The video space for news media is moving quickly. Auto-play is going away, while Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are moving beyond the experimental stage. Video revenue is moving forward. 

In an exclusive INMA Webinar, members learned about the broad trends media executives need to know — punctuated by the leadership the USA Today Network is doing in the video space. Russ Torres, vice president of digital content and strategy at USA Today Network, led the presentation.

Torres noted that television had a 50-year head start, and distribution was always the same: it came out of a box. “But in the last year or so, I have not seen a more seismic shift in how video has changed,” he said.

On the future of video content, news media organisations need to recognise they have much to learn.
On the future of video content, news media organisations need to recognise they have much to learn.

Video ad spend in the United States topped US$10 billion in 2016. That number is expected to exceed US$18 billion by 2020, according to eMarketer.

Torres began his presentation with the caveat that these were his own views and opinions, not that of Gannett or the USA Today network.

2018 will be a leap year for digital video … and Torres shared why.

2018 will be a major year for digital video, for several reasons.
2018 will be a major year for digital video, for several reasons.

Auto-play is likely going away.

The new Safari 11 browser halts auto-play, and late last year Chrome and Firefox stopped serving video on hidden browser tabs. Fortune and The Independent reported that Google Chrome plans to block autoplay-with-sound ads in February.

“What do you do about the changes in your strategy?” Torres asked. “I would say the focus is really on creating video that’s deserving of the click. Where are you in the quality of your video, that encourages viewers to invest in it?”

Pivot to video didn’t live up to the hype. Digital native publishers will consolidate.

2018 will be a challenging year for digital video, especially for digital natives and those who depended on Facebook for growth and reach.

Mashable was reportedly purchased in December by legacy publisher Ziff Davis for one-fifth of its former valuation; there were layoffs at Refinery 29 and at BuzzFeed (though not in content at BuzzFeed).

“I think you will see further consolidation and a maturation in digital video,” Torres said.

The tension to differentiate is driving up quality. In an ad-serve environment, advertisers will start to demand not just scale and reach, but quality — going high-end and more stylised.

“Look for a shift in the number of players in digital content creation.”

Super serve your niche to drive video views and loyalty.

We are trend identifiers; we need to think more broadly than reporting news and information. The opportunity to build networks exists in response to shifts in societal thinking.

Understand your audience, and find ways to super-serve their interest. For BuzzFeed/Tasty, that was food, and it just launched its Playful channel for Millennial parents. For Dodo, it was animals.

There are new potential verticals emerging every day, such as mindfulness, careers, and issues that impact women in business.

“When you think about this societal shift, there is one guidance I’ve given my team,” Torres said. “You have to live where your audience loves. Where people love is where they are passionate.”

VR or AR?

According to Torres, the dust hasn’t settled yet on this debate. “AR will change storytelling as we know it,” Torres said, mentioning The New York Times’ launch of its first Augmented Reality app.

The New York Time's Augmented Reality app puts the newspaper box in viewers' living rooms.
The New York Time's Augmented Reality app puts the newspaper box in viewers' living rooms.

In AR apps, the device’s camera is used to present a live, onscreen view of the physical world. Three-dimensional virtual objects are superimposed over this view, creating the illusion that they actually exist.

Torres shared how USA Today is launching an AR piece about elephants encroaching on urban areas in Africa. “Imagine having a herd of elephants in your living room!”

Possible user experiences that might work for content publishers include:

  • Facial recognition and sentiment analysis.
  • Environmental simulation: superimposing a virtual representation of a detailed structure (such as a building or animal) within the real world.

Realise the power of local.

Late last month, Facebook said, “We’re updating News Feed to also prioritise local news so that you can see topics that have a direct impact on you and your community, and discover what’s happening in your local area.”

Publishers no longer need to fork out tens of thousands of dollars to produce video content. With a range of companies offering scalable and cost-effective ways to shoot, edit, and produce video content, it’s simply unnecessary.

“We are finding at the USA Today Network, really strong engagement with video,” Torres said. “We’ve seen a 28% increase in video views — which haven’t come necessarily as a big money investment, but rather a really strong focus on user-generated content and on creating content that our users want to see. There are so many ways, through apps or editing programmes in the cloud, that this can be done inexpensively.”

There’s a new generation coming up who expect to be able to create and edit content just from their mobile devices, he said.

Q&A

INMA: How do you break down digital opportunity at the national versus regional and local markets?

Torres: USA Today is about national, so we have to make sure that our video matches the journalism and storytelling of our newspaper. People really want to know what’s happening in their communities; they want to hear from community leaders. Part of the secret to our sauce at USA Today is the reliance on our local properties to give us the ability to nationalise our local stories.

(Torres mentioned two specifics: Humankind and Animalkind. Those types of stories resonate locally and nationally.)

INMA: Are there any apps you would recommend for video creation and production?

Torres: iMovie is as simple as it gets. Check out how Yusuf Omar does it.

INMA: Where do you make the decision between these apps and a high-end video editing platform?

Torres: If it’s trending and viral, breaking news that will come and go within 24 hours or so, your audience will be more forgiving. You can use iMovie and similar mobile apps. If you’re producing a series or something more long-term, then you need to go with a more professional production and investment.

INMA: How much will VR technology impact standard advertising processes in coming years?

Torres: There’s a bit of tension around adoption of this. More headsets at lower price points are being offered, but adoption and the ad model have not quite gotten there. That being said, we were just nominated by DigiDay for best use of VR. I think there will be greater adoption as more phones introduce VR technology. I would pay close attention to AR and know that VR supplements AR.

INMA: Should video be sold to clients independently or as part of a larger advertising package?

Torres: I don’t think the market is there yet for video singularly; it’s all part of a package. Our sales team would say that video is often the deal-closer. There is rarely a client who isn’t asking for that as part of the project.

INMA: Where do you see the future of live video going?

Torres: Look at Facebook, which was all into Live. There was huge adoption of it; but I believe there was a little pivot that happened, especially after the suicides that happened on Live. My general philosophy on it has been “live with a purpose.” There must be a reason, be it breaking news or something that can only be seen in this moment.

INMA: What about companies advertising their own events live?

Torres: Many companies come to us asking for distribution. I think there are opportunities there for us.

INMA: Where is the disconnect between the macro-trends and local news organisations?

Torres: I think a lot of small and mid-sized publishers saw video as a huge business opportunity, but did not necessarily have the scale and distribution to match their aspirations. It was an all-access distribution (Facebook, YouTube, etc.), but with algorithm changes I think it’s going to be really hard for publishers to drive reasonable revenue that way. The ones who have been successful have identified a specific niche and an audience, and grew from there (examples, Tasty and Nifty). You need to get really focused on that, and build from there.

INMA: I feel a lot of fear on the part of journalists when it comes to video and being on camera. How do you address that?

Torres: It takes a lot of encouragement and patience. It takes some talent management. I think once they start doing it, they’ll get addicted. You just have to hold their hand through the process. Pack a pound of patience and understand that adoption will not be immediate.

INMA: What do you think about Instagram and Instastories?

Torres: I love it! There’s not a day when I don’t wake up and check these. It’s an environment where joy is created and curated. I think it’s a huge opportunity, but where I think there needs to be some development is in revenue against it. Outside of influencers, it’s not clear how publishers can drive revenue quite yet. Don’t spend a whole lot of money investing in it, but definitely plan in that area so you’ll be there when the conversation moves that way.

INMA: Can you share any prediction about the impact midroll and six-second spots might have?

Torres: The loss of the ability to insert midroll after 20 seconds is pretty harsh. In December and Jananuary we saw really strong revenue from inserting midroll in our Facebook Watch show, but we’re seeing a decrease in the last week. It’s been almost immediate. But people aren’t investing more than a minute, often way less, particularly in a mobile environment.

INMA: What about analytics?

Torres: Adobe Suite of Products is our go-to. YouTube has really great analytics. Facebook is still developing. Video is often the most analysed piece of content ever produced.