As Online Video Surges, Publishers Turn to Automation

As Online Video Surges, Publishers Turn to Automation
By JOHN HERRMAN JULY 10, 2016

In a television appearance in early June, Michael W. Ferro Jr., the chairman of the newspaper and magazine publishing company Tronc — formerly known as Tribune Publishing — made an astonishing claim.

“Right now we’re doing a couple hundred videos a day,” he said. “We think we need to be doing 2,000 videos a day.”

Mr. Ferro’s comments added to mounting confusion over his embattled company’s sudden rebranding. How could a newspaper publisher create nearly three-quarters of a million videos a year?

But as jarring as Tronc’s goals may sound, the company’s plan is far from novel. In pursuit of more lucrative video advertising and success on dominant social platforms like Facebook, a growing number of publishers have turned to technology that promises to streamline video production, sometimes to the point of near-full automation.

The market for this service is largely split between two companies, Wochit and Wibbitz, which both maintain offices in New York City and Tel Aviv. (Wochit also has an office in London.) Wibbitz’s customers include Bonnier magazines, Hearst, Gannett and the Weather Channel, which uses the service to create local news reports. Customers of Wochit have included Time Inc., CBS Interactive, The Huffington Post, Rotten Tomatoes and NowThis News.

“Traditionally we’ve employed teams — someone out shooting and someone able to cut up and produce the video,” said Chris Pirrone, who manages USA Today’s digital sports publications. “Doing that is one, expensive, and two, takes a while to turn around. That’s where we’ve found these tools useful.”

Bonnier, publisher of Popular Science and Saveur, recently announced a partnership with Wibbitz. “For us, as a company with over 30 titles, it really allows us to create a lot more video,” said Sean Holzman, chief digital revenue officer at Bonnier.

The two services’ automation features work in similar ways. They analyze, and may summarize, text, be it a script or a traditional news article, and then automatically find photographs and video clips to go with it. The services typically get the videos and images from sources like The Associated Press and Getty Images.

Additionally, the tools offer the option to quickly put large animated captions over the videos, in a format that has become popular on Facebook, where videos begin playing automatically and are often watched with the sound off. Each can also supply, through a third party, on-demand human narration; Wibbitz offers computerized voice-overs as well.

The level of human intervention before publishing is up to the clients. They can be hands-on from the start, making edits, adding original material and using the tools to speed things along. Or they can let the machines do almost all the work — betting that it will be good enough for viewers — or, at least, for advertisers. Wibbitz can scan a website and create a “rough cut” video for every published article.

Wochit clients produce about 30,000 videos a month, according to the company, a number that has doubled since January. Wibbitz says it has twice as many clients now as it did at the start of the year, and the number of videos published using the company’s software has increased more than sixfold in the same time period.

“The way we see it, we can help you increase your video inventory in a very significant way,” said Zohar Dayan, a co-founder and chief executive of Wibbitz.

There is also the promise of money. Many publishers, like Tronc, are searching for ways to increase online revenue, as revenue from web advertising remains stubbornly low and print revenue continues to decline. Video advertisements tend to warrant higher rates than other online ads.

Wibbitz and Wochit split advertising revenue with some publishers; Wochit sells subscriptions as well. Some sites are adding the videos on the same page as a related story. Often, the videos — preloaded with ad spots — start playing automatically.

Wochit and Wibbitz also suggested that interest has surged, in part, as publishers rush to accommodate demand for more video on Facebook and other social services. At a conference in June, a Facebook vice president described video as “the best way to tell stories in this world” and suggested that the service would be “probably all video” in five years, echoing earlier claims by the social network’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

Tech giants have dabbled in forms of automated video production, albeit for different sorts of customers. In 2014, Facebook generated personalized “Look Back” videos from user profiles to celebrate the company’s 10th anniversary. Last week, the company rolled out a “slide show” feature, which automatically stitches together images from users’ photo collections into short videos, in its iPhone app.

In June, Google released the highly automated video production tool YouTube Director, intended to encourage business owners to make video ads.

Publishers are cautiously optimistic about the potential of video automation tools, and not just for the pre-existing tasks that they make cheaper and faster. But publishers are keenly aware of how quickly new online formats can be commoditized, and, after years of chasing traffic — most recently from Google and Facebook — how rapidly advantages can evaporate.

Mr. Pirrone of USA Today said his sites were already moving beyond straightforward conversion of articles into videos.

“The data came back very quickly that text-to-video alone, if you don’t touch it, consumers can quickly recognize it is not a high-quality product,” Mr. Pirrone said.

Mr. Dayan of Wibbitz said, “There still needs to be a human, a process, to give that personal touch.”

In the longer term, publishers’ plans for these tools may be less about industrial-scale article conversion than giving an extra set of tools — and responsibilities — to journalists. Publishers described the services as supplemental to more conventional video teams, freeing up resources and letting nonspecialist employees make videos as well.

“The way we create video hasn’t changed in decades,” said Dror Ginzberg, a founder and the chief executive of Wochit, who characterized Wochit’s features as an extension of capabilities and shortcuts provided by existing video production software.

As for Tronc and its 2,000-a-day video goal, Wibbitz counts among its investors NantMobile, a firm headed by the biotech billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who happens to be the second-largest stakeholder in Tronc. Neither company would say whether they had a partnership; representatives for Tronc said that its automated video production would be a mixture of “internal and external” technologies. Some Tronc properties currently publish videos bearing a Wochit logo; Gannett, which recently initiated a hostile takeover of Tronc, has used Wochit and Wibbitz.

In a video created for employees but released publicly in June, Malcolm CasSelle, Tronc’s chief technology officer, laid out his company’s rationale. “The C.P.M. that we can earn with a video, or visualized content, is significantly higher than a page without it,” he said, referring to advertising rates on news articles.

The company stood by its plans. “When it comes to video, we can monetize our video best within the player on our site,” said Anne Vasquez, the company’s chief digital officer, referring to a plan to include video on half of all article pages by next year.

“Video is video,” Mr. CasSelle said. “We’re producing it because it’s strategic and important.”

He added: “We’re also going to continue to augment with these tools. It could be that the augmented video is so efficient that it outpaces human-generated video.”

A version of this article appears in print on July 11, 2016, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: As Online Video Gains Ground, Publishers Seek Automation to Expand Output



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