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.

JADED Sizzle Reel

This is a sizzle reel for JADED featuring videos produced before 2011. It’s meant to be fast, fun, and to communicate the scope of what we’re capable of with an emphasis on Branded Content, Serial Programming, and Non-Fiction.

It features work written, produced, shot, or edited (and in many cases a combination of all of the above) by Abby and/ or Jeremey. It includes work produced as staff at Nick@Nite and TV Land, Current TV, HarperCollins, and Seesmic. It includes client work for Bank of America (iB5k), ESPN, Causes, Current TV, Supercharged: The Life and Times of Tim Brauch, Institute for the Future, Roughneck Hardware, and DWNTWN Skate Supply. It also includes clips from independently produced projects including Make it Happen: DIY Across America, It’s a Rough Life, and Roughcutz Da Movie.

Full list of videos below:

DWNTWN: SOMA
One Ride
Current TV: Sisterz of the Underground
DWNTWN: Tenderloin
Roughneck Hardware: BART Tour 2010
Make It Happen: Chuck Perkins and Voices of the Big Easy
Roughcutz Da Movie
Make It Happen: Lost Film Fest
HarperOne: Tales of Wonder by Huston Smith
Bank of America: BUILT NYC
Bank of America: White Memorial Hospital
Bank of America: Adams and Central
Bank of America: Butte College Workforce Development
It’s a Rough Life
Causes.com: The Gift of Giving
ESPN.com: Roughneck BART Tour 2009
Atlas Skateboard Store
Supercharged, the Life and Times of Tim Brauch: Open/ Web Promo
Nick@Nite: Brady Weekend Promo
Institue for the Future: Future Cal Courts Employee Orientation
HarperOne: Mariel’s Kitchen by Mariel Hemingway
Current TV: Current@Bonnaroo, SuchNSuch
Seesmic Cafe
Unboxing on Seesmic
Yahoo! Current Action Buzz
Thrasher Bust or Bail 2008
Make It Happen: Lowcard
Current TV: Invisible Children, Displace Me
Seesmic DuJour
Make It Happen: Okay Mountain
Make It Happen: Austin Craft Mafia
Institue for the Future: Cal Courts Justice Chronicles
Current TV: BlakkBox, Kidnapped

The track is “Callin’ Out” by Lyrics Born from the album Later That Day