Why Embedding Demo Videos is Not the Problem

Last Thursday, acclaimed tech journalist Sarah Lacy wrote an article on PandoDaily proclaiming that she had “called a kibosh” on posting demo videos in posts related to start-ups. Under her definition of demo video, she included not just product demos, but also any…

informative or funny video explaining how [the start-up’s] product works.

In other words, any type of promo video.

She then laid out a detailed argument about why PandoDaily had called a strict moratorium on demo videos. The gist of it was that demo videos are advertising created by public relations firms. They are not journalism. They support a particular, biased point of view, namely that of a particular company and its investors. Furthermore, posting them is…

just lazy, and worse, it gives away [the journalist’s] power.

I agree with Lacy on the last statement. I also agree with her core argument regarding journalistic standards, and whether journalists should be relying on PR as primary sources. That goes across the board, not just for tech journalists, but also for reporters of all stripes. If her article was a Braveheart-style rallying cry for journalists to rise above the deadline demands of today’s mass media and channel their inner Edward R. Murrows, then I would be retweeting her to all my colleagues.

I might even print the thing and frame it above my workstation. …That is, my workstation where I put together a lot of promo videos. That’s right, full disclosure here, I am a video producer. I work in web, TV, and film. I produce content and advertising, and that new fangled type of web video that blurs the line between them… branded content (or savvy PR promo videos). I could write volumes about that type of video, but for the purposes of this post I’ll concentrate on why I think (as smart as Sarah Lacy is) her article misses the point.

First a little more context, in addition to someone who works in video marketing, I also fancy myself a documentarian, and thus a journalist in some respects. I care immensely about the profession, and particularly the abysmal state of journalistic standards in today’s media. I am sympathetic to the demands placed on journalists like those in tech who…

may be new to the industry, [are] pressed for time, and [don’t] have the wherewithal to use the product sufficiently or even spend time on the phone with the entrepreneur.

Lacy is right when she says that because of the …

volume demands of most blogs, reporters who have to file multiple stories a day are under intense pressure.

Blogs, 24-hour news networks, newspapers, they’re all beasts hungry for content. Despite what the current zeitgeist on media creation would have you believe, good content is NOT cheap or easy to create. It doesn’t happen quickly. Thought out journalism takes time and resources. The problem is that time and resources are becoming luxury items for most news organizations. That’s no excuse. It is still not journalism to publish PR materials; whether they are demo videos are press releases. Sarah Lacy is right about that. My point of contention with her article is that I believe that laying any blame at the feet of PR materials is just silly. That’s like a vegetarian attacking a steak house for serving prime rib.

Lacy is conscious of this fact, and sums up my argument here:

There’s a natural tension between PR people (who are not all inept for the record) who get paid to get a company’s message across and a reporter who wants to write a critical, nuanced piece. It’s like mice writing long emo blog posts complaining about cats.

Yet her article comes across as a series of excuses for why journalists aren’t able to adequately report, and are therefore at the mercy of PR firms hungrily waiting to co-opt their articles. That amounts to a long justification for banning demo videos as a solution to snipping the wires of their PR puppet masters. Viva la revolution! It was the demo vids, they were the problem all along. Of course!

I must deduce that she believes banning a particular type of PR from PandoDaily will imply a certain degree of integrity in their reporting.

I disagree. I call it censorship. She is literally saying that because journalism is hard, and news organizations don’t have the resources for proper investigation, or in some cases to hire knowledgeable staff, then the solution is to ban a tool used by companies to communicate their point of view. Really?

So to echo a question in Lacy’s article, what is the role of journalism here?

Let’s work backwards and start with the role of PR, which seems fairly obvious.

Wikipedia defines Public Relations as: the practice of managing the flow of information between an individual or an organization and the public.

Therefore, the point of PR is to help a client formulate a message, and then to get that message out to the public. There is nothing insidious about that. Demo videos are not insidious, but an effective tool for messaging. Blacklisting them from news sites is not going to change that.  It will not raise journalistic standards or credibility.

Wikipedia defines journalism as: the investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience.

How will blacklisting demo videos help one bit in the investigation of issues and trends of interest to the audience?

