Problems with News Video

Recently the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report, authored by Nic Newman.

If you’re interested in the media, and particularly journalism in the digital age, then it’s an essential read. The report, which is supported by groups such as Google and the BBC, surveys 50,000 people across 26 countries about their digital news habits.

The report is available to download, with lots of additional resources like data tables and chart packs for deep-diving into.

I’m going to concentrate on one area of the report: video.

If you’ve been paying attention to news sites, and indeed digital media in general, there has been a lot more video in recent years. Social media and news sites more often than not playing videos by default, and spending money to push the platform. Video, the belief is, will grab users’ attention and drive increased readership.

And for the most part, this seemed like a sensible move. More people were watching more video as both home broadband and mobile 4G coverage improved. But with regard to digital news, there’s been a bit of a speed-bump on the road.

“One surprise in this year’s data is that online news video appears to be growing more slowly than might be expected. Across all 26 countries only a quarter (24%) of respondents say they access online news video in a given week. This represents surprisingly weak growth given the explosive growth and prominence on the supply side.”
(Page 19)

The real reason for the growth in video, beyond the perceived demand from users, is the higher advertising yields that can be achieved from video. Those pre-roll adverts, whether skippable or not, are worth much more than other display inventory which has not been the saviour that news organisations or others had hoped it would be. Something to do with infinite inventory I suspect.

News providers were positively driven to increase their volumes of video to meet revenue targets.

“Across our entire sample, the vast majority (78%) say they only read news in text or occasionally watch news video that looks interesting. Just one in twenty (5%) say they mostly watch rather than read news online. “
(Page 20)

And the reasons for this relatively low growth are pretty obvious. This chart is from the report:


I think those reasons – the first four in particular – chime with me, with the fact that I can read text quicker than watch a video being the chief one.

Yet frustratingly, more news seems to be appearing in video-only form. I read much of my news via the feedreader Feedly, and most news site’s RSS feeds limit what Feedly can see. That’s fine – whether coming from a feedreader, or much more likely, social media, news providers want to ensure they have strong branding and potentially monetise me with advertising.

But when I click through to a site and see a story that is only, or mostly, video, then I simply close the tab and click away.

Video really needs to add something to what I can read for it to be of true value. I’m not saying I don’t like video news – I watch TV news bulletins on a daily basis – but in a digital world, video is much more an interruptor.

– If I’m on the train to work looking on my mobile, I may be listening to music. Video puts that on pause so I can hear the soundtrack. Newspapers never forced that on me. I can read text and listen to music simultaneously.

– If I’m at work, then I can quickly scan a story to see if it’s important. With video I have to fumble around for headphones, or risk interrupting colleagues.

And video takes time. From hitting the play button to getting to what I want to see is not usually the best experience. Frankly, there’s nothing worse than a news provider who has built their own video platform (or bought one), and you just know it’s not going to be as fast-starting as, say, YouTube. You’re going to see a swirly “loading” graphic before an advert loads painfully slowly. At the end of the advert, there’ll be another delay as the actual video loads. 30 seconds of that before a video that’s only 45 seconds long itself doesn’t seem like a fair transaction.

Fundamentally, humans can read in their heads faster than someone can read out loud. So all things being equal, I’ll choose the most the most efficient way to get to the story. For the most part, I want to read stories not watch videos. I can quickly gauge how interested I am in a story from the text. Video is a hit or miss affair.

It’s perfectly true that some may prefer video, so by all means offer both video and text. But consider even making the transcript of the video available. As a friend pointed out on a social media, that instantly makes the video more accessible, and increases the search engine optimisation of what you’re producing.

Video is actually much more expensive than text – or text illustrated by photos – yet everyone seems to want to do it.

My suggestion is that unless video is a primary output of your organisation, I would use it sparingly. Produce only videos that really add something to the story. There are various groups who are adding text to videos and making them viewable without sound. Fine as far as it goes, but they tend to be relatively simplistic. You can’t delve deeper into a story that way, yet if I’m spending 2-3 minutes with a story which is what a video is demanding of me, then I expect to come out with a much richer understanding of the issues than I went in with.

Video is not the be-all and end-all, and news providers would do well to remember that.

Cycling in the City

Cycling in the City from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Here’s a short film I shot with my Super 8 camera about four years ago that somehow hadn’t previously seen the light of day. The film was basically shot on my commute to work along the cycle paths of Bloomsbury and around Tavistock Square. Unfortunately, I didn’t use the correct filter for my daylight film, so some remedial colour correction has been necessary.

