W e think we know that the professional news media, especially newspapers, are obsolete, that the future is all about (excuse the expression) you—media created by amateurs. But such PowerPoint distillation tends to overlook the fact that mainstream media are not all simply shriveling and dying but in some instances actually evolving. And in evolution, there are always fascinating transitional iterations along the way. Such as newspapers’ suddenly proliferating forays into online video. (And now magazines: Time Inc. just announced a new “studio” to develop Web video.)
Whereas the YouTube paradigm is amateurs doing interesting things with cameras, the newspapers’ Web videos are professional journalists operating like amateurs in the best old-fashioned sense. One of the Times’s new Web-video stars, David Carr (as the jolly-noir, movie-tasked Carpetbagger), recalls that when the Times’ video operation started fifteen months ago, his bosses said, “ ‘Let’s give it a whirl.’ Which is the exact opposite of the Times’ usual DNA. ‘Let’s give it a whirl’—that’s not something that comes up a lot.”
At their best, the newspapers’ online videos are, minute for minute, superior to TV news. As I write, CNN is airing a live press conference by Anna Nicole Smith’s lawyer and a loop of Smith vamping, while a significant breaking news story—the U.S. claim that Muqtada al-Sadr has left Iraq for Iran—is running in tiny type across the bottom of the screen. Given the dumb-and-dumber choices, I can easily imagine newspapers’ Web-video portals becoming the TV-journalism destinations of choice for smart people—that is, in the 21st century, the dominant nineteenth-century journalistic institution, newspapers, might beat the dominant twentieth-century institution, TV, at the premium part of its own game.
The medium is too new and unsettled to have anything like a best-practices rule book. Everyone is making it up as they go along. And a few of the on-the-fly inventions are awesome. The most attention-getting MSM Web video so far was the very meta one posted last month by the Times about a Washington Post columnist—the slickly produced, thirteen-minute-long “Hi—I’m Art Buchwald and I just died” obituary.
The Times’ and the Post’s strikingly different Web-video paths are illustrative of this flux moment. At the Times, the strategy is to merge operations with the regular newsroom, and convert as many of its journalists as possible to part-time videography. But the Post and washingtonpost.com remain distinct entities—a sore point for some people on the Web side. The Times highlights its several fresh daily videos prominently on the home page; the Post hides them beneath a tiny, generic “Photos & Videos” button.
The quality, of course, is all over the map. An amateur spirit is exciting, but amateurism in action is … not necessarily so. I get no added value from watching A. O. Scott and Ben Brantley deliver abridged versions of their written-for-print reviews. Washingtonpost.com’s extemporaneous version, a nervous editor interviewing wooden film critics, could be a public-access cable clip. Often, the Times reporters’ videos are like tentative, so-so versions of TV-news spots, unremarkable sound bites interlarded with scripted blah-blah boilerplate.
The lessons seem obvious: Don’t do Web video if you don’t have anything interesting to show, and don’t compete with TV unless you can do something they can’t or won’t. In other words, use the medium.
The Times’ fashion-show coverage worked well because hearing and watching designers gives one instant tastes of the various flavors of gay Seventh Avenue affect, which Times prose won’t convey. On the op-ed page, I mostly skip Nicholas Kristof’s columns about sexual slaves in Asia and genocide in Darfur; watching his video pieces shot in Cambodia and Sudan, I was riveted. Online video can also exploit the “long tail” in ways TV can’t. There may not be many of us who want to watch a hep Romanian mayor justify prejudice against Gypsies (the Post), or Sarah Vowell’s illustrated ode to the architect Louis Sullivan (the Times), but I adored both. If documentaries are hard to get shown in theaters and on TV, imagine the obstacles faced by serious shorts. But now, in the online archives of U.S. papers are thousands of videos, among them dozens of exceptional short docs, more like miniature Frontlines or public-radio-with-pictures than like network-news segments, available anytime. This is video-journalism-on-demand years ahead of digital television: Because I elect to watch a story, then see it on a computer screen eighteen inches from my face, I focus in a way TV doesn’t require.
At the Times, with its more TV-esque model (the video unit morphed out of Times Television), on-camera talent is king. Among the best is technology columnist David Pogue. He cheerfully performs: In a piece on the Apple iPhone, he’s frank about his excitement, and uses the medium well to demonstrate how to zoom in on pictures by physically pinching them. “There are people in this building,” Carr says, “that are really good at video and others who aren’t. Is it just the hambone gene?”
