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Making money with news

Business is all about developing a product, marketing it, selling it and delivering it. Broadcast news is not much different, except it is all about being different — that is, differentiating yourself while delivering the same “product.” The news that happens in any market — indeed, in the world — is of course the same, regardless of who delivers it to the consumer. But choices about content and how to deliver it can move a newscast in a different direction, effectively delivering a differentiated (different) product.

These days, the driving force in all aspects of broadcasting is bottom-line performance. Managing any business is about making hard decisions. In the news business, it is about hard choices on issues like staff size, operating and capital budgets, content-provider affiliations and operations models. These decisions determine whether the business is a profitable one, a marginal one that contributes by delivering an audience for other programming, or a failing one that may no longer be a rational use of resources.

New and improved

Some of these decisions involve technological advances. The broadcaster must base his decision to use any particular technological advance on whether it promotes the long-term health and profitability of a news operation. Otherwise, it's as ineffective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Manufacturers tout marvelous workflow tools, like newsroom automation and nonlinear news editing on high-speed networks, as saviors of the business. But do they fulfill the promise?


Tools like newsroom automation and nonlinear news editing on high-speed networks, as well as other advances in newsroom technology, are creating huge operational changes. WJTV-TV newsroom, Miami, FL. Photo by Carmen Schettino Photography, Sarasota, FL.

Such advances as the ability to push and pull content from the broadcast networks and other news content providers, other advances made possible by computer networks, and ubiquitously available bandwidth at affordable prices can indeed create huge operational changes in the newsroom. Newsroom automation can even extend to “script automation” of the entire production process, complete with robotic cameras, automated switching and computer-assisted audio post-production. Do these and other advances actually contribute to the station's success and generate profits for it and its shareholders? Has the promise of savings and consistency proved itself in stations that have chosen this route? These questions and many others beg review and analysis, because solutions do not necessarily provide the same benefits at the same costs in all situations.

NewsCentral

In researching this article, we spoke with Sinclair Broadcasting, which has news outlets in many markets. Sinclair has often innovated in the past, and currently is implementing NewsCentral, a concept that integrates a newscast produced in Sinclair corporate news facilities outside Baltimore with locally produced segments. The company has centralized weather origination to reduce the duplication of effort at every station. (Sinclair owns 62 stations in 39 markets, 29 of which aired local news before NewsCentral began operations.) In some markets, the economics of broadcast news had deteriorated to the point that Sinclair had to cease news operations. NewsCentral appears to be an effort to reverse the trend and rejoin news production in markets where it may not have been profitable in the past.

Saving money is not only about cutting out capital expense. In this case, it appears likely that Sinclair will also trim staff and reduce long-term investment in news at the local level. While one might think it is regrettable that the state of broadcast news has reached this point, the half-full/half-empty glass analogy is particularly apropos here. By reducing cost, Sinclair has facilitated resurgence in local news, a trend that other group owners having sufficient mass to take the same tack will likely study carefully. If the concept is successful, not only will it have saved some jobs in many markets, it might create jobs in markets where news was just too marginal to succeed.

Flint, MI, was the first NewsCentral site. It went on air Oct. 28, with new crews and experienced news staff. The relatively low cost of producing the newscast makes it likely to produce a return in short order. It leverages the strength of a central operation whose cost will be spread across many markets in the future. Michael Eichhorn, general manager of WSMH, said that FOX66 News at Ten will provide mid-Michigan viewers with a new and unique choice for quality news coverage. He described the program as fast-paced news in a 60-minute format, covering local, regional and national news stories, and said it will be aired at a more convenient time for viewers. Perhaps more important, by enfranchising the market with a new product, Sinclair hopes to achieve the goal of all corporations: increasing shareholder return while providing a valuable product.

