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DIGITAL newsrooms: Why change in 2005?

Time Warner Cable’s NY1 24-hour cable news channel recently installed a new Avid tapeless digital news production system.

I have taken part in several newsroom conferences recently. The most interesting was one organized by Broadcast Engineering in Chicago last October. Coming from Europe, I was amazed at how many regional TV stations in the USA were still analog. Only in the last six months has digital really become worth a second look.

Having been involved in, or reported on, several digital transitions, I'd like to share the results of several newsroom battles that I have witnessed on both sides of the Atlantic. It is often difficult to filter out the “essence” of the arguments to go digital from the sales pitches. I've even started some of those battles by saying “no” to projects that were purely driven by technology — solving problems the station didn't know it even had. Hopefully, the points made here will save you time and trouble.

Basic assumptions

I'm speaking from an independent broadcast journalist's perspective as someone who writes for TV, radio and new media. I act as a communications bridge between the creative professionals and the technical support, for it is vital that both sides of the process share a common vision. It is also essential that they don't confuse others with their own specific jargon. It is important to spend time and effort interpreting technical goals in terms of journalistic ones, and vice-versa.

Here is what is essential in 2005:

New era of production

  • Relevant content: Any broadcast newsroom that isn't implementing an integrated IT approach to its news production is going to rapidly lose the battle for scoops. Because, more and more, those scoops are being broken by newsrooms supplying content for TV, mobile phones, PDAs, portable music jukeboxes and pagers — usually at the same time.
  • Public involvement: With five Mega-pixel cameras already appearing on Korean mobiles, it's becoming obvious that the audience now has the capability to create content. All the early shots of 9/11 were “amateur video.” A lot more news will involve contributions from the public, but it will take the skills of journalists to craft and check the story.
  • Context: The environment in which you read or see something is as important as relevant, reliable content. After all, any kid in his bedroom writing a Weblog is creating content.

We're entering a new phase of news production for TV, thanks to several crucial developments all coming together. First, the cost of storage continues to drop, now less than $1 per GB. In November 2004, home computers began shipping with a TB of storage.

Second, standard PC servers are now fast enough to de-compress broadcast quality video in real time. Third, networking costs have crossed some crucial thresholds. The technology is reliable and affordable.

Different priorities

And finally, but perhaps most important, we're now in the open-standards era where journalists expect to be able to drag and drop material as it flows through the building, not cut and paste it. Thanks to standards like Media Object Server (MOS), different bits of the equipment are getting better at talking to each other. There is still work to do, but things are going in the right direction.

Depending on your function at your station, you will have a certain set of priorities. You might be the head of IT, charged with reducing costs, improving performance and getting a maximum return on any technological development. Your list of priorities may look something like this:

  • Improve return on investment.
  • Reduce costs.
  • Simplify workflow.
  • Simplify maintenance.
  • Manage security.
  • Output more with less.

But, remember most of your newsroom users are journalists or designers, who need to be persuaded by other arguments than just the old “more-for-less” story. In order to gain acceptance in the newsroom, those on the IT implementation team have to convince users that the introduction of IT technology means faster turnaround times, beating the competition, being able to find relevant material from a multitude of sources, and being accurate as well as first.

Let's face it: In many cases, the introduction of IT has been used as a thin disguise for downsizing. Management always wants the same quality output for less — much less. And, if automation can reduce costs in the supermarket business, why doesn't it work in the same way in for broadcast news?

The need for speed

While some jobs do indeed disappear, others are created. People who combine the knowledge of IT solutions/workarounds with an appreciation for a journalist's deadline will find they are in demand. IT people who can think out of the box, as well as journalists who can define what they really need, are worth investing in.

Analog news production people have done a great job. Production teams, both in the field and in the newsroom, have developed ingenious routines to get news stories on the air as fast and as accurately as possible, despite the many tape formats that have come and gone over the last decade.

But little can be done to make a tape-based system faster. Plus, the cost of VTR maintenance and media costs continue to rise. Journalists are being faced with increasingly complex situations that require them to find and verify information from multiple sources. They cannot do that if they are forced to write in one place, edit in another and research in yet another. Broadcasters who have made the digital transition can now outpace the analog news-gatherers. In digital newsrooms, the increase in speed is often between 20 percent and 30 percent for operations of 30 to 50 people. That's because the fundamentals of the workflow have been changed.

Never outsource the workflow analysis

Efficient digital newsrooms use technology to allow systems and journalists to share the workload, especially when it comes to metadata. Now journalists can find key material again after the deadline is over. No one can afford to start each news day with a blank sheet and reshoot all the footage. But if the newsroom workflow prevents the staff from locating archive material fast enough, then you are basically requiring the staff to redo what they've already done.

If you're planning to make changes in your newsroom, start by taking a couple of paces back and asking: What's the common thread flowing through our production system?

It should be an idea, not a production number on a sticky label. No one remembers numbers. You and third-party clients remember the great stories by name. Why not let technology help shape ideas that flow in from the outside world, to be edited, put on the air and possibly filed away for future reference — all with common titles, names and metadata?

