Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a newly published white paper from TV Tech sponsored by Avid Technology.
Television news has a long history of evolving—from the days when stories in the field were shot on film through electronic newsgathering to wireless network contribution of live and finished packages. The same could be said of newsroom technologies—from reporters on manual typewriters through a newsroom computer system to laptops in the field connected via virtual private networks (VPNs) to the newsroom system.
Each of these news workflow transitions was gradual, giving journalists and their news organizations time to adapt and adopt that in many cases was years long.
However, in March 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic was declared, leaving newsrooms, like the rest of society, in a scramble to maintain a degree of normalcy while the pandemic surged and alternatives to long-established routines were deployed.
Many newsrooms accelerated plans only under consideration prior to Covid-19 to a phase of rapid deployment, such as embedding journalists more deeply in their communities and reducing their presence in the newsroom, or virtualizing common news workflows in the cloud. In other instances, newsrooms turned to new tools, such as video conferencing apps, to replace newsroom meetings.
These changes and others, however, do not seem temporary—tied to some future all-clear signal from a health authority. Rather, Covid-19 appears to have acted as a catalyst for a transformation in workflows touching newsgathering, production and presentation that will be felt for years to come.
This white paper examines how broadcasters adapted their news workflows to the new reality and what they learned in the process that will affect how they gather and produce news in the future. It also looks at changing attitudes among news personnel with respect to technologies like the cloud, virtualized news production tools, and long-held newsroom institutions, such as the daily editorial planning meeting.
Topics discussed include:
- Hyperlocal reporting
- Remote reporting and evolving skill sets
- The use of video conferencing apps for reporting and internal communications
- How broadcasters adapted existing technologies and workflows for remote operations
- The benefits of the cloud, including redundancy and disaster recovery
- Maintaining collaboration in the process of creating news
The conclusions reached in this paper are based on interviews with news executives and corporate leaders from eight broadcast organizations, including Al Arabiya, Graham Media, Gray Television, Meredith Corp., News-Press & Gazette Broadcasting, NBCU Telemundo, Sinclair Broadcast Group and TEGNA Media.
THE COVID-19 EFFECT
The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020, prompting governments and society at large to adopt strategies to limit its spread. Travel bans, social distancing mandates, lockdowns and event postponements and cancellations were implemented.
Television broadcasters, too, responded to the pandemic with steps to limit exposure and maintain operations. Crowded newsrooms in particular were susceptible to the virus, not only because of the proximity of staff but because of the risk that reporters and news photographers in the field, who are exposed daily to a constant stream of people, might return to the station with the virus.
Further, the close confines of production control rooms and the proximity of anchors on a news set demanded change.
A common strategy was to direct as many staff as possible to leave the station, work remotely from home or elsewhere, and adjust the work patterns of those who remained to reduce the likelihood of exposure.
“I think the initial reaction of newsrooms, including mine, was, ‘Everybody, go!’” said Bob Ellis, vice president and general manager of Graham Media’s WJXT and WCWJ in Jacksonville, Fla. “For photographers, ‘You all take trucks home.’ For reporters, ‘Don’t come to the station.’ Let’s get as few people in here as possible.”
For News-Press & Gazette, which owns 45 TV network affiliates, that meant moving 900 employees, half in news, out of stations to work offsite, says Jim DeChant, NP&G director of Technical Operations. Similarly, NBCU Telemundