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Newsroom's next big thing

What's next? This is a question that has been asked every year since Baird and Marconi were in business. Looking back, one can trace a long line of innovation-enabling landmarks in the industry's history, each of which has had its own effect on the way that news is gathered, processed or transmitted. Easy examples are videotape, ENG, newsroom computer systems, electronic graphics, NLE, satellite links and the mobile phone.

News has always been an early adopter. It may not be a big money-earner for broadcasters, but news is extremely high profile, and anything that gives one station or network an edge over its rivals is likely to get a try in news.

Although new features, functions, gadgets and gizmos are still coming along as fast as ever, there are signs that in 2007 some of the leading thinkers in the business believe the answer to the question, “What's next?” is not more technology — at least not new gizmos, anyway.

TV and radio news are at a crossroads. To understand why, we must look back at the transformation in the sector during the last 25 years. In the early 1980s, most news material was still captured on film, though videotape was beginning to gain ground. The first newsroom systems were just appearing. Most scripts and prompter text were still manually typed on paper, photocopied many times and endlessly shuffled. Electronic graphics were in their infancy. Stills and graphics were glued onto cardboard, and a camera was pointed at them in the studio.

New technology

A visit to even a modest broadcast newsroom today provides copious evidence of how radically technology has transformed the journalist's life.

First, there are virtually unlimited sources, with news agencies, the Internet, e-mail, remote crews and bureaux, and now members of the public sending in content. Content arrives in a constant stream from these directions at enormous speed. Compared with journalists 25 years ago — who had a dribble of wire-copy (on paper) and immensely cumbersome newsgathering to work with — today's journalists are truly spoiled for choice. They have a vast array of online production tools at their disposal, covering every aspect of the process. Desktop editing, audio dubbing and graphics creation capabilities are at their fingertips.

Of course, the opportunities for delivery of the product have increased exponentially. There are vastly more channels, including 24-hour news channels. There are more and longer bulletins. Also, there is an array of new media outlets, including Web, mobile and podcast. There are technology-related issues that are not just about new gizmos.

Info overload

One might think that the source material with which today's journalists are bombarded with would enable better and more in-depth coverage of the issues. In fact, all that stuff is making it harder for journalists to find what they really want and to determine what is really important.

There is also a growing issue about rights, such as what a journalist may or may not use and under what conditions. And there are new issues concerning user-generated content. When someone sends in a clip captured on a mobile phone, the journalist must deem the source trustworthy before airing it. What is the legal position here? Who owns the content?

Another change that in most people's eyes would be considered progress is the migration from edit suites and graphics departments to the journalist's desktop. When done properly, it can add greatly to the speed and reactivity of the news production process.

This migration, however, brings its own demands. The journalist must acquire new skills, which may not always come naturally. In the old days, much fine work was done in the edit suite by combining the journalistic abilities of the reporter or producer with the craft skills of the editor. That opportunity for teamwork — and for the introduction of creative thinking from a visually talented artist — is now rare. Possessing this multitude of needed skills demands a continuing commitment to training, which few organizations can afford.

A more fundamental issue is how all that desktop production capability is joined up. All broadcasters aspire toward file-based world. However, it is a major challenge to create an infrastructure that can support it. Millions of content items can be acquired, ingested, indexed, stored, retrieved, processed, scripted, scheduled, delivered, repurposed and archived (deep breath) on an enterprise-wide basis, frame-accurately, and with bulletproof reliability. Although much good work has been done, there are few broadcast news organizations that have even come close to an optimal solution — partly because the goal posts keep moving and partly because there are few established rules for the game, such as standards.

The proliferation of delivery channels presents journalists (and their employers) with even greater challenges — usually referred to as opportunities. This is an area where the effect of technology — especially the Internet — has been greater on the consumer than the supplier. The Internet has changed everything. A short list of examples:

  • There is more competition for eyeballs, taking people away from television.
  • Nonbroadcasters deliver their own content to a worldwide audience
  • Consumers watch themselves on television through YouTube and the like.
  • Consumers have direct access to many of the same information sources that are bombarding the journalists.

And, of course, technology has put a whole new range of reception devices in the hands of the consumer.

On the enterprise level, if a broadcaster is to compete in the world of online news, more infrastructure elements need to be put in place to enable a new set of business models, notably back office things, such as customer resource, content and billing management. Journalists are challenged with repurposing a continuous stream of content so that it is as compelling and relevant to an online audience as it is to a viewer.

So we have a situation where, in almost every area, the advance of new technology into the broadcast news domain is creating new possibilities, but also introducing considerable complexity. This is in danger of compromising the traditional journalistic qualities of selection, refinement, accuracy and judgment.

Instead of presenting a carefully considered and crafted 30-minute picture of the world, the newsroom is pumping out a continuous stream of live, online and interactive content. In the case of major events, news organizations are not so much reporting events to the audience but transporting the audience, via live links, to the news event. The journalist is in danger of becoming the information equivalent of the shelf-stacker in the supermarket.

Case study: CNN

The cumulative effect of all this complexity is well recognized by the world's leading news organizations. CNN, in Atlanta, for example, now delivers news using 16 different platforms and formats, and it has amassed an extraordinary array of technology to do it. Some journalists now have up to 20 separate usernames and passwords to provide access to different systems.

