Tough times in newsrooms

Stations look to news technologies to produce efficiencies and cut costs in the face of sharp revenue declines.
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The year 2008 was a horrible one for TV journalists as unprecedented staff cuts made the jobs of those still lucky enough to be employed that much more stressful.

The numbers clearly tell the story. In 2008, about 1200 jobs in television news, including all job titles, were lost in the industry, says Bob Papper, a professor of journalism at Hofstra University in Long Island, NY, and the man responsible for the annual Radio-Television News Director Association survey of broadcast news staffing.

“Last year was the worst year I've seen in the 15 years I've been tracking this, and 2009 is not going to be a good year either,” he says.

These cuts are a direct response to the dreadful advertising market that has sent station revenue plunging. For the first half of 2009, advertising dropped by more than 15 percent in the United States across all media, a pullback of $10.3 billion compared with the same period last year, the Nielsen Company reported in September. While some TV categories fared better than print media, overall television took a severe hit, with spot TV in the top 100 DMAs declining 32 percent for the first two quarters of 2009 compared with Q1 and Q2 2008 and network TV advertising falling 7 percent for the period.

Ironically, while there was a sharp decline in the revenue stations rely upon to pay for newsgathering, there appears to be no significant decline in the public's appetite for television news. Results of a survey conducted by The Pew Research Center of the People & the Press released in mid-September revealed that TV continues to dominate other news sources among the public. More than 70 percent of those responding to the survey said they get most of their national and international news from TV. TV news also dominates locally. According to the survey, 44 percent say local TV stations do the most to report local news — compared with 25 percent who identified local newspapers as doing so.

Technology has answered the call, to a degree, in helping news management balance budgetary realities, resulting in fewer newsroom positions with the continued strong demand for television news. Several technologies, including file-based workflows, centralization and control room automation, as well as a growing interest in one-person news crews are helping newsrooms maintain their level of news coverage with fewer people.

Heydays for VJs — sort of

Call it “video journalism,” “backpack journalism” or “multimedia journalism.” Whatever the name, the concept is the same. Outfit journalists with small digital cameras, laptop computers running NLE software, and everything else needed to shoot, write, edit and contribute a story.

While this is nothing new for smaller market stations, the concept has gotten more buzz at midsized and larger market stations, as newsroom managers look for practical ways to generate more content without adding personnel.

“Obviously, video journalism cuts costs enormously,” says Michael Rosenblum, founder and president of Rosenblum TV, a pioneer in training stations and others in using affordable digital video gear for video journalism. “You can cut the bottom line by 30, 40 or even 50 percent with video journalism, and in the long run it will be the stations that can cut costs without hurting quality that will survive.”

However, among call letter stations in the United States, acceptance of VJ methods has been lukewarm, he says.

“We see two or three VJs in a station — usually young kids out of college,” Rosenblum says.

Often these VJs are looked upon as a sort of proof-of-concept by more established journalists in the newsroom who typically are reluctant to do video journalism themselves.

Papper's research backs up Rosenblum's observation. There is “a fair amount” of one-man-band journalism going on at stations; however, in 2008 just as many stations dropped video journalism as added it, Papper says. But that doesn't mean video journalism isn't on the minds of news directors.

“What's interesting is every year more news directors say they are looking at it and thinking seriously about it,” Papper says. “That number keeps growing, but not the number that are actually doing it.”

The tapeless acquisition formats and laptop editors that help fuel video journalism are just another facet of the technology that's transforming newsrooms from old linear tape to efficient, collaborative news production environments supporting on-air, Web and mobile distribution.

File-based workflows are the backbone of efficient news production in today's TV newsrooms. Starting at the assignment desks and flowing through the entire editorial process to the final newscast runlist driving the control room, digital files rather than videotape have produced efficiencies and savings, helping stations weather today's economic climate.

In particular, many have realized significant personnel savings in the control room over the past few years via news automation systems that let a single operator switch newscasts, run the audio board and control studio cameras. Helping to make this level of automation possible is overall reliance on servers and files as opposed to tape machines and paper runlists.

Beyond the walls of individual stations, too, file-based workflows promise to help stations reduce news costs further, says Michael Smith, founder and president of research consultancy firm SmithGeiger in Los Angeles. Today's trickle of competitive stations establishing news cooperatives to pool resources and cover run-of-the-mill news events more efficiently could turn into a tidal wave without a significant recovery in revenue. Making that possible will be file-based content management systems that support VJs and news crews contributing footage and edited stories from around a DMA, he says.

“A content management system will have to allow people to stop by, plug in and download video and feed audio,” Smith says.

Other digital efficiencies in the newsroom relate to greater centralization of news functions, such as graphics creation, he says. For instance, within the past couple of years, the industry has seen at least two prominent broadcast groups — Gannett Broadcasting and Post-Newsweek Stations — centralize the creation of news graphics. In the case of Gannett, the approach centers on software-as-a-service and cloud computing. At Post-Newsweek Stations, reporters and news producers rely on a template-based approach to streamline the process.

Whatever the specific approach, in the view of Smith, these examples may just be scratching the surface of where news graphics centralization ultimately is headed.

“We might even see combinations of owners of different stations now joining mutual hubs of graphics, back-end traffic and news content management with one giant server serving a multitude of stations within multiple groups of owners in multiple markets,” Smith says.

Fade to black

Greater reliance on technology to help stations continue to put news on the air in the face of declining revenues is viable to a point. But if it means cutting newsroom personnel to the degree that stories and graphics are recycled throughout the day, the audience will notice, and the station doing so will pay a price, Papper says.

“The personnel cuts in 2008 were pretty much all visible to the audience,” he says. “We are not talking about efficiencies that the audience isn't going to notice. I don't believe that for a minute.”

Phil Kurz writes Broadcast Engineering's “News Technology Update” e-newsletter.