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News Chiefs 'Tout' Benefits of Social Video

While some local news executives are finally harnessing the vast distribution possibilities of Twitter, Facebook and other social media phenomena, others are looking for the next big connector of user and content coming out of Silicon Valley. And some believe Tout, which enables users to post 15-second video snippets, offers a compelling mix of Twitter-esque real-time updates and something the TV people are pretty adept at: video.

Early adopters are using Tout to forge a bond with users by offering a peek at what goes on in the studio during commercial breaks, what happens inside the green room during the morning show or what the reporter’s process is like as he or she approaches a news event.

Count WPIX New York news director Bill Carey among the intrigued; the Tribune station soft-launched Tout in the newsroom in October, and Carey plans to formalize the strategy after the holidays. “We’re in a transitional phase for news. People get news and information on the television screen, but also on the Web, on mobile, on their iPad,” Carey says. “This struck me as a good next thing to introduce to the team.”

Tout was spawned last April out of the Stanford Research Institute by Silicon Valley veteran Michael Downing. Users record short videos on their iPhone, iPad, Android or Webcam and transmit them to friends and followers on Facebook, Twitter, or other digital platforms.

Tout crept into the consciousness of technology watchers in June, when Shaquille O’Neal announced his retirement from the NBA through Tout. (To date, O’Neal has 179 videos and 9,400 followers on Tout, to go with his 4,000 tweets to his 4.6 million Twitter followers.) Other Tout users in the TV business include Jeff Probst, Wendy Williams and WFLD Chicago.

Tout’s brain trust says the platform is a logical one for TV newsrooms. It’s seen as another arrow in the 24/7 multimedia reporter’s quiver, and another way to harvest user-generated video. “It seems to be in line with where people’s behavior is going,” says Downing, Tout CEO. “It’s a realtime conversation beyond scheduled [newscasts].” Tout has a decidedly Twitter-esque feel to its interface. Users issue “touts” to their followers and have the option to “ReTout” interesting videos. Downing says the relationship between Tout and Twitter is “friendly,” but it is not a partnership.

While local television often features users’ tweets on air, Scott Epstein, Tout chief marketing officer, says video is a more logical medium. “Tout makes great TV,” he says. “Why read on TV? It doesn’t make sense.”

Downing has brought former TV talent agent Melissa Breen, a veteran of IF Management, on board to spread the word of Tout to stations. Breen reached out to WFOR Miami reporter Jorge Estevez, who adopted the technology, she says, and went about spreading its merits to his newsroom brethren. (WFOR parent CBS declined to comment on Tout.)

Breen connected with WPIX’s Carey as well. “She described it, and I became enamored,” says Carey. “The shorthand was, it’s video Twitter. I said, ‘yeah, why not?’”

About 25 stations are using Tout, Breen says. An informal survey of station news directors and general managers showed that the majority had not heard of Tout. Most seemed intrigued by it, while a few were lukewarm. Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU Columbia (Mo.), was skeptical that there is critical mass on Tout among viewers, and cautioned against overextending talent’s social media endeavors. “I’m not sure how thin I want to spread our anchors in terms of feeding these platforms,” he says.

To be sure, the instant video concept is not new. A platform called 12 Seconds flamed out last year after a hot start. Viddler is billed as a “transparent, easy-to-use video platform for business use,” while Qik is deployed for video posting at some stations, including news giant KUSA Denver. Users can attach videos to Facebook and Twitter as well.

But some believe Tout, whose backers include Horizon Ventures and Facebook mega-funder Li Ka-Shing, can effectively deliver station content to users on the go. WPIX’s crew first posted Tout videos Oct. 20 and used the platform to capture the notoriously wacky New York City Halloween parade.

While Facebook and Twitter won’t disappear from people’s lives—or from TV newsrooms—any time soon, some news professionals suggest it behooves them to put their chips down on the potential next big social media trend, whatever that may be. “The more places you’re engaged with viewers, the better chances you have to create new fans,” says Carey. “Any time people spend more time with your brand, it’s good for your long-term growth.”

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