How Web video blurs church and state lines for publishers


Every major publisher on the Web cites video as a key growth area. The revenue opportunity is too great. But unlike traditional outlets such as print and television, there aren’t any strict “rules” to Web video. And for established news and media brands, that can be problematic when it comes to determining who gets to call the shots.

The struggle is most glaringly apparent at The New York Times, which recently shook up its video unit with Bruce Headlam, managing editor for video, and Rebecca Howard, gm of video, departing. Headlam is taking another “senior role in the newsroom,” while Howard is leaving the company to “pursue other business interests,” the Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet wrote in a memo.

According to one former video executive at the Times, the company’s two-headed approach to its video department wasn’t completely working. The question then arises: Should video strictly be an editorial operation, or should the business side take the lead?

In Web video, the answer is often both. Here are three publishers navigating the increasingly blurred line between church and state, with varying results:

The New York Times
Under Headlam and Howard’s leadership, the Times’ video business certainly grew. Its production slate currently counts 15 channels and dozens of new original series, and successes include a Pulitzer for the paper’s video coverage of the Ebola crisis. And yet, there was also constant tensions between the editorial and business sides.

For video to grow at the required scale for the Times, the paper needs one executive to oversee all aspects of the business, said the former executive, who came up on the business side.

An executive at another major news organization echoed the sentiment, stressing that the opportunity in video goes beyond editorial content and requires a leader who understands that. “Video has a marriage to the [editorial] experience but has a standalone opportunity beyond that,” said this executive, who has a business background. “There very well may be editorial folks out there who can do it, but threading that needle between issues like production costs, distribution and even managing the balance between text and video, and still being able to run a fully scaled operation is, I think, beyond what I’ve typically seen coming out of editorial.”

“You have to have somebody who understands editorial, advertising and the dynamics between the two — of what the revenue picture looks like and how that translates into the kinds of production costs you can put into place,” said Laura Rowley, vp of video production for Meredith’s National Media Group.

At Meredith, video is led by Rowley, who has a journalism and business background. Video ad sales report to Meredith svp Marc Rothschild. (Rowley isn’t strictly edit, though; she also oversees branded and native video content.)

“Every media organization has that tension,” Rowley said. “One of our strengths is that our culture is very collaborative. Editorial understands where the line is and pushes back when they need to.” At the end of the day, editorial dictates the video that is produced because each magazine brand’s editors know their audience best.

“I’ve also never had a conversation where the advertising side said, ‘Hey, can we run a feature on this advertiser?’” she said. For those kinds of videos, there is a separate branded-content unit. It’s a structure that has helped boost Meredith’s overall digital viewership to 60 million views per month in the U.S., according to the company.

The Huffington Post
The Huffington Post’s video is led by gm Nathan Brown but also leans on the Huff Post’s editorial director, Danny Shea. Both argue for a necessary overlap between editorial and business.

“The way to make it work is to have a true partnership and not just say it’s a partnership,” said Brown. “What skills and knowledge I don’t have, Danny does, and vice versa.”

“It’s a hybrid role,” added Shea. “If we were just running it from the editorial department, it wouldn’t succeed. If Nathan were running it without the editorial department, it wouldn’t succeed.”

While Brown is ultimately in charge, he and Shea remain in constant contact about the direction of the video business while ensuring that the business side does not get in the way of editorial decision-making. “Business’s job is to look at the big picture — how do we explore new formats, distribution of content, etc. — not the granular, day-to-day operations of video,” said Brown.

And that’s the argument: In the world of Web video publishing, the line between church and state isn’t as defined, and maybe it needs to be that way as publishers figure out how to build sustainable video businesses. It doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. “You just have to be open to a really fluid model. You can’t be inflexible,” said Brown. “I’m saying buzzwords, I realize that, but being protective of the past will always get in the way of the future.”

Be careful, though. “It’s like ‘Ghostbusters’ — you don’t want to cross the streams,” said Rowley.

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