My hometown newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, played a major role in catapulting Ted Williams, the now-famous homeless man with the golden voice. More than a month ago, Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth III shot the original video of Ted, which was posted on the Dispatch’s website on Jan. 3. That next day, a Reddit user posted a copy (without Dispatch permission) on YouTube. Thousands of Reddit comments and YouTube views later, and Ted Williams was quickly morphing into an Internet sensation. On Jan. 5, the Morning Zoo, a local radio morning show, even bumped an interview with Snooki to devote more air time to Mr. Williams. On Jan. 6, the national media tour kicked into high gear, including appearances on The Early Show, the Today Show and Jimmy Fallon. Since then, Ted has received multiple job offers.
It didn’t take long for the video to become a viral sensation, generating 12+ million YouTube views in just a couple of days. The problem — at least for the Dispatch — is that heavy doses of web traffic was going to YouTube, not Dispatch.com. According to Dispatch reporter Randy Ludlow:
Interestingly, this Dispatch.com version of the video includes sharing functions — including the HTML to embed the video as well as sharing to Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. However, this version of the video does not include those sharing items. (Note: I’ve contacted the Dispatch in an attempt to confirm when the sharing features were incorporated. I will update this when I receive a response from the Dispatch.)
The Dispatch filed a copyright claim with YouTube, which resulted in YouTube removing the video — and erasing millions of views and hundreds of comments in the process. It seems the Dispatch hopes to ride (and capitalize on) this wave of attention by directing all web traffic to Dispatch.com.
However, this raises questions about modern-day journalism challenges: Would “The Homeless Man with the Golden Voice” have become a national sensation without social media? Probably not. Would this video have been viewed, shared and discussed so frequently without the prodding of the Reddit community? Not as likely. Would the video have seeped into pop culture if it was only available on Dispatch.com, or did YouTube enhance the viral nature of the story?
Long-time media critic Jay Rosen offered his thoughts on Twitter this morning:
If we assume that the story wouldn’t gone viral without social media — and consequently wouldn’t have captured the attention of national, traditional media outlets — I have to wonder why the Dispatch would pull the story from the very channels that helped it catapult to Today Show-levels. Presumably, traffic to the Dispatch’s website spiked as a result of the national media coverage and high volume of online chatter. But, now that the story has gone viral, the Dispatch wants it off YouTube?
Newspapers across the country are struggling to turn a profit. Clearly, the business of journalism is very different today than even just a decade ago; however, this is a prime example of why it’s critical for traditional media to embrace (and benefit from) social media. As the golden voice videographer noted in an online chat earlier this week, “It’s expensive to produce this type of journalism, and although it does appear on our website, it’s ripped by people posting on YouTube and we don’t get the ‘clicks’ to show our advertisers.” The challenge then becomes, how can traditional media monetize a stronger online presence? A growing number of traditional media outlets are leveraging social media as a means to support the evolving business model.
A “Golden” Learning Opportunity
Looking at this as a learning opportunity, let’s discuss some ways traditional media outlets can protect their content while still capturing online attention:
- Create a YouTube channel. As Jay Rosen noted, you can’t control what goes viral … and what doesn’t. So post all videos on a branded YouTube channel. Maybe even add a something to the beginning or end of each video with a link to the Dispatch website. The YouTube Partner Program can potentially be a revenue generator. Get really interactive and create “hypervideo” — incorporating hyperlinks throughout the video to take viewers back to the Dispatch site. Something like klickable.tv can help with this.
- Encourage and train journalists to interact on social media sites. By creating interactive, two-way conversations, journalists can help drive traffic to the main site. (This does not mean simply auto-tweeting a link to the latest articles. That’s an example of what not to do.)
- Embrace multi-media … but not just on your own site. For example, create a videocast (see: New York Times TimeCast); host a podcast to discuss the latest news; follow NPR’s lead and share photos on Instagram (or a similar service) to give audiences a behind-the-scenes look at the news.
- Get smarter about mobile … and quick.
- Integrate Facebook — and not just a “Share this on Facebook” link. Perhaps look at how Huffington Post “socialized” its site and borrow a few ideas from them.
- Create “Web 2.0″ sites. Far too many newspaper websites are still very static — nothing more than links to stories, photos and videos. Why not incorporate some real opportunities for interaction? Even something as simple as letting users vote stories up or down would be a good start.
- Think digitally. During a shooting in Orlando, the Sentinel leveraged social media, including Twitter lists, photo galleries and URL redirecting, to keep readers informed and to disseminate updates.
- Research opportunities to incorporate hyper-local news and location-based services. The Cincinnati Enquirer is already experimenting with this concept.
Just some unsolicited ideas off the top of my head. Decreasing newspaper circulation isn’t a new problem; however, traditional media outlets need to master digital communication — and sooner, rather than later. If not? They may miss the next “golden” viral news opportunity.
Author’s Note: I have contacted multiple people at the Columbus Dispatch to get their perspective on this story. If/when I receive a response, I will update this post accordingly. This is my hometown newspaper, so I think it’s a shame to see the paper’s handling of the video being discussed in such a negative light — especially after they uncovered such a fantastic, positive story. Hopefully, this is a minor bump in what is otherwise a story with a happy ending.
UPDATE 2: The Columbus Dispatch posted a statement on its blog, which you can read in its entirety here. I’m no SEO expert, but I find it intersting that they didn’t use any of the likely-to-be-searched key words in the URL or headline. Either way, an excerpt from the post:
Our video was posted on dispatch.com January 3. When an unauthorized person posted the video on YouTube January 4, it was done in violation of The Dispatch Printing Co.’s copyright. YouTube was asked to remove the copyrighted video and redirect interested parties to the original video on dispatch.com. On January 6, YouTube removed one of the unauthorized videos, but did not include a link to the original video.
At no time was The Columbus Dispatch trying to prevent anyone from seeing our video. In fact, it has remained available since it was originally posted to dispatch.com. It has also been reposted on YouTube under our copyright.
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