Legacy issues are also significant. CNN installed the first broadcast newsroom computer system in the world (originally called BASYS, now Avid iNEWS), and it is still in use, remarkably little changed (though much added to), providing the one backbone system (even though it's text-only) to which everyone has access.

As CNN's vice president of news technology planning and analysis, Michael Koetter is acutely aware that technology does not automatically deliver what he calls the core values: trust and breadth of vision. To him, the application of journalistic integrity and the ability to prioritize content to guide the consumer's selection are a vital part of the journalistic quality that CNN aims to deliver. And it is something easily threatened by the transformational effect of headlong technology change. No one, he says, has found a way to imbue core values into technology.

To Koetter, this means concentrating on specific areas. One is the challenge of joining up the proliferating tools and technologies at CNN's disposal. This is more than just opening up data paths to link all of the network's widely flung outposts and providing shared access to their vast archives. It is about making sure that a file-based infrastructure is accompanied by the right kind of file-based thinking applied to the content managed within it and to the way the infrastructure itself is managed, maintained and developed.

Despite the growing presence of enterprise-wide content stores and an ever-expanding data network, Koetter feels it will still take the network some years yet to break out of the tape-based mentality and fully exploit the possibilities presented by online storage, high-speed data links and federated searching across all libraries.

Another challenge for the network is to radically reduce the amount of complexity that the individual journalist has to cope with. That means, first, peeling back the large amounts of unstructured data currently held in the newsroom system and making it available in a far more organized way.

Another aim is to mesh multiple user interfaces (some people use three or four workstations concurrently to access separate systems) into a single presentation layer, making use of head-up displays and careful ergonomic design.

Then there is the development of what Koetter refers to as rich workflow management to provide the journalist with guidance on practically everything, including logistics, house style, and recommended standards and practices.

Case study: BBC Jupiter

The BBC is experiencing many of the same issues. Mark Jones was responsible for the implementation of Jupiter, the BBC's integrated news production and delivery system. He points out that the need to incorporate legacy systems and working practices complicates technology implementation. And the longer the legacy — the BBC and CNN have the longest in the business — the greater the difficulty.

Jupiter integrates a half dozen legacy systems. It has been a significant challenge to make it simple, while at the same time meeting the broadcaster's growing demand for its journalists to deliver more — in line with the principle of 360° delivery — to all the available new outlets, without significant new resources. So much more material and so much less time to process it inevitably makes it harder for journalists to apply the traditional core values.

The likes of MySpace, YouTube and Google are now major agenda-drivers for suppliers and consumers alike. They are creating new kinds of demand and some rather scary competition for traditional broadcasters.

The BBC is conducting major demographic research, which reveals that on-demand, Web-based consumers (especially the young) expect far more than linear services on the Web. They want content and presentation different from the time-honored bulletin format. This is fuelling the Web 2.0 phenomenon, with advanced tools building substantial Web experiences on the fly. Broadcasters, take note.

According to Jones, the biggest challenge is to fully implement a file-based environment for both infrastructure and workflow. Particularly important is the provision of the right kind of connectivity between the center and the field to ensure that all the right facilities (including centrally archived material) are available to remote locations and mobile newsgathering teams. This makes for interesting internal discussions on just how to build internal systems that incorporate the right logistics without breaking the metadata chain. It also carries detailed architecting requirement when someone asks, “Couldn't we do graphics on the desktop?” The network engineer becomes key, Jones said.

He also points to the rapid pace of change as a complicating factor and offers the new BBC Scotland headquarters building at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, Scotland, as a prime example. Technologists can and do apply their best endeavors to understand how a given facility, such as the Pacific Quay center, is going to work. But almost invariably between specification and go-live, something fundamental changes, and the technologists can only hope that a suitable tweak can be applied in time.

In the case of the BBC Scotland HQ, it is a new facility. This all becomes harder when you are trying to implement change in an environment already working at full stretch and where interruption is not permissible. This process is no longer a one-off, project-based activity. It requires that the maintenance, support, enhancement and adaptability of the file-based environment to changing requirements is continuing and permanent.

Challenges for the planners

So where does this leave the people who plan and manufacture the next generations of news technology — and those responsible for delivering and maintaining the current generation?

Unlike the days when a genuine technology breakthrough had an immediate impact (think of the CCD camera), the emphasis now is clearly on “how” rather than “what.” Manufacturers who still think in terms of products — not solutions — urgently need to examine what their businesses are and what they are becoming.

Today's technology shopping list contains many things that are hard to define, manufacture and deliver, and that are barely on the agenda for some manufacturers. They include:

  • workflow analysis and design;
  • project management;
  • systems integration;
  • new partnering models;
  • an improved user experience;
  • business transformation;
  • change management;
  • a new kind of proactive system support which is predictive, workflow based and constantly adapting; and
  • rapid access to suppliers' R&D departments when new capabilities are needed fast.

Innovative methods are needed as much as — or even more than — new point products. There is undoubtedly further potential for learning lessons from the world of IT, where such issues have been mainstream for years.

In the final analysis, perhaps Koetter at CNN has the right umbrella phrase for it all: The challenge for the future is to make technology the vehicle by which not just content but core values can be delivered.

Glenn Hall is a member of Bakewell House Consultancy, a service provider to the electronic media sector.