Streaming Journalism Grapples with the Bottom Line

Just as Gutenberg and Marconi revolutionized the way people received news of the world around them, so is streaming media transforming journalism today. With the introduction of video search engines like Virage, Excalibur, and MediaSite, and streaming media aggregators like Yahoo! Broadcast, we will soon be able to choose from thousands of live and on-demand newscasts - emanating from every corner of the globe - at any given moment. In a field where the free flow of information is of primary importance , streaming has the potential to come closer to the ideal than we've ever been.

But like in any revolution, a number of fundamental questions remain: Who will be the major players - small, niche-oriented narrow-casters, or the Web incarnations of today's major news organizations? How will streaming journalism differ from traditional broadcast news? The regulations that govern traditional broadcasts being absent from the Web, where will the ethical limits of streaming news be drawn?

The answers to these questions will be influenced, in varying degrees, by one simple certainty: Streaming that doesn't pay for itself, at least indirectly, will soon follow revenue-averse dot-coms into oblivion. To shed some light on the possible outcomes - and to paint a picture of the current state of streaming journalism - we took a look at a few of the many facets of this growing field.

The Big Hitters

The barriers to entry into the streaming media arena are low, but news gathering and reporting is expensive. Newspapers and television news organizations spend many years and millions of dollars building up their infrastructures. So it makes sense that most streaming news is being produced by traditional broadcast journalists. Predictably, network news organizations like ABCnews.com and CNN.com, with their huge repositories of video news footage, dominate the landscape.

CNN.com, which forever changed television news during the Gulf War by bringing us simultaneous live pictures of SCUDs in Jerusalem and Christiane Amanpour in Baghdad, aims to have a similar impact on the streaming media space. Dave Rickett, vice president of content development at CNN Interactive, sees streaming as key to the success of CNN.com. "CNN is a video company. We have tremendous video assets that we want to be able to take advantage of," he says. "We use about 10 percent of the video that we bring into the building on air. So we really have a lot that we want to transfer to the Web."

In addition to streaming archived video that doesn't appear on the network, CNN.com also streams some press conferences and other events in their entirety, long after the TV network has cut away to other programming.

Does CNN.com siphon viewers from the TV network, or does it draw in new viewers? Rickett sees the television and interactive divisions as complementary. "We try to extend what the network is doing. [We're] trying to figure out how we can take live events, bundle them into a Web package and really leverage them for the network and the Web to make it worth watching on TV as well as on the Web," he says. "The TV will be enhanced with Web content and the PC will be enhanced with TV content."

Newspapers in the Stream

While TV News organizations seek to leverage their existing video resources, major urban newspapers are hoping to leverage the flood of raw news content that they generate on a daily basis. Because of their deep roots in their communities, newspapers have a leg up in the battle to establish dominant regional Web portals. Many newspapers see streaming media as an effective weapon in that battle.

A key example is the Knight Ridder Corporation, which publishes daily newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, in 28 U.S. markets. Knightridder.com operates Real Cities, a network of companion Web sites - regional portals - that includes Philly.com, the Inquirer's companion site. Philly.com's current direction is proof that newspapers need not be bound by text-only material. "We're basically trying to figure out the best way that we can take the content that we have in the newspaper and enhance it on the Web. If generating video is a good way to do it, then that's what we'll do," said Tony Gnoffo, Web content editor for the Inquirer.

One example of what he has in mind is Philly.com's deal with Pseudopolitics.com to capture the scene outside and around this summer's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, with daily 2-to-3-minute streaming videos.

Philly.com gets most of its video footage from another Knight Ridder entity, KR Video. In 1997, KR produced original streaming video content, based upon Inquirer reporting, for the website. Chris Mills, general manager of KR Video, notes, "[The content included] everything from ‘day-of' news events to movie reviews, music reviews and fitness tips. This was not for broadcast - it was for the Web." Now, in a deal with WPVI-TV, the local ABC affiliate, KR processes WPVI news footage for streaming on Philly.com.

