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New newsrooms require more than new equipment

Planning a newsroom upgrade? If so, here's an imperative consideration for today's newsrooms: Any upgrade must be done with the Internet in mind. That means that in addition to new equipment, you will also be looking at new operational paradigms.

Stations have invested years and dollars in creating their valuable on-air brands. Although on-air product should still be a primary concern, these days it shouldn't be the only one. There are new audiences ready to embrace a brand once it becomes available through other channels of delivery.

Consider the rapid saturation of broadband in the United States. Kinetic Strategies, a broadband research firm, reported in June 2000 that North American multiple system operators pushed past the 3 million mark for cable modem customers, with more than 7000 new customers coming online every day. Add to that the equally rapid deployment of high-speed DSL connections and the recent introduction of satellite interactive terminals (SITs), which provide homes with direct, high-speed Internet connectivity via satellite, and you see that computers are becoming more viable as delivery systems for news product.

To take advantage of this multichannel environment, a news organization must be technically prepared to provide news for these new audiences. But it requires more than simple technical readiness. It requires you to reconsider how you work.

The appetite for news is at an all-time high. Stations are no longer only competing against local television stations. There are more than 30 regional or local 24-hour cable news channels scattered throughout the United States. Newspapers and radio stations now have an easy way to embellish their existing content with video and/or animation on the Web.

Stations are even confronted with new, Web-only competitors that are being born every day. In many cases these competitors are people who neither understand nor care about how broadcasters have traditionally created shows. What they do understand is that they have a huge, built-in audience, and there are computer-centric production solutions available at a fraction of the cost of traditional broadcast equipment. As one veteran broadcast executive puts it, "Nobody's watching pixels. They're only watching programs for their content." If something is compelling, they'll watch it.

Keeping up with this barrage of competition and the voracious demand for content doesn't mean going out and hiring more people. It means adopting a different way of thinking about your approach to business. This can result in some radical changes to the way you use your people and the way you produce your newscast.

Back to our original question about planning an upgrade. When the time comes, don't start with a simple tit-for-tat changeout of equipment. First, determine your content needs. Second, set your production processes. Third, take a look at the technology that will help you best accomplish the first two steps.

Virtual news organization Few media companies match the content output of Tribune Company (Editor's note: the author is the former managing editor for Tribune Regional Broadcasting). Its broadcasting division now owns 22 television and four radio stations. Its publishing unit operates 11 major daily newspapers and oversees operation of two 24-hour local cable news channels. In addition to its traditional businesses, Tribune is a major partner in the iBlast datacasting consortium. The company also has broadband partnerships with AT&T in several of its markets. There are Internet sites for almost every one of its stations and papers. For years, a guiding principal of the company has been to create content once and find multiple uses for it across all its properties.

Everything Tribune Broadcasting does must be geared to fit into this enormous virtual news organization that the company has created. It is currently in the process of negotiating a deal to connect all the company's properties with broadband ATM capacity. The ATM network will unify a system that is currently a mixed bag of fiber links, frame relays, and microwave and satellite feeds.

Tribune's flagship station, WGN-TV, Chicago, began switching over to a new newsroom in early August. The new facility is geared to play into the company-wide emphasis on digital, computer-based systems. For character generation, WGN is using Chyron iNFiNiTs that have a Media Object Server interface to allow for transforms and more complex moves. The editing system is a combination of Sony DNE2000s and DNE700s. The server is a 16-port Sony NewsBase that is running MAV-2000s. The proxy high/low resolution desktop editor is Sony's ClipEdit. WGN is using Proximity's Xenomax for graphics translation and searching.

A key component to WGN's upgrade is a conversion from a NewStar newsroom editorial system to AP Broadcast Technology's ENPS System. WGN's ENPS workstations will be networked with more than 1500 other ENPS workstations throughout the company, in both the broadcast and publishing newsrooms. ENPS has an open-architecture system that follows familiar network standards and protocols. ENPS also offers a powerful search engine, which ties into another key element of the company's virtual news network.

In 1999, Tribune unveiled the Tribune Control System, a Java program that works with standard browsers through the company's existing WAN. The system gives users remote-control access to equipment and content throughout the company's various news organizations.

The system allows authorized Tribune journalists in the company's many newsrooms to remotely control equipment or access content housed on file servers.

While the system isn't designed to replace any equipment that is already in use, it can represent cost savings when the company is building or re-equipping facilities. When the company upgraded WXMI-TV in Grand Rapids, MI, instead of putting routing panels in each of the station's eight edit bays, they installed the control system. The total cost was about $5000.

The company is currently on its third version of the control system and is talking with vendors about making more products interoperable with it. They are working on expanding the system so that it can switch virtual circuits over the company's planned ATM backbone.

If the journalists don't have to spend as much time editing or tracking down content, they have more time to focus on content, allowing them to enrich the ultimate product.

All this means, however, that the overall process changes.

Adapting the process Seattle-based Ackerley Group has become a leader in modifying traditional processes to fit the times. Its television broadcasting segment, the AK TV Group, owns or operates under management agreements 17 television stations in California, New York, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. The company's markets fall within the 50-200 DMA range.

The distinguishing characteristic of AK TV's ownership strategy is that the stations are clustered into regional station groups. This clustering, following a pattern more closely associated with radio station group ownership, allows for a number of business operations within the regions to be consolidated.

