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Taming the News Frontier


The image of Holly Hunter sprinting down the hallway to pass off a news tape in “Broadcast News” may have made good drama 25 years ago, but such scenarios are quickly becoming a part of the past as broadcast newsrooms go digital and adopt file-based workflows.

Credit: France 24 The concept of the file-based workflow is not new. Just about anyone who has purchased a digital camera over the past decade has engaged in some form of file-based workflow. But when it comes to adopting that methodology in today’s broadcast newsroom where decisions are made in a split second, the process can be akin to digitizing the Wild West.

The adoption of the file-based workflow has paralleled the tremendous growth in media platforms—web, print, TV, mobile phones, tablet computers. The two trends have almost fed off of each other. Even in smaller markets, the broadcast newsroom is a 24-hour content creation operation.

The percentage of U.S. newsrooms that have adopted some form of file-based workflow is estimated to be around 70 percent, according to Jim Frantzreb, senior broadcast segment manager with Avid. Without it, “you can’t really get the kind of agility in a news environment today, where the newsroom is becoming increasingly virtualized and you have every kind of content coming from different sources,” he said. “You can’t have those efficiencies without it.”

Joe Policastro, senior director of Broadcast Integration Services, a Union City, N.J.-based systems integrator, said it’s nearly impossible to be in the business of broadcasting today without using a file-based workflow.

“The pressure is enormous today,” he said. “If you’re late with a story, there’s already 10 other people covering it who’ve gotten their footage from traditional cameras to iPhones already out to air. It is almost imperative for news these days.”

FORMAT CHALLENGES

To a person, there is almost universal agreement that one of the largest challenges to adopting the file-based workflow of today is the expanding number and variety of formats. When stations began adopting tapeless technology nearly a decade ago, they had (and still have) a limited choice of formats, be it Panasonic P2, Sony XDCAM or several similar MPEG-2 based standards. But with increasing competition from the Web, where speed takes priority over quality, newsrooms are increasingly looking to consumer-grade-contributed footage from smartphones and related i-devices that are first on the scene.

Dave Siegler, vice president of technical operations for Cox Media Group, has guided his group of 15 TV stations in implementing an effective and streamlined workflow, but even he concedes that integrating consumer formats into the news process is a big challenge.

“That’s a growing part of focus we’re putting on our newsgathering efforts because there are so many citizen journalists out there and they may be the first to arrive at a news story and it’s extremely important for us to get that video back to the station and get it to air first,” he said.

Dave Siegler, Cox Media Group Fred Fourcher, president of Bitcentral, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based provider of news automation and workflow technology, advocates the simplest route possible between acquisition to playout.

“Ultimately the goal should be the format that is in the camera can go through editing and smart-rendered so that the same bits that were encoded in the camera are played on the air,” he said.

WORKING TOGETHER

Interoperability among elements throughout the production chain is another concern, according to Avid’s Frantzreb.

“We’ve made progress but there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “Things don’t always fit together as well as they can and that’s compounded by the complexity of getting cellphone-based material and different formats on the air.” To remedy this, Frantzreb recommends adherence to standards, but “that alone doesn’t ensure interoperability is going to be really good.”

In developing a file-based workflow methodology, he also advocates a software-oriented architecture (SOA) approach “where it’s very easy to decouple a functionality, and have a very consistent interface where other customers themselves can write applications for and make it very easy to incorporate something new.”

Newsroom producers are also increasingly looking to the “cloud” as a way to streamline and economize on production costs. For Avid, the cloud is vital to the future of file-based workflows in the newsroom, according to Frantzreb.

“[The cloud] is absolutely key,” he said. “It’s an enabler for interoperation and virtualizing the newsroom, there are definitely economies to be gained.”

Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“I think the cloud will play a part in the future, but a relatively small part with what we know about today’s technologies,” Siegler said. “It should be a private cloud. What scares me in the public cloud is that we don’t know where the content will be stored, but more importantly we don’t know who will have access to it.”

Whatever path a station chooses in its quest for an efficient workflow, it’s important to include all players in the process, not just in planning, but implementation as well. NY1, the New York-based 24-hour news operation with channels throughout the state and in the Carolinas and Texas, is a known pioneer in the development of file-based workflows, and Joe Truncale, group vice president of operations for the organization, said such inclusion empowers everyone in the news team.

“I think some guys make mistakes where they just make it a technical function to create a system within an environment for the editorial people,” Truncale said. “Our philosophy is that you engage them and you see what kind of features you would like to have. They’re with us from the ground up.”