Disk-based news

Explore how advances in technology help newsrooms increase flexibility, improve workflow and lower costs.
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An operator uses Avid’s Media Browse solution to control ingest at the company’s new Pinewood Studios (UK) demonstration facility.

Digital technology has changed the landscape of news production. What started years ago with newsroom computer systems (NCS) giving a big helping hand to storing, writing and editing scripts has now expanded to all facets of operation. A second newsroom revolution, based around servers for video and audio, means newsroom systems can now be designed to meet a wide range of requirements. Today, news is big news. The ball is rolling, and we are in a period of rapid development that involves many manufacturers and vast software effort to supply newsmakers' needs.

News staff must produce several bulletins and put them to air daily, so workflow is vital. The lead into each bulletin is often a period of highly pressured work in which many staff members are each trying to put the finishing touches on their stories at the same time. Pushed by a constant flow of new stories and updates and pulled by competition, news seems to be on a ceaseless treadmill.

The thrust of today's newsroom technology is to improve workflow by providing reliable ways to meet many production needs — including speed, flexibility and lower costs. Given the pressures, improving workflow has been a difficult process that has led to some highly innovative and high-powered solutions.

Requirements

Modern technology makes efficient production processes possible. Certainly, the hectic scenes depicted in James L. Brooks' 1987 film “Broadcast News,” with corridor dashes to deliver the tape for transmission, can now be consigned to the bulk eraser. Well, they could, but many news operations have yet to adopt the more modern technology. To a large extent, this refers to the “tapeless news” model in which media is stored on disks and transferred to the transmission area via wire.

However, “tapeless” is not an end in itself but a convenient method of providing more accessible storage that fits with today's technology. What really matters is achieving the desired requirements and workflow. The most significant changes are in the production of stories rather than what takes place in the anchor's studio. For news stories, certain fundamentals are set in concrete: the need for a camera and microphone to shoot the scene, a method to carry the information to the newsroom system, and a way to edit and prepare the material for airplay. There are endless variations and additions to these fundamentals, such as scale, the degree of journalist involvement, graphics, captions, voiceovers, reviewing, versioning, repurposing for other media and archiving. As a result, no two newsrooms are the same, so system designers and custom software writers will continue to be in demand.


Figure 1. Newsroom workflow depends on the size of the operation. In a small or regional newsroom, it may make economic sense to offer everyone access to the broadcast-quality material directly from the main server.

The wide choice of facilities and tools means it takes some thought for newsrooms to narrow down what their real needs are against what technology has to offer. For example, a current hot topic is the ability to make voiceovers at the journalists' desktop. However, one remarkably honest salesman faced with this request had to point out that, with eight such desktops all crowded into a “shoebox” office, the chance of getting sufficient quiet for recording the voiceover was unlikely.

Pragmatism rules, despite the technology. Indeed, the technology itself is becoming increasingly invisible: melting into the background as development continues toward more empowerment for journalists.

Newsroom systems are multi-user and necessarily complex. They achieve their various aims in different ways. They comprise a number of key elements, nearly always from different manufacturers, that are made to work together in ways that define workflow and system performance. Success depends not only on the power of the individual boxes, but equally on the degree to which they integrate.

Server technology

The major technical breakthrough that shapes today's news systems is the broadcast-quality video/audio server, which enables work sharing. Viewing, editing, reviewing and transmission playout can, in some cases, all take place within one server. But workflow differs according to scale and the technology used. Figure 1 shows the elements and the workflow in a small or regional newsroom.

Newsroom systems do not directly scale; they must change with size. For example, in small news operations with just a few journalists involved, it is economic to offer everyone access to the broadcast-quality material directly from the main server. Here, all journalists can view material and make edit decisions while craft editors can add finishing touches and refinements. The story is then ready for transmission, which, depending on the newsroom's specification, might also be run from the same server.

As scale increases, this model becomes prohibitively expensive. So, in a larger newsroom, the more numerous journalists are provided with browse-quality video, which is cheaper to store and distribute. This allows video/audio editing on the same desktop PCs that journalists already use for script editing. Such functionality requires a browse server and distribution system — typically 100 or 1000Mb/s Ethernet — as well as basic PC editing software. Fortunately, IT solutions can economically provide this functionality. Figure 2 shows the elements and the workflow in such a larger newsroom. But the whole plan depends on the browse and broadcast servers being in step so that the browse function perfectly cross-references to the broadcast material. As more material is ingested, edited and deleted, keeping track becomes increasingly complex. For some news systems, this is a familiar headache.


Figure 2. In larger newsrooms, it may not be economical to provide broadcast-quality content to everyone. These newsrooms may utilize browse-quality video for editing on journalists’ desktop PCs.

A development from Quantel obviates this tracking requirement by putting both standards of material into one server operating under one database. In addition, this database can be expanded into any servers that are added to enlarge the system.