Much is made of newsroom automation in the form of newsroom computer systems. But there is another automation advance that has emerged in the last couple of years. Most broadcasters have experience with master control automation, which runs from a script generated by the traffic department. Now there are production-control room automation systems that take the script and metadata from the newsroom computer system in much the same way master control takes data from traffic. The goal is much the same: to reduce labor cost and make newscasts free from operator error. But in this case, the entire production control room is squeezed into a single box, combining the functions of video mixer (production switcher), audio mixer, character generator, remote camera control and DVE — essentially all the systems installed in the control room. In a highly structured environment, the system allows for the script and metadata to be ordered on a timeline, which then operates automatically. There are differences between production automation and master control automation, the most obvious being the strict control of master control by a master clock most of the time. Production automation orders the elements, but the transitions must be timed to the actual length of the script as read in the show. Also, the news business, while highly scripted, must routinely accommodate unplanned events, especially in the instance of breaking news. Reordering an entire block of the automation schedule in master control would be nearly impossible, and likely lead to the departure of the unwitting staff. Not so with production automation, where it is expected that when the script is reordered, cut, rewritten, or even tossed out, the system must accommodate the change gracefully.


Production-control-room automation systems like ParkerVision’s can replace a room full of hardware and reduce staff.

ParkerVision has pioneered just such a system, the PVTV CR-4000, now in operation in many stations. One group that implemented it in three major markets was able to eliminate 34 staff positions, and dropped literally millions of dollars to the bottom line in doing so. ParkerVision provides the cameras, robotic camera controls — basically, everything but the microphone, lights and set. One trade-off is the lack of choice of cameras — the ones in the package are not high end. The latest lowdown on their offerings should be available on the floor of NAB 2003.

Sundance Digital's NewsLink system takes the newsroom automation script and metadata and extracts the data necessary to control all of the VTRs, server ports and other controllable devices. While in some ways similar to Parker's systemVision, it is not a full automation system with its own mixers, etc., but rather a control system for existing assets. But it does allow a station to leverage the power of some existing assets while reducing control room stress somewhat.

In a logical progression, one might ask for a full script-automation system without encapsulated electronics. This hybrid, which may someday exist, would take the best of both approaches, and provide the Full Monty solution and all of the labor savings. It is an intriguing concept, and a possibility that is appealing to many stations that are not quite ready for wholesale change but still need the savings automation could provide.

Newsroom automation

Over the last two decades, newsroom computer systems have improved workflow and freed personnel from clerical tasks. At the same time, they have allowed major changes in the speed with which broadcasts can be produced, and the consistency and accuracy of both the content and the production decisions. Who would argue against the use of what amounts to word processing over typewriters in the newsroom? The charm of the “rip and read” newsroom era has given way to the quiet click of keyboards and the simplicity with which copy is passed to producers for review and incorporation into a completed newscast rundown. The ability to load supers and run the script straight to the teleprompter without typing it on yellow fan-fold clearly has improved the economics of news. It is reasonable, however, to ask if it has allowed stations to grab new viewers, raise ratings, and improve cash flow and profit consistently. According to Joe Defeo, corporate news director at Sinclair NewsCentral, it has. He says that technology allows him to distribute the load around the newsroom, and to bring new people into the operation faster. He still can't hire people without skills, but he has found that people with less experience are productive faster in the new automated environment. Less experience leads to lower staffing costs, and the environment could provide a training ground for staff to gain experience and move on quickly. In many industries, that has been the case. Today's college graduate is almost certainly computer-literate and thinks more visually than graduates of a decade ago, and thus fits well into a computerized newsroom with nonlinear editing. Journalism schools, however, need to keep up.


Gordon Swenson of ABC’s “Nightline” in an Avid suite. Avid introduced and popularized nonlinear editing systems. Photo by Andy Washnik, copyright 2002.

With no full-time newscast to produce, and thus no pressure to perform, it is difficult for a school of journalism to teach the trade. There are a few notable exceptions, but the high cost of acquiring content and the capital hardware needed to sustain the intensity and relevancy of the hands-on experience is a significant barrier. There are not many PBS affiliates at universities broadcasting regular newscasts, and even fewer that have the latest newsroom automation and editing tools.

