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TV news technology: What’s in it for viewers?

Editor’s note: The following column is republished with permission from Poynter Online.

By Scott M. Libin

“Don't mess with techs (us).”

Okay, so that's a cheesy parody of the Lone Star State's slogan, but it's also a fair paraphrase of what I heard from some broadcast engineers, technology vendors, and media executives at a recent industry gathering in Chicago. We had a spirited exchange of ideas about the risks and benefits of the digital revolution, and I got a reminder that journalists aren't the only ones with passionate opinions or a willingness to defend them. The publishers of Broadcasting & Cable and Broadcast Engineering magazines invited me to the News Technology Summit they hosted. The meeting's mission was "two days of discussion on the challenging issues of how to improve and enhance your news products and make them more profitable." The topic I took on: "What's in it for viewers?"

The program also included Dennis Swanson, chief operating officer of the Viacom Television Stations Group; Dave Lougee, president and general manager of KING-TV, KONG-TV, and NorthWest Cable News; and James C. Goss, vice president and senior investment analyst with Barrington Research. Other sessions carried titles like "Making Your News Products More Vital and Profitable" and "Information-Sharing with IT -- The Effect on News Process and Bottom Line."

My goal was to explore the impact of current technological change in television on the actual journalism that news organizations practice. I prepared for my session by getting input from journalists and media leaders around the country. Most did not want their comments attributed to them. They felt going public with their concerns about certain changes in the industry would not be a good career move. Their fear was an indication of how sensitive this issue is.

The technologies that came up most often in conversation with working journalists were these:

  • Server-based, "tapeless" newsrooms
  • "Hubbing" of station functions, including master control, graphics production, and newscast segments
  • Control-room automation, overwhelmingly associated with ParkerVision

These changes in the production of television news are eliminating jobs just as technological change did at newspapers decades ago. The anxiety that accompanies that is understandable. Still, some of those I spoke with stressed that some of the same technology has improved the ability of journalists to serve viewers.

Stuart Watson, investigative reporter at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, urged me not to overlook the profound, positive effect of computer-assisted reporting. He offered example after example, from his own newsroom and from across the country, of ways TV reporters are offering audiences more accuracy, depth, and context, using some of the same tools that are creating such change in other areas of station operations.

I thought of the extraordinary storytelling made possible by the non-linear editing wizardry of people like Jon Menell, with whom I had the privilege of working for five years at KSTP-TV. Jon could take virtually any issue, even the complex and "non-visual," and make it both memorable and meaningful through his mastery of Avid editing tools. Newsroom servers that make video available simultaneously to everybody who needs it — from editors to promotion people — are not only helping colleagues get along better, they are helping writers work more effectively with video and sound, and provide better attention to critical detail and creative opportunities. Affordable equipment now enables even newsrooms with very limited resources to generate products so slick, crisp, and contemporary that they rival the look of network newsmagazines.

And, on my list of TV technology "pros," right under "higher production values," I listed "lower production values."

Byron Grandy, news director at KMGH-TV in Denver, helped me understand why what he called "a paring-down of production values," prompted by the station's installation of ParkerVision, turned out to be a good thing: "We evaluated: what adds value for viewers and what are we doing just because we can?" Eliminating the things his producers were doing "just because they could" resulted in a cleaner newscast and more emphasis on elements that really make a difference.

The tech-friendly crowd in Chicago was with me up to that point. Our conversation got a little livelier when I listed, alongside the "pros," some of the "cons" — including concerns that the efficiencies and economies of technological advancement might make certain traditional journalism values seem somehow old-fashioned, impractical, and unaffordable.

  • If server-based television newsroom systems eliminate videotape editors' jobs, are stations prepared to provide training so that those who used to cut tape can contribute effectively in other ways? Or will some stations decide it's just easier to reduce staff size and operating expenses? The magazine supplement distributed at the News Technology Summit says, "Simply put, with a digital workflow, stations can choose to cut costs through workforce restructuring or produce more sellable news products and improve their bottom line."
  • If newscast producers add video editing to their responsibilities, how can they pay adequate attention to the other matters that already so fully occupy them — things like exercising news judgment, writing and editing copy, coaching anchors, communicating with reporters, and the almost innumerable other elements of executing a newscast? The producers I know can barely remember the last lunch they had anywhere but their desks. What's next to eliminate in the name of efficiency — bathroom breaks? Meanwhile, management remains baffled as to why these newsroom workhorses seem to burn out so soon and leave the business in such great numbers. Go figure.
  • If an artist in another time zone creates a custom news graphic to air in a community where that artist has rarely — if ever — set foot, will it be as topical, as timely, and as accurate as one created by somebody who knows the neighborhood? If the communication between producer and artist all occurs by computer and phone line, will they work together as effectively as when they stood shoulder to shoulder and spoke face to face?
  • If ever-increasing efficiency drives all decision-making, how do journalists justify to their bosses ever undertaking labor-intensive, time-consuming tasks like verification? What if fact-checking requires more than a phone, a computer connected to the Internet, and a few minutes? If everybody's too busy multi-tasking to get it right, what are the implications for our industry's standing with a skeptical public?
  • If control room automation makes previewing newscast elements almost impossible, audio checks impractical, and quality control in general a nostalgic notion, what are the implications for the product that reaches viewers? "Research we've done does show the impact of technical mistakes," says KMGH's Grandy. "People do notice. Don't take my word for it. Look at the research. If people are talking about it in research, common sense tells me it can't help."

These uncomfortable questions offended some at the Summit. They told me that just asking proved I was stuck in an outmoded mindset. They said that dwelling on such issues would only impede progress. They urged me to help journalists "get with the program," embrace change, and let go of old habits.

I believe these are actually exactly the kind of questions television journalists, media executives, and company owners must confront with candor. Those who run commercial businesses have no reason to apologize for wanting to spend wisely and operate profitably. But stockholders are not the only stakeholders news organizations must consider.

Television stations can't afford to forget those customers on the other side of the screen.

Just a few miles from where I spoke, 46 years and one day earlier, Edward R. Murrow made his famous comments about TV to the 1958 RTNDA convention, warning that, "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box." Maybe today it's chips and pixels instead of wires and lights, but Murrow's point applies more powerfully than ever.

The answer is not to fear or flee change. Technology makes television possible. But if, in our pursuit of efficiency and expediency, we sacrifice what credibility we have left, there may be no "digital solution" capable of recapturing it.

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