Carr (whom I employed six years ago at Inside.com) is a quirky, entertaining, singular writer. I was pleasantly surprised when the paper of record hired and then promoted him to media columnist. But I was flabbergasted when they gave him a movie-awards blog (the Carpetbagger) and—the Times!—let him invent a weekly Web-video spot as a goofy man-on-the-street and celebrity-on-the-red-carpet interviewer. He’s produced three dozen so far.
There’s nothing else like them in mainstream media. He is preternaturally perfect for the Web—a friendly, wisecracking 50-year-old character with a Minnesota rasp, the very opposite of self-serious. His years at alternative weeklies make him “predisposed to try whatever. ‘Video would be nice,’ they said,” when the blog started. “And I thought, In for a penny, in for a pound. I said, ‘I’ll go around in Times Square and hop around like an idiot and that should be sufficient.’ ” His videos are an alt version of the Today show out in Rockefeller Plaza, or as if Tom Waits had Ryan Seacrest’s job.
“This isn’t TV,” Carr says, “this is Web TV—that’s what we always say when we go out to make it.” Does he … prepare, hit marks? “Nothing. Ever. The first take is almost always the take.”
Outside the SAG Awards, he went to talk to the throng, “and I turned to the [camera] guy and said, ‘Follow me.’ There was a low velvet rope, and I tripped, almost fell down. I really think that’s part of what people want. They want to see the process. That’s what gives me joy. The mistakes being part of the narrative. It’s about a journalist being out of his depth, making sure the wires are not only visible but crossed.”
For one video, he asked colleagues about the Oscars, and went unannounced into the office of the executive editor. In a broad aside to the camera, with his boss sitting in the background, he said, “We’re here in the office of Bill Keller, who will seem like a real nice, friendly guy. [But] one false move during this interview, and he’ll snap my career in half like a twig.”
Last year at a staff meeting about the future of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, showed a Carpetbagger clip. Carr says, “I could just see people going, ‘This is “the plan”? Some homeless guy in Times Square?’ But Arthur,” he says, semi-ironically, “is part of my fan base.”
I asked Carr if he planned to extend his video brief beyond movies. “Yes,” he answered emphatically. “Given the direction of the New York Times, me and a bunch of other people will.”
The Washington Post’s Travis Fox, 31, is the opposite kind of natural-born Web-video genius, a globe-trotting hard-news yin to Carr’s rowdy, grinning Times Square–and–Hollywood yang. Fox has made ambitious, subtle, tough, and remarkably beautiful Web docs about a man who lost his son on 9/11, the anti-government opposition movements in Egypt, the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Last fall, his Katrina coverage won the first Emmy in the new Web-video category. The recognition is slightly ironic, since Fox didn’t come up through TV news or documentaries, and defines himself and his work entirely in opposition to the TV M.O. Some newspaper operations, he thinks, “are replicating the [TV] model too much. A lot of times when people think of video on Web they think of TV—which I don’t think works at all.”
For one thing, Fox rarely appears in his pieces. “At the beginning, I was adamant about never putting reporters in front of camera. If a reporter wants to be on camera, that’s probably a good reason not to put him on camera.”
Although he sometimes works alongside Post reporters, as a video journalist he’s a one-man multimedia operation who edits his pieces in the field. “I can’t imagine doing this with a crew. I get better access, and move quicker—it’s cheaper to send me alone, so I get more time.” He’s currently post-producing a piece he shot in Chad, and at the beginning of March he’s off to China. Only an institution like the Post—or the Times, or The Wall Street Journal—has the wherewithal to underwrite and give serious play to such expeditions. Fox sees himself as a sort of quiet revolutionary, eager to overthrow the ancien régime: “The possibility to replace television is in sight.” Ann Derry, the Times’ video No. 2, enthusiastically but very calmly says, “We are reinventing journalism.”
The passionate, improvised, innovative reinventings, as opposed to the final, fully professionalized reinventions, are often the coolest moments in cultural history. Think of movies in 1920, TV in 1955, or public radio in 1980. When the Carpetbagger was born, three Timespeople attended the meeting about it. This past fall, Carr says, there were thirteen people at the equivalent meeting. “The agenda was, ‘Where can we take the Carpetbagger?’ I said, ‘I think you “improve” the Carpetbagger at great peril.’ ” It’s true. And this very moment, before anyone professes to know much more than anyone else, is probably the beginning of the new medium’s great golden age. Enjoy it while it lasts.