Making video a priority at USA Today

With nearly 87 percent of Americans watching online video these days, it’s a statistic that has hit home to the iconic national daily USA Today.

Digital Media Europe, 21 April 2015, London, England. Image ©Dan Taylor/Heisenberg Media -

by WAN-IFRA Staff | April 21, 2015

That figure is why over the past few years that USA Today has made video a top priority, said Steve Elfers, Managing Editor of Multimedia for USA Today during Digital Media Europe 2015 in London.

Multiplatform audience

“USA Today has been around 30 years and the business model that we started with is still relevant today: be relevant, be concise, and engage with our on-the-go audience, and video is a great way to deliver all of that.”

Elfers said it’s no real secret that USA Today’s readers are multiplatform users, not just mobile, desktop or print. “But for us it’s more about the audience, not the platform. If the platform has audience, we will be there. Of course we have to be familiar with how each platform works, but it’s more about engagement with our audience.”

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We don’t have a mobile audience per se, we have behaviours, says @steveelfers

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In the studio

To get its newsroom and journalists immersed in video production and delivery, USA Today has set up a number of production studios. Primarily, it has a studio that overlooks the central part of its newsroom.

“This makes it very easy to go from idea to shooting and get a piece of video out to our readers – from idea to phone, for example, 2 hours. If it is a simpler idea, it can be done within minutes.”

USA Today has a similar, even simpler setup in its New York office. The whole studio is designed to work with just two people: a host for a video and a producer. Then on the West Coast in San Francisco, there is an office for doing standup video.

Levels of production

Here are the three types of production for USA Today:

Level 1: “This might come as a surprise, but for us it is iPhone. … As a classical videographer, I remember carrying cases of chemicals to Somalia to shoot film, so I came to this from a classical background therefore I expect any reporter on any beat to be able to shoot on an iPhone – that it’s editable, high quality.” He said they do a lot of basic training around, teaching journalists how to edit, upload and get the video out.

Level 2: This is for a reporter who can use a good camera but needs support to edit and upload. So two people involved.

Level 3: This is for a fully functional videojournalist who can do everything on their own.

The life of a video, he says, is critical to determine its success as well: planning, assigning, shoot & edit, and publish. “Yet even within all that, there are a number of processes involved, some that you might have to collapse or compress if you really want to get a piece out within a timely manner. It’s a bit of a juggling act, but at the same time, you cannot afford to leave one of these major elements out if you want the video to succeed.”

Programming is crucial, he says, not just for USA Today but for all publishers. This means dayparting video. Naturally, the morning is a peak. “If you just shoot out a video not knowing peak or low times in engagement, you might have a great piece but will never really know why it might not succeed.”

Dayparting at USA TodayDayparting at USA Today

USA Today video types

First there is:

“Franchise” pieces. At its peak, USA Today had 45 different franchises, but now that has been reduced to less than 30, he said. The hallmarks of their franchises involve a series of videos featuring a host or personality. For them to succeed, he said they must be produced with an almost “pilot mentality” and that you need to have an expectation of what the success may be: is it engagement, number of views, etc.? What has worked so for USA Today is if the franchises are produced with a real attitude, that there is a strong personality driving it and that is it engaging and even fun. Its USA Now series is a good example.

Daily News: This is all about velocity, Elfers said. “This could just be raw video of a cop chasing someone. Then build on that story.” He adds that even if you broke the news or not, it offers you an opportunity to “pivot” if a piece is trending and then you can own the story. If it does take off, then USA Today would consider “matrixing” it out to other platforms.

Platform specific: This is for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Periscope.“Again, you have to understand these different audiences and cater your content to them when it makes sense.”

Project/Watch dog: These are the investigative pieces that require more investment in time and resources but differentiates the brand and “defines our journalism. “This is critical for us. If you start talking about resources and you can only do a couple of things, we would go with breaking news and these projects. Everything else in between is nice, but these are most critical that make us stand out.”

What really works for USA Today

Elfers said it’s:

  • breaking news
  • celebrities
  • tech
  • pivot & matrix
  • emotional and shareable content is huge

Questions you should ask yourself

Elfers says there are some critical questions publishers and newsrooms should ask when embarking on video projects and pieces:

What’s your focus? “You have to know why you are shooting that particular video instead of shooting and figuring out what you want to convey later.”
What is the user experience? “Is it easy to be on your site and view and engage with your videos, for example?”
How shareable is your content? “Getting shares, likes, naturally extends your views and audience.”
What should you stop doing? “This isn’t a question for startups but for legacy businesses like us, we have to really look at what isn’t working and eliminate it.”

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