Heading Into the YouTube Age

By: Harry Jaffe

Tom Kennedy’s helping the Post move from still pictures to video. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Videos are the hot new thing on the Web. At Washingtonpost.com, the videography staff, run by Tom Kennedy, has won a slew of awards, including the first Emmy for video on the Web.

But is it journalism?

In April, the visual gallery on the Post site featured “Edwards Family Values,” a documentary following presidential hopeful John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, on the campaign trail. In a New Hampshire yogurt factory, a worker tells Mrs. Edwards, “I’ve really been inspired by you and your husband” and hands her a check.

The Edwards for President campaign should have paid for the video. Other candidates should demand equal time.

“Branding Spring Break,” on the site in March, showed why video doesn’t always enhance a newspaper story. Libby Copeland’s Page 1 story about marketing to college kids was funny and wry; the video of the marketing guy by videographer Ben de la Cruz came off as one man’s slimy tour of the beach scene.

“I thought it was excellent at depicting the mix of sleaze/hype that is part of the effort,” Kennedy said in an e-mail. “I rather liked it for what it says about spring break.”

Kennedy and his visual-media operation say a lot about the Post’s emphasis on its Web site. At the outset, it hired Kennedy, one of the best photo editors in the business. He got his start taking pictures for the Orlando Sentinel in 1974, directed projects that won Pulitzers for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1980s, and spent most of the 1990s as director of photography at the National Geographic Society. He came to the Post in 1998.

“I felt visual journalism mattered less and less in print,” says Kennedy, 56. “If it was going to be revived, it was more likely it would be on the Web.”

The Post has invested many millions in its Web display. In March Kennedy and his staff of 19 rolled out a new gallery with new technology that will come closer to turning a computer into a television. “It will enable you to live in a universe of video,” Kennedy says.

The universe is still a bit blurry. Images from the Post’s “On Being” monologues still stutter and sputter on many computers. The technology will catch up to Kennedy’s standards, but how will the Post survive in a race against YouTube and TV and papers like the New York Times?

“We’re not trying to race local news to the next traffic accident,” says Washingtonpost.com editor Jim Brady. But Brady is hoping to ring up revenues from the ads that precede the videos in what are called prerolls.

Is it worth sticking around through the ads and the time it takes to load images and sound? If the video is by Travis Fox, yes. Fox won the first national Emmy for his Web video of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. His video “Crisis in Darfur Expands” brings the suffering home in images of Izzedine Adam, an infant dying of starvation.

Some photo staffers in the Post’s print newsroom in DC feel the energy getting sucked across the Potomac into the videography staff in Virginia. Is there tension between the two photo staffs?

“We have a strong relationship with many at the newspaper,” Kennedy says. “They know their future success is tethered and tied to our success.”