The Evolution of Newsroom Systems

The author questions the need for two separate systems, the NRCS and automation, and whether changing working practices might lead to a more unitary approach
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It dawned on me that the USB memory stick I received as a gift had more than 10 times as much storage capacity as the first newsroom system I used. That system had 40 users, 20MB of storage and happily produced more than three hours a day of live television.

Back then, words were words, pictures were pictures, and journalists (sorry, ���scribblers”) were expected to know their place. This was in the newsroom, or at best sitting in the back of an edit suite or a control room, watching and occasionally making suggestions while the creative professionals worked their magic. If a late change was needed, “We'll see if we can fit it in, but don't hold your breath …” was their response.

So what good were those early systems, with their dumb terminals, their clanking printers and no direct connection whatsoever with the broadcast chain? The answer is that they created for the first time a single coordinated editorial operation, whose members could share common resources, see each others' work, and, above all, collaborate and communicate with each other in real time. Although the word hadn't been invented at the time, it was a revolution in workflow. Those repercussions continue.

And the basic virtues of such technology are just as vital now as they ever were. However, a variety of factors have combined to completely confuse the definition of what a “newsroom system” actually does, so much so that no two people will give you the same definition. The change factors are easy enough to identify:

  • Technology advances, making newsroom systems immeasurably more powerful than they were before.
  • The evolution of working practices, broadening the scope of what individuals in the newsroom are able (and willing) to do.
  • Changes in broadcast business drivers, resulting in hugely expanded output both on a station-by-station basis (length and numbers of bulletins) and in terms of the range of channels and delivery methods that must be served.

In those early text-based days, the newsroom system was geared purely to the journalism function (wires and scriptwriting), and the final (and only) output was a set of printed scripts from which the production staff could work. Today, we have reached a point where the newsroom system touches almost every aspect of the operation and is directly connected with the broadcast chain in numerous places.

If we understand the term “newsroom system” to include all of those things that are expected to be available on the journalist's desktop, the list of functions now expected from the newsroom system in its widest sense is huge. Such functions include:

  • Planning/diary/assignments.
  • Communications (messaging, mail).
  • Web browsing and research.
  • News agency reception, sorting and alerts.
  • Ingest scheduling and management.
  • Encoding/transcoding.
  • Cataloging and metadata creation.
  • Search engine.
  • Low-resolution proxy browsing, shot-listing and editing.
  • Voiceover recording.
  • High-resolution conforming and finishing.
  • Video server management.
  • Scriptwriting.
  • Running order creation.
  • Script and show timing.
  • Graphics creation.
  • Prompting.
  • Captioning.
  • Subtitling.
  • On-air playout automation.
  • Web and DVD authoring and publishing.
  • Archiving (short-, medium- and long-term) of media and text.
  • Digital asset management.

It is obvious that this long list of functions covers the entire range of activity in a broadcast news operation. It is equally obvious that it far exceeds the scope of what are traditionally known as newsroom computer systems (NRCS) such as Avid's iNEWS and the Associated Press' (AP) ENPS, both of which are still based on core technology originally conceived for a text-only era.

It is a tribute to both those systems and their suppliers — who between them share approximately 90 percent of the worldwide market share for NRCS — that they are still operational and still being sold. Integration potential has replaced pure functionality as the most desirable and necessary attribute of these systems, and enormous effort has been expended by both companies to provide, one way or the other, additional capabilities.

In Avid's case, this has been achieved by progressively adding piggyback systems to handle such things as machine control, indexing and low-res browsing, to the point where the old text-based BASYS system on which iNews is built is all but invisible (even though it's still there). For the AP, the strategy has been constructed around the conception and promotion of the MOS protocol, which has achieved considerable success as a de facto standard for the integration of systems from many suppliers into the newsroom environment.

Both companies also have increased their appeal as suppliers by leveraging other qualities. Avid promotes a “one-stop shop” in which iNews is part of a wider infrastructure (and commercial envelope), including Avid editing systems and Unity. AP bundles ENPS with content products and services. (AP, of course, owns not only the famous news service but also APTN, one of the world's leading picture agencies.)