Companies, be they a small start-up or a giant corporation, do not need any particular media organization to post their videos. Sure blogs act as filters, and there are certainly benefits to having a popular blog post your demo video. It’s a smart strategy for PR, but with or without the tech blogger, the videos will be out there. People searching for the company will find them, watch them, and absorb the information. If a journalist wants to inform people about a company, it is their responsibility to use those videos as one source of information. They are part of what’s out there. They are literally the point of view of the company. For a reporter to perform due diligence in an investigation, they need to at least absorb materials that communicate a subjects point of view. Does that mean that’s all they should do? Of course it doesn’t mean that. But to ignore them, to ban them is ridiculous.

The reporters job is to call bullshit on a companies PR, or not, depending on what they find in their independent investigation. They can then post the PR material or not, depending on their own editorial whims. However, if they do post it, and this is an important point, they must contextualize it. Context is everything. Simply tell the audience where the material came from and trust them to be smart enough to decide for themselves.  Banning demo videos is not a solution.

Just like it’s lazy to post PR unfiltered, it’s also lazy to attack PR for being PR. Demo videos have an important role in today’s media landscape, which is full of white noise because the tools of creation and distribution are so readily available.  It is the responsibility of journalists to filter that noise and present the truth to the best of their ability. It is the responsibility of brands to add their own voices to the conversation. They must be present. Demo (promo) videos are an effective way to do that. They help a brand communicate their point of view in an easily consumable and sharable manner.  Therefore they’re not going anywhere, and ignoring them is not going to help anyone.

So instead of attacking the demo video, let’s build a new paradigm for journalism. Easier said than done, of course. Smarter people than me are thinking about this everyday, and I sure don’t have a solution. But the bottom line is that we need a new model for funding real investigative journalists that are reporting on everything from Silicon Valley to the war in Afghanistan. Banning demo videos isn’t going to help with that, its just going to narrow the conversation.

What do you think?

Comment below, or hit me up on twitter @jeremeylavoi.

2 Responses to “Why Embedding Demo Videos is Not the Problem”

  1. Sarah Lacy says:

    I’ve read this a few times, and I don’t totally follow where the disagreement is. I think you misread much of my post, which is a shame.

    I didn’t blame the materials at all– except in the case where someone talked about fraud, and as a professional, I’d guess you’d agree on that one. I didn’t blame the PR people or the companies either. I explicitly blamed the journalism cycle. That’s why we’ve built our company differently. In fact, I called PR people savvy for doing it! You called me lazy for attacking PR; I’d submit it’s “lazy” to write that without reading what I actually wrote ;)

    And I explicitly said demo videos are great to send to a reporter to impart information to the reporter, the same way a press release or a fact sheet is. I’m not banning those from existing. But I don’t cut and paste them into posts. That wouldn’t be doing my job.

    If you read my post as excuses for why reporters can’t report in this day and age and the world should revolve around that reality, that was a clear misreading. We don’t do quick turn around journalism so clearly, I don’t buy any of those excuses. I quit a highly paid job to start a new company to break that cycle. This is why we rank low on TechMeme. Every article has a minimum of two sources– yes, phone calls or in person interviews. I think if you look at *anything* we do with PandoDaily, it’s a surprising conclusion to say I’m making excuses for journalists who are ruled by volume and speed. The entire site — the dual news feeds, the ticker, the staff we hired– are explicitly because we do not do business that way. I have called this out more than anyone. Did you read my post on why I started the site?

    Furthermore, I said I think the videos have their place, so hyperbolically saying I want to ban and ignore them is just silly and misrepresenting my post. Companies paying to produce videos should absolutely have them on their own sites. They are part of the conversation. And that’s where they tell their story in their own words. I think it’s great. Companies should have every right to communicate directly with users.

    It’s just inappropriate for me to put a company paid for video (read: commercial by the basic definition) under my byline. There is no “context” that excuses that. I might link to it, if it’s well done the same way I’d link to a company’s blog post. But that isn’t why people come to my site.

    We already have a new paradigm for “journalism” in the broadest sense where companies frequently have their own blogs and communicate their own news. That’s the place for demo videos. No context can excuse putting information paid for by a company into an independent journalist’s post. And there are plenty of places that are paying for investigative work. I spend $100k bootstrapping a two year project about entrepreneurship in the emerging world. We invest heavily in stories we think are worth it.

