Technology In The Newsroom

The technology available for TV news production is undergoing a significant transformation these days. There’s no doubt about that. But I must admit, some of us who write about the fancy new gear out there spend more time talking to manufacturers and watching really cool demos than paying attention to what’s being used by actual stations working within actual budgets. While doing this story on local coverage of the New Hampshire presidential primaries, I found out the reality on the ground doesn’t necessarily reflect what you see in those glossy brochures at NAB.

Companies like Avid, Sony, and Thomson Grass Valley, to name a few, offer a range of products that allow news staffs to shoot digitally, ingest media into a server, and network it around the newsroom to writers, editors, and producers. Additional video from feeds, as well as a whole library of previously created material, can also be stored on servers and retrieved on staff members’ desktops with a point and a click. When news packages are created in this kind of environment, scripts and rundowns can be distributed and prompter copy prepared to roll with a few more mouse clicks. It’s obviously a very fast and efficient way of putting together a news show.

In fact, it may seem like acquisition has been the only link in the production chain that has prevented newsrooms everywhere from operating without an inch of (so-last-century) videotape. And with the imminent arrival of disc-based recording from Sony (XDCAM) and solid-state memory recording from Panasonic (P2), it would seem the era of the tapeless, nonlinear, desktop newsroom is upon us today.

At the network level and in top markets this may well be so. But as the candidates kick off primary season in New Hampshire this year, the local news operations covering their campaigns actually seem to be going about things in a fashion remarkably similar to the way they did it when McCain and Bradley were canvassing the state.

Now And Then

WMUR is not just the only ABC affiliate in New Hampshire, it’s the only major network affiliate in the state. The station is covering the primaries on its regular newscasts as well through special programming. How has the operation changed technically since the 2000 presidential primary? “We really haven’t changed too dramatically,” said Stefan Hadel, WMUR’s director of engineering. “The new technology’s coming...but we’re not there yet.”

Last spring, WMUR’s videographers migrated from shooting DVCPRO and Betacam to DVCAM in anticipation of a time in the near future when video is brought into an automated system via FireWire for storage and nonlinear editing. “Moving forward,” he said, “this will allow easy integration to a desktop scenario.” Today’s another story: “It’s still cuts-only, deck-to-deck editing right now.”

Hadel stresses that the WMUR news team is extremely fast and creative with its linear editing. But he’s keenly aware of the advantages of upgrading and looks forward to when his station can acquire some of the new gadgets. Over the next year, the entire Hearst-Argyle group, to which WMUR belongs, will be investigating newsroom upgrades and looking for the systems that work best throughout all their stations.

“The nice thing about having media in the server,” Hadel said, “will be that you can access shots randomly. If a story runs for two days you can give it a different look each time it airs. The way we work now, you edit together a package and that’s it unless you go back and re-edit tape in a linear format and grab this, grab that, and re-lay the audio. The way we do things now, your 6 o’clock is likely to look like your 11 o’clock. In a nonlinear world you could say, ‘let’s see what the footage we didn’t use looks like.’ And then we’d just drag and drop, cut and paste, and boom—you’ve got a totally different package.”

New England Cable News (NECN), an analog service based in Newton, MA, has partnered with the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper for primary season. NECN built a studio in the Leader’s library, which will serve as HQ for live newscasts and news analysis programming leading up to election day. In addition, they will put together in-depth profiles of each candidate.

NECN’s workflow this primary season will be “very similar” to what it was around the same time in 2000, according to Charles Kravetz, station manager and vice president of news. But, he adds, significant changes are in the works. The newsroom, he says, is transitioning toward becoming an entirely digital editing and playback operation.
For the past three years, NECN has used AP’s PC-based newsroom automation system, ENPS, for all wire service, formatting, rundowns, scripts, and teleprompter tasks. And within a month they are set to interface this with workstations of Thomson Grass Valley’s Vibrant nonlinear editing system. NECN will not do away with its linear editing methods overnight, but it’s moving in that direction. “This is a time of transition,” said Kravetz. “Hopefully, we will be doing our editing on the desktop in the near future.”

