What were the ideas and thoughts behind Studio 55?

Months before we started working at the Naples Daily News (heck, well before anyone at Scripps had even talked to me about possibly coming to Florida), the publisher there — John Fish — really wanted to do a daily online newscast.

The working title for this project was “10@4,” which meant 10 minutes of local news at 4 p.m. each day. There was even a prototype of this newscast shot long before our team had arrived in Florida.

John Fish loves local video on a newspaper site.

When we worked together at The Topeka Capital-Journal back in 2000, we had a full-time videographer on our staff even back then — so this was not a huge stretch for him. Even before it was en vogue for newspaper publishers to think that video might be a part of our future, Fish thought having locally produced video on our sites was going to be an important part of our industry’s evolution.

Having just worked at the Lawrence Journal-World, where the newspaper not only owned the local cable company, but also owned a successful local cable television station, I told John that I thought early success for our newscast would be easier if we produced something with a little higher production value than what originally had been thought and to work very hard to get it on the local cable system.

I saw how powerful the cable system was in Lawrence in helping our newspaper achieve so many things, and I really thought a relationship with the cable company in Naples (Comcast) would be not only one of the keys to a newspaper-produced video news program having success, but also could really help out the newspaper in other ways.

So we agreed that at least for the first few years, the Studio 55 vodcast should be on local cable, as well as on our web sites.

Another key to this was that the traditional broadcast TV news programs in Naples were all coming out of Fort Myers. And just as you would expect, the coverage of Naples on these Fort Myers television stations was light at best. (Though they all did seem to kick it up several notches after we launched Studio 55.)

With the right publisher, the right new media team, the right executive editor, and a city with no local television stations, it just seemed like Naples was a perfect place to try something like this.

Here is a look, from my point of view and memory, at why we did some of the things that we did on Naples Daily News’ Studio 55 vodcast:

  • Why call it a vodcast?
  • We already had been producing a fairly slick daily audio podcast at the Naples Daily News, so I’m sure the word “podcast” had some sort of inspiration on us. But to be honest, our publisher *really* didn’t want us to call what we were going to produce a “newscast.” In fact, he was adamant about it.

    I never really got to the bottom of why he didn’t want us to use that term, but I always sensed that it was because he wanted us to make a statement that what we were going to be doing was going to be very different from that of a traditional local television news program.

    Plus, vodcast worked a couple of different ways for us. Some on our team thought that it sounded like it was the logical extension for the video version of a podcast, with the “v” standing for the video aspect.

    And then there’s the definition that we promoted heavily in a multimedia promotional campaign: that the “vod” in vodcast stood for Video On Demand — that Studio 55 could be watched whenever and wherever you wanted and on whatever device you wanted.

    It was going to be the first local news program you could watch at the beach.

  • The Look. Part 1.
  • Long before a studio had been built or designed, and even before I had formally accepted the offer to come to the Naples Daily News, the look for Studio 55 was taking shape. That’s because one of the very first people recruited to come with us to Florida was a guy named Nick Hollensbe.

    Nick is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. At any job.

    We first got to work with him at the Lawrence Journal-World. He was an intern at our sister television station. I’m not sure how many people outside of Lawrence ever saw the work that Nick did on our TV spots for lawrence.com and KUsports.com, but those ads were so dang Major League, it was almost scary.

    I remember showing these ads to other newspaper new media folks from major markets, and none of them could believe that we hadn’t hired a huge agency to produce those spots. The production value on those ads by Nick was that impressive.

    When Nick graduated from the University of Kansas, we did everything we could to get him to stay at the Lawrence Journal-World, but he was just way too talented and ended up working at a high-end advertising production studio in New York.

    But we also knew he wasn’t entirely happy in New York. When Nick accepted our offer to come to Naples, I knew Studio 55 was going to have a cool graphical look and lots of high-end production values.

    So, a nice graphical look was going to be a major part of Studio 55. We thought that was important because though I believe it’s completely admirable when newspapers post locally produced video on their sites, those videos tend to look more like home movies than something produced by the biggest news organization in town.

    I’m not going to lie: We hoped that nice graphics might be able to cover some of our rough edges.

