In the fall of 2007, I spent a week doing what I would recommend to none of my friends: ceaselessly surfing YouTube. My goal was to find good, original video reporting. Not repurposed content from the news networks or indie channels, but pieces that had been produced for the Web.
At the end of the week, I felt jittery, nauseated and in need of a long jog. YouTube, the world’s TV channel, seemed to be nothing more than a grand wasteland. Instead of tuning out, though, I became obsessed. What would it take to create good video journalism for online audiences, inexpensively and in an idiom that looked neither too homemade nor too much like TV?
The result is the American News Project. We’re one of the only shops I know of that’s exclusively dedicated to creating original, independent video journalism for the Web. We went live in June 2008 at americannewsproject.com, and since then we have aired more than 120 video reports that have garnered millions of views on thousands of Web sites throughout the world.
How have so many viewers found their way to our reports? We created a customized, embeddable video player in each of our reports and encourage people to take our content—for free—and show it anywhere they can. And so they do. A few of our pieces have even been rebroadcast on traditional television (CNN and ABC), and dozens more have popped up on satellite networks, such as Free Speech TV.
Working as collaboratively as possible with others who appreciate the value of video, we’ve forged editorial partnerships with operations such as The Huffington Post and the McClatchy newspaper company. In our pieces, we’ve investigated troop malfeasance in Iraq, exposed the lack of transparency and accountability in the financial bailout, shined a light on the think tanks and lobbyists (and the pseudo think tanks funded by lobbyists) that hold sway over major policy decisions in Washington, D.C., engaged members of Congress in “big think” discussions about politics and policy, and even saved a woman’s home that was headed for foreclosure.
The concept that helps organize our editorial thinking was best stated by my friend and mentor Bill Moyers when he said the job of journalists is to “uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.” But it’s also that concept that, in part, makes our jobs particularly hard and has taught us most of our more difficult lessons:
Backpack journalism has limitations. Much is being made about the incredible potential of one-man-band (or backpack) journalism—in which one person researches, reports, shoots, edits and narrates each piece solo. Yet our experience tells us there are very few people who are great at all of these tasks. I’ve hired really talented people—producers and documentary filmmakers who have worked for Frontline, CNN and National Geographic. Yet despite their know-how, it’s hard for one person to embody all that’s necessary for video backpacking. Good shooting is an art. Good editing comes from great visual storytellers who are also technically adept. Good narrating is part dramatic reading, part DNA (vocal tone, etc.). Add to all of this meticulous researching skills, a lively and natural interviewing style, an understanding of how Washington works and how to get out in front of news stories, and it’s clear that these skills stand apart from one another and sometimes actually can work against each other.
Although many journalism schools are training even their print-oriented students to shoot and edit, we’ve found that the true backpacker who has a perfect balance of skills is a rare breed and that the field of TV/film is still divided among the skills sets. As a result, we spend more time than we originally expected teaming up staffers on pieces and having them bolster and train each other. Though backpack reporters will no doubt evolve in strength and numbers, there are few who can do it all.
Meaty stories don’t lend themselves to video. It’s hard to get exciting visuals out of the behind closed doors sausage-making in Washington, D.C.. Mostly we engage in muckraking journalism, reporting on the all-too-frequent intersection of money, power, politics and policymaking—a topic that is not inherently visual. There’s a reason—not a great reason, but a reason—why so much TV news is junked up with stories about disasters and celebrities. Burning buildings, car wrecks, Paris Hilton, and Brangelina are easy to produce and make for good viewing experiences. Lobbyists, policy wonks, and Capitol Hill hearings don’t.
Also, most people in the mix of policymaking either don’t have time to sit down and conduct on-camera interviews or actively spurn coverage—especially with new independent outlets or when they fear that the resulting piece may be critical of them. Whistleblowers and anonymous sources simply don’t like cameras. So once we have our reporting in hand, we do our best to make our stories more entertaining—with dynamic shooting, youthful music, and edgy narration that make our pieces fun to watch.
Video is an arduous medium. This means it’s essential to think far ahead of the news curve. Even with all the new technologies—HD cameras that shoot directly onto hard drives, laptops with keen editing software, and relatively instantaneous Web distribution, making quality video reports takes time. It takes time to research, time to schedule on-camera interviews, time to set up shots, time to shoot B-roll, time to acquire other visual elements, time to create graphics, time to write scripts, to narrate, to create a rough cut, then a fine cut, then a final cut, then encode, and then publish. We can turn a short piece around in a day if we need to. But, even then, we still get beat on some stories by the text reporters who are often publishing their pieces almost immediately after an event has occurred.
When we’re not trying to crank out day-of stories, it takes us about 10 days to produce a two to eight minute video. We’ve had to kill about a quarter of our pieces because the news moved on before we made it to the Web. As such, we have to constantly think way ahead of the news curve and anticipate what the news might be in two or three weeks. Or we have to make sure we’re doing the stories that no one else would consider doing.
There isn’t money to be made doing this. My operation is a nonprofit with an annual budget of about one million dollars, 75 percent of which goes directly to my eight employees’ salaries and benefits. We’ve received about three million video views since we launched in June. That is, three million that we can easily calculate—there are others, because some of our pieces have appeared on TV networks. We don’t sell ads on our videos. But, had we, we would have made about $100,000 so far. That’s obviously not enough to keep our operation afloat. Long conversation made short: Either online ad rates must significantly increase, or we all need to be actively working on forging hybrid nonprofit–for-profit models for journalism.
Something special is stirring in the new media world, and the American News project is only one small element in the grand mix. As one of our advisory board members notes, online video reporting is forging a new idiom for journalism. It won’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before on TV or in films and might help revolutionize what TV and films look like in the future. At times, it will be too sloppy for some who’ve grown accustomed to TV’s polished pieces; for others who like to feel as if they’ve stumbled across something raw and elemental, it might not feel wild enough. At times, even the best reported stories won’t get viewed because the eyeballs will be glued to the spectacles of disaster and celebrity.
But for the new viewers, and creators, a fresh future is stumbling to life. And I’m certain that, three or four years from now, if I repeat my YouTube immersion experiment I’ll emerge not only satisfied with what I find but compelled to continue to spur on video’s evolution, which right now has the feel of a revolution.
Nick Penniman is the director of the American News Project. He served as Washington director of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, as publisher of the Washington Monthly, and editor of TomPaine.com.