Video clips killed the cable news star

Video clips are rapidly transforming the way political and cultural commentary is generated and circulated. Statements and actions by prominent figures that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and unremarked upon after being aired just once or twice on cable television are now increasingly being identified, surfaced, commented on, and spread around online.

This new phenomenon of video clip-based online journalism and commentary is bootstrapping a new kind of scaffolding better suitable for our more rapidly responsive public discourse. Video clips shared on social media are enabling a more visceral, richer, and more accessible many-to-many conversation about today’s most pressing issues of social concern that goes well beyond what the one-to-many medium of cable television can facilitate.

Graham Lampa at the Atlantic Council

In the seemingly ever-increasing pace of the modern world, the question is not only whether trusted media outlets can keep up but whether their audiences even have the time and attention available that is necessary to keep themselves broadly informed as citizens. Combine this with users’ growing expectations of interactivity and being able to have their own say and conditions are ripe for a video clip-powered revolution in how people inform themselves—and one another—about the world around them.

Online media pioneer John Battelle has noted that linear cable television seems intent on keeping eyeballs glued to the screen all day long. His new venture, Recount Media, seeks to give people the information they need and to give them back their time.

“What you can’t do,” Battelle said in a recent interview with Paul Blanchard on the Media Masters podcast, “is set out to waste your audiences’ time, which is exactly what video journalism does both online—think YouTube—and offline in linear television.”

“Without the ability to quickly assess, with your own eyes, using the most powerful medium we’ve come up with—which is digital video—the national dialogue is suffering,” Battelle says. “What you have instead are these sort of endless yell fests on television… they tend to push people into confirmation bias bubbles or worse.” Recount Media, he says, was founded in part to reimagine the “manufacturing process for video journalism” and employs short video clips to quickly provide its audiences the news and context they need, at the time of their choosing, and in the places they tend to gather.

A key platform for such short-form video journalism is Twitter and one of the most prominent leaders in this space is my close friend and journalist Aaron Rupar of Vox Media. Rupar has helped establish the “Twitter video clip thread” as an entirely new and uniquely impactful form of media content as he’s simultaneously grown his Twitter audience to over 600 thousand followers. Rupar takes a clip, contextualizes it from a sharp political perspective, and sends it out into the world.

The video clip thread fundamentally transforms its source material—often hours and hours of cable television coverage of political speeches—into an entirely new product that is quickly scannable, watchable, and shareable. Bite-sized pieces of easily consumable video content come packaged with incisive commentary that situates the source material within a broader political, cultural, and journalistic context.

Video clips are not only highly consumable, they’re now also highly producible. The relatively recent availability of easy-to-use tools like SnapStream helps make working with video content more akin to editing text than to traditional video editing. My and Rupar’s mutual adoption of video as the primary medium for our work was not expected—hen Rupar and I first met over 15 years ago, I was the editor of our college newspaper and he was preparing himself for a career in print journalism. SnapStream and other tools allow us—as words-oriented content creators—to be able to produce video-based content (normally quite time-consuming) en masse. For example, almost half of Rupar’s more than 12,000 tweets in 2020 containing video content, up from just 8% in 2017.

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At my own organization, the Atlantic Council (a Washington, DC-headquartered, non-profit, non-partisan think tank with significant international reach), I have similarly led an effort to derive greater value from our own most plentiful resource—hours and hours of video of traditional think tank panel discussions—by distilling these often highly academic, niche policy conversations into more engaging Twitter video threads. Since going fully remote in March this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council has hosted some 370 public online events.

