Video Storytelling Thrives Despite Media Panic

June 13, 2018

By David Walker

© Brent Stirton/Verbatim

A Dream of Sight Created for SEE International.

Despite the media industry’s pivot-to-video disaster, which led to layoffs at several digital-only publishers, the market for video storytellers remains strong. A growing number of companies are hiring staff and freelancers—many of them former journalists—to produce video to promote their brands and products. Legacy media companies are still expanding their video teams to feed demand for editorial video. Other organizations, from non-profits to educational publishers to giant entertainment programming distributors such as Netflix and Amazon need video content. Clients are looking for everything from ads to documentary to scripted programming.

“There is a huge demand for video,” says photographer Dustin Cohen. “A big percentage of my projects involve some kind of video on both the advertising side and the editorial side.” MediaStorm founder Brian Storm is also bullish about the market, asserting that photographers with video production skills are generally busier than those without. “Every photographer I know who learned video is working,” he says.

Pivot-to-Video’s Boom and Bust

Enticed by Facebook’s 2015 announcement that it would favor video content over text and photos, digital media companies including BuzzFeed, Mashable, Vox, Mic and others poured resources into video production through mid-2017. They hoped to boost ad revenues with lots of high-cost ads (relative to the cost of banner ads) attached to all those videos. But the strategy, known as the “pivot to video,” was a bust. Online publishers misjudged audience interests and expectations, and underestimated the cost of video production. The result was a lot of bad video that fell far short of audience and advertising projections.

The about-face started in late 2017, as companies slashed their editorial departments to cut costs. BuzzFeed laid off 100 people last November after missing its revenue target by 15 to 20 percent. Investors sold Mashable at a huge loss to Ziff-Davis, which promptly cut Mashable’s video division by 25 percent. Then, to make matters worse, Facebook announced in January 2018 plans to de-emphasize content posted by publishers. Vox Media soon laid of 50 staff, mostly in video production. The pivot-to-video experiment was over.

The failure was in execution, not theory: Video engages audiences, but only if the quality is high. Recognizing that, some legacy publishers—especially those with the deep pockets and revenue models that rely on subscriptions, not just traffic—continue to expand their video production capacity. The Washington Post, with ambitious plans to produce long-form documentaries and scripted series, among other video offerings, doubled its video team to 70 people last year. Gannett announced in February it was adding 20 people to its 40-member video team. The company is also beefing up the video production capacity of some of its individual newspapers. The New York Times continues to invest heavily in video production, including experimental forms such as VR and AR, to keep itself on the leading edge of digital storytelling technology.

Director Megan Clark on a Blue Chalk production in India. Blue Chalk’s staff includes former journalists among other professional backgrounds.

Branded Content Explodes

Meanwhile, advertisers are eager to reach audiences with video, but they don’t need media companies as intermediaries: By producing and distributing video themselves, they can control their messages, production values, and costs. As a result, some of the best opportunities, especially for former journalists, are in branded content—video that is commissioned or produced by advertisers who want “authentic,” editorial-like storytelling to build brand identity and sell products and services.

“Branded content has exploded,” says Gabe Silverman, who co-founded SideXSide Studios in 2015 with Jamie Coughlin. Both Silverman and Coughlin are former journalists: He was a video journalist at The Washington Post, and she was a producer at USAToday Sports Media Group.

SideXSide produces editorial projects, but most of their work comes from commercial and non-profit clients. “Organizations see a need for documentary-style storytelling, and they’re utilizing it on their social media channels to attract customers,” Coughlin says. “If you look at Instagram, a lot of companies are [posting] a lot of mini films that are narrative in focus.”

One of SideXSide’s biggest clients is Starbucks, which has been investing for several years in video ranging from recruitment and employee relations to brand identity productions. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, Starbucks produced two seasons of “Upstanders,” a series of six- to eight-minute profiles of activists, veterans, educators, and others who are bringing positive change and inspiration to their communities. SideXSide produced a total of seven stories for the series.

In addition to hiring freelancers, Starbucks has assembled an in-house video team that includes Starbucks senior VP of public affairs and executive producer of social impact media initiatives Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He was previously associate editor at The Washington Post (and a colleague of Silverman’s). Other Starbucks team members include Luanne Dietz, who was a photo editor and multimedia producer at the San Francisco Chronicle; and photographer Josh Trujillo, formerly of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. (They did not respond to requests for interviews.)

Other companies investing heavily in video production include REI, which sponsors production of long-form documentaries about outdoor adventurers, in addition to producing dozens of how-to videos for skiers, campers and cyclists. The view counts range from the thousands to hundreds of thousands. Red Bull produces a wide variety of videos that support the brand’s hyper-energetic, derring-do ethos. P&G, Microsoft, Boeing, and Amazon are also producing a lot of video content, hosted on YouTube and embedded on various websites and social media, to promote their brands and sell products.

“I see a lot of [demand] in the Seattle market for people with video skills. So many corporations are starting video units,” says Danny Gawlowski, director of digital imagery and innovation at The Seattle Times.

Jordan Stead, a former Post-Intelligencer staff photographer, joined Amazon last year with the title of visual storyteller. He shoots photos and produces a variety of videos for Amazon’s blog. Meanwhile, other staff members produce Amazon “Shorts,” a how-to series about cooking, pets, health & beauty and other topics. The series promotes a wide range of Amazon products in each of those categories.

Stead declined to talk specifically about Amazon’s video strategy. But he says most companies “need external-facing content”—including short video for their blogs, websites and social media platforms—“to tell the story of the company, and the story of their products, and that’s where the opportunities are for photographers, videographers, editors, colorists, animators.”

Branded content work is easily romanticized as practically journalism, only better paid. But Greg Moyer, founder of Blue Chalk Media, thinks the idealism surrounding branded content— “Putting a logo on a completely authentic story” that reflects some company’s corporate values—has faded. “In our experience, the marketing people want [videos] to be more like advertising: shorter, with product placement, and much more about selling than telling a great story,” he says.

Other Opportunities

Blue Chalk continues to do branded content work, but the company’s growth is in work for non-profits and educational publishers, according to Moyer. Educational publishers in particular are “producing video on a pretty massive scale,” as the market for digital textbooks and online course materials grows, he explains.

SideXSide also produces video for non-profits, and generates nearly 50 percent of its revenue from that work. Silverman and Coughlin see a lot more potential in the nonprofit market. “They need to tell their stories,” Silverman says. “You can’t get engagement without honest storytelling.” Freelance journalists working alone or in pairs can produce high quality video that is affordable to non-profits, he adds. But the challenge is building a culture of video storytelling in the non-profit world: Clients still have to be sold on the idea “that if you’re an organization that needs to raise money, people need to understand what you do,” Silverman explains.

At the other end of the video production spectrum are the (theoretical) opportunities in distributed content, which include the scripted shows, feature films and other original content that content distribution companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Apple are investing billions of dollars to produce. “That’s a huge opportunity for journalists and documentary storytellers to win some deals in that space,” says MediaStorm’s Brian Storm, citing the success of Shaul Schwarz, Gillian Laub, Zackary Canepari and others with broad distribution of their work on HBO, Netflix and other outlets. “I’m not saying everyone can do that, but there is a path.”   

Indeed, not everybody can do that, but there seems to be no shortage of other work for video storytellers. “The world is a lot bigger than you think,” Silverman says. “Freelancers especially are focused on: ‘I want to shoot for The Times, I want to shoot for The Post.’ I understand that, but the world is a massive place that needs a large amount of content right now. There’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. Just be creative about how you approach it.”

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