How the regional papers use video: The Express & Star

This week I’m looking at what the UK regional evening newspapers are doing with video. I’ve selected (using a highly scientific method) seven papers to look at and I’m starting with the Express&Star

The Express&Star is the daily evening paper for the West Midlands in the UK. It’s owned by The Midland News Association Ltd and is generally acknowledged as the biggest selling regional evening paper in England.

The website got a re-design a few years ago and I have to put my hand up and say I’m not a fan. It’s cramped and the contrast of text sizes is wrong for me. But its usable and they have certainly thrown a lot at it over that time.

The platform.

When it comes to video the Express&Star is nothing if not obvious. There is a clear navigation tab at the top, a horizontal feature bar just above the fold and an occasional image teaser on the left-hand-side of the page. Go through to the news section and you get another menu item.

Confusingly the tabbed navigation and the vertical navigation on the news index takes you to two different places. The tab links to a standard Brightcove powered jukebox – chunky and functional. But the menu takes you to a video index. Given the choice I would link to the video index exclusively. It’s more usable, feels richer and sits better ‘in’ the site.

The Express&Star video index page is full of video stuff
The Express&Star video index page is full of video stuff

The video index offers a great range of content that links directly to article pages with embedded video content which is fantastic. The downside is that the video player is too small, cramped in to the corner of what is already too narrow a column for content. I would cut back on the graphics and controls around the player. Double the size and run it at the top of a page rather than right-justified. It also works as a picture that way.

The page design swamps the text and squashes the video
The page design swamps the text and squashes the video

Back in the video index, there is a nice archive and you can page back through previous video articles. It’s a shame that the thumbnail disappears after the first page. The headlines need the image to help sell the story. The other problem with the video index is that you don’t need to go back very far before most of the video is unavailable (a problem that cropped up every now and again on newer content too). I’m guessing that this is due to a shift in player at some point or perhaps technical problems full stop. That’s a shame would have liked to have done a comparison between old and new video.

The presentation
The video is a mix of self-produced packages and third-party content, commonly user-generated but there is the occasional agency stuff. There is also a healthy smattering of youtube content on the site which appears in the Your Video section of the video index. This tends to be in the entertainment area. This is worrying in the sense that a copyright crackdown on youtube would effectively remove half the content on the site. The Kasabian article is a good example of this .

But stepping away from that particular minefield its safe to say that it’s the self-produced packaged content that makes up the majority of the content and there is loads of it. It tends to be 2-3 minute packaged content mixing talking heads, GV’s(b-roll) and voice over. The occasional piece to camera does creep in which sometimes works but more often than not doesn’t.

Overall the production values are good and generally the packaged stuff is shot well. The sound suffers from occasional wind noise and mic handling problems but the ever present shotgun mic generally produces good results.

The journalists seem to have settled on a workable format for their video. It tends to lead with interesting video or a snippet of interview and then a voice over comes in. Some of the packages go on a little too long with one too many vox-pops the most common reason. Take the Disney Cars feature (above). The kids are cute and well done to the reporter for getting something usable out of them. But there is too much. This package also highlights an issue with sequencing. There are a lot of cut-aways here. A shot of a wheel etc. But they are cut one after the other. It’s quite disorientating. Shooting enough cut-aways is always something to remember but they have to tie together. Get a wide shot that will make sense of the cut-away. I don’t think I saw more than one wide shot of the cars through the whole package.

If remembering cut-aways is good mantra when shooting then cutting ‘best pictures first’ is one of for the edit. It’s a concept that the journos at the Express & Star seem to gave taken to heart and it works for them. It fits the print story construction well and you can almost read the text of an accompanying article and follow the voice over. As well as trying to grab you in the first few seconds of the vid , this must cut down the turn around times for the production.

But this tie in between article and video isn’t always consistent. Take the story about people using pawnbrokers. Instead of the people featured in the article there was a video of a jeweler talking about the value of gold. I really missed seeing the people in the article who had some real human stories to tell. Where was the guy selling his wedding ring. A definite case of a story that didn’t need video.

Elsewhere the content shifts from packaged to interview based stuff shot in the newsroom. It’s been a while since the E&S has had a video news bulletin on the site but much of the content takes its cue from that format. I’ve always been an advocate of the bulletin approach as I think it is as much about building capacity as it is content. It’s nice to see the E&S have developed. But where a bulletin is easy win video, much of this stuff feels like visual podcast. The video of Peter Rhodes and Internet News Editor Tim Walters is a great example of video that should be a podcast. But it’s really the sport that takes this format to the limit – Fan forums and weekend round-ups. I’d love to see some stats on the this stuff to see what the take up is.

I suppose that the use of video in this way says more about the uptake of technology like podcasts by the audience than the appropriateness of the delivery platform. And it’s clear that there is some clear evidence of developing style there. This development also manifests itself in experimentation with live football reporting.

Last year the E&S announced Sportingstar.co.uk a live football site. Not that you would know it on the site. Following the URL takes you to a subsection of the site with no obvious difference from the rest of the content. I will have to check back on Saturday to see the full action. But the little snippet of Qik video from reporter Tim Nash after the recent Plymouth game is good and it will be nice to see what other content appears alongside it.

Overall
I could write a lot more about the Express & Stars video offering. There is a lot of it and the content is generally technically well-produced. That said, some of it feels stretched editorially -it’s too long – and some of the content just doesn’t need video. I get the feeling that there is some kind of quota for video that someone has in the back of their mind – x number of videos a day please. But rather than push video too hard it may be better to let photographs carry the story.

The TGI fire story was a case in point. The video was okay but the pictures in the Gallery where better. They could even have run both. I don’t think the layout of the page helps with presentation, it isn’t multimedia friendly. I wonder if a bit more space to play with might encourage more of a useful presence.

That aside this is a strong start for the regional press. Let’s see what The Liverpool Echo can offer up tomorrow.

Do you work on video at the Express&Star? If you want to reply to any of the points in this review, talk about what you do or call me an idiot then feel free to leave a comment but I’d also like to offer you (and anyone from any of the other papers I review) an open post response.  A post on the blog to say what you want.  Interested? Let me know

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