  • The Look. Part 2.
  • We wanted much more than just cool graphics on Studio 55. We wanted it to look very different than what most local news programs look like.

    We knew we were going to go with a black set with curved corners and a huge video board in the middle. We knew one of the key camera views would be a camera on a little crane (called a gib) which would give a cool and professional look similar to what is seen on national news programming.

    More importantly, we knew what wasn’t going to be there: an anchor desk. We wanted it to look very different than what people’s pre-conceived notions of what a local news program might look like. And that meant the anchor desk had to go.

    We wanted the anchors to be standing, even walking around the set. We often talked about the look of other television shows like “Access Hollywood.” Mind you, we weren’t interested in the content of shows like “Access Hollywood,” just the look of them.

    We wanted to create what we often called the “interesting contradiction.”

    The contradiction was what the audience might think if they saw the show but couldn’t hear it, versus if they were listening to Studio 55 but couldn’t see it.

    In our minds, if you were only seeing it, you might think the show was a slick celebrity show. However, if you were just listening to it you would probably think it was a very serious local news show. To us that was the interesting contradiction between what the show might seem like visually versus what its actual content was.

  • It’s all about the relationships …
  • A huge part of Studio 55 is the integration with the other media properties that we also operated in Naples.

    The show almost always began with a screenshot of the current homepage of naplesnews.com with our anchor saying, “As first reported on naplesnews.com …”

    Then the stories would nearly always be tied to the reporter or photographer from the Naples Daily News that had provided the information that was given during a story. That was almost always followed by a cool graphic and reference that the viewer could find more about the story by visiting naplesnews.com or reading tomorrow morning’s Naples Daily News.

    We tried very hard to make similar references to our audio podcasts or to an expanded portion available on our web site, and anything else that we had produced that we thought might give the audience more info on the story.

  • Three distinct segments.
  • The first segment was all the latest news that had been given to us by the Naples Daily News newsroom, along with a brief look at weather and traffic, if appropriate.

    The second segment was for expanded interviews with our reporters or for longer video segments, or some mixture of both. We occasionally invited newsmakers — such as a congressman or county commissioner — to appear on the show during this segment. Their appearances were often tied to live chats earlier in the day at naplesnews.com.

    The final segment was sports, that evening’s calendar of events and a look at what our readers were talking the most about on our site. To be honest, the reader quotes segment was one of my favorite parts of the Studio 55 vodcast.

  • Our thoughts on hiring videographers …
  • We decided early on that we wanted the video on Studio 55, especially the longer stories that ran in the second segment, to feel like short-form documentaries.

    We wouldn’t have a reporter doing any sort of stand-up for these longer video stories, and we also wouldn’t have a reporter do any sort of voiceover or narration. The stories would just be natural sound and interviews. And music.

    For some reason, we thought this sort of video storytelling kind of felt like what newspaper storytelling might look like in video format.

    Because of this decision, we were immediately drawn to the work being done by students from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif. Students there are taught both still and video, and their stuff looked amazing.

    Plus, they fit in really well with the Naples Daily News’ still shooters. They spoke the same language.

    In fact, one of the original Studio 55 videographers now shoots primarily stills for the newspaper.

    Since we launched Studio 55, I think there have been three or four different shooters on the show who graduated from Brooks. We just loved the documentary-feel that they gave the second segment of the show.

  • Video shot tight and the big “lower thirds.”
  • Because we knew we wanted Studio 55 to look great in the smaller Flash video player that would be used on our web site, as well as on smaller screens — such as iPods, etc… — we tried to emphasize shooting things a little tighter than what they normally would be shot for television or typical-sized screens. We really tried to apply this idea to interviews.

    Another thing that we tried to do differently was change the size of the “lower thirds.”

    Lower thirds are the text graphics that you see at the bottom of the screen during interviews, used mostly to identify who is talking. For Studio 55, we made these graphics much larger than the “lower thirds” you see during normal television newscasts because we wanted them to be more easily read on the smaller screens.

    In fact, this philosophy was applied to nearly every graphic, map, etc…, used on Studio 55.

  • Just how long is the show?
  • To be honest, it’s as long or as short as it needs to be.

