Shot through the foot, and the Chronicle can blame itself…

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great story today on Dr. Richard Olney, a UCSF neurologist and Lou Gehrig’s disease expert who is in the late stages of the disease himself and working to finish a research project before he succumbs to the illness.

Back in December, there was a fascinating Chronicle feature on the last hotel in The City that washes its incoming coins.

Both stories had slideshows of still photos to accompany them online. But both these stories missed an opportunity to become true multimedia packages because the Chronicle no longer does video stories.

I have gripes about most of the large papers in Northern California. I think the San Jose Mercury-News likes to get drive-by web hits too much. It’s really painful seeing that the Sacramento Bee didn’t just cut its sports staff to the bone, but cut its limbs off completely to the point that my >20k circ newspaper (read: less than one-tenth the Bee’s size) covers more Friday night football games than they do.

But it’s especially aggravating seeing a newspaper that can and should be a leader in multimedia journalism, but they’re failing at it. By not pushing video news features, the Chronicle and its website SFGate is doing just that.

Once upon a time, SFGate did shoot videos to go with stories. But that’s been gone for a while now. Heck, even the Chronicle’s YouTube page hasn’t had a video upload in eight months, and only 17 in the past two years.

This is bad for the Gate, for several reasons.

First, I’ve always thought the Chronicle was stronger in feature writing than hard news. I could go my entire life without reading the politics page on Gate and not miss much that I’d get elsewhere, but I read the food section every week and at minimum glance at every feature piece that gets put on the Gate homepage. Outside of breaking news situations, features make for better video opportunities than hard news.

Second, the greater Bay Area’s reputation as a technology hotbed means the Chronicle should be doing everything possible to stay as least on the apex of the curve, if they can’t be in front of it. Having video to go with stories, along with playable video from the paper’s mobile site, should be one of the first things they’re doing. Heck, video’s one of my main priorities at my paper, and we’re in the sticks. Shouldn’t it be just as if not more important in San Freakin’ Francisco?

Third, it should have become even more obvious to the folks on Mission Street when Mark Fiore won his Pulitzer last year, ending a five-year drought for the Chronicle. Here’s the key paragraph, from the Chronicle’s own story (bold emphasis comes from me):

It is the first time since the category of editorial cartooning was created in 1922 that the Pulitzer has gone to an artist whose work does not appear in print. The Pulitzer jury said Fiore’s “biting wit, extensive research and ability to distill complex issues set a high standard for an emerging form of commentary” – online video cartooning.

If the Chronicle can syndicate an innovator in online cartooning (and any smart person in the industry knows the value of a paper having a good cartoonist), shouldn’t there be a value given to online video in general?

I believe if a story can merit a still photo slideshow, there should be consideration for a web video as well. This doesn’t mean a slideshow always equals a video, but the question should at least be asked. With DSLR cameras coming into use in newsrooms, staff photographers have the ability to shoot print-quality stills and theater-quality video by flicking a switch. There’s a learning curve that will go with that, but in the long run it pays off – not just with feature videos, but to have video from breaking news as well as stills.

If video is made available online, in ways that make it easy accessible (like on a mobile site in addition to the desktop website), people will watch it, and the newsroom will be stronger for it.

The Chronicle and Gate just have to be willing to do video again.

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4 Responses to Shot through the foot, and the Chronicle can blame itself…

  1. Zuri says:

    I like your thinking here and I’ve thought the same thing about SFGate, which I visit every single day. I think sometimes companies like Hearst and MediaNews Group forget how easy it is to do quality video. But with that said, it’s *hard* to logistically get up and going. There is a significant financial investment that needs to be made to build an infrastructure in order to roll with the big boys. (Nowadays, the goal isn’t getting the press conference filmed, it’s winning Emmy’s. I’m dead serious.) I’m not just talking cameras and equipment. I’m talking studio space, software licenses, server space and quality producers. No ordinary schmuck with a video camera will do. I think, with any combination of those things to consider, entry into online video journalism world seems more difficult than ever. And if you’re the Chronicle/SFGate, which fancies itself as one of the top newspapers in the country, doing video journalism at any level less than top notch would be detrimental to your brand and the company’s self-image. For a newspaper like the Chronicle, which is bleeding might I add, I’m sure they had a plan in place at one point to do all of these things. And then a red marker wiped it all away. At the same time, I think MNG is too hampered with its debts to do anything creatively outside of the newspaper box.

  2. Robert LaHue says:

    I’m not sure I would chalk it up to being hard logistically as much as it is “paralysis by analysis.” Or maybe we’re talking about the same thing and using different terms.

    I’ll default to you on the mindset of big boys. So there’s the goal of winning an Emmy. That’s fine. A desire to win awards is a good thing to have. No, actually, it’s a great thing to have. I’m Team Chris Jones when it comes to the desire to win journalism awards.

    But nobody can win an Emmy if they never shoot a video to begin with. To me, that’s cart-before-horse thinking. And much like I doubt Martin Scorsese’s first film student project was worthy of an Oscar, not every video wins an Emmy, and definitely not some of the first videos you shoot.

    I guess I view video less as something magnificent for a newspaper website and more just another course in the feeding of the daily beast. Maybe that comes from having done so much of it.

    Not every story written in a newsroom is expected to win a Pulitzer, but it’s definitely expected to fill the hole on A5 and clearly communicate something. Videos should be treated with the same attitude. If it does wind up winning an Emmy, it’s cake icing.

    But, of course, the difference between “should be” and “will be/are” can be pretty broad.

    I’m sure SFGate had a plan before red marker, too. But my opinion is that it was a bad idea to take red marker to that. It may have created short-term gain, but will definitely create long-term pain. Again, educated outsider stating my belief on that.

    I can’t really get into the head of Gate’s self-image. I guess if I had a seat at the table with Frank Vega, Ward Bushee, et al., my argument would cater to ego and be along the lines of “Fine, you could have the best writing in the world. Every photo you take could make men weep. But you can’t truly call yourself a top newspaper when in your own town, Richard Koci Hernandez and a bunch of Berkeley grad students at Mission L@cal are kicking your ass in the video department because you aren’t even answering the bell.”

  3. Zuri says:

    Simple solution: Hire the Berkeley grads.

    One other thing I was thinking about this was that they are surrendering any possible advertising from video. Commercials are being sold on and for every video played. It’s a significant source of income for the two websites. While display advertising is king, video advertising rivals it in some corners. Again, that’s something to consider for the Gate and others when they go looking for ways to expand their advertising base. What’s the axiom? You gotta spend money to make money. I think that fits here.

  4. Robert LaHue says:

    I wholeheartedly agree.