A Timelapse of 25 Great Pulteney Street, London

25 Great Pulteney Street – Timelapse from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Do you ever embark on a project that somehow you never quite get around to completing?

I certainly do. And here, finally, is a project that I’ve completed some six years after I started it.

This begins back in 2010 when I was still working for Absolute Radio in One Golden Square, Soho, London. I sat at the back of the fourth floor, windows behind me looking across the Soho alleyway that is Bridle Lane and towards a building on Great Pulteney Street beyond. The fairly ugly building from the 1960s at 25 Great Pulteney Street had once been home to the agency Starcom Motive. But they’d long moved out, and the building had been empty for at least two years. When Google Street View’s team passed it in 2008, the building was boarded up, and that was still the case by 2010.

Now finally the developers were moving in, and it looked like something was happening with the building. I brought in an old Canon A470 digital camera, bought cheaply on eBay, and loaded a memory card with CHDK – the alternative firmware that would provide my camera with timelapse facilties. I also bought an external power supply and suction camera mount.

Over the next year and a half, between April 2010 and October 2011, I set the camera taking photos – first of the demolition of the building, and then of the new building rising in its place. I wasn’t consistent in either the location of the camera, the frequency of it taking photos, or what it was pointing at. When I went on holiday, I made sure to keep the number of photos a day low to ensure the memory card didn’t fill.

In retrospect, there are a lot of things I’d have done differently, including changing the aspect ratio, the photo size and so on. I was left limited in what I could do with zooming or panning across scenes. The camera was also limited in its angle of view from my window, and the camera was often mounted on a slight angle. The buildings were too close and the lens not wide enough to capture everything in one shot. The window meant reflections, and it wasn’t perfect either – neither clean nor unscratched.

Over the course of having the camera in my window, I had to ensure that cleaners at Absolute didn’t unplug it. The suction of my suction mount would invariably fail over time, and I’d come into work to find the camera on the floor. On one occasion the fall was “fatal” and I bought an identical replacement on eBay to continue the project.

In total I ended up with something like 250,000 photos. I wrangled them into something useable with Quicktime Pro, getting MP4 files from my JPGs. On underpowered PCs, this was a slow process.

Finally I had a collection of 102 files, taking up about 10GB. And then I sat on the videos. I couldn’t say way exactly. I suspect that I found it a little daunting. I knew that there was too much video and it needed editing down, although it wasn’t really a big job. I had to find some music – two tracks. One for the demolition, and another for the new building. I’ve sped many of the clips up further, removed nights for the most part, when as already mentioned, reflections of my office were a problem.

Finally it should be said that this is by no means every minute or day of the building being demolished and rebuilt. But it’s lots of it.

And so it is, that some years after capturing this footage over many many months, I’ve pieced together this video! I hope you enjoy it.

Notes and Further reading:

The architects were WilkinsonEyre, and they have a nice project page with some lovely photos of the finished building.

The building is reported to have cost £9.5m to complete, and was for the client F&C Property Asset Management (now BMO Real Estate Partners)

The front of the building has some interactive railings in a piece called Finial Response designed by Cinimod Studio.

Early One Sunday Morning

Sunday Morning in Trent Park from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Taken in Trent Park, Enfield, earlier this morning. The music is Finlandia by Sibelius (criminally cut short, but there you go). A little bit of rolling shutter visible. This may be my encoding solution.

And I notice that Vimeo can accommodate higher resolution videos, so if you’ve got a decent monitor, watch this in up to 2k!

By the way, in this photo, you can just about make out the Shard and the cluster of skyscrapers in the City of London, as well as the cluster around Canary Wharf further to the east (the left in this photo). Click to go large to make it clearer.

Trent Park Campus from the Air

Capturing MiniDV Tapes

Time flies in technology, and “old” formats get left behind frighteningly quickly.

Here’s my problem. I have a box of perhaps 100 Mini DV video tapes. They were shot with a camera that still works, and I want to capture the files into a digital format for preservation (I will hang onto the tapes as well though!). The way to do this is to use a Firewire cable to a capture device.

Now the camera still works as mentioned, and my now slightly aging laptop has a Firewire connection. But capturing video takes up lots of disk space, and although I’ll offload that video onto external hard drives, I’ll be limited in disk space in the medium term using that machine. There’s also the question of time. Using my existing laptop will eat up time I could be using it for something else. So I’m looking for a solution that avoids my current laptop and is pretty cheap.