Editing

Generally, journalists can execute cuts-only editing at their desktops using browse video. Craft editing, (i.e., dissolves, DVE moves and more) is performed on a dedicated NLE workstation using broadcast-quality video from the server. One efficient form of craft editing is called in-server editing by Quantel or edit-in-place by Omneon. This process does not copy the material to the edit workstation from the server, but merely views it in the server and sets in and out points and the order of replay. The server then conforms the result. This model is even more attractive if the server is able to record and replay real-time material. In this case, it need only be recorded once to the server; the edited version can be replayed without further copying.

Note that the use of pure SAN-based storage that is not able to offer real-time record and play is bound to use at least a second server to connect with the video world. Using a second server has its attractions as it involves making a second copy of the material that can be used as a backup. But, if the edit server is able to replay real-time video, both it and the transmission server, often used as a dedicated output facility, can play simultaneously - thus offering a full on-air backup.

The combination of in-server editing and real-time replay creates efficient support for the journalists' cuts-only editing. The decisions made with the browse video can be conformed into the finished story and be ready immediately for transmission.

Another form of editing, referred to as the content-transfer model, depends on copying material from the ingest server to the editing store (which may be a shared SAN) acting as the store for an online NLE. When the work is complete, the finished result is copied to the transmission server. Clearly, this model lacks the sheer efficiency of in-server editing, but some prefer it nonetheless because, in making copies, they make the material more secure. It should be clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to newsroom technology.

Deletion

Deleting material on a server is bound to be a complicated process. Failure to take account of every user's needs may ruin work and result in on-air embarrassments — such as the dreaded on-air black hole.

These black holes are caused by deletion of server material that has been edited into a story. At first, this sounds careless. But considering that any one of many clients may have used the material, there is a considerable administrative process to go through to ensure that the material is truly no longer needed in the server. Manual solutions include employing a librarian to track usage and delete only the material that has no frames in use by anyone, or simply deleting only older material. Neither method is satisfactory or fully reliable.

One solution to this problem is to include in the server database an “in-use” tag for every frame used in any currently stored edit. If the server has direct access to every individual frame, then all unused frames can be deleted — even if others within a clip are still in use.

Automation 1

In the pressured world of news, any help is welcomed. Since modern newsrooms rely on digital technology, there is the opportunity to introduce any number of computer applications. For example, Avid supplies both NCSs and whole newsroom systems. They have delved deep into several areas — especially those relating to scripts. For example, on an Avid system, the simple act of pulling a script onto a timeline automatically measures out the amount of video required to run with the script.

Dremedia has taken this idea a step further. Its voice-recognition technology can make text from audio tracks, which has enabled a new automated way of finding material and cues. It becomes possible to search for words rather than relying on some other metadata inserted after the event. When hooked into a video server, this can instantly present the appropriate frames. In a similar way, it is also possible to take text processed from the audio and fit it to video.

Automation 2

Newsroom systems use many subsystems from various suppliers, and there is a need to tie these subsystems together to make the parts run as a whole. Automation systems, traditionally used to run on-air operations, are employed in a similar way for tapeless news, where demands vary according to the scale and technology employed — especially server technology. Actually, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

To implement the many and various operations required to run newsroom systems, operators need a whole array of server controls, checks and monitors. While some may base their system design on a selection of “best-of-breed” equipment, there is also considerable merit in going for combinations that are known to work well. IBIS has packaged some of its server applications into a single product. Its SprintTx product includes several server applications for such tasks as loading material (from scheduled contributions, tapes and live events, including sports), multichannel playout, cuts editing and management (including database management), search, and delete.

Integration

The newsroom market offers video servers, NCSs and subsystems of varying powers and sophistication, including highly developed disk-based technology. Tying together the numerous modules, applications and subsystems that comprise the disk-based newsroom is, perhaps, the biggest remaining challenge.

For integration to really work, there have to be open standards. One initiative from The Associated Press that has gained considerable ground is MOS protocol (www.mosprotocol.com). This is a communications protocol for NCS and production equipment aimed at enabling journalists to see, use and control a variety of devices from their desktop computers, effectively giving them access to all their work from one screen. Such devices include video and audio servers and editors, still stores, character generators, and special-effects machines.

The future

Open standards and open systems are essential to the future success of newsroom systems. They will allow a greater degree of integration and make all controls available at the journalists' desktop. The more recent adoption of AAF, which carries both essence and metadata, has the potential to meaningfully assist in many areas, such as helping ingest, editing, playout and archive to work together. A significant step in this direction is Omneon's achievement of offering edit-in-place capability on an open system that can make use of ubiquitous software such as Final Cut Pro.

Much newsroom technology is IT-based. Systems comprise a large number of diverse applications and boxes working around the NCS and video servers. Some rationalization of this approach — bundling groups of related operations together and not having to rely on so much custom integration — should reduce complexity, improve “meaningful” integration and performance, and reduce overall costs. Examples are the IBIS SprinTx application package, and Quantel's sQServer with browse and broadcast video, frame-based database management and both networking and video connections.

Newsrooms will not always be dedicated only to television. As the multimedia world expands, the raw material that feeds television newsrooms is also appropriate for radio, the Web, mobile cell phones, in-car systems — wherever people want to pick it up. We can expect more applications to address these new trends.

Bob Pank is a television industry journalist and technical writer.

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