Social media feeds are filling up with video, publishers are ratcheting up production. But is this really what users really want? Nic Newman, Research Associate at the Reuters Institute looks at the drivers and potential of our online video boom 

This week AJ+ revealed that it had served 2.2billion videos through Facebook alone in 2015. But that makes Al Jazeera’s offshoot only the seventh most consumed publisher on Facebook. Incredibly, the giant tech platform reports around 8bn video views per day with rival YouTube reporting ‘watch time’ growth of more than 50% for the last few years. 

In news specifically, online video created and distributed through social media also defined coverage of the most dramatic news stories of the year including the Paris attacks. This included a video taken by a Le Monde journalist on his iPhone, live streaming of the aftermath through Periscope and the explosions within the Stade de France.

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It is interesting to note that much of this video was square or vertical. It was created on mobile phones and was largely consumed on them too. From Paris to Syria and beyond, 2015 saw the video enabled internet rivalling television news as the most compelling and authentic destination for live news.

Couple these consumption trends with a significant commercial upside around online video, it is hardly surprising that publishers are gearing up for significant moves in this area.

More than two thirds of digital leaders (79%) polled for our Reuters Institute look-ahead survey said they would be investing more in online video in 2016.  Key reasons cited include more consumer interest in visual content, higher advertising premiums and more native distribution opportunities within platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

What are your company’s plans for online video this year?

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Source: Reuters Institute Digital Leaders Survey 2016, n=118 (excluding don’t knows)

Many of the world’s largest newspaper groups are ramping up their production. 

  • The New York Times sees video as central to its growth and engagement strategy, investing in long form and documentary movies and has also experimented with Virtual Reality.
  • The Washington Post has put TV and video at the heart of its new newsroom with four live-shot locations.
  • News Corp has bought Unruly to drive more socially relevant video for its brands and for advertisers.
  • The Telegraph has an ambitious video strategy with plans for expanding short form news as well as branded content.

An inspiration for many has been start ups like AJ+, NowThis and Vocativ – as well as Buzzfeed, which has invested in a 250 strong LA based video production unit called Buzzfeed Motion Pictures. These companies produce up to 100 short videos week and often use data and technology to help producers achieve scale and define success. Print publishers in particular are starting to realise that producing relevant online video does not require a televison style operation with all the attendent costs:

 “Producing great, digital, visual, mobile-oriented video and animation is becoming cheaper and can be integrated easier into newsroom workflows. 2016 will be the year when visual content becomes really scalable.” – Anita Zielina, Editor-in-Chief New Products, NZZ

Broadcasters too increasingly recognise that web video is not about repurposing TV news. In 2016 we’ll see the fruits of a new mobile video initiative from the BBC known internally as Newstream. This will involve more experiments with new formats such as vertical video, video without sound as well as longer format and immersive video. It’s also reviewing the future of its 24 hour news channel in the UK.

So far, so very exciting. But whilst online video is undoubtedly hot, here are a few reasons we might want to be cautious. 

The numbers don’t always stack up

Just as we once became seduced by billions of hits and page views, there is a danger of getting dazzled by video plays – confusing them with real engagement. An auto-playing Facebook video currently counts if it plays for 3 seconds, Snapchat at 1 second. No wonder these networks are racking up billions of plays. 

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Real engagement that advertisers will be prepared to pay for will involve longer periods of time spent with quality content. Publishers will also want greater consistency across platforms so they can compare one platform and opportunity against another. We’ll need to see considerable progress on these kind of standards in 2016 as online video matures

Video isn’t going to replace text anytime soon

Although more people are consuming video, most still see it as supplementary to text stories rather than a replacement. In our Reuters Institute Digital News Report in 2015, 75% of our UK sample said they never used video or only did so occasionally.

Attitudes to video vs text

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REUTERS DIGITAL NEWS REPORT 2015

Of those who don’t use video, 40% said they just find text more convenient and mobile users are worried about data charges or find screens too small for watching video. Facebook and YouTube are educating users to use more video but much of this is comedy or entertainment content than news itself. 

The path to monetisation is still not clear

Pre-roll advertisements may be acceptable ahead of a long programme or documentary but are a significant barrier for short form content. A significant proportion of those who don’t use online news video (29%) cited pre-rolls as a key reason. There’s also concern that the high advertising premiums of today will not last as the supply of content increases, while the spectre of ad-blocking threatens video as much as text. All eyes are on Facebook, which has been actively looking for new solutions that don’t involve pre-rolls but satisfy the needs of publishers and content creators. For many, though, it is not clear that the vast sums already invested will ever pay back. The Huffington Post is one publisher already cutting back especially in live video and consolidating elsewhere

There’s still a significant skills gap

One issue for traditional publishers is how much resource to move to video as a bet on the future, when most of the value is still delivered through text. Newsrooms are still stacked by journalists and editors who are inspired by words rather than pictures, so making that change will be hard. As one respondent to our leader survey put it:

“Video is a difficult area for former print groups. None of us is doing it well, we do not have in-house expertise (generally) and it is vastly expensive”.

For broadcasters too, new skills will be required. The core culture in these companies tends to reward high quality polished video and live coverage, rather than the quick fire, fast moving, irreverent tone that works in a mobile and social content.

Proceeding with caution

While some media companies, like the Guardian are creating new product and innovation teams around video, many former print groups remain cautious about the levels of investment and expertise required. Most investment is likely to be incremental and won’t match the levels of digital born brands.

 By necessity then, we’re likely to see many deploying low cost and even automated techniques to innovate in this area.

  • Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin produces a range of inventive short videos for its Facebook page, which often are little more than photographs and words stitched together using free iMovie software. The consistent tone and strong messages ensure that the ‘videos’ regularly attract over 100,000 views.
  • Die Welt  is working with publisher NowThis to repackage short form videos for the german market. It is also reusing material from 24hour news channel N24
  • A number of publishers have been experimenting with tools like Wochit and Wibbitz that help producers quickly assemble video packages, through streamlined workflow. Wibbitz can automate the entire process, analysing the text of a story and matching it with a mix of agency stills and video footage.
  • The BBC World Service is piloting computer generated voice-overs and subtitles in multiple different languages for short online video pieces using automatic translation and synthetic voice technology (link to [1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2015/bbc-virtual-voiceover-translations )

Online news video will remain a hugely exiting and innovative area in 2016 with new ways of creating, packaging and distributing content. The opportunity is real but it is likely to be only one of the ways in which media companies will deliver value and make money in the future.


Nic Newman is Research Associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Read his complete Digital predictions for the year ahead here http://www.digitalnewsreport.org/publications/2016/predictions-2016/

The Reuters Institute will be publishing a detailed study of online video strategies later this year.

Digital Leaders Survey methodology

130 people took part in a closed survey in December 2015. Participants were selected because they held senior positions (editorial, technical and commercial) in traditional or digital born publishing companies and were responsible for aspects of digital strategy. Job titles included Editor in Chief, CEO, Head of Digital, Chief Product Officer and Director of Video.

Some quotes do not carry names or organisations, at the request of those contributors.

Most participants were from organisations with a print background but around 15% came from public service or commercial broadcasters. Over 25 countries are represented in the survey including the US, Brazil and Japan but the majority came from European countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Finland and Spain.