By going pro, YouTube risks alienating its amateur core

YouTube has bigger fish to fry.

No longer is YouTube just about viral memes and videos of people hurting themselves. The business model of online video is evolving and so too are the site’s priorities.

In October 2011, YouTube embarked on a campaign to attract more professional-grade content to the site, dolling out over $150million in cash advances to professional video creators offering slicker material with higher production value.

With this has come an influx of celebrity. Global superstars Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Jaz-Z have all been drafted in to host YouTube channels, whilst Hollywood stalwart Tom Hanks is currently working on his own YouTube project.

However, such sweeping changes have left one group out in the cold: the legions of amateur video producers who helped transform the site into the entertainment colossus it is today.

YouTube has made several changes throughout the year that have pulled the rug from underneath the feet of its amateur core. One such change involved forcing users into adopting a more streamlined layout on their channels by slashing the number of customisation options available to them.

Tensions climaxed earlier this year when YouTube made significant changes to the algorithm used to decide how clips were recommended to viewers. Thousands of amateur producers protested that the move favoured longer, more professionally-produced material uploaded by high-profile channels, relegating their own content to the YouTube wilderness. 

Unfortunately for these users, these moves are symptomatic of a site maturing in line with digital entertainment’s changing ecosystem. In the US market, the projected revenue from digital advertising is expected to balloon from $2.4 billion this year to a whopping $7.1 billion in 2015, when 40% of the US are predicted to regularly watch TV online, according to e-marketer.

Such game-changing statistics demand an improvement in the service YouTube offers. With the rise of digital streaming services such as Netflix and an increasing number of users opening Vimeo accounts, YouTube needs to remain competitive. Ultimately, the sweeping transformation from user-generated content to professional programming could even aid the site in its quest to become the next-generation TV provider.

“Our big advertisers like the path that YouTube has taken”, says Andy Chapman, head of digital investment at Mindshare, a prominent American advertising agency.

“A number of clients say this looks and feels like the direction the market is going”

But in adapting to the evolving landscape of the video entertainment industry, YouTube runs the risk of alienating the creative, entrepreneurial lifeblood that fostered its rise. The site is seemingly forgetting its roots, but that’s business I guess.

Photo: Reuters

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.