“Webby, Wiki, and Sticky:” Video for 2012

Duff and Cohen speak to NYU Publishing students

“What experience do we want to cultivate for readers?” was a question on everyone’s minds during the latest NYU-SCPS M.S. in Publishing alumni event, a discussion entitled “Visions in Video” recently held by the NYU-SCPS Office of Alumni Relations, the Publishing Alumni Association, and the Publishing Student Association. Speakers Craig Duff and Samantha Cohen each talked about challenges for the magazine and book industries presented by new technology, including video and multimedia.

Craig Duff, Director of Multimedia and Chief Video Journalist at Time, Inc., told the group that, ideally, online content should be “webby, wiki, and sticky”—meaning content (especially in terms of long-form journalism) should be current, have a collaborative/educational value, and make a reader want to stick with a story until the end. Digital and online audiences face more distractions than print readers, and thus have a tendency to hit-and-run read, which can hinder a story’s impact. Video, noted Duff, fits naturally into the magazine world online and increasingly on tablets and e-readers. In the past—and, Duff admits, even now—decisions to add video to an article generally start with the question, “Wouldn’t it be cool to see that?” If the answer is yes, then the writers and editors look at a specific person or incident that a video can magnify in a piece. “A story can tell facts, but people tell how to live with facts,” Duff said. The point of video in an online or digital magazine, according to Duff, is to enhance existing content. Video shouldn’t detract or compete with a story; it should increase its draw and discoverability, and overall it should work with the available technology to help create an experience unique from print.

To illustrate the advancement of video, Duff presented examples ranging from cinéma verité (a highly stylized form of interaction between subject and filmmaker popular in the ’60s and ’70s) to rotating GIFs in the ’90s (the first simple moving images online). He also spotlighted TIME’s recent 9/11 oral history piece, “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience,” containing video testimonies from 40 men and women who provided support and inspiration for the nation during and after the 9/11 attacks. Another example Duff presented of how video successfully supports content is The Waste Land app, which includes a video performance of T. S. Eliot’s poem, along with accompanying commentary and readings, published by Touch Press and Faber & Faber. Duff pointed out that a key to successful video production now involves the joint cooperation of writers, editors, and video journalists. Ideally, video should be on everyone’s minds at a story’s inception, and the writer and video journalist act as a team on the story to capture a richer, more detailed, and more honest experience to share with readers. While this process is still a work-in-progress, Duff hopes to see it become the norm very soon.

Similarly, Samantha Cohen, Director of Digital Content Development at Simon & Schuster, expressed optimism that video in book publishing will drastically improve as books in some stage of production for the last two years now near their publication dates. The idea, explained Cohen, is that publishers will have recognized “what works and what doesn’t in video” and “put what they’ve learned into practice” for upcoming 2012 titles. Video is now something editors must consider at the manuscript acquisition stage or at the beginning of the editorial process, just like in magazines. To improve reader experiences, today’s video must be integrated into the editorial process so that publishers can produce video unique to a title.

Currently, said Cohen, the major video successes are in enhanced ebooks, such as Simon & Schuster’s Nixonland by Rick Pearlstein, a history of the era containing 27 video clips taken from CBS News archives. “The best videos for books are instructional… [or] include historical footage,” noted Cohen. Non-fiction titles in crafts, gardening, and cookbooks all lead to good instructional video. As for video in fiction, Cohen believes it “just doesn’t work” because it interferes with the reader’s own version of an imaginary world.

Despite the growing interest in video, there are still many challenges to a strong business model. Cohen explained that difficulties include problems obtaining rights and permissions for video footage; actual video production (publishers are not necessarily filmmakers); accelerated ebook production schedules that make it difficult to add video; multiple ebook formats (an industry standard format would likely streamline the production process); and the relative lack of digital storefronts for enhanced ebooks. While magazines are using video to draw readers to their content, book publishers are finding that it is very difficult for readers to discover enhanced ebooks; demand is still low, and e-retailers shape their storefronts based on reader demands. However, as more and more enhanced ebooks hit the market and readers develop a taste for these new products, it is likely that e-retailers such as Apple and Amazon will begin to give enhanced ebooks more attention and better placement. Until then, book publishers must struggle with the discoverability issue and getting enhanced ebooks into the public consciousness (and online shopping baskets).

At the conclusion of the session, Duff and Cohen concurred that video has an enormous future in both magazine and book publishing. In truth, the question, “What kind of experience do we want to cultivate for readers?” has magazine and book publishers answering in the same way: to create a rich experience that is fun, current, and will keep readers reading. After hearing Duff and Cohen’s enthusiasm and watching some great examples of their craft, students and alumni alike left the talk looking forward to what’s next in video in the publishing world and how it will surface in their own companies.

by Laura Flavin

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