KR Video still produces original content such as Blackhawk Down, a documentary based on an Inquirer series about the U.S. intervention in Somalia. Additional footage from the documentary, which aired on CNN, was shared with Philly.com. Mills notes, "We found a way to exploit streaming media via extended sound bites and other sorts of ‘reporter's notebook' type stuff…that went way beyond what was in the TV show. That kind of thing just enhances the usefulness and attractiveness of the website so people go there and hang around. That's going to help your overall ad rates."

Economic Realities

There is little question that the streaming format constitutes a fitting outlet for news and other journalistic works. But economic realities will largely determine the role streaming media plays in the world of journalism. Even the big news outfits with ample budgets to cover the relatively minimal costs of streaming are unlikely to offer the fruit of their labors as a public service over the Internet for long; they'll need revenue streams, or perhaps a competitive incentive, to continue.

To pay for its future plans, CNN.com has been aggressive in its use of advertising. Like other webcasters, CNN.com places banner ad pop-ups adjacent to the video window. But while most other streamers rely on banner ads alone, CNN.com also runs 15 second video commercials at the beginning and end of video news clips. Television audiences have come to tolerate commercials; it remains to be seen whether Web audiences will be as accepting. But the revenue must come from somewhere. Notes Rickett, "So far, it's making it worth our while. [Advertising] is something that we want to aggressively grow and move forward in."

For smaller operations - Web-only news organizations or local TV station affiliates - the revenue question is even more urgent. In some ways, WVEC-TV, the ABC affiliate in Norfolk, VA, is atypical of local TV stations, in that it enjoys a broadcast audience that is naturally convertible to a streaming audience. "We have a lot of military people - including the largest Navy base in the world - in the Norfolk area. There are a lot of bases around the world with Web access, and we think people from Hampton Roads - and all branches of the service - would like to catch up over the Internet with what's going on back home," said Pete McElveen, website manager at WVEC-TV.

But while the WVEC viewership may be somewhat unique, the affiliate is not immune to the difficulties of turning streaming news into dollars. Some local stations are selling branded merchandise on their sites, but most are hoping to develop revenue sources from advertising. So far, the results have been less than spectacular. "We have not had much success selling ads directly on the streaming," says McElveen. "[But] we didn't do this strictly to make money. It's a competitive thing. None of the other stations are streaming. In this market, we have three strong VHF stations, and any time you can get an edge over your competition, you take it."

However, lacking a dependable flow of revenue to support a streaming operation, stations like WVEC might eventually run up against a brick wall. Though WVEC streams a few locally produced special programs in addition to daily newscasts, copyright restrictions limit the content that it and other local stations can stream. For instance, syndicated programming is off limits, unless WVEC buys Internet distribution rights. To cost-effectively deliver more streaming video, the best WVEC can do is offer a link to ABCnews.com (which at least reciprocates with links back to local affiliates).

What Are the Limits?

With the hunt for higher ad rates and new revenue sources holding the attention of streaming news operations, the prospect that the line between news and entertainment, already considerably blurred in the broadcast space, could be completely erased is a real danger. Multiple-camera "reality" webcasts like the CBS hit Big Brother may even make the concept of a distinction seem quaint.

At the same time, journalists operating in the unfettered Web environment will need to revisit the ethical questions raised when radio, and then television, came on the scene: What constitutes news, and what crosses the fine line between what the public reasonably needs and wants to know and what serves only to satisfy prurient interests or a thirst for blood? Free of the constraints of governmental licensing that exist in the broadcast and cable worlds, what can - and should - streaming journalism become?

For example, can we envision executions of condemned criminals, streamed either live or on-demand and available on our RealPlayers? What if the executions were streamed as "pay-per-view," using digital rights management to protect royalties for victims' families? Or what if these scenarios were too macabre to be streamed in the United States, but cash-strapped Tajikistan decided to use streamed executions to decrease its foreign debt? Would, should, or could these scenarios be blocked by government censors?

We are now witnessing the fitful infancy of streaming journalism. The most obvious questions concern whether or not it will be able to pay for itself. But as the answers emerge, perhaps we should also be questioning whether its future will be enlightening -- or frightening.

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