The rise of the publisher video polymath

No one wears one hat in digital media, particularly in the fast-changing (and growing) field of video. Gone are the days when video production meant either recording or editing. Instead, producing video has expanded into the realms of reporting, producing and crafting distribution strategies specific to each big platform. It’s the one-man band model, but for video.

Quartz, for example, calls its video production people “video journalists” and expects them to script, report, shoot, edit and chop up their videos for multiple platforms. Vox, too, wants a lot from its video producers, who in the Snapchat age are pulled into ideation, reporting, production (including graphics) and distribution as well. Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney called these new kinds of unicorns video “polymaths.”

“We expect our journalists to own their stories and be the creative force from conception to completion,” said Xana Antunes, Quartz’s editor of new initiatives. “Digital has brought us the opportunity to bring those skills back together, and the result is much more powerful story.”

One recent example, which was produced by Quartz video journalist Jacob Templin, is a minute-long look at the rise of drone racing, which was shot with a drone around the football stadium in Miami. The video is optimized for Facebook: Instead of relying on sound, the video tells the though several text overlays. However, Templin didn’t shoot the video himself. Instead, he pulled the footage from a promo video Drone Racing League released a day before Quartz’s shortened, more focused version. In two weeks, the Quartz video has been viewed 21 million times on Facebook and shared 260,000 times. (The Drone Racing League’s original video has been viewed 6.6 million times on Facebook.)

While Antunes chalks up the success to the reporter’s obsession with the topic and his ability to tell a compelling story in a way that resonated with the Facebook audience, it is also a new front in digital publishing’s aggregation scramble. While original video resonates, often it’s repackaging of existing, popular video content that hits home. This is itself a different skillset, arguably less original but requiring an eye for virality and an ability to quickly edit and re-package content in ways that will hit home in the Facebook news feed. The Drone Racing League’s video, in fact, became fodder for several publications to repackage. AskMen has a version, so too does Vocativ and Fubiz simply republished the video on Facebook.

“The people coming from broadcast typically have skills that are too narrow for what we’re looking for,” Antunes said. “The skills aren’t new, but the expectation that you’ll find them all in one person is.” (Templin himself is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, teaching “multiplatform storytelling.”)

The publisher search for generalist video producers is also a product of economics. Hiring a single reporter who can both write and produce video is more cost effective than hiring two people who can do one of those jobs. This is vital for publishers just starting out in video, which can get expensive quickly.

But the idea that video producers should hold multiple roles is a divisive one. At Mashable Collective, the publisher’s 19-person unit for distributed content, video production duties are still carved out by specialization, with dedicated shooters, editors, and animators. The idea is to let people gravitate to their skills, not force them to chase skills they’re not passionate about.

“The one-man-band concept is a top-down misconception of what’s going to benefit you as a storytelling outfit in the long run. It seems efficient, but it’s not what’s going to help you get the best out of people,” said Mashable director of creative development Jeff Petriello.