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Poynter’s “Tools with Ren” takes a closer look at Verse

by Kristen Hare

This article was published by Poynter as part of their "Tools with Ren" series, in which Ren Laforme takes a look at new and innovative journalism tools. Kristen Hare interviewed him about Verse and the future of interactive video in the journalism space.

Poynter’s Ren LaForme has spent a lot of time with digital tools (the things you use to create new things, not the online know-it-alls). (OK, Maybe both.)

As we look at the big ideas that explain what local journalism needs to evolve, we want to look at the small ideas, too. Tools seem like a good place to start. So, beginning this week, LaForme and I are going to have a weekly chat about a digital tool in the hopes that newsrooms without R&D departments or big budgets can find cool things to try for themselves.

One important note: LaForme is choosing these tools on his own. We’re not paid to test them out or write about them, although the Knight Foundation has given us an endowment to promote digital tools training. Knight also funds my position.

“There’s a million different tools for a million different purposes, and I would never say to use something just for the sake of it,” Ren told me. “But I think once people see what’s out there, it will free up their imaginations to try new things.”

So, let’s get started!

So, what tool have you got for us today?

The first tool I want to talk about is almost brand new, it’s called Verse, and it’s an interactive video platform. The Washington Post has used it, The Atlantic, Newsweek, The New Yorker. So, it’s getting out there.”

So what exactly is interactive video?

If you think about the way video works online, typically, it’s not that different from the way video has always worked. You turn it on. Click play. And you sit back and watch it.

That type of video has been unchanged since the advent of the movie theater. But with Verse, you can break that up and make it more interactive. So for instance, I could be watching a video, and a part could come on where I could follow it one way or another way. I could choose a path.

If we’re looking at a scene and I think viewers might be interested in more scenes that are similar, I can put this thing up on the screen that says “hey you want to see more like this?” and take them to a photo gallery or other videos. If I’m watching something that includes people, I can put a button up or pause the video briefly and see if the users want to know more about the person that they’re seeing.

Who do you think would be a good person to try this out?

Video is interesting because I think it’s easier to do than ever before. I think journalists shouldn’t feel like they’re print journalists or audio journalists or video journalists anymore. If you can do one effectively, you can probably do them all.

If you want to go beyond “play the video, stop the video,” I think anyone can use this. It’s so easy to use. It’s like drag and drop. There are tutorials on the site. They just released a new version about two months ago that made what was a really easy to use thing about 100 times easier. If you can use a smartphone, you can probably use this.

That’s cool. I feel like sometimes when we find out about new tools, it feels like, OK, that’s another thing I have to find a way to do. It sounds like this is not layers and layers more work but maybe layers and layers more interactivity.

Right. If you’re already shooting video, this is a no-brainer. I think the way we’ve always done video is like a hammer and chisel and we’re carving hieroglyphics, and this is an entire toolbox of different things. It unlocks so many possibilities.

Where’s the right place to start if somebody wants to mess with this?

You’ll know if your story is a Verse-ready story as you’re working on it. So if you’ve shot a bunch of stuff and you say to yourself, wow, this has a lot that doesn’t fit into traditional video, I’d say, well maybe it’s not a traditional video. Maybe it fits into something that has branching paths. You know that you’re going to do Verse after you’ve started chasing the story.

It sort of reminds me of an interactive version of Pop-Up Video. Did you ever watch that show on VH1? Are you too young for that?

Sings: Pop-Up Video.


I remember that.

Has Verse said anything about engagement with this? Are people more likely to stay with a video?

I don’t have any details on engagement, but I can’t imagine anyone who’s encountering this for the first time would do anything other than go, “Oh. Wow. That’s amazing.”

I never really thought about how little video has changed over time, even though there are so many cool new things such as 360 and VR. It is still pretty much “play the video, stop the video.”

Right. And this makes people engage with it. One feature that I didn’t tell you about that changes how I interact with it…think about when a news site posts a video and you see the headline on social and it’s always something that’s within the video, right? So if I was watching an interview with Obama and it was 15 minutes long and three minutes in he said something really compelling, and that would be the headline. But as a user, when I click through to find more about what the headline says, I have to sit through three minutes of video to find what they promised in the headline. So Verse has this feature called Q-and-A and you can list all the questions on the side of the screen and when you click that, it will go right to that part of the video.

That’s really cool. Are there any other features we should talk about?

There’s chapterization. The one for branching videos is called the pathfinder. I think The Washington Post used this for a voting story. That one was pretty cool. It has slideshows built in, which, whatever, slideshows are slideshows. The other cool feature is video hotspots, so you can have a little button pop up that says whatever you want it to say.

How does this work on mobile?

It’s all completely responsive. And as far as pricing goes, you get all the features if you have a free account. The only real big stumbling block with a free account is you only get 30 minutes of video you can store a month. But it’s unlimited play and you get really basic analytics. When you upgrade, which is $15 a month, you get 65 minutes of monthly video storage and you get advanced analytics.

Is there anything you don’t like about Verse so far?

I guess it’d be great if they had some stock footage or audio available. Some of my favorite video editing apps offer those types of things. Even if it’s not free, it’s helpful to have available.

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