What changes in newsroom operations has new technology brought to CNN?

We are starting to digitize more than 115,000 hours of material in the new digital archive. Several years ago, CNN established a technology plan designed
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We are starting to digitize more than 115,000 hours of material in the new digital archive.

Several years ago, CNN established a technology plan designed to create an all-digital production environment in which content and metadata is accessible to all CNN users and on all CNN distribution platforms. This multi-year plan is changing almost every aspect of CNN's production system and, more importantly, the workflow. It is an enormous and challenging undertaking and one, in my estimation, that will put CNN in the forefront of production worldwide. CNN is altering the very core of its system requirements; our plans call for not just digital updates of existing equipment but, instead, we are leading technology providers to develop new systems and approaches.

A key aspect of CNN's technology plan is a move to systems that handle video, audio and metadata as data files. This means, of course, that video servers will replace tape machines, and computer-based nonlinear editing will replace tape editing. It easy to see how changes such as low-resolution browse systems, nonlinear editor and video servers provide more features and functionality than videotapes and analog equipment. Users can make changes more easily, share their work with more people and exchange files across systems from city to city. Important as these are, they are only surface-issue changes and do not unlock the real power of the new technology and the ways it will facilitate changes in production, publishing and broadcasting.

One of the key requirements of our technology plan is to couple changes in technology with changes in workflow. Seemingly simple changes or advancements in new technology may actually result in poor performance when put in place without careful consideration of the entire process. For example, a nonlinear system used for cuts-only editing that does not need to be re-edited for multiple versions can be handled faster by a tape-to-tape system. However, when coupled with new workflow and a supporting infrastructure that leverages the capabilities and extension of the content, nonlinear editing is a key component in a more effective and efficient production system.

The new production system we are building will enable CNN journalists to have greater access and better control of content. Our journalists and editors will be able research, access, create and modify all aspects of content from their desktop. And they will be able to create content that can be used in a variety of distribution platforms. Because the tools and digital media are more flexible and adaptive, we will be able to use a common infrastructure to both expand and refine the rolls of the editorial and technical staffs.

In some cases, content will be produced by a single person or team and distributed on multiple platforms, such as on-air, online to a website and via satellite to a mobile phone. In other cases, users will focus production on a single aspect or type of distribution. The key is that the analog tape-based linear system mandates a workflow and production chain bounded by the limitation of the formats and equipment. Issues such as play speed, dubbing, transfer time, generational loss and inabilities to actively share material or work require elaborate and rigid workflow to be successful. This is particularly true in live 24-hour news. The design of the production systems at CNN and the other 32 services was based on rigid content and information flow and processes.

As we look forward and use the Internet as a guide, the future of content distribution and consumer experiences will require services that provide interactivity and personalization. The sources that provide this information will have to be extremely flexible. And this flexibility will need to be part of the technical systems and the workflow of the journalist creating the information. The new systems we have been installing during the last few years as part of the technology plan at CNN are all working to improve our flexibility. They will not only allow more flexible access and distribution of content, but they will also make it easier and faster for us to create new production steps or techniques and handle new distribution opportunities.

Digital servers in use today at CNN have already allowed for several important changes. We have been able to improve the regionalization of CNN's International networks by allowing common content to be used more flexibly on the European, Asian and Latin American channels to better match the appropriate time zone. We have also been able to centralize our commercial operations and provide a central server for all finished daily news material that can be accessed by CNN, CNN International and CNN Headline News.

Our research and viewing systems have also changed and provide our journalists with greater access. Currently, 1500 hours of raw material are available on newsroom desktops at CNN Center in 1.5Mb/s MPEG-1. And we are starting to digitize more than 115,000 hours of material in the new digital archive, which will serve as the central long-term storage and media management system for all areas of CNN. All material will be available as high resolution, low resolution and streaming resolution as data files and will be able to be researched by anyone in CNN.

As CNN continues to make technology changes and move more content production to digital systems, journalists, editors and technical staffers will be able to grow with the new systems. The staff at CNN will develop workflow that can take advantage of the power of the new systems and changed aspects of broadcast and Web publishing. We are actively refining our production processes and building requirements for the equipment of the future. New business and technology requirements, coupled with the new digital system, will allow us to deliver news and information even faster, more efficiently and more aggressively than ever.

Gordon Castle is senior vice president of Strategic Digital Systems for CNN.