When I came up in the business, print and broadcast were two very different things, and naturally we print people looked down on the broadcast folks as superficial pretty boys.
So when Mike Riley, the editor of The Roanoke Times, proposed that we get into video back in the mid-aughts — and do so by launching a daily news webcast — you can imagine the reaction in some quarters of the newsroom.
But we did it.
From 2005 to 2007, we produced a daily webcast we called the TimesCast — this was look before the New York Times appropriated that same name for its own. (We offered this advice to the Times here.)
Photographer-turned-multimedia journalist Seth Gitner was the technical genius (he’s now a professor at Syracuse University, by the way.) I wrote the scripts and used my theatrical background to recruit and direct an in-house crew of presenters.
We weren’t the first newspaper in the country to do a webcast but we were certainly one of the first. When the TimesCast started, it was the only video we were doing and got decent traffic. Later, when we started other video projects, the numbers declined. Keep in mind, the TimesCast was launched as an experiment; it was never a business with a business model behind it. By definition, an experiment is a success if you learn something from it. By that measure, the TimesCast was a great success for it.
Here are several things we learned, usually the hard way:
* Video is a skill-set that doesn’t always come naturally to a newspaper. Because it involves visuals, photographers seem to take to it more naturally — although some reporters turned out to be very adept at the story-telling aspect of it.
* Video is also very time-consuming, and ultimately proved to be an expenditure of time we couldn’t justify on a daily basis. The problem with a daily webcast is that it expired with that day’s news — (although you can still find many of our old webcasts online.) Breaking news video always produced more traffic, and other video projects usually had longer shelf lives that produced more “long tail” traffic over time. We produced a sports spin-off — a weekly Sports TimesCast featuring our beat writers for Virginia Tech and UVA football. That did better, because of its longer shelf life and I always thought that had more economic potential. Eventually, we shut that down, too.
* Marketing is key. I don’t think viewers expect a newspaper site to have video. That may be changing, but if you really want to promote video, well, you have to promote it. I still think our sports webcast could have been a business success if we had invested in promotion. On the flip side, that would have also required more discipline on the content side — keeping the length tight, for instance, and the conversation more newsworthy.
We did win an award for the TimesCast; it took third place in the online category in the Virginia Press Association’s convergence category in 2006.
Here’s our April 4, 2006 edition:
Here’s some advice we gave the New York Times on the matter.
Search “Roanoke Times TimesCast” on YouTube and you can find some others.