Newsroom integration fever grips Europe

European broadcasters have been engaging in a new round of automation within their newsrooms to take advantage of IT-based production and asset management tools as well as integration of social media.
Newsroom integration is an old idea and can mean different things, but its scope is constantly expanding with the availability of new tools and concepts. Currently automation of content creation including graphics, migration to IT based workflows, metadata processing and integration of social media are pressing themes within the newsroom.

In a few cases, integration can involve a complete merger between newspaper and broadcasting production, in which case it can run into regulatory hurdles if this means reducing overall competition for news distribution within a single country. This was one of the subplots of the recent phone hacking scandal that embroiled News Corporation, which owns newspapers in the UK and also held a minority stake in the country’s leading pay TV operator BSkyB. News Corp’s owner Rupert Murdoch had wanted to increase the stake and takeover BSkyB completely, with part of the plan being to create an integrated newsroom sharing resources between newspapers such as the Times and Sky News, the BSKyB subsidiary producing 24-hour news coverage.

This would have led to bundled offers including the newspapers as part of the subscription, leading to objections from some competitors. In the end, the deal fell through partly because of the subsequent phone hacking scandal following revelations that one of the newspapers, News of The World, had been tapping into the phones of celebrities and other potential subjects of news stories.

For most broadcasters, though, newsroom integration does not include newspapers. But, it does often embrace radio, as well as online content with a significant textual element. This was the case at the BBC in the UK, which was early, in 1987, to integrate web with radio and TV news production in an integrated newsroom. This met stiff resistance from trade unions at the time with threats of strike action on account of 500 resulting job losses. Since then, however, the move has led to the BBC news website becoming arguably the most successful online news service in the world, and a constant thorn in the side of commercial broadcasters. Rupert Murdoch has been among those complaining because of its being publicly funded. Indeed, the integrated newsroom achieved substantial savings that helped compensate for declining licence fee income.

Since then, other broadcasters have established integrated newsrooms with the advantage of being able to incorporate new tools. In Italy, Mediaset, the country’s largest broadcaster owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has centralized its news gathering and production with an asset management platform from French-headquartered, digital media technology vendor Dalet.

The key motives for this move, according to Mediaset, were consolidation of media assets in a single database; ability to prepare content including text, edited video, voiceovers and input from wired dispatches via a desktop; and consistent management of metadata.

Indeed, the importance of metadata is amplified in an integrated newsroom because the whole idea is to streamline the content cycle, which requires accurate information at all stages from assignation to archiving. Accurate metadata will ensure people know what stories they are working on, and then that they are processed and played out correctly, integrating appropriate graphics and associated clips.

Also, increasingly important is the ability to combine material from traditional sources with content residing on different media such as mobile phones and tablets, as well as from Internet feeds and inputs from social media. Mediaset claims to have achieved this within a newly centralized workflow, increasing production volumes without hiring any extra staff.

Another essential ingredient of a large integrated newsroom is redundancy, which can be provided partly by the asset management system but definitely requires duplicated hardware and communications. Mediaset has invested in mirrored systems, with one configured for production and the other totally redundant in standby mode. This came at a price, but not as great as the cost of a complete news blackout would be during an important breaking story.

Further tools are emerging all the time to reduce the effort of integrating news sources and outlets, with some on show at the recent IBC 2011 in Amsterdam. One such tool came through a partnership between asset management and graphics vendor Chyron and newsroom production system vendor ENPS. The new toolset allows two-way exchange between the systems. Broadcast graphics produced using an ENPS script can be dragged and dropped into an ENPS web story. Conversely, graphics created for web or mobile stories using Chyron’s tools can be imported into an ENPS news story.

While such tools are the bread and butter of newsroom integration in the digital media age, there is also a major logistical and human resource dimension. The whole process of news gathering is changing, with increasing incorporation of content from non-professional sources, including iPhones and camcorders wielded both by staff reporters and members of the public. In extreme cases, these are the only available sources of news, either from remote events, or when there is a major crackdown on news reporting by the state, as has happened at various times during the “Arab Spring.”

During the run up to President Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt, the Arab news services al Jazzeera suffered harassment and had its Cairo office destroyed but still managed to dominate global reporting of the events and arguably even influence the outcome. Al Jazzeera relied on people on the ground to provide coverage, and has stated that a strong focus on integration of social media generally has enabled it to cover such breaking events more effectively, avoiding reliance just on vulnerable studios. Social media has transformed not just news gathering but also distribution for al Jazzeera, enabling it to circumvent attempts to censor its reporting. For this reason, al Jazzeera described social media as not just a “nice to have” for its news reporting, but “essential for its survival.

The same is true to a perhaps only slightly lesser degree for other newsrooms free from overt censorship. The very existence of social media is changing the news reporting landscape and making it harder for governments and regulators all over the world to keep control over dissemination of information. This fact itself has to be reflected in the configuration of modern integrated newsrooms, which must be as agnostic to technology and as free from barriers as possible, while ensuring there are mechanisms to enforce rights or regulatory controls where necessary.