    The only place we clearly disagree is you think it’s censorship. That’s a very loaded word. It’s my blog! Companies have no “rights” to post their collateral on my blog. That’s the entire role of the press! People you are writing about *don’t* control it, unless you are in an authoritarian country. By that logic, it’d be censorship if someone sent me a press release and I didn’t do a story on it.

  2. Sarah, thanks for your response. I’m flattered.

    I think we basically agree on many things, and I also said that in my post. I did my best to point out where I thought you were right. I think the idea behind PandoDaily is great. I’ve got no issue with you as an individual or journalist, and certainly no broad issue with your site. In fact, I called you smart in my post. However I do think we have differing view on this topic. That doesn’t mean that I “misread” your post, it means that we disagree. I think it comes off a little strong to write that I “misread” you and then tweet that I “misunderstood much of what [you] wrote, which is weird”.

    You started the article saying you don’t do “a lot of rants about PR people”, which sets up the piece to be at least partially a “rant about PR people”. The title of the piece is “Why We Don’t Embed Demo Videos (And You Shouldn’t Either)”. That last part sounds like you’re advocating for other tech blogs to stop posting demo videos. Isn’t that pushing for a form of censorship?

    You have every right to post whatever you want on your blog. I would never presume to tell you what you can or cannot post. However, you are not simply saying that you choose not to post demo videos. By saying “you shouldn’t either” you are using your power as an influential tech journalist to block the dissemination of demo videos on other sites. Of course you aren’t trying to ban them from existence. You might also think they work great in the context of a press kit, which is what they are for. But in advocating that other journalists stop posting them, you’re advocating for a type of ban.

    You then go on to say, “But there’s a new trend in startup PR that looks nice and helpful, but I worry is actually pretty insidious for journalism: the demo video.” There you modify the words “nice and helpful” with the word “looks” insinuating that they are deceptive somehow. You follow that up with the word “insidious”. The full phrase is “insidious for journalism”. I agree with that if the video is not contextualized. However, starting the sentence by implying a deceptive quality to the videos, and then ending it by claiming that they are “insidious for journalism” paints a pretty negative picture of said videos regardless of how you might rephrase that later in the article. As a reader, I’m thinking you have a negative view of those videos, not simply how they are used in the current journalism cycle. Because you are a popular tech journalist and an influencer, there is a potential for your words to have a chilling effect on the production of those videos.

    For many start-ups that are bootstrapping, and not yet funded, producing an inexpensive demo, promo, or explainer is great opportunity to get information out about their company. Of course companies can and will post them on their own sites, but you are telling tech journalists to stop those videos from reaching their own audiences. Maybe the word censorship is strong, but I’m not sure what else to call it.

    I agree with you that no journalist should give carte blanche to PR firms, companies, and their press kits. Any information that comes from a company should be investigated and contextualized. All I’m saying is that contextualization is a more constructive solution than creating a “strict moratorium” on those types of videos and advocating that the “rest of the industry should do the same”.

    To put it another way, the tone of the article gives the videos a negative connotation. I think that’s bad for companies that might want to make them. If they choose not to because of that conotation, they miss an effective opportunity to promote themselves. I don’t think putting “the kibosh” on them helps journalistic integrity. I think absolutes are dangerous in general. Context goes a long way.

    Apologies for sounding hyperbolic if I came across that way. I suppose that’s the danger in a quick blog post. “Excuse” was a poor choice, and my use of words like “lazy” and “insidious” were simply plays on your own use of those same words, and in no way meant to reflect on you personally. However I think that the sentence “There is no “context” that excuses” putting a commercial under your byline is also a tad hyperbolic. I don’t think people are coming to your site for that, but if that video is the point of view of the company you’re writing about, then there is context for having it in your post. In fact, I might argue that having it embedded in your post within the context of your thoughts on it is a more powerful way to write about it than sending your readers to the companies website which is missing your thoughtful editorial and journalistic voice.

    Congrats on your own work in furthering true investigative journalism. Looking forward to further discussion!

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