(Hint – there’s only one correct answer and it’s got more than 2 letters)
(Cross-posted from Shift Lock, my column in The Publisher)
This past fall thousands of football fans in a dozen U.S. cities sat down to take part in new twist on a familiar ritual — Friday Night Lights, the much-hyped high school gridiron battles popularized by the 2004 movie and the more recent TV series of the same name. What’s that got to do with newspapers? A lot. These fans weren’t watching fictional football, they were watching the the real thing, with real kids — their kids — playing their hearts out down at the local high school field. Moreover, these fans weren’t watching the games on local TV, they were watching it on their computers via a live video stream over the internet; those games were being “webcast” by their local newspaper. (And, you’ll be happy to know those newspapers were making money on at least some of those webcasts right out of the box.) Welcome to your newspaper’s future – live TV coverage of local news and events. “Whoa!” I can hear some of you saying. “Not so fast. We can’t afford to compete head to head with local television. We don’t have the skills, the equipment, the staff, the time, etc. etc. etc.” Wrong.
Most of you probably understand this first part, but permit me to state the obvious: If you have any local television stations in your market you are already competing with them. And they have realized that their only hope for future growth lies in delivering local content to local “readers”, and local readers to local, regional and national advertisers, via the web. This is where the almost unimaginable pace of digital innovation comes to your rescue. Moving into the live video business is less complicated — and much less expensive — than you probably have imagined. There’s two parts to this kind of a webcast: the capturing of the event, and it’s broadcast. Let’s look at the broadcast side first. And remember this isn’t about sports, it’s about any local event that people would want to watch. The Friday Night Lights webcasts are an experiment by the Gannett chain and Mogulus.com, an innovative online video production and streaming service. Gannett recently invested a reported $10 million in Mogulus, but you can use it for free, as hundreds of thousands of people — and many newspapers — are already doing. Sign up for an account and create your own “channel” that allows you to webcast live streaming video and, when you’re not running live, allows viewers access to your back catalogue of shows. Mogulus offers users a virtual video production studio that, if you want, puts some very sophisticated television effects at your fingertips. You can merge a studio and a remote live feed, run “picture in picture”, switch between feeds or cameras, throw up graphics and “lower thirds” (the banners at the bottom with text and information) and much more. Did I mention it was free? Of course if you want to get serious about it — and insert your own ads — there’s a “Pro” edition offering preferential access and features, including a white label player without their branding or ads. But you don’t have to use Mogulus. There are several other sites offering a variety of free or paid video streaming services (Kyte.com and Qik.com to name two) and of course a whole raft of free video sharing services (YouTube, Blip.tv, Vimeo etc.) if you want to edit your videos and then post them to be played on demand and you don’t want the hassle (or bandwidth costs) of hosting them yourself. That’s the web side of things, the “broadcast” side — so what about the equipment, staff, and skills? It’s astoundingly simple and cheap. Eighteen months ago my paper experimented with a live webcast as part of a “March Break Mystery” I’d written. We partnered with a local business that brought a mobile television studio in a truck on site, plugged into our internet connections and produced our webcast for us — it could accommodate a maximum of a few hundred viewers at a time. The cost quoted for that service, but waived for the experiment, was $10,000. You can now produce a live webcast of a local event using nothing more complicated than a single staffer armed with a digital video camera and a laptop with an internet connection. And some of the services are even simpler — you can stream live video directly to the web and the world from a simple, camera-equipped cell phone. Stop and think about that for a minute. What used to take a $250,000 ENG truck, and a three person TV crew carrying $30,000 worth of equipment, can now be accomplished by a kid with a cell phone. When it comes to covering local news and events, the barriers to competing with local television — and your paper — have gotten very, very low indeed. The quality of all these services is still spotty, playback can be jerky or interrupted, and resolution still tends to be at the lower end of the scale. But they are all still in their relative infancy, and they are growing — and improving — at a prodigious rate. American papers have jumped at the chance to experiment, to shed the industry’s old habits of owning and controlling every aspect of their products and try out these low-cost, low-risk services. They’re webcasting high school and university sports, local, state and national election events and visits, council meetings, daily newscasts, and even natural disasters like hurricanes and the recent California wild fires. And they’re finding sponsors and audiences. Jon Hill, visuals editor of the Lowell Mass. Sun, told skeptical members of a newspaper video mailing list the Friday Nights Lights experiment was already making money: “We just signed a local bank as the exclusive sponsor of our live football coverage. It more than covers the cost, we are making money on it.” Dave Wassinger, assistant news editor at The Northwestern, told the same list that the switch from an edited highlights report of the game to the live streaming version greatly increased traffic: “Our first game we did had roughly 10x the amount of views compared to our typical “highlights” piece. That may have been helped by the game being a crosstown rivalry, but the second game, not a rivalry match-up, received about 5x the typical.” For some reason, Canadian papers are far behind their American counterparts when it comes to experimenting with live video. This is especially odd when you realize that high speed internet has penetrated more deeply and much more rapidly here than in the US; close to 90 per cent of our home internet connections are high speed connections. Give live coverage of local news a chance, and soon. Because if you don’t do it, somebody else will. Sites of the Month