Following my very first application of Rupar’s SnapStream-powered technique (a thread covering HR McMaster’s final speech as National Security Advisor, hosted at the Atlantic Council in April 2018) went viral and smashed all existing engagement records for Twitter at my organization, the Council has since adopted this method as the main way in which we publicize our own events and the ideas they generate—live as they are happening. The McMaster thread generated what was for us at the time a significant amount of engagement—over a half million impressions generated through over 300 retweets of the tweets in the thread. This was the most Twitter engagement we’d generated on any given day—five times the daily peak for impressions in the preceding three months—and we now internally use “a McMaster” as a unit of measure for Twitter impressions. Users’ retweets of our thread enabled us to distribute our exclusive video content beyond our own following and also helped spark additional traditional media interest in the speech, which had occurred late the night before after primetime, resulting in roughly 1,000 media hits within the first 48 hours, including among top-tier media outlets such as the Washington Post, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.

Our use of live video clips shared to Twitter, combined with our well-regarded ability to convene prominent world leaders in outstanding highly produced public events, allows the Atlantic Council to regularly boost our own events’ hashtags into the trending list on Twitter, giving our content much greater visibility interest well beyond our existing audiences. On average and consistently over time, our tweets containing video clips generate more than 2X the engagement of tweets without video clips.

As a non-profit think tank, our value lies in our ability to have an impact on public discourse and policymaking. However, one the most successful clips we’ve ever tweeted—of Canadian Prime Justin Trudeau speaking about youth leaders—appears on the surface to be bereft of any actual policy content at all. However our overarching policy goal for the event at which the Prime Minister spoke was to engage the next generation of young leaders to help re-establish the relevance of NATO within today’s more complex and dynamic global system.

This one video clip—served up as a standalone tweet that received over 1300 likes and 400 retweets rather than as part of a longer thread— delivered on that policy goal in a way that noa research paper, study, or panel discussion traditional products for a think tank) geared towards more mature audiences likely never could—by reaching our target audience (young people across Europe and North America) where they congregate (on social media) and capturing their attention to deliver our message  that “young people must actively shape the future by the things they do today.” The clip also helped make our #NATOEngages hashtag trend in London where we hosted the event in December 2019, leveraging popular appeal to focus greater attention on the often inscrutable topics of international affairs and alliances.

Why is this content format so uniquely engaging? Three main factors make the Twitter video thread uniquely impactful on the news consumer and the online media ecosystem.

First, the combination of textual commentary layered on top of the original source video simultaneously provides a kind of self-reinforcing justification of newsworthiness. Don’t believe the journalist’s commentary? Watch the video. Don’t understand why the video matters? Read the commentary for more context.

Second, when any given tweet from a video clip thread is shared on by any given user, the entire thread of content is discoverable by their followers—not only the video clip tweet that caught the original user’s interest. The second user may find an entirely different clip that they find worthy of sharing on, contributing to the strongly viral nature of such content. While we don’t post the enormous engagement numbers my friend Aaron Rupar does, the Atlantic Council’s “McMaster moment” demonstrates that even a wonky think tank playing it down the middle can also punch above its weight online by effectively leveraging video threads to advance its impact as an organization.

Third, and perhaps most vitally, Twitter’s “quote tweet” feature allows the recirculation of the underlying source content with each additional user’s own commentary layered on top and spread yet further. For example, Rupar’s video tweets are quote tweeted, on average, 15 times more often than his non-video tweets (in 2017 when Rupar began using SnapStream, his video tweets outperformed his non-video tweets in this metric by 40 times, helping him build his following early on). Here, we begin to see how this new scaffolding for public discourse is being built quote tweet by quote tweet.

Why does all of this matter?

Although social media is often (and rightfully) blamed for creating information bubbles, I would argue that the self-evident nature of video—combined with layers upon layers of political and cultural commentary—is actually contributing to a greater circulation of ideas and viewpoints across and among political constituencies. People don’t only react to video clips by liking or retweeting them—they’re engaging in conversation themselves by using these clips as the basis for their own political and cultural commentary.

For journalists, media outlets, and other organizations seeking broad audiences for their content, video is a uniquely powerful way to connect with end users and tools like SnapStream that make it possible to produce short-form video content at the scale necessary to “feed the beast” and keep audiences coming back from more.

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