Consider whether a new production workflow will require processes such as cutting and pasting because applications won't talk to each other. Or will the news staff be able to edit by drag and drop, with format conversions happening in the background?

Avoid simply digitizing a current analog process. Start by rethinking how news is created. Importantly, as an organization, you have to do this yourself. Consultants and IT specialists can help interpret the results into what equipment is needed. But never farm out the way you do your core business activities to outsiders. Your way of working will depend on a variety of critical factors — legacy systems, the size of the market, journalistic goals and capabilities, and audience expectations. While you can learn from a larger or smaller station, each facility needs to develop its own solution. Finally, never make journalists slave to a workflow developed by someone who has never made a TV show. That's asking for staff rebellion.

Start by picking three or four respected reporters/journalists in your operation and involve them in your quest to get stories to air faster than the competition. The devil is in the details. At one regional newsroom, the staff identified more than a dozen problems that were slowing down the creative process, from technical incompatibilities to an unclear chain of command. When things went wrong, it wasn't obvious who was responsible for getting it right the next time. The staff had had a case of BSE — “blame somebody else.”

Select people who are actively out there in the real world beyond the studio and who are using current equipment to make stories to real deadlines. Ideally, they are people who have three to four years of hands-on experience. Go out with them and follow how they get the news, from in the field to the moment of playout. Collect horror stories about why stories nearly didn't get to air on time or why stories failed altogether.

You will quickly see that deadline pressures often mean that people cannot find stuff fast enough. Sometimes its reporters looking for archive material — perhaps something they have shot themselves, a tape incorrectly labeled, wrong captions, spelling errors or a playout editor who grabbed the wrong version of the story.

Often, you'll find that time is lost because of logistics, when material is being manually transported, copied or played out. During this time, it cannot be edited or manipulated by editors/journalists. Graphic artists cannot see what they need to illustrate. There are probably parts in the chain where work is being duplicated because systems don't talk to each other.

Figure 1. In the traditional workflow model, archiving is at the end of the chain. This makes the archive accessible to only a few. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

Think sideways

Figure 1 shows the traditional way of creating content, capturing content, shaping it, transmitting it and then moving the story to an archive.

Consider this: Instead of putting the archives at the end of the chain, why not put it in further up the production change, say in the middle? By doing so, you have changed the archive process from passive, only accessible to the few, to an active archive accessible to everyone. (See Figure 2.) This allows journalists to access material for transmission in the normal way. The archive now can contain material that is only seconds old.

Changing the workflow like this often provides several advantages. Material now has a shelf life of content separate from its transmission date. Stations spend millions creating content that is only accessible to the public while it is being aired. Moving the archive forward provides the opportunity to repurpose the same material for other venues.

Training: The main key to acceptance

In addition, almost 20 percent of the U.S. population now receives their news from IT devices (PCs, PDAs and, increasingly, Smartphones). Having an active archive puts you in a strong position to supply content that has been adapted to the needs of mobile providers. As a creator of local content, stations are the ideal partner for a mobile phone company or Web portal. (Editor's note: See the article “WRAL-TV delivers news, weather to Sprint PCS Vision customers” in our Dec. 28th News Technology Update newsletter.)

Figure 2. In the IT approach to workflow, the archives are put in the middle of the production chain. This results in an active archive that is accessible to everyone. Click here to see an enlarged diagram.

Newsroom systems that use open architecture technology are ready for the days when having findable content is valuable not only to the newsroom staff, but also for third parties. Any station that covers regional news, sports, weather and traffic has content that can be repackaged for mobile phone networks, PDA platforms or Weblogs. That content is valuable to another set of consumers — and to new advertisers.

Traditionally, training is mentioned at the end of technical papers. Vendors will tell you that training is no problem and that you'll be surprised how fast it all goes. It can work that way, but only if you bring your thinking about training right up to the front.

If you have built a logical workflow, those trained on it will be your biggest fans. You have eased their fears about the logistics surrounding news production. In theory, at least, they have more time to be journalists/editors.

But with an increase in staff churn in newsrooms, consider how you'll train those newcomers? The training scheme needs thought to give people an initial overview, job-specific training and simple ways they can remind themselves of procedures when they forget. Few people like to show their ignorance. Those who make mistakes because they are afraid to ask are often the ones who make unjustified complaints about anything “new.”

Anyone waiting for the single all-singing, all-dancing newsroom system will have a long wait; it will never come.

And, newsroom IT systems should always allow for their own evolution. For instance, with storage costs continuing to drop, does it make sense to buy a huge amount of storage now when you may not need it for five years? Ask tough questions. How much news footage is created each year? How much is kept and what percent of that is ever used again? If the recycle rate is low, could it be because it is faster to create new material than for the staff to locate the original material? How much will you save on media costs and maintenance of VTRs? Those funds can be used elsewere.

Efficient, functional newsrooms are based around leaders who continually check with the users on features that they need to be faster and more accurate. Evolution and change is good because they can help make a news staff faster and more accurate.

Jonathan Marks is the director of Critical Distance.