Here are my thoughts so far, and why I’ve not pursued them:

  1. Buy a new laptop to do this job specifically. On the one hand, I suspect that a relatively cheap laptop would suffice for this job, allied with a USB 3.0 HDD. But there are pretty much no laptops now being made that come with a Firewire port.
  2. Buy a USB device to capture Firewire to a new laptop. Ah, you’re talking about something like the Pinnacle Moviebox – which is no longer made. There are a variety of cheap USB devices that claim to do the job, but forums suggest that they don’t work for video capture. Why Pinnacle doesn’t still make the Moviebox, I’m not sure, since there must be a lot of people now discovering their options for video capture are limited. But they don’t. Ebay may be the answer here, although I’m concerned that any such device will compress the DV files regardless.
  3. Buy a portable hard drive that will just do the job for you, a bit like those WD My Passport machines you can get that capture from SD cards. I wish! That would be a great drive to have. Just have the standalone device swallow up video from the camera, automatically ingesting it. As far as I know, they don’t exist.
  4. Build a cheap desktop machine to do the job. This might be the best solution. While some kind of very powerful rig might be a good investment – and help with 2K/4K video editing and running programs like After Effects, that’s a fair investment. A £200 machine with a £10 Firewire card would do it. I have software for capturing already. But I wasn’t actually after another desktop…
  5. Buy a cheap small form-factor PC. There are a range of these machines, and they don’t take up much space. I suspect that they are powerful enough to do the job, but I can’t see an easy way to add a Firewire port to any of them.
  6. Buy a cheap Chromebox, install Linux and capture via that… somehow. Er, well. No. I suspect that there’s no easy way to get a Firewire connector onto such specific hardware, and then capturing Mini DV in Linux isn’t straightforward either. And Chromeboxes aren’t actually that cheap in the UK from what I can see.

I suspect that building a cheap desktop machine is the way to go. I could perhaps even pick up a used machine from Ebay or a computer fair. Pop in a Firewire card, hook it up to a monitor and keyboard and get cracking.

1 hour of DV video takes up about 13GB of space.

13GB/hour x 100 tapes = 1.3TB of video.

So a 2/3TB hard drive inside the machine would do it.

Anyone else got any thoughts? Is there a small form-factor PC I could use? Any other devices that would do the job, or something I’ve not considered?

[Update] A suggestion on Twitter was that I should simply buy a cheap old laptop with a Express Card slot and do it that way. In fact, I’d meant to consider that option. Laptops don’t come with Express Card slots any longer, so it’d be an old one. And at that point, I might well find one with a Firewire port and use that. Something with Windows 7, a modest amount of hard disk space (I can shuffle off captured videos every 100GB or so), and powerful enough to capture video. I wouldn’t even need to worry about the battery being a bit rubbish since it’d be sitting on a desk somewhere slowly ingesting in real time.

Is there anywhere aside from eBay to be looking?

Sell Me Personal Use Music Rights

I like making the odd video, and invariable, I prefer to use music on the soundtrack. Given that I’m not about to commission my own music for my little projects, I have two choices. I can either use a music track I already know, or I can go to a music library and for a relatively small amount, buy the rights to use a piece of music for my video. As long as it’s for personal use, the costs is usually pretty low.

Now here’s the thing: I much prefer to use music that I already know. Certainly there is good music to be found in some of the online libraries, but you really have to hunt for it. And it becomes quite a big procedure relying on the library’s categorisations to hunt down the sort of thing you want.

If you use music you already know, it’s a lot easier. You simply pick something from your own music library, that you’ve heard on the radio or whatever. If you don’t already have it, you buy a digital copy for 99p and away you go.

Except, you don’t have the rights.

If you upload the video to YouTube, Google will probably monetise your video for you, correctly sharing any revenue with the rights owner. But it may not, depending on what agreements it has with the appropriate rights owner. If Vimeo spots unlicensed music (and it’s a bit more hit or miss), it simply doesn’t allow it.

And these issues can vary by territory.

What would be great would be to be able to licence music I’ve actually heard of for personal use. So no monetisation by me of the video on YouTube, and no commercial use. But just so I can put some music I’ve heard on my little video. I’d be happy to be a few quid for this – more than the 99p the track would cost me from a download site. I’d happily include a licence code that could be checked. Artists and rights owners make more money (more than they’ll make from advertising on a video that will in the scheme of things get very few views), and I get to feel good about using music legally.

How about it?

NB. I did write about this previously, but the intervening few years, the problem remains, and I’ve not found a solution.