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Dotcom 2 : The Movie

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth with Nikon Fs things were simple. Photographers took photographs, writers wrote, newspapers and magazines published information that readers wanted or needed enough to pay for. Advertisers paid to reach readers and publishers tried to put together titles that tempted both to part with their money, whilst unions sought to balance the interests of their members against exploitation. Then there was TV, a different medium altogether, populated by people with clipboards and strange job titles.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth with Nikon Fs things were simple. Photographers took photographs, writers wrote, newspapers and magazines published information that readers wanted or needed enough to pay for. Advertisers paid to reach readers and publishers tried to put together titles that tempted both to part with their money, whilst unions sought to balance the interests of their members against exploitation. Then there was TV, a different medium altogether, populated by people with clipboards and strange job titles.

How quaint and straightforward this all now seems in the meejah world formerly known as print. Writers are now expected to photograph, photographs are expected to be free, photographers are supposed to do video, nobody wants to pay for anything, readers are encouraged to supply their own content and advertisers are the tail wagging the dog.

What is happening is, according to the evangelists, evolution to a new world of democratised, participatory media, a rich new landscape of exciting journalistic opportunity. And the future for photography is allegedly streaming video. Forget decisive moments and arch-dinosaur Harold Evans’ conviction that ‘It is a fashionable fallacy that the arrival of television has rendered the still news picture obsolete… a good news picture, even on an inside page, may attract 80% of the paper’s readership’. This is the web not TV, a new planet with new rules. Technology has moved things along, look at YouTube .

Your once in a lifetime chance to invest

Photographers themselves, insecure to the point of paranoia after a decade of future shock, have even begun to believe the hype. Roughly half of dailies already feature streaming video, so it’s the future, isn’t it? Well, maybe, but it would be wise to consider just where all this is coming from.

Back in March 2001, the first internet goldrush imploded when investors began to realise that they’d sunk billions into businesses that were figments of enterprising imaginations. Greed had got the better of common sense, and lack of any viable business model was overlooked in the rush to build a bigger pyramid. Most of the survivors of the Dotcom bubble emerged with valuations a few percent of what they had been days before, whilst the real turkeys vanished overnight.

Wind forward to 2007 and it might seem that the New Economy mk2 has learned its lesson. Internet startups now rank alongside the Hitler diaries as a credible investment. But the conviction remains that there’s gold in them thar virtual hills, and old media have piled on in, even though nobody except Google and Yahoo seem to have actually found any. Between them, these two soak up well over half of online advertising spend. Google alone trousers 43% of total UK online ad revenue.

Prop the dead donkey

Newspapers certainly have to do something with print circulations in decline, and that something has been a rush to the interweb. This is a simple carrot+stick proposition . In 2006 online ad spend in the UK grew by 41.2 per cent overtaking national newspapers and breaking the £2 billion barrier, while traditional press classified spend decreased by 7.8%.

There is of course a gotcha with the web, which is that with few exceptions like the Wall Street Journal and FT, it’s virtually impossible to persuade punters to pay. Most publishers who have tried paid-for subs have had to rapidly recant in the face of evaporating circulation. Which means web newspapers are condemned to do whatever is necessary to attract ad revenues, and that is where streaming video comes in.
Borell Associates report that video ads on newspaper sites ‘are capturing more than 50% of streaming-video advertising dollars.’

Here is where video scores big with advertisers. The punter can not only be subjected to lengthy ‘pre-show’ ads, but is also glued to the page whilst waiting for the streaming content to crawl down the wire. And newspaper sites change their content incessantly, so punters are drawn back again and again.

So now you know why newspapers want photographers (and reporters, and the public) to supply video. Says photographer Heather Hughes ‘We are told again and again that hits equal money because of the ads put at the beginning of our videos, and while advertisers are still paying less for online ads than a print ad, newspapers are convinced that this will generate the needed income to save newspapers.’ So, stills aren’t obsolete in any sense, they just don’t suck in the required ad wonga.