News editing

Editing news linearly began with news film, which lasted through the '60s and into the '70s. We sometimes forget that the Vietnam War was shot on film and ferried back to the United States by plane. Soon after, film gave way to Umatic ¾-inch videotape, which radically altered the landscape and permanently changed the immediacy of news production. In the '90s Avid and Ikegami conceived of and designed a hard-disk recorder built onto a news camera. The theory was that one could go directly to nonlinear editing without transferring the media to the NewsCutter for editing. It was a great idea but, at the time, the cost of hard disks was so high that a news photographer may have had $10,000 worth of disks in his kit. Also, disks could be a high-risk recording medium (if the disk crashed, the content was forever lost). Videotape, by comparison, was considered a much safer and cheaper medium.

But, since then, newer technology has eroded the hard disk's advantage of immediate editing. Years ago, a news editing station required a relatively serious computer (clunky by today's standards), a VTR for ingest, mixers and the usual linear editing tools. With the advent of DV recording, all that can be done in a garden-variety laptop computer. In the last year, LACIE and others have built inexpensive hard-disk recorders that are shock-mounted and have USB and IEEE 1394 FireWire connections. Now, the producer and/or photographer can edit in the car on the way to the station and deliver the finished story to the station with no transfer time. At the very least, a station can effectively build its own disk-based camera by dropping the FireWire disk drive in the photographer's vest pocket so he can deliver it to the station ready for immediate access.

Nonlinear news editing grew from the general computer editing industry. It was commercially introduced and popularized by Avid. Avid saw a ripe market for hundreds of thousands of dollars in new hardware in each station and the promise of radically changed workflows. Time has a way of changing plans. Today, DV cameras are inexpensive, costing less than 20 percent of the cost of an ENG camera only a decade ago. And DV editing is delivered on millions of home PCs each year. It didn't take long for the computer geek in the maintenance shop to say to the news director, “Give me a few thousand dollars, and I'll deliver you nonlinear editing using consumer hardware.” The problem is that nonlinear editing is usually networked, and total production workflow is the ultimate goal. Seamless integration of newsroom automation and editing systems into a holistic approach is the true editing solution. What's missing from the fast, quick and cheap solution is the improvement that integration provides.

But, make no mistake about it, this dynamic has not finished playing out. One manufacturer of news editing products recently admitted that it is hard to refute the perception that such products are simply computers with “a little specialized software.” Cisco, SeaChange and other companies are building general-purpose media repositories that allow network-attached storage to mimic the specialized media networks that editing manufacturers sell today, while potentially providing storage for all of a station's media assets, including graphics, stills and moving images.


Many of today’s cameras offer improved features to help broadcasters streamline the acquisition of pictures and sound. Photo courtesy Panasonic Broadcast.

The day may come when the hardware is unbundled from the software, freeing the boy genius to save truly large dollars while achieving the same desired goal of full integration of all systems. The savings could make a network of nonlinear editing hardware extremely affordable indeed, with a five-station node perhaps under $50,000. It is hard to say what the software might cost, but the future holds truly affordable solutions.

Nonlinear editing does not, in and of itself, save labor cost. It is in the implementation that labor can be saved. One important extension of the news-editing cubicle is the ability to give producers low-resolution browse and editing on their desktops. This combines workflow improvements with the ability to more fully use editors, or perhaps work with fewer editors if the producer completes the rough story line without having to have the pictorial and technical skills of an experienced editor. The ability to browse for important content on the network is an important enhancement brought by server-based editing solutions. The central server's content is usually mirrored by a low-resolution copy of the same content, which is used for the browse library. Managing both is usually a mostly automated function, though it is quite possible that stories might be pushed by a media asset management system to an archive, while the proxy remains online for viewing and searching purposes. If the searching system is well designed, it can reduce the search for the needle-in-a-haystack shot to a few keystrokes. Integrating search tools like Virage, Sonic Foundry and others could lead to powerful script, audio and visual searching capabilities within a newsroom system at relatively low cost.

Another money-saving, workflow-improving advantage that newsroom editing systems offer is centralized record and server playout. Centralized recording can make the media immediately available to all connected workstations and edit systems. It gives multiple users simultaneous access, and gives producers immediate access to begin cutting stories about live breaking news. This alone is worth considerable investment because the resulting improvement in workflow can free staff time for other functions. In addition, scheduled recordings can be executed without intervention, as with regular news or sports feeds, which operate on a scheduled basis. Once ingested, the media is quickly accessible to all. If the ingest operation includes metadata, the database is immediately searchable as well.

