Pew: YouTube Represents New Kind Of “Visual Journalism”

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Consumers may think of YouTube as the go-to place for watching funny cats, wannabe stars in the making or music videos, and Google may be pushing YouTube as a destination for original contentTV and movies, but a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism says that YouTube is also serving another purpose these days: it’s a news outlet. The report goes so far as to dub this content, largely user-produced, as a “new kind of visual journalism.”

The report cited the earthquake in Japan as one example of this trend in action, saying that in the week following, the 20 most news-related videos on the site were all focused on the event, and totalled 96 million views between them. Most of the footage was captured by citizens, and in some cases, news outlets had scooped up the user-gen footage and incorporated it into their own reports. In addition, according to YouTube’s internal data, the most searched for term of the month on the video-sharing service in 2011 and early 2012 was a news-related item.

From January 2011 to March 2012, Pew examined 260 of the most popular news videos on the site, to determine its findings, which it has released today.

Some of the highlights from the study (see below), show how different YouTube “news” is from traditional TV news. Content is varied, user-produced, and not personality-driven, the report found. And because many people have the capability to now record the news as it’s happening using smartphones and portable video cameras, raw citizen footage of intensely visual events, like natural and manmade disasters, political upheavals, and more, tends to be popular.

Here are the top findings:

  • The most popular news videos tended to depict natural disasters or political upheaval-usually featuring intense visuals. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami was number one and accounted for 5% of all the 260 videos, followed by elections in Russia (5%) and unrest in the Middle East (4%).
  • News events are inherently more ephemeral than other kinds of information, but at any given moment news can outpace even the biggest entertainment videos. In 2011, news events were the most searched term on YouTube four months out of 12, according to YouTube’s data. These included the Japanese Earthquake, the killing of Osama bin Laden, a fatal motorcycle accident, and news of a homeless man who spoke with what those producing the video called a “god-given gift of voice.” (That last one is a little iffy, if you ask me).
  • More than a third of the most watched videos (39%) were clearly identified as coming from citizens. Another 51% were from news organizations, though some of that footage also appeared to have been shot by users, not journalists. 5% came from corporate and political groups, and the origin of another 5% was not identified.
  • Citizens are responsible for posting a good deal of the videos originally produced by news outlets. 39% of the news videos originally produced by a news organization were posted by users. 61% were posted by the same news organizations that produced the reports.
  • The most popular news videos are a mix of edited and raw footage.  More than half of the most-viewed videos, 58%, involved footage that had been edited, but a sizable percentage, 42%, was raw footage. Of videos produced by news organizations, 65% were edited, but so were 39% of what came from citizens.
  • Personalities are not a main driver of the top news videos. No one individual was featured in even 5% of the most popular videos studied. 65% did not feature any individual at all. Within the small group of popular videos that were focused on people, President Barack Obama was the most popular figure (featured in 4% of the top videos worldwide).
  • The lengths of the most popular news videos on YouTube vary greatly. The median length of the most popular news videos was 2 minutes and 1 second, which is longer than the median length of a story package on local TV news (41 seconds) but shorter than the median length on national network evening newscasts (2 minutes and 23 seconds). The most popular news videos on YouTube were also fairly evenly distributed from under a minute (29%), one to two minutes (21%), two to five minutes (33%) and longer than five (18%).

YouTube now says it sees over 72 hours of video uploaded every minute and it gets over 4 billion video views per day. Plus, according to Pew’s own studies, the site saw 71% visiting it or Vimeo in 2011, up from 66% in 2010. More details related to the study’s finding are here. While Pew’s report stops short of making recommendations to news outlets looking to maximize their presence on YouTube, there is one obvious takeaway from the data: YouTube videos that do well tell a story in visuals, not with talking heads.