This Borrell Associates study finds that ‘newspaper websites that offer online video streaming attract substantial advertising money, much more than their broadcast TV counterparts.’. ‘The study positively notes that about 40% of roughly 1,450 dailies in the US are equipped with online video streaming in one form or another. Thus, while newspapers may be struggling right now to compensate print losses with digital revenues, online videos could be the booming solution of the future.’

Could be. This is after all an experiment with an unknown outcome, but the industry has decided it’s a glittering lifeline.

All that glitters

Media Guardian enthused ‘It is many decades since the words “golden age” and “newspaper” have been used seriously together in the same sentence. But in a piece for New York Magazine last month, the renowned author and zeitgeist-reader Kurt Andersen did just that. He identified a new medium, web video, which is taking print newsrooms by storm’.

‘It is telling, for example, that the two most compelling pieces of news video footage this year have been broken on newspaper websites rather than on television news bulletins. The Sun’s exclusive cockpit video of the fatal mission that killed Matty Hull received considerably more than 1.5m views on the Sun’s website alone – and that is without counting the various copies that ended up on YouTube, some of which have been watched upwards of 100,000 times each. CCTV footage obtained by this newspaper of the violent police arrest of Sheffield clubber Toni Comer led bulletins on all major news channels’.

‘But where newspapers are beginning to realise they can really score in the world of moving pictures is by allowing their reporters, their photographers and their web development staff the freedom to get creative with video technology that is now cheap and accessible enough for them to use widely.’

This is a well-glossed view. As the Blackstar Rising blog reports ‘In theory, newspapers should value their staff photographers today more than ever — because they need their photographers to shoot compelling video to drive Web traffic. Unfortunately, training and support across the board often appears to be an afterthought.’

2+2=400 on the web

There is another small problem however, also reported in The Guardian ‘Newspaper websites need up to 100 extra online users to accompany each reader that migrates from print editions or they will lose revenue, according to an analysis presented to the World Association of Newspapers.’

The Internet Advertising Bureau gives more detail : Advertisers spent an average of €82.46 (£56) for each UK web user in 2006, more than twice the €39 (£26) spent for each internet user across the 13 EU countries measured by the study. The average for US internet users is around €60 (£40).

EG a Guardian reader will stump up £1.50 a day 260 days a year for printed copies. That £390 is vastly more than whatever the G. can nibble from £56/year online ad spend after Google and everyone else has stood in line. Even if we believe the projections that web ad spend will double every 3 years and extrapolate that forever in true bubble style, it’s an aerial pig prospect.

Can nobody see a difficulty here? Divide the excited numbers of the Media Guardian piece for a reality check: 1.5m video views produced the same income as 15,000 print circulation. And that’s a success? The Sun needs a third of a billion views to match its income from 3.3m print readers – rather more than the 287.5m English speakers with internet access in the entire world.

So it’s hard to resist the conclusion that newspaper sites’ breathless plans for streaming video are looking distinctly Dotcom Bubble 2-ish : wild hopes, bullish forecasts, and suspended disbelief behind the numbers.

Do you feel lucky punk?

Only this time it’s not the VC’s and shareholders who are getting suckered, it’s photographers who will re-train and re-equip for web video, believing it is a lifeline for them too. They will quickly find that – just as with stills only moreso – no publisher wants to repay their investment. And the costs for any sort of decent production quality will be large, because editing is so time intensive. Video and sound of amateur YouTube quality is quick and easy, but newspapers’ whole USP is their professional standards, authority and integrity – the only reason why punters would visit in the first place.

So will they pay professionals appropriately? Not a chance. As with Dotcom 1, the numbers just don’t add up. The beancounters will shriek ‘ROI’ as soon as reality intrudes, and they mean their return on your investment. This seems certain to pan out so newspaper video will quickly be dominated by agencies like Reuters and Getty, and donated Citizen Journalist freebies.

All of which is why the EC-sponsored Publishing Marketing Watch concluded ‘It does not seem likely that newspapers will be able to transform their fortunes in the online market place – unless newspapers begin to innovate much more rapidly than they have in the past. Their main option seems to be to manage costs carefully in order to remain competitive in an era of falling revenues.’

And we all know what that means.

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