NECN, Kravetz said, was partly forced into the digital realm because “Sony has essentially discontinued its analog Beta format.” But Kravetz isn’t replacing the old cameras and decks with Digital Beta, DVCAM, or DVCPRO just yet. “We’ve been holding out in hopes that we can skip over the entire digital tape format and go out to either Sony or Panasonic’s [tapeless] systems. Sony seems ahead of the game right now, but there is a spirited competition and either one is a non-tape digital format. I think that will be the next investment on most every newsroom’s part.”

WNDS, an independent station in Derry, offers three half-hour newscasts every weekday and two-hour political talk shows on weekends. The station partnered with the AARP in the state to televise the first of this year’s Democratic debates and partnered with Massachusetts newspaper the Lowell Sun and its partner radio station to provide intensive primary coverage.

“We are not a tapeless newsroom,” said news director Alicia Preston. “I still make my reporters go to the library once in a while.”

The station, she said, is moving in that direction, but not at the speed of a locomotive. CNN feeds, for example, do get laid down on a server rather than going straight to tape. “Less than a year ago we had to roll tape 24 hours a day and weed through what we needed,” said Preston. “Now it all comes into a computer and we choose what we need. At some point we’ll do more that way. It’s financial. We can’t go out and buy all the latest and greatest technology. We do it slowly.”

Durham-based WEKW, New Hampshire Public Television, will offer coverage on its nightly newsmagazine, New Hampshire Outlook, during its “New Hampshire Votes 2004” segments. “It isn’t the kind of show where they go out and shoot news segments all the time,” said Brian Shepperd, director of engineering and information technology for WEKW.

“Outlook uses news segments shot with producers on location, as well as in-studio stories, interviews, and political analysis panels. They shoot some things and mostly do studio interviews about topics of local interest.”

The station relies primarily on DVCPRO50 cameras for acquisition and its three Avid Media Composers for nonlinear editing. There is also an Avid Unity system in place to allow the sharing of media. Station staff also create profiles of the candidates during primary season using tape from the library, ingesting it into the Unity, and then spitting the finished package out onto DVCPRO50 tape for air.

Brave New World

“I think by the next primary our organization will be very different,” said Shepperd. “In the last three years, as we built our digital transmitters, we also started changing over our production facility to digital. I’d say by the next primary we should have a completely networked production facility that isn’t using tape any more.”

“A lot can be done in four years,” said Hadel, pointing out that since the 2000 primary WMUR has upgraded its graphics system so people can pull in graphic elements on the desktop and network them around the newsroom. “You can access elements and re-create graphics or do whatever you need to do,” he said.

“Ever since we got that system up,” said Hadel, “it’s helped the weekend newscast, when we don’t have a graphics staff. Moving forward, we plan to use the same idea with video content. But today we’re still getting used to this way of working in terms of graphics. That’s where we’re at right now.”

“In four years from now things will be very different in New Hampshire,” said Kravetz. “Most newsrooms will be tapeless. Most acquisition will be tapeless, almost all editing will be nonlinear. The digital world is upon the news world. Every newsroom in the country is in the midst of transition or contemplating a change from analog to digital. Now is the time when we all have to make these very expensive bets on what’s the best system. We are in a transition period right now that is not dissimilar to the transition from film to tape.”

And indeed, these New Hampshire stations all seem to have one foot (or at least a few toes) in this very exciting future. But an important lesson here is that although manufacturers might offer groundbreaking newsroom technology, it may still be a while before customers, especially in smaller markets, are ready to take delivery.

“We do things little by little,” said Preston. “We’re a small-to-medium independent station so we have to prioritize where we spend our funds. This quarter, our technological advance was that we decided to get wireless microphones in time for the primaries. Next quarter maybe we’ll get something else.”