John Curzon /
09.01.2008 12:00 PM
Developing the next-generation television newsroom
The transformation to a modern workflow can revolutionize the way news is produced, making it more direct, more dynamic and more relevant.

The raw technology is not the issue. Moving bits and bytes around a network is well understood by everyone today. The real issue is the application software represented by those bits and bytes, and building the workflows that allow journalists and their editors to make the best possible news television.

The task for the newsroom system vendor is to look at the broadcaster's vision of how it wants to work and develop a workflow that supports that. It is a new way to approach systems engineering. It uses what people want as the basis to drive the technical pick list.

Some years ago, YLE — a Finnish pioneer in integrated newsrooms — presented a paper on its experience to the EBU. YLE stated that of all the issues raised in implementation, 10 percent were technology related, and 90 percent were people related.

ITN, which serves both the ITV network and Channel 4, recently installed a completely new system. Keith Cass, director of technology for ITN, did not look at this as an engineering project. It was a project to was design the newsroom by the newsroom staff. The implementation went so smoothly was partly because of good buy-in from all editorial staff.

This is good practice. Workflow champions help to design the system based on the way they need to work. This engages the senior decision makers as well the journalists on the ground. It encourages them to take ownership of the solution as early as possible, making it their solution, not something that a remote manufacturer has sold them. Finally, it feeds into the training program, ensuring that it is tailored for each individual user in the right context.

Thinking visually

One critical fact that is often overlooked in this debate is that television journalists must think in terms of pictures. If you do not have an idea of the visual elements of the story in the back of your mind at all times, then perhaps you should consider a move to print media.

Of course, the vast majority of television journalists have learned this skill. So the logical extension of that is for the journalists (who have the visual structure of the story in mind) to put the story together.

Once the initial skepticism is breached, then journalists embrace this idea with great enthusiasm. Because they start thinking about how the finished story will fit together from the moment they set out, journalists change the way they approach the location, too.

Our experience, repeated over many installations, is that the amount of content typically shot for a news story is cut in half or more, simply because the journalist knows exactly what is needed. While media costs are probably insignificant, this represents real savings in time on location, time to ingest and time spent shuffling through the rushes looking for the right shot.

Some news operations will still shoot on tape, so you need an ingest stage. Even if you shoot on disk or solid-state memory, you have to get the content from the camera media into the newsroom so there is still ingest, even if it is then much faster than real time. The result is the same; all the content is available on central shared storage. Having all the content stored centrally and available to all drives some important technical and operational concepts.

News operations generate huge amounts of content, much of which needs to be kept forever because you never know what tomorrow's news agenda will demand. I will return to the topic of archives a little later, but for now it is clear that the storage sub-system needs to be able to expand readily to meet a growing need. The central storage network at ITN has approximately 160TB of storage capacity, corresponding to around 2000 hours of online material.

Having all the content in one place is obviously beneficial because it means more than one user can access it. However, it requires a logical structure so that journalists can find the right content. This might take the form of a Windows-style folder structure, but as you will appreciate, that can quickly turn into chaos if there is not firm control.

Metadata

As part of the pre-implementation phase, new users need to define their filing and naming conventions to ensure that everyone knows how to find the material. Equally, once a story has been completed, you need to file it somewhere logical where others can find it. There is no point in getting a scoop and cutting it with seconds to spare before transmission if the playout list in the studio cannot find it.

As well as the filing structure, metadata has to be built into the plan from the very start. Journalists will struggle with this as a concept. Explain and encourage good practice. Metadata starts with the information the journalists used to write on the tape box by hand. If the content is going to have any life beyond the immediate story — and all news organizations would want it to — then you have to be able to find it again.

Entering all the useful metadata has to be rigorously applied, so make it simple and logical. The system should also encourage journalists to enter their metadata up front, so the content can be passed to the archive automatically. Once the story is cut and ready for air, journalists will be thinking about the next story, not archiving the last one.

Once the story has been shot and the content and its metadata brought into the shared storage, you must turn that into the finished package. Journalists need a single desktop with everything available in one place, including the script, the pictures, access to wire services and databases, and all the other resources of the modern newsroom.

The thinking behind this has to be focused on telling the story. It should not, therefore, be a set of disparate applications in different windows, but a single tool that brings together all the elements. The script must be the key driver, with the video attached to it. That makes it different to a craft editor, based on a timeline, because that is not the way the story is told.

The pictures and the script are the two key elements, so they are tied together. If the script changes, then the video edits must shift to compensate. If you add a voice-over, the sound off tape should be automatically and smoothly ducked. If a split edit is needed, simply drag the video and audio to the right places. You will probably need a few more advanced tools, such as the pixilation of faces or the smudging of car license plates — available at the desktop. But the essence is to keep it simple and fast. If you need more, go into a craft edit suite with a specialist.

Once the story is complete, it is filed, usually in the in-box for the program. If it is cut close to air, it can be pushed straight into a playlist for live playout. If a broadcaster is supplying multiple platforms, then it may need to repurpose the story for different places. For example, the broadcaster may need a longer cut of an interview for the Web version. Then, it is all archived, ready for future research. The whole workflow sounds completely logical, but it takes a lot of development to make it happen.

The installation at ITN in London is one of the largest in the world, supporting hundreds of journalists with editing facilities and desktop browsers, as well as including 11 craft edit suites. But it is also a good illustration of what the newsroom of the future will look like.

This was ITN's second-generation integrated newsroom system, so the team knew what it was looking for. Yet, it still took six months of detailed investigation to choose a system.

Good editing and servers are now a given. What was important was the media management through workgroups, as well as the level and style of editing functionality at the desktop, according to Cass.

News remains important to broadcasters, because it is one of the ways in which it can impose its own character and speak in its own voice. The new installation at ITN, for example, provides coverage for two different national networks in the UK with very different styles of news programming.

Broadcasters must have access to tools that allow journalists to create fast, accurate and authoritative news content in their own distinctive voice. News production networks need to be technically advanced, of course, but most importantly, they need to work the way that the newsroom works and support the skills of the journalist.


John Curzon is a newsroom specialist for Avid Technology in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.



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