In early 1999, AK TV introduced a concept it calls Digital CentralCasting. This process allows AK TV to deliver digital programming to multiple stations for slightly more than the cost of a digital system for one station.

Ackerley developed the idea for Digital Centralcasting in 1997 when the TV group was faced with replacing its aging equipment and moving toward a digital environment. Replacing equipment on a one-for-one basis, especially in the group's small markets, would have been cost prohibitive. The company took a look at what radio was doing with centralizing back-office operations within its clusters and decided to move recording, playback, traffic, billing, accounting and parts of programming to more centralized locations. Each station was then considered a "spoke" within the cluster, supported by the central location and able to focus on local issues, such as news, sales and community involvement.

The hub of each region, known as Central Server+, houses a SeaChange server with a 250-hour storage capacity and an automated tilt-rack tape storage system using DVCPRO decks and tape in a robotic carriage system handling programming over a half-hour long. The tilt rack is used for bulk-fed syndicated programming that will be used by only one station within the region.

Ackerley spent considerably more money building the Central Server+ facility than it would have upgrading a single station. However, when you consider the Central Server+ handles the consolidated needs of up to five stations, it becomes an economical investment for the group. All the stations within the region are provided with a digital signal from one location, and the group was able to buy server storage in bulk, thus driving down the overall costs.

AK TV's news operations tend to be small but productive. The centralcasting environment gives them a way to share content among the stations in the region. The stations are connected by fiber to the Central Server+. The stations all use AP's Newscenter editorial system and each newsroom can check rundowns from the other stations to see what content is available. This built-in news loop maximizes AK TV's programming efficiencies within each of its regions.

Another way Ackerley is building efficiencies into its news product is by using the ParkerVision PVTV system, which automates news production so that fewer people can handle the production load within the stations. It's important to point out that AK TV's motives are not to remove people from their studio jobs. In the markets the group serves, technical talent is not always easy to find. Systems such as PVTV cut down on the number of people required to put a quality newscast on air.

Once the news has been gathered, an entire newscast can be assembled and run with only a producer and director. The producer and director can even piece together the newscast and preview it before air. If there are changes to be made, the system allows them to do so in a nonlinear fashion by laying in all the elements on a timeline. The PVTV system also controls a separate graphics system, tape decks, audio switcher, teleprompter, DVE and cameras. The system plays back in 601 and AES digital.

Computer-centric technology An important outcome of the technical efficiencies that come from systems such as PVTV is that stations can drive down operational overhead and increase journalistic content. By shifting resources that were once focused merely on production, you can use technology to streamline the production process, thus allowing you to refocus on content production.

Nobody would confuse CNN with a local broadcast news organization. However, local broadcasters can do well by looking at CNN as a model for their own facility upgrades. In addition to its own flagship news channels, CNN is also the primary consultant for other media groups around the world that are building their own news channels in the CNN mold.

CNN's engineering executives consider the quality of images in the newer, inexpensive digital formats to be very close to the traditional formats. Not only do they see the prices of digital solutions to be more attractive, they also feel that the computer-centric solutions solving their television, broadband and Internet issues in one elegant swoop.

CNN's computer-centric approach to editing employs DVCPRO storage and places a great deal of faith in multi-skilled people throughout their facilities.

As part of its overall technology plan, CNN replaced its analog tape-based equipment in its Atlanta headquarters with a Sony digital server-based system for storage and playback. As video is fed into the system, it is split simultaneously into low- and high-resolution paths. A metadata tag is attached to all video ingested into the system, alerting users of source information or usage restrictions. The low-resolution video is faster to browse and is available on desktops throughout CNN's various newsrooms. The high-resolution, broadcast-quality video is used for editing, playback and long-term storage.

CNN also emphasizes the efficiencies that are now available through template-driven graphics systems. Their system of choice today is the vi[z]rt Pilot System, which houses an Everest renderer. Used in the most efficient manner, the product represents a character generator, a still store and a DVE. When used to its full extent it can reduce the dependency on a switcher. It is run off an SGI Onyx computer with an Oracle 8.0 database. The Pilot System provides 601 quality and can be fitted with a high-definition output board if needed. The software is format independent, taking only a few minutes to switch from standard to high definition.

One of the benefits of Pilot is that it relieves the graphic artist of the mundane chore of preparing simple graphics for shows. Once the artist creates the initial template design, anyone can produce a template-based graphic for use within a story. The system allows reporters and producers to plug data into the templates and, as the story airs, the graphic appears with the prescribed look for that particular newscast. This process allows graphic artists to devote their skills to creating more sophisticated images.

Another valuable feature of such systems is that they can create a central database, making any graphic created easily shareable throughout a group, building in yet more efficiencies of equipment and manpower.

A new paradigm Many of the computer-centric solutions empower the non-technical person with tools previously handled by skilled labor at the station. This doesn't necessarily foreshadow the end of the road for skilled technicians. What it does mean, though, is that you can take a fresh look at news processes and how resources are employed - both on the people side and the equipment side. You're looking for higher quality and greater quantity to take advantage of the multiple channels available to you.

While there are excellent and economical components on the market, there may not be one complete system solution for your needs. Again, evaluate your content needs and the type of process you want to put into practice. Then shop around for the best technical solution to match those needs.