Untangling the Web: Why read it when you can watch it?

A new Jpost.com column on the ever-changing world of news online: Print and TV merge on the Internet, as readers turn into viewers.

Foreign Ministry Youtube (photo credit: Screenshot)
Foreign Ministry Youtube
(photo credit: Screenshot)
I’ve never been much of a television person, truth be told. At school, when some of the kids would cheat and watch the movie, I always preferred to read the book, even if it took a few hours longer. And I don’t think it’s just because the movie adaptations of Lord of the Flies, Day of the Triffids and basically every Shakespeare play not related to Kenneth Branagh or Baz Luhrmann were so terrible. I am a reader and a writer; I prefer a window to the creator’s thoughts rather seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
This may explain why, as a serious online news junkie, videos tend to annoy more than entice me. I like my news written. For the most part, I like being able to skim sites and articles to pick out what interests me, which is obviously far more difficult to do with videos than text. Despite supposedly cutting-edge technology, video players often fail to load on even the most reliable sites, even with a high-speed, uninterrupted connection. On top of that, the sponsor ads tick me off, and the new trend of asking viewers to fill out surveys before watching doesn’t help either.
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It seems, however, that the majority of online news readers, or viewers, would disagree with me. According to Web expert extraordinaire Tammy Camp, 43 percent of adults online watch news videos, only just behind comedy videos, the most popular genre (50%).
In the past decade, online news sites have come far from being simply digital newspapers, with almost unlimited options for complementing the written word. Links to background stories or other sites, interactive maps and photo galleries all provide news readers with extra information that simply cannot be provided in the print edition.
And then, there’s video.
While a photo is arguably never going to replace a written piece, news videos may well be a different story. More and more, print and television are merging in the online arena, and news sites are working to find the balance between the two.
The range of videos that can be found on news sites these days is broad: from amateur video footage to political campaign clips, television broadcasts to music video clips, police footage to professional magazine pieces. The main advantage of video is that rather than simply describing an event, journalists and editors can now provide consumers with the primary material - along with descriptions and analysis which gives users a reason not to go straight to YouTube.
Of course, this is all just a matter of opinion, like many decisions made every day in the media. There are very few situations in which I would battle the advertisements and shaky platforms to watch a video rather than reading the article, especially if it’s well-written.
But I digress.
A word about YouTube, the Internet’s premier video-sharing website. The Google-subsidiary, which allows users to watch and upload an unlimited number of clips, has dominated the video niche of the industry since just after its 2005 launch. For the news industry, the fact that an HTML code can be taken straight from the site and embedded into any Web page significantly increases the pool of video content online. For example, when the Pentagon released the now-iconic video of Osama bin Laden watching himself on television from his Pakistan complex, online editors didn’t need to contact the authorities for a video, send a reporter, or write up a description. Instead, they went straight to YouTube, looked up bin Laden, copied the code and then simply embeded it into their sites in a matter of minutes.
YouTube isn’t just about individual users uploading videos. In Israel, for example, the IDF has a YouTube “channel” which is constantly updated with translated videos, as does President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Israel Police, among others. Like social media, YouTube is increasingly being used as a professional, commercial and political tool. These channels are extremely useful for online media outlets, functioning as a 21st century version of a press release distribution list.
In an era where more newspapers are folding than staying afloat, the distribution of resources is key, even if we accept that readers are now viewers and that a high percentage enjoy watching their news online. When is it worth sending a video reporter out into the field, and when would a written interview and a photo tell the story just as well? Can the veracity of amateur clips be trusted? When is a short review appropriate and when would a long, in-depth review better suit?
Here, television stations’ websites have an obvious advantage. They already have news clips; they essentially just need to edit, upload and add some text. For the newspaper-cum-website, the opposite is true. With the the art of the written word down-pat, the challenge is finding a balance, and working out which videos complement an article, which detract from it and which have no effect either way.
In recent months, the majority of footage from protests across the Arab world have been amateur clips, often shot on mobile phones or point-and-shoot cameras and uploaded to YouTube. Here, the quality of the written piece that the video accompanies is crucial. With the proper explanation and analysis, such videos give readers a glimpse of the goings on that they would never have seen otherwise.
Videos like this I watch, because even a brilliant eyewitness account of these events falls short of the impact of seeing it with my own eyes. Again, it’s about finding the balance; the ultimate situation for me would be to read a personal account and watch a short and clear accompanying clip.
Another issue blurring the lines between television and written news is live streaming technology. Press conferences and important addresses are often broadcast live online, meaning Internet users can watch important events as they happen from their computers. While a written piece can certainly add context, this technology is significantly contributing to the gradual phasing-out of the plain text news article. However, live streams are the type of online video that have the most problems, often frustrating viewers to the point that they close the window and leave the site in question altogether.
Of course, sometimes the answers are cut and dry, and sometimes it’s a matter of individual preference. Just as there are people like me that prefer books over movies, there are those that prefer their news to be written, and those who prefer it moving and talking. The difference now, as opposed to say a decade ago, is that both types of people are looking for accurate, up-to-date, interesting news online, and thanks to iPads, smartphones and teeny-tiny laptops, they can get it when and where they want it in a way that neither television stations nor print editions alone can provide.
Having said that, it seems that for now, the written word is safe. Users still want to read, as well as watch, a percentage of their news and current affairs analysis online, which means writers and editors should still be able to find work in journalism for years to come.
The writer is the Internet desk manager at Jpost.com