    Because we were committed to filling 30 minutes of time on Comcast cable each time Studio 55 aired, we initially planned on the show being 15 minutes long, with each segment taking four minutes then having three minutes of ads. Then we’d repeat the whole show again to fill the 30 minutes of cable time.

    It didn’t take us long to realize that trying to keep the editorial portion of the show to 12 minutes was a real problem, so we quickly abandoned even trying to do that.

    That meant sometimes the show would be 18 minutes long. Sometimes it would be 24 minutes long. So what we would do on Comcast was just repeat the certain parts of the show that were needed to fill the 30 minutes. We also had newspaper promotional ads that we could run to help with the time.

    The version of Studio 55 that we posted on the web site was the show with none of the repeated segments.

  • Conceding on the weather. Kind of.
  • Unlike the local television stations in Fort Myers that had several meteorologists on staff and the Super Duper Doppler Radar, we only had the weather info from our newspaper’s web site.

    Because of that, on a typical daily vodcast, we would do the basic weather info in probably 30 seconds or so. That included tomorrow’s high and lows, sunrise and sunset (because sunset is *very* important when the sun sets on your beach every night), and high and low tide … also very important in a beach town.

    If weather was a big story on a particular day, we would then handle it similarly to how we handle weather as a news story in the newspaper — usually talking with one of our newspaper reporters and other sources to get more detail on what was happening with weather.

  • Training for the print journalists?
  • This was the tricky one, because our publisher said the newspaper would pay for any training we wanted to get for our newsroom. But he also dissuaded us from doing it.

    The reason is that we often said we were trying to produce something that was very different than what local television stations typically produce. Because of that, he wondered why we would bring in television professionals (or the educators who taught them) if we were really trying to do something that was so different than what was typically out there.

    He also promised that if we still thought the newspaper reporters needed training, he’d spring for it in a second.

    So instead of having folks come in and tell us what we should do and how we should act, we just dove in. We actually began shooting versions of Studio 55 about a month before we planned on posting the show on our site and having it appear on Comcast.

    As it got closer and closer to the launch date, we realized we kind of liked how it looked, and we loved how the print reporters were doing on the show. We told them to just act like they normally acted when talking to an editor or someone like that about a story. We told them not to worry about their make-up or how they dressed. And if they were wearing their press badge around their neck or had brought their notepad with them, all the better.

    We emphasized to them that they were journalists and the only thing we wanted them to worry about was the journalism.

  • Was it live?
  • Nope.

    Because we offered multiple formats of Studio 55 on naplesnews.com, it meant we actually had a fair amount of encoding time to get the show ready for posting on the site. To get all of the formats posted on the site by our designated times, the final edited version of Studio 55 had to be completed by 3:30 in order to be posted on our site by 4 p.m.

    Because the show wasn’t live, it meant it was not shot in the order that it appeared. In some ways, that made it kind of shot like a movie is shot … out of order.

    Because Studio 55 ran at 4 and 6 p.m., we didn’t have all of the latest sports scores and such, so the sports segment was usually the first segment shot each day, usually around 11 a.m. or so.

    If a show had an expanded interview with a reporter that appeared in the first or second segments of the show, those were typically shot at around noon or so.

  • What changed between the 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. editions of the vodcast?
  • The second and third segments usually stayed the same between 4 and 6 p.m. editions, but the opening news segment often changed because our newsroom had updates to stories or had newer stories for us.

  • Why the goofy name?
  • Long story short: Scripps is a huge company and wanted us to “vet” through the company’s corporate legal department every possible name we might want to use.

    We came up with something like 20 names. As I remember it, only two made it out of the legal process: Studio 55 and something even worse. I think the other name that we were cleared to use was something like “Webvision” or some nonsense like that.

    So, how did Studio 55 make it on to the list in the first place? Well, “55” was the number in the street address of the building where the studio was built.


    My next post will be a detailed look at the equipment we used to put together the Studio 55 vodcast.

    And one of the most important parts of Studio 55 was the killer crew. I’ll try to talk about their job responsibilities and daily workflow in the third part of this blog series, which I hope to post either over the weekend or early next week.

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    Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.