Maintaining a competitive edge

The Internet is developing into a great homogenizer when it comes to news media. Once easily defined media types, like television and newspapers, are adopting and adapting the tools and techniques of each other to produce Web presences that blur the line of demarcation that once separated the two.

Television station Web sites abound with wire service copy and locally generated, inverted pyramid-style text stories, just like those found in daily newspapers. Newspapers too have adopted the stock and trade of their rivals, adding video coverage as a prominent feature to their Web sites.

A study of newspaper Web sites released in July from The Bivings Group revealed that 92 percent of the top 100 U.S. newspaper Web sites now offer video — up from 61 percent the year before. The study also found that 39 of those newspapers are originating their own video content for distribution on their sites.

That news should set off alarm bells throughout TV newsrooms across the country, particularly when the number of reporters employed by both institutions gets factored in.

“If you look at the ratio between newspaper reporters and TV reporters, it could be as many as 20 to one,” says Johnathon Howard, Avid Technology director, Broadcast and Media Publishing. “The important thing to keep in mind is television newsrooms need to get out in front of this right now.They have the talent pool that knows how to crank out a lot of content. They also already have the infrastructure in place.”

That infrastructure, supported by file-based workflows and automated news production, can help stations equalize the numerical advantage of their newspaper competitors.

“If you plan for it and put the right tools in place right now, there's still time,” Howard says.

File-based workflow

By now, the benefits of file-based workflows in TV news production are well established. Such approaches are faster and easier to use than linear videotape methods. Multiple copies of the same content can be viewed and edited by reporters, producers, editors and the promotions department at the same time.

“That's the beautiful thing about the technology,” Howard says. “Since everything is basically file-based now, that means that you can get access to content as soon as it exists.”

Even though videotape still plays an important role in television news production, the preponderance of new tapeless camcorders seems to foreshadow tape's ultimate demise.

As Chris Lee, former news director of KRON-TV in San Francisco and current senior director, broadcast solutions for Omneon Video Networks, says, “The new acquisition formats all capture file-based material, so now more than ever you really want to have a server at the hub of your production facility. Otherwise, you are in a very awkward position of taking this sleek file-based material and then dubbing back to tape to edit, which really just costs everyone time and really makes no sense.”

A file-based workflow also can produce a few benefits that are so commonplace that they may be easily overlooked. One is fostering a collaborative work environment, whether it's among reporters and producers in the same newsroom or separated by hundreds of miles in remote bureaus.

“We are bringing new approaches to multiple stations in a group,” explains Quantel CEO Tom McGowan. “We've done some work with two stations to allow editors in Bryan, TX, to edit material at a sister station in Waco.”

The Quantel solution also is being used at TV2, Norway's largest commercial broadcaster, with operations in Bergen and Oslo. The approach allows editors in either location to populate their timeline with source files in either location and play it out with no delay as if it resided on the server next door, he says.

Ultimately, McGowan envisions a day when seamless collaboration between remote sites will be measured in thousands, not hundreds, of miles.

“We are working on handling New York to L.A.,” he says, “so editors can work together without a noticeable difference in clips on the timeline.”

Another closely related benefit is news contribution and transport.

“Even in the early days, prior to the more recent wide-scale adoption of nonlinear technology, the store-and-forward delivery of affiliate news service content allowed stations to receive a huge volume of material without dedicated staff and equipment to ‘roll on the feed,’” explains Rick Young, Pathfire VP of product management. “In those days, the only way to hand video off to downstream systems, which usually were tape decks, was via baseband video. Today, both the video along with the associated metadata — and you can't underestimate how important that is — can be directly integrated into workflows without the decode/re-encode process.”

Data about the data

Sometimes referred to as data about the data, metadata is the “who, what, where, when, why” of a file-based workflow. It's essential because it describes individual clips so file-based systems can be searched and journalists can locate what they need. However, it raises a particularly troublesome question for journalists whose job is to get a story on the air: Who's going to enter all this data?

“I think there's a reluctance to have any tool slow you down,” Howard explains. “Quite honestly, unless your job is to annotate and log footage, you are not really going to want to do it.”

Thus, incorporating metadata into news production can't disrupt the newsroom's core mission.

“The trick is for the newsrooms not to have to change what they do,” explains Ed Casaccia, director of product management & marketing for Thomson Grass Valley Digital News Production. “The trick on our side of the industry is to harvest that work they are doing already and associate that as soon as possible with the audio, video essence material.”

Thomson does so with its Infinity camcorder and Aurora newsroom production system, he says.

“The Aurora newsroom production system can pull assignment metadata from the newsroom computer system and send it to the camcorder in the field,” Casaccia says.

At that point, metadata is associated with the essence without burdening the reporter in the field.

According to Howard, Avid Technology has taken a similar approach.

“What we've done is extract as much of the metadata from the story that's been written for that sequence as possible. If someone starts editing it, we know what original source footage is associated with that sequence, which is associated with that text right from the story,” Howard says. “So there are all of these inherent associations that happen within our system. When you begin to aggregate them together, that is a tremendous amount of metadata that gets created without you doing anything except for your job.”

News automation

If file-based workflows are providing the vehicle to drive greater newsroom efficiency, newsroom automation systems are the automatic transmission of the process. Sure, you can get where you're going without it, but the journey's so much more enjoyable when you have it.

News automation takes many forms, but the consistent thread that ties these automation systems is the reliance of technology to simplify labor-intensive tasks. When it comes to automating control of news production, Ross Video has responded with OverDrive.

“What OverDrive does is bring that traditional control panel from a production switcher and format that onto a graphical user interface that is timeline-based,” explains Darren Budrow, Ross Video director of sales.

The production switcher doesn't go away and remains the nerve center communicating with external devices, but OverDrive replaces buttons and fader handles with a simpler interface. In some respects, OverDrive is similar to a master control automation system. It will look at the playout server and inform a technical director with a graphical warning if a clip is unavailable. It also lets operators add, remove or rearrange items in the rundown on the fly.

“The whole focus of this is being able to do this in a live environment, where breaking news is literally happening all around you,” Budrow says.

Currently, OverDrive can interface with the Avid iNews or AP's ENPS newsroom computer systems via MOS, so rundowns can be published directly to the controller and operators can view them on the OverDrive timeline.

Elsewhere, automation is assisting newsrooms with archiving stories for convenient retrieval after the newscast airs. For the past few years, Crispin has answered this need with its NewsCat product.

“What we've done is integrate an interface to the newsroom computer systems that have already defined that clip, and we have databased all of the attributes associated with the news clip,” explains Alan DeVany, company founder and president. “We've done that in a way to provide a very simple search tool via a Web interface anywhere on the network with just a click of a mouse.”

Recently, the company has added an extension to NewsCat to help stations ingest and catalog their shelves full of archived videotape.

“To find something older than what we've had an interface to, all of a sudden we have much less descriptive information about that held in our database,” DeVany says. “We have designed a tool to allow stations to pull a tape, dump it into the system and then archive it. We create a low-res proxy of that as we do for all of our news clips, and anywhere on the network we can allow for anybody to continue to add descriptors about that video that they see to a common searchable database.”

Fade to black

There was a time when a station wanted to remain competitive with the station down the street. File-based workflows and automation helped them cut costs, increase efficiency and produce a better product so they could do just that.

Today, a station doesn't just compete with its cross-town rival. Technologies like the Internet have seen to that. Broadcast news operations are at the dawn of a new competitive reality in which every media outlet is a potential competitor. Maintaining and improving upon efficiencies realized through adoption of file-based workflows and news automation will be critical to their success in this hotly contested news environment.