When it comes to online video, YouTube is top dog, with more users and vastly more content than any other site. But as a source of local news it's just a pup, and many television stations aren't quite sure if it's as tail-waggingly friendly as it seems.
YouTube launched a local news feature last year, based on a simple concept. "[We] take advantage of the fact that we know where users are coming from and provide relevant content," said Steve Grove, YouTube's head of news and politics.
When users sign on, the site automatically pulls together the most recent news-related videos posted within 100 miles of their log-in location and displays them under the heading News Near You. The content comes primarily from local stations that voluntarily put their video on YouTube, including stations owned by Hearst, Tribune Co. and LIN Television.
But there are more skeptics than believers. Only about 325 of the 25,000 news sources listed on Google News have agreed to supply video to YouTube, according to the site's own statistics. And it's not hard to figure out why.
More than 90 percent of local TV stations have video on their Web sites, according to a Radio Television Digital News Association/Hofstra University study, but less than a third of those sites make a profit. Stations want users to come to them for video, in part to generate more traffic for online ads.
Jim Willi, senior vice president of the TV consulting firm AR&D, says that's understandable. "Just like when local stations started providing news on CNN — it means we are giving away our biggest strength — localism — that drives viewers to our TV station websites," Willi wrote on his blog. But he now believes that YouTube users are unlikely to ever visit a station's Web site, so local television won't reach that audience any other way.
That's been the thinking at Hearst-owned WBAL-TV in Baltimore, one of the first local stations to put almost all of its TV news stories on YouTube, beginning in 2007. "I see YouTube as just another opportunity to find viewers," says News Director Michelle Butt. "I wouldn't say it's been a raging viral success, but we've seen what it can do."
While most of the station's videos draw no more than a few hundred views, the biggest hit so far — a story about Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps — got half a million, more than five times the average audience for the station's 11 p.m. newscast.
Putting stories on YouTube hasn't cost WBAL any video views on wbaltv.com, says Managing Editor Chris Vaughn, but there's no evidence that exposure on YouTube has brought the site any additional traffic, either. "On a day-to-day basis I don't see it as a mechanism to draw people to our Web site," Butt says. "But if this makes me top of mind for local news, it may give them a reason to come."
YouTube's Grove says it ought to be a no-brainer for TV stations to get on board, because News Near You makes it easy for a local audience to find their content. "Why would you not be on the most dominant video platform on the Web?" he asks. "Go to where the audience is."
But is the audience that comes to YouTube for music videos and silly stunts captured on camera even interested in news? Yes, indeed, says Grove. Close to 10 percent of users who land on YouTube's news and politics page click to watch a News Near You video, a rate he calls "extraordinarily high."
Considering the size of YouTube's audience, there's plenty of upside potential. The site drew more than 100 million users in January in the United States alone, according to the Web analytics firm Quantcast.
And the payoff for producers isn't just more viewers. YouTube attaches ads to local news video and shares the revenue with the stations' parent companies. "We make money off our YouTube channels," says Jacques Natz, director of digital media content at Hearst Television, although he won't say how much.
News Near You is still a work in progress. My local page, for example, pulls up videos from TV stations in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore — not exactly news near me in Washington, D.C. And user-generated videos tagged as news can pop up as well. On one recent visit, I found a bizarre party video sandwiched between local TV news stories about swine flu and a job training program.
Grove says YouTube vets the creators of citizen videos before adding their work to the local news section, but the juxtaposition can still be off-putting. "Being side by side with amateurs with low production values is not ideal," Natz says. "Do we like having the channel and video views? Yes. Being lumped in a category with content that's not from news providers? No." For now, though, Hearst remains committed to YouTube as part of its overall online strategy, as Natz puts it, "to make sure we have referrals from all over."
So is YouTube a threat to local TV news? Not now and maybe not ever. The real threat may be stations' inability to see the value of sharing their content as widely as possible, while the audience for their traditional broadcasts slips away.