Beyond B&W and Read All Over

(click thumbnail)Sign on San Diego, the Web site of The San Diego Union-Tribune, jumped into the HD world to provide video for use by TV nets, according to Ron James, content manager of the site.As America's newspapers reinvent themselves, broadband video--including high definition--is part of their arsenal, raising the prospects of newspapers becoming significant local online HDTV purveyors.

From The San Diego Union-Tribune to The Washington Post, newspaper Web sites are producing HD video content, exploiting ways to leverage their local brands and add to their archival resources.

Newspaper HD production efforts reflect an array of approaches to broadband video, and publishers are developing alliances with local broadcasters and cable TV operators to share HD productions during this transitional period for both industries.

It's all part of the reconfiguration of the media landscape, with newspapers aggressively seeking to protect their role as young audiences defect to the Web. Moreover, the HD capability is a future-proofing feature as advertisers evaluate Web relationships.

Chet Rhodes, deputy multimedia editor for breaking news at Washington Post/Newsweek Interactive, or WPNI, the unit that runs, foresees a day--"maybe within two years"--when HDTV will be the primary format of newspaper Web sites.

"The question is how soon can we afford to stream those files," Rhodes said, adding that MPEG-4 will make the process more feasible.

In the meantime, WPNI is accelerating its HD production and archiving via two routes. Rhodes is responsible for the unit that handles live feeds and reporter videos. The Washington Post has equipped 40 of its print reporters with Panasonic mini digital video cameras and asks them to feed video interviews and images to the Web editors in conjunction with their newspaper stories.

Separately, the Post's documentary unit has six professional videographers who accompany print reporters doing longer articles. The shooters generally come from a broadcast background and create more traditional documentary pieces, using Sony HDV cameras. Rhodes says that some of the still-frame grabs from the HD cameras are so clear that they have been used to illustrate articles in the newspaper's print editions.

That kind of crossover synergy is what newspapers want in today's belt-tightening environment.

The Post "began shooting everything in 16:9" format starting in 2001, Rhodes said. Originally, the company used Canon equipment, but was "floored by Sony's demo of HD cameras" at a NAB convention, he said.

Because it is shooting in HD format, many of the Post's Web site images show up in widescreen format, even if they are not truly HD. A dedicated segment of the site called "Camera Works" exclusively displays widescreen pictures. ( Segments shot with the Panasonic DV cameras are masked for widescreen, Rhodes said.

The Post's HD production process resembles that of local TV stations. Field video is captured onto Sony HDV decks, which lets editors tinker with it on laptop computers, using Final Cut Pro. The edited material is run through Sorensen Squeeze compression software from Sorenson Media, Inc. to turn it into Web video.

Like many other newspapers using Web video,, collaborates with TV partners. MSNBC (both the Web site and cable TV channel) share video with WPNI. Rhodes said that Public Broadcasting Service and other networks have used WPNI video when it covers "big stories."

He acknowledged that "it's a pretty big step" to move into HD, involving a revision of the whole production chain including cameras, decks and tapes. And, Rhodes said, "It takes longer to do everything."

But that has not dissuaded the WPNI from pursuing HD.

"The next step is replacing tape altogether," Rhodes said, indicating that he is eyeing an upgrade to HD hard drive cameras.


On the other side of the United States, Sign On San Diego, the Web site of The San Diego Union-Tribune, jumped into the HD world "primarily so that we can provide video that would be used in cable and broadcast situations," said Ron James, the Web site's content manager. The newspaper's content is being used for downloaded and on-demand projects.

James acknowledged the same major challenge to HD Webcasting as the Post's Rhodes cites:

"For online, it doesn't make much difference right now, and we wouldn't stream hi def simply because of the bandwidth and bit-rate necessary," James said. "We do shoot some of our video in hi def and then encode it into flash or Real or Windows Media which produces cleaner streaming video on the net."

The Post and Union-Tribune are among the dozens of U.S. newspapers accelerating their use of video on their Web sites. In a recent study of the 40 largest local papers, Broadband Directions, a Boston-area research firm, found that almost half the sites incorporate a mix of original video and third-party content (such as video from The Associated Press). Broadband Directions President Will Richmond points out that many of the sites have "suboptimal navigation" and their storytelling is not yet well integrated. But he adds that the newspaper video is "essential" for newspapers to "re-energize their brands and importantly, to reconnect with younger audiences and offer compelling opportunities to their advertisers."

Newspapers' plunge into HD video coincides with the expectations of other organizations about the opportunities on the hi-def Web. In its year-end summary, research company In-Stat predicts that HDTV programming will become mainstream on the broadband Internet during 2007.

In-Stat cites a combination of technology developments and product introductions, such as Intel's quad-core central processing units that can easily handle HDTV and Apple's launch of HD versions of "download-to-own" iTunes movies. In addition, portable PCs powered by AMD and ATI chips that can include HDTV tuners and graphic accelerators open new doors for HD Web video--and for local newspapers.

The dinosaur publishers, best known for their dependence on dead trees and ink by the trainload, are trying to leverage their local skills into next-generation HD broadband publishing. Their efforts open opportunities for digital alliances--and/or competition--with broadcast and cable companies as well as new markets for technology suppliers who can support their broadband video agenda.

But don't expect kids on street corners to wave a portable media device and screech, "Extra, Extra. See All About It!" The HD image will beat them to it.

Gary Arlen

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.