Digital video arms race continues — and little guys can play too

Digital video arms race continues — and little guys can play too

I wasn’t sticking my neck out far in a late December post predicting a boom year for non-broadcast video. Six weeks into 2015 plenty is happening:

*Publications of all kinds (Fortune for instance) are announcing new services and upgrades.

*Reuters, traditionally a business-to-business provider, has made good on promises to launch a daring gamble — Reuters TV, a direct- to-consumer video app, targeting millennials and their smart phones and programmable into a customized 5 to 30 minute show.

*My friends at the American Press Institute published a good report last week on best practices in video production and revenue.  Serial entrepreneur David Cohn, who recently passed through Poynter, has a good riff today on avoiding tired broadcast conventions.

But I also stand corrected on one bit of common wisdom — that video only works for big organizations and that even they are challenged to scale sufficiently.

Les Simpson, publisher of the Amarillo Gazette News, is nearly a year into a video initiative aimed to disrupt local TV and said in an e-mail and subsequent chat that the venture is doing just fine.

The AGN-TV story has many fewer zeros than most you read about digital video but many of the principles are the same, Simpson said — keep it simple and aim for a high volume of self-contained stories.

With a start-up expense of $100,000, he said, he has come close to making that back in the first year, “and we hope to grow it into a major six-figure revenue source” in years to come.

For the effort Simpson hired one former newscaster but otherwise simply tasks his entire news staff of 35, substantially the biggest in town, with regularly producing video stories at outside locations or from simple office studios. With the occasional eye-catcher from elsewhere (like Monday’s implosion of a Las Vegas hotel-casino), AGN-TV is posting 400-plus segments a month and has had 1.1 million views since its launch at the end of March 2014.

The pieces are short and simple.  One I saw on a first visit, running a minute and a half,  recounted that a rancher had been found dead by his truck (of natural causes) while out working.  A typical piece may garner a couple hundred views.  The stories are displayed cafeteria style, not assembled into a newscast.

For advertisers, Simpson targets only local businesses –”banks, car dealers, home improvement services” –  many of whom have short video ads on hand adapted from TV commercials.  As yet, AGN-TV does not offer creative to make pre-rolls for customers.

Simpson figures the paper has several things going for it as a disruptor of local TV news.  “People don’t necessarily want to wait until 5 or 6″ for their local news, so anytime access works in a market where digital is not getting much emphasis from the stations.

He figures their business model is ripe for disruption in the age of Facebook and YouTube, much as print newspapers have been challenged in the last decade.  About 70 percent of AGN-TV’s traffic comes from mobile and tablet, Simpson said, compared to 30 percent from its website. He is relying on 15 to 20 core advertisers so far.

The local option may work best in a smaller TV market, Simpson added in our e-mail exchange.  Stations in a big metro are likely to be more competitive in posting the right sort of video clips to their sites through the day.

Geographically, Amarillo itself is a plus — a city of only about 200,000 but the only one of any size in the Texas Panhandle, thus drawing reader/viewers and shoppers from some distance.

“Tech has been a problem for us,” Simpson conceded.  One of the days I sampled, ads did not seem to be displaying at all.

Though the Gazette-News is owned by Morris Communications, a proactive company in digital transformation, Simpson said that he cooked up the plan on his own rather than as a test sent down from headquarters.

I asked what advice Simpson had for publishers thinking of doing likewise.

“We promoted the heck out of it for three months before we launched, and that’s essential,” he said.  “Also, go all in or don’t go at all.”

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