Vice News Keeps the Lens Open During Ferguson Protests
While some online video publishers like NowThis have condensed their news coverage to seconds-long Snapchats and Vines, Vice News has gone long.
Almost every night since last Thursday, Vice's five-month-old division devoted to serious news has posted hours-long livestreams of the protests in Ferguson, Mo., which erupted over a week ago after a local police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teen named Michael Brown. The events hit the mainstream last Wednesday when a standoff between the St. Louis suburb's local police and residents involved armored vehicles, officers armed with high-powered rifles and two reporters in handcuffs.
Rather than post photos of police-and-protester confrontations, transcribe interviews with officials or upload clips of tear gas being lobbed into crowds, a trio of Vice News journalists have left open the lens. They have captured tear gas cannisters being lobbed into crowds of protesters, filmed conversations with on-duty officers and local residents and given a largely unadulterated view into events on the ground.
"They're really just trying to describe what they're seeing and hearing and just get as much information as they can and get the camera into place where viewers at home can see what's happening for themselves and see immediately and kind of decide for themselves," said Vice News Editor-in-Chief Jason Mojica.
On Thursday night, Vice News reporter Tim Pool and producer Claire Ward navigated the scene for more than 90 minutes, interviewing protesters and narrating live feeds of the latest developments. Then on Saturday, Mr. Pool, Ms. Ward and Vice News reporter Alice Speri spent almost three hours canvassing the neighborhood. Later that night they picked the camera back up for roughly three more hours to capture the neighborhood's response to a state-mandated curfew.
Longer livestreams followed on Sunday night, Monday night and Tuesday night.
Vice News's Ferguson livestreams seem to have hit on a nerve among certain audiences accustomed to the Twitter's stream of real-time information. Mr. Mojica was unable to provide viewership numbers, but the videos' publicly available YouTube stats show that the longer livestreams haven't led to less viewers. In fact people appear to be tuning in for increasingly longer durations: Thursday night's livestream averaged four and a half minutes of watch time per view; that figure hit fifteen and a half minutes for Saturday night's second installment.
None of this was planned, especially not the lengthy livestreams. Ms. Speri arrived in Ferguson on Wednesday morning of last week with an assignment to take photos of the scene. "At that point we thought things were winding down," Mr. Mojica said. Mr. Pool and Ms. Ward arrived on Thursday. "Their mandate was go find the story behind the story …. Then of course things changed very quickly and they had to improvise," Mr. Mojica said.
Vice News's Ferguson livestreams seem to build on the police-scanner feeds that people tuned into online during last year's Boston Marathon bomber manhunt. They are unedited logs, akin to stitching together the raw, unpolished accounts Ferguson residents have posted to Twitter, Vine and Instagram. But really the livestreams aren't so different than TV news.
"I would say the thing that colored it most is just the use of live on traditional cable news networks," Mr. Mojica said. But those unblinking broadcasts have sometimes become parodies of themselves, he said; consider cable news networks' relentless coverage of the "Poop Cruise."
With livestreams as with cable news, viewers are sometimes prone to tune out the video during quiet or repetitive moments and check in on their smartphones' social feeds. For Vice News, that's kind of the point.
"You can have it on in the background. People can engage with the livestream on social media and talk about what's happening there and drawing people to that livestream when something really significant is happening," Mr. Mojica said.
Of course Vice News benefits from not being pressured to prove any business value from its livestreams, so it can yield to people's fleeting attentions. The videos don't carry any ads, and Mr. Mojica said there haven't been discussions over how to make any money from them. Advertising "hasn't impacted any sort of editorial decision-making. Basically we just have a lot of editorial freedom here and are still trying to figure out what the monetization of Vice News will be in general," he said.
One likely upside: the Ferguson coverage stands to further boost the Vice brand as a reputable news outlet. On Saturday night the company won its first Emmy Award for its HBO series, which is like an adrenaline-fueled version of CBS's "60 Minutes." And YouTube has been running ads touting Vice News's YouTube channel as a way to attract mainstream viewers and advertisers. The move into the mainstream appears to be working, at least on a local level.
"One of the stories we've been hearing from our crew on the ground when they've been talking to people in Ferguson and the area is that this is what people who have been locked in their homes every night have been watching instead of local news," Mr. Mojica said.