News cameras

Part, in fact the first part, of a news broadcast is the acquisition of pictures and sound. Sony, Panasonic, Ikegami, Thomson Grass Valley, Hitachi, JVC and others have continuously lowered the price of their news cameras while steadily improving the features. Replacing the ubiquitous Betacam are a crop of digital camera formats, including DVCPRO from Panasonic; DVCAM and Betacam SX, the digital cousin of Betacam from Sony; and Digital S from JVC. These cameras provide high-quality pictures, robust digital recording in component form, and features news cameramen need. The same manufacturers also make crossover consumer cameras (so-called “prosumer” cameras) that, like their professional cousins, offer three-chip sensor arrays and DV recording, but are lightweight and low cost. Cameras costing under $3000 list price have become the mainstay in many stations. Indeed, one national producer gave prosumer cameras and laptops to all producers with the admonition that the producer who could shoot and edit would be more valuable, and thus the inference that they would be more likely to survive budget cuts. This kit can be put in every news car for under $10,000 — barely more than the cost of a good lens a few years ago.

Handling content

Once stories are cut, the results are published to the editorial process, perhaps filling slugs left in the rundown when the newscast was planned. At airtime, no one needs to find the right tapes, load and cue them — now they play from the server directly and are automatically cued to the correct point. At the conclusion of the newscast, some stories might be purged, while others are retained for future use, or archived on tape or to a library-management system to become part of the stock-footage library. Some might also be retained for future reference in legal issues, or for other uses. In theory, nothing is ever lost, but the reality is that a system created by man fails at man's hand. Care and maintenance of the library is the final step in the production process, one that cannot be ignored.

Until recently, stations bought national news footage from their network, or another service provider like CNN NewsSource, as a live-from-tape feed that had to be locally recorded. Rundowns were sent as far in advance as possible, allowing the production staff to choose which stories might fit well in the planned newscast. This could generate literally thousands of recordings each year. The RAI Corp. (the Italian network) stores literally tens of thousands of tapes in every nook and cranny in its New York facility. Most television stations do not hold so much material. But, with up to six feeds a day and perhaps two copies of each recorded, the amount of material processed per year can be enormous. In the last four years, the services have struggled to find ways to free the real-time, wide-bandwidth, satellite-based circuits used for news exchanges. The answer again permits major improvements in workflow. Content can be pushed by the provider, or pulled by the station to a server at the station. Stories can be viewed in proxy form on the Web, or even from a proxy server at the station, refilled each day in a trickle of continuous media. Now, the producer can view the material when he wants, tag stories to be kept or request stories be delivered to his server without scheduling operators and worrying about operations errors. The content needed is held locally and purged as needed to keep space available. PathFire has been an innovator in this effort and has gained significant clients at several broadcast news providers.

The next step

The real goal is to make the next step possible. SMPTE has worked through a technology called material-exchange format (MXF), currently in the standardization process within SMPTE, which will permit the exchange of files between servers and other devices, along with the metadata required to populate searchable databases or automation systems. When manufacturers begin the adopt the standard, it will make it possible to pull stories from the network into a local news editing network seamlessly, along with the metadata, perhaps including transcripts, scripts, timing, descriptive information about the story and other valuable information. Doing that without needing retyping of the data or operator intervention will make a smooth and seamless process that saves time. That's money in the news business.

One person the technology cannot now do without, though, is the computer-network specialist — the network administrator. Complex networks with complicated technology cannot be treated lightly. It would be dangerous for a station to assume that the technology is just desktop computers and therefore manageable by existing IT staff in the station without additional training specific to the new technology and products. If you are going to rely on it 24 hours a day, you would be wise to keep a support person on a beeper at all times.

In the end, it is clear that modern technology allows significant improvements in workflow, speeds operations, and allows a small staff to accomplish a lot. The news business is not automatic; people will always be an important part of the cost of a news operation. But, increasingly, the hardware costs less and the level of equipment sophistication will require training and careful evaluation of staff experience.

John Luff is vice president of business development at AZCAR. To reach him, visitwww.azcar.com.

Send questions and comments to:john_luff@primediabusiness.com

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