA the AOC solution
You could start from the "grassroots;" from those already doing or poised to do podcasts and videocasts. Around here that'd probably be folks arrayed around Acadiana Open Channel--people who are interested in alternative media, in local perspectives and who are attuned to the technical issues involved. That group is already primed to find "work arounds" to the primary media and are prepared to think about developing audiences outside that context. Most of the talking head shows on AOC are already pretty much podcasts--the pictures of the mouths speaking doesn't add a lot to the show, especially when the second speaker is a caller on the phone . The "news" programs are devoted to promoting stories the local hosts feel are undercovered. Mostly that's national news but occasionally, as during the fiber fight, it includes a local component. What we see next to none of is anyone actually going out, finding, and reporting news.

AOC-type folks have the technical orientation, the passion, and the willingness to do something different. What we don't see are actual reporters. And that's what at least some of the established news organizations have.

Down From News Institutions; AKA the Advertiser solution
You could start from institutions -- like the Advertiser -- that already do a credible job of reporting. Real reporting is built on reporters, the "talent." Any credible videocasting operation will have to have 'em. For all my complaining the print media still houses the only "real" reporters around. The best have a good sense of the issues and a real memory of how things have changed over time and how the same issue was tackled the last time around. A good reporter is a treasure and the only places you can find 'em nurtured are in the print media. So it is not irrational to look to the print media (and the advertiser as the letter writer does) as the source of reporting for a dream of videocasting replacing newsreaders.

But the reason that reporters are found at newspapers is that newspapers have editors and news directors. Most of the time good editors and good reporters go hand-in-hand. Editors/news directors do a lot more than critique the fine print and structural logic of a story (happy as I'd be to see more of that); they also direct overall shape of the news. If they don't assign a story it will seldom be done. If they don't have an education reporter or bear down about the background on stories that would be opaque to the public you'll not see any decent education reporting or background material. A truly great reporter can swim against the tide of lackluster leadership but it's rare.

What a videocasting regime would really need is a visionary news director/editor. I don't see that at the TV or the Advertiser right now. Frankly, editorial leadership at the Advertiser seems weak; the choices made are pretty conventional.

The Third Way; Hybrid Solutions
If the Advertiser and the TV stations seem to lack passion, and the AOCites lack reporters or editors then it might be possible to get to a better place by combining the better qualities of the two.

AOCites might develop a "best of' show that would package and rebroadcast in videocast format the best "reporting" on AOC. (Ok, they could broadcast it too, if they wanted. But this is about the videocast.) It could be a monthly thing at first but would serve the vital editorial function of providing guidance and quality assurance. Over time such a show might try and develop its own stable of people who report only through that venue and under the guidance of the editor.

News institutions might try and make use of grassroots passion by developing a "special to" relationship with video and podcasters that is similar to the relationship a lot of magazines and newspapers have with particular reporters and freelance writers. A lot of the nation's smartest reporting has been done by semi-autonomous reporters with special relationships with particular editors. The most interesting possibility here is that some "underutilized" print media editors might step up. Weekly urban newspapers, with their alternative orientation have a national tradition of doing in-depth reporting in non-traditional areas. Recently, and locally, the Independent did a very nice piece on Lafayette's Mardi Gras Indians which was an excellent example. A videocast of that story would draw a lot of traffic. You can imagine online interviews, snips from the neighborhood prarading, a segment on sewing the garments by various folks, a discussion over competing traditions, and a voice over commentary on the awards "ceremony" at Clark field. Something of that magnitude would become a constant, daily web site driver, useful at local schools, and visited by folks nationwide. During the carnival season it could fuel traffic for an entire online special section.

Fiber-based big broadband opens enormous potentials for doing things better and the possibility of a new way to do the news is only one. What's exciting is that Lafayette could help shape that future. When new forms are invented the first folks out of the gate have a huge influence on what's eventually seem as "normal" by the rest of the world. Lafayette will be one of the first with real broadband. All her people will need to do is to step up to the plate with some vigor and some imagination.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"But when LUS' fiber-optic network comes in in Lafayette with a huge 100 meg in-system service for any LUS internet subscriber". Is everyone going to get 100 megs when the sign up to LUS?

John said...

Anonymous,

Everyone is going to get 100 megs BETWEEN SUBSCRIBERS. Or so I understand.

This is a lot like "family minutes." If you and your sister are both on LUS you'll be able to zip your nephew's birthday party video back and forth tout 'suite.

This does NOT mean that you will be able to communicate with your cousin in Breaux Bridge at anything faster than the tier you've purchased from LUS. (So if you've purchased a bargin 5 meg tier trying to download Tante Sue's 85th birthday extravaganza from Breaux Bridge is gonna take till she's 86....)

Basically, the idea is that traffic will only be throttled as it leaves and enters LUS' network. Inside the system you will be able to operate at the available speed less overhead or any congestion. The effective upper limit will be imposed by the capacity of the chip set in the equipment on the wall of your house. For most currently available equipment that limit is 100 megs. So the actual limit may be higher as newer equipment comes online.

Neat, no?