The success of these differing strategies has made it difficult for competitors to break into the market. Dalet, Octopus and Autocue (among others) all offer highly functional broadcast NRCS systems with numerous strong points and, indeed, satisfied customers. But none has achieved the “critical mass” of iNews and ENPS.

There are some broadcasters who have decided to “go it alone” and develop their own systems. Examples include Swedish Television's “Meta,” developed in partnership with Ardendo; France 2's “Gilda,” in which both Avid and IT supplier Autonomy are involved); and Pronews, developed by Pro7 and Sat1 in Germany. But these systems are few and far between, and none has yet been installed outside its own organization.

A big reason for this is inertia. The “big two” built their customer bases with what for many broadcasters was the first generation of newsroom systems, and their journalists have gotten used to doing things a certain way. Broadcasters are often highly unwilling to swap out their NRCS systems unless there are compelling reasons for them to change, either in the shape of truly startling advantages, or an unsustainable relationship with the vendor. Such swapouts have happened, but they are comparatively rare.

Broadcasters will tolerate a great deal of frustration or dissatisfaction rather than go through the upheaval not just of installing new hardware and software but of changing workflows and retraining their entire staff. This inertia and resistance to change goes a lot further than an unwillingness to change systems; it can also make them reluctant even to accept significant changes in the ones they already use.

Often the major requirement to consider change has been “save me money.” Translation: “Let me reduce staffing levels,” rather than “improve my output.”

Even if vendors were able, from a technology standpoint, to deliver revolutionary rather than evolutionary enhancements, newsroom vendors are heavily manacled by their own legacy of success. And this isn't just a technology or a human issue; it's a commercial one because in price terms, newsroom systems have never represented the business value they deliver to their users. NRCS systems, in comparison to equivalent “mission-critical” applications in other industries, are, and always have been, low-cost. Funding for development has seldom been generous. It has often been directed not so much at originating new functionality but at keeping the existing systems up to date.

But — and it's a big but — for how much longer can this state of affairs continue? In an era when the rate of change in every other comparable area is increasing, can NRCS systems, and more importantly their users, afford to stay where they are?

BUSINESS LANDSCAPE

It hardly needs to be emphasized that the business landscape for broadcasters is being transformed on a daily basis, and the form and nature of broadcast journalism along with it.

The old pattern of lunch-time, early-evening and late-evening bulletins for which the early NRCS systems were designed has been replaced by hourly newscasts, 24-hour news channels, news wheels, and, of course, by a huge new array of delivery options, including Internet and mobile phone.

Moreover, journalism itself is changing. The events of 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina are examples of how TV news organizations do not just report to their audiences on significant events, but also they are increasingly allowing TV viewers to become witnesses of those events. Live links and satphones hugely increase speed-to-air, and that places a big responsibility on journalists to do background research and fact-checking on breaking stories rapidly, and turn them round for air in minutes and sometimes seconds, rather than in half a day's time. In the case of the London bombings, the participants in and witnesses of the atrocities became reporters themselves as the news organizations broadcast stills and video from mobile phones, with sometimes misleading consequences.

The changes in broadcasters' commercial models are no less sweeping, as one-to-many broadcasting — where there is no direct connection between the content delivered and the revenue generated — is being augmented (if not yet supplanted) by content that is delivered (and ideally paid for) on an individual basis. The potential of online delivery is highlighted by research that, according to Ashley Highfield, the BBC's director of new media and technology, the BBC is already delivering online a volume of media that is equivalent to 100,000 conventional broadcast channels. (That's not a misprint.) And, of course, the BBC isn't allowed to charge for it! This is no distant prospect; it's here today.

So, if we were sitting down to design a 21st century broadcast news system from scratch, where would we start?

I suggest that news broadcasters have two major business requirements:

  • Versatile collaborative creativity.
  • End-to-end value-chain management.

VERSATILE COLLABORATIVE CREATIVITY

This takes us back to the basic virtues we discussed at the start (common sources and resources, team working, communication, and so on), but it goes much further. An integrated, multistream content creation toolkit is what is required. This toolkit would allow journalists to be highly creative, with maximum efficiency. It would allow them to deal with all media types transparently, and with a fully flexible repurposing potential built in from the start to allow the greatest possible exploitation of new (and revenue-generative) forms of output.

In fairness, all newsroom vendors provide at least some of this, and all acknowledge that this is a direction where they need to go further. Getting there, given the legacy issues, is a problem for most.

END-TO-END VALUE CHAIN MANAGEMENT

This goes hand-in-hand with the creative aspects. It starts with what is often known as digital asset management, as well as with the cataloging, metadata, searching, retrieval and processing tools we have discussed above. But value-chain management takes it further to include a range of capabilities that are necessary to sell output into the widest possible range of markets:

  • Digital rights management: Who owns the content, who can access it and under what conditions; and policing the access.
  • Promotion and navigation: Allowing consumers to know what is available and to find it easily, even if they didn't know they wanted it.
  • Billing and payment: Making sure that all stakeholders get rewarded for their participation in the value-chain.
  • Customer relationship management: Knowing who your customers are and what their status and preferences are.
  • Business intelligence: Using your knowledge of your individual customers to shape and target your offering to them.
  • Syndication: Reselling the content and the journalistic value-add in a very fast timescale.

This is a big shopping list, and no one should expect newsroom vendors to deliver such an all-encompassing set of functions in one go. Moreover, this doesn't just involve suppliers; adopting and implementing such capabilities implies profound changes to internal working practices and operational processes, and it extends a lot further than just news.

But sooner, rather than later, the availability of such capabilities will become a crucial issue for many, if not most, broadcasters.

Can today's NRCS systems be further tweaked to accommodate or integrate this? To a limited extent, probably. But not indefinitely and probably not at the speed that broadcasters require to stay competitive with new players in the content field.

Can broadcasters get what they need from new kinds of vendors? Again, to a limited extent, possibly. But it's not going to be off-the-shelf. In most places, newsroom systems are increasingly entwined with the overall IT infrastructure, and there is no doubt that there are important lessons to be learned in broadcast from the world of IT. Convergence is already a fact of life in many areas such as networking and server technology.

But there are many aspects of broadcast news operations (such as running order management, proxy editing and broadcast automation) that the current generation of NRCS systems handle well. These aspects are deeply broadcast-specific, and they are aspects that few, if any, generic IT suppliers can provide or can be bothered to develop. These specialized capabilities are critical to broadcasters' present operations, which will continue at their current and increasing intensity, while the new delivery channels and revenue develop. Furthermore, in any integration strategy, there needs to be a “desktop” on which everything else is aggregated and where journalists feel “at home.” Today's NRCS systems provide that home, and asking journalists to “move out” will meet with resistance.

It is time, then, to stage an organized and collective look at the future, which for newsrooms is filled with exciting possibilities. It is time to recognize the human importance of news and its emergence into the leading position of real-time value. Its future must be both engineered and financed, and that will take an extended dialogue involving journalists, engineers (both broadcast and IT), management, regulators and educators.

In particular (and this process has already begun), the deep knowledge of the traditional NRCS specialists must be reinforced with the capability and experience from the world of IT, which can now deliver much of what was only dreamed of at the start of news automation and for whom the mysteries of “media” are no longer mysterious at all.

Broadcasters must themselves take more responsibility for the shape of things to come. They must stop saying to vendors, “Sell me something.” Rather, they should be demanding, “Solve my problem.” That implies that broadcasters really understand what their problem is. Finally, broadcasters must develop a commitment to investing in their solution. The investment required is not just money; it's time, resources and people.

Adrian Scott is founder of the Bakewell House Consultancy. He was a pioneer of newsroom computing and held senior sales and marketing positions at BASYS, Avid and Autocue before founding his own consultancy.