The New York Times Must Add Some Flexibility To Its 'Verbatim' Video Series

I know I’m supposed to revert into bitchy-media-scold mode whenever The New York Times comes up in casual conversation, but I can’t. I like the Times. It informs me and, in doing so, renders me a solid 3.25 percent more - what’s the word I’m looking for here? - smart-thinking-y on a daily basis.

Is the Times reduced from what it once was? I don’t know; I was mostly reading the backs of album covers and cereal boxes during its supposed glory era. But it remains the only news-on-paper organization left standing with reserves of ambition and rigor, @NYTOnIt-bait exceptions like today’s “there are women who have hair that isn’t long hair” notwithstanding. Also, imagine the burden that comes with being the single publication, online or off, that’s morally and philosophically mandated to pay attention to Philip Glass. Such responsibility would sink lesser entities.

Anything that helps The Times survive and prosper in this wackadoodle media climate, then, is fine by me. It can be new names for stuff it’s been doing a while, baroque subscription tiers or prominent on-site signage at the Gathering of the Juggalos. It can even be a more aggressive push towards brand-video prominence, showcased this week at the NewFronts show-us-what-you-got digital-content-palooza. According to one report - which should be taken with a sumo-sized glob of salt, because it originated in a journalistic entity other than the Times - The Paper of Record©™ has big honkin’ plans for its new Times Video video hub (catchy name!), including a content partnership with Vimeo. 

This is a good thing. People like video. I get paid for writing about video. So don’t misinterpret my criticism of the first installment of “Verbatim,” a Times series in which videographers mine old court transcripts and other official documents for translatable source material, as a suggestion that the organization shouldn’t bother broadening its mission to include more projects of this kind. No, read it instead as an expression of my bafflement that the Times, which knows from worthy content and the wonderful presentation thereof, seems to view a done-before concept like “Verbatim” as something neat and novel.

The first episode, “What Is a Photocopier?,” uses a fantastically oblique exchange from a 2010 deposition (a case in which a Cuyahoga County office is sued over the allegedly excessive charge to photocopy documents) as its jumping point. It arrives in the form of a four-person play: two lawyers (one prototypically aggrieved, one prototypically obstructionist), one interogatee who talks in circles and one bemused stenographer. Aggrieved lawyer attempts to get circle-talking interogatee to acknowledge his knowledge of the existence of photocopiers, all the while obstructionist lawyer goes out of his way to add extra layers of ambiguity to the proceedings.

As Laurel-and-Hardy-type repartee, “What Is a Photocopier?” is harmless enough, and it does come with a great kicker. It just seems an odd way for the Times to attempt to assert its video know-how, given how many other iterations of a similar bit (septuagenarians reenacting Twitter flame wars, etc.) are already out there. Too, at nearly five minutes in length, the clip wears out its welcome long before its climax.

The Times has stressed that all videos in the “Verbatim” series will be just that - word-for-word reenactments - but it might want to build a little more flexibility into that model. Some selective editing would have served “What Is a Photocopier?” well.

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1 comment about "The New York Times Must Add Some Flexibility To Its 'Verbatim' Video Series".
  1. David Shank from Shank Public Relations Counselors , May 1, 2014 at 4:45 p.m.
    Despite the absurdity of the first three minutes (all I could stand) "Verbatim" seems little more than a throwback to the 1950s Walter Cronkite "You Are There" reenactments. Different pipe, same kind of content. I agree, NYT should be able to do better.