By Guest Contributor Josh Glick, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University in Film Studies and American Studies
[caption id="attachment_3290" align="alignleft" width="110"] Op-Docs logo, New York Times Website[/caption]
The New York Times’ continual push into the realm of nonfiction video is strategic and highly innovative. For a paper that for 160+ years has made its name and reputation on the printed word, it's a new form of capturing events, expressing critical opinions, showcasing familiar journalistic personalities, and revisiting old stories. And while videos are currently placed outside the paywall so that users can access them even if they don’t have a subscription, they are a striking way to attract people to the website and generate revenue through integrated advertisements.
Launched in 2011, Op-Docs have quickly established themselves as one of the most riveting components of the NYT website. They are related to their video siblings such as Retro Reports, Anatomy of a Scene, Interactive Features, and Times Documentaries, but they also distinguish themselves from the pack through their breadth of subject matter, compact shape, and variety of social insights. These films are not produced in-house, but from independent filmmakers (both world-renowned and virtually unheard of) who submit entries to the Commissioning Editor for Opinion Video Jason Spingarn-Koff, himself an established documentarian with an extensive background in journalism and documentary production.
New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s 2012 announcement that video was one of the four areas of targeted investment, along with “mobile,” “social engagement,” and “new global markets,” boosted Op-Docs’ prestige and attention. Key personnel with significant experience with moving image media have also been helping to invigorate and guide the NYT towards a more robust online identity, including CEO Mark Thompson, the former Director-General of the BBC, and General Manager of Video Production Rebecca Howard, who previously worked for AOL/Huffington Post Video Department and Fox Digital Studios.
With topics ranging from New York City's Citi Bike program to histories of gun control legislation to Holocaust memory, there is no quintessential Op-Doc topic; still, there are some shared characteristics of the form. Films are usually between 5–10 minutes long, are told from a distinct perspective, focus on a person a small group of individuals, and are stylistically polished without being flashy. A link to a short essay written by the director sharpens the editorial frame. Special sessions at major festivals (SXSW, Doc NYC, Sheffield Doc/Fest) serve as venues for screening and discussing these films as well as places where people can compete to have their piece selected to be featured as an Op-Doc. The festival connection gives the films a kind of cultural capital that aligns them with cinema rather than home movies or citizen journalism.
Op-Docs focus our attention on important events and extraordinary personalities, subjects that seem to be hiding in plain sight. This pseudo genre attempts to refocus or expand conversations, clarify the stakes surrounding sensitive issues, or advocate for a cause. While some films are designed to encourage audiences to feel rage or shock, others elicit pure joy and laughter. Particular Op-Docs have even had a major cultural and political impact; for example, Laura Poitras’s The Program (2012) about one of the National Security Agency’s most prominent whistle-blowers, William Binney. The film ultimately piqued the interest of Edward Snowden, who contacted Poitras to help him leak NSA documents on surveillance programs and explain his actions to the world. Their partnership has since generated significant press. Poitras has gone from documenting newsworthy events and facilitating the distribution of information to becoming news herself.
Going forward, Op-Docs prompt us to ask a number of questions. On a very practical level, should the filmmakers receive financial compensation for their Op-Docs, in addition to the reward of being able to reach mass audiences and obtain the NYT seal of approval? Will there be more opportunities for discussion with the filmmaker/s through some kind of online forum rather than just a “Comments” section?
More broadly, the presence of Op-Docs makes us think about how video will be increasingly incorporated into journalistic practice. In the opening years of projected motion pictures, film was conceived of as a kind of “visual newspaper.” Today, film and journalism are not just moving on parallel tracks, but deeply interconnected. Documentary reportage is a tool for reporting as well as a craft of storytelling. This is a time when changes in technology, access to information, and corporate acquisitions and divestments are altering the definitions of a newspaper and a news-making entity. NYT’s investment in video seems to be an effective and savvy way for the newspaper to put a down payment on its digital future. It’s exciting to see the organization flexing its muscles in a video-news market that features such flagship institutions as VICE, the Brooklyn-based heirs to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism of the 1960s–1970s; Al Jazeera, which offers on-the-ground voices from around the globe through its constant and inclusive stream of audio, film, and text-based stories; and Frontline, the investigative journalism arm of PBS with a prominent online profile and a menu of deep content for many of its episodes. I have a feeling that the best from the NYT is yet to come.