Reports of the death of the written word are greatly exaggerated. The much-lamented and much-snarked-about phrase “pivot to video” is, if I’m being honest, somewhat warranted — video advertising is becoming central to every digital media company’s revenue model. But along with the effects on advertising, we’re also massively misunderstanding a pretty critical shift in journalism itself.
Written journalism has a strong place in the pantheon of complex and deep storytelling, and we should continue to leverage this format. It’s not going away. But I also believe that the new mixed-media formats in social video (primarily short- and mid-form) offer a rich opportunity to deliver complicated news in compelling ways. I see short-form social video, and visually driven, mobile tap-through stories as much the same media. We are seeing this developing and coming together across all platforms: Facebook, Google, Apple, Instagram, Snap and more.
Let’s quickly step back. Newspapers and other written forms of journalism are, in product parlance, “highly evolved.” We understand the demands and constraints of the “newshole” — the actual size of the product we’re creating — and how to fill it. Not just with the (ever-declining) ads that surround and dictate that newshole, but with storytelling that drives meaningful consumption, and that the collective journalism community believes creates real impact.
This logic, however, relies on the idea that everyone reads past the first couple of paragraphs — whether it’s a newspaper, magazine or more specifically, any digital platform. Which would be awesome if true. But empirically it’s not. And those remarkable long-form, immersive journalism stories (#Snowfall), which I’ve had the fortune and pleasure of working on over the last decade? Even worse. Studies, UX and otherwise, show that readers quickly scroll right past the words to the video, to the picture, then to the next piece of media, and so on. For the “reader,” in those word-heavy prestige packages, the words actually are an afterthought.
If you think about how journalism made it to the web, it wasn’t, unfortunately, that sophisticated of a leap. Banner ads supported mostly text stories that were first created to fill a newshole in print. Essentially, the exact form from that highly evolved newspaper.
Does that mean it’s the best one? Absolutely not. Are short-form “videos” — the most-pursued new form for companies pivoting to video — the best one? Absolutely maybe. More below on that.
It is true that users generally don’t want to watch a beautiful four-minute mini-doc that comes after a 30-second pre-roll ad. That’s video as we now know it. But what the market is showing, and what I fundamentally believe, is that viewers want to immerse themselves in a visual story that makes use of the full range of creative techniques afforded by the tiny little computer in their hand that’s connected to the internet. And what that looks like is not exactly a “video” — that’s a new form of journalism.
That video that is currently soaring across social media — maybe it’s a text-heavy explainer with dynamic motion graphics, or a video-driven news story with sharply concise captions — is less an evolution of video itself and more of an evolution of the hundreds and thousands of pieces of text-based journalism that are produced and consumed digitally. Audiences that spent time consuming only the first couple of paragraphs of a news story are now watching 45 seconds of a video that conveys the same information. And, yes, sometimes with words on the screen. I believe this will become more sophisticated and more prevalent, and before you tell me that it’s intellectually inferior, just believe me — it’s not in its final form. It’s on us to innovate so that it has the power and impact we want it to.
On that last point, I’ll pause for a self-referential note: I am aware I am writing this piece via Google Docs, with words, and not producing it with images or video in Final Cut. We’re not exactly sure just how you create or telegraph the same complicated narratives through visuals and motions. But again, that’s the opportunity. Rise up, all ye creative journos!
For the newsroom of the future, it’s incumbent on us to get ahead and lead with teams of journalists outfitted to meet this moment — reporters, illustrators, designers, motion experts, producers, video editors. This studio of specialists generally exists somewhere in every newsroom, but not at the core. This will change.
We’re in the very early stages of an evolution — of the visual revolution. Business models notwithstanding, this is already allowing our stories to travel faster and further than we ever imagined. With that as my going-in position as a publisher for a digital media company aimed at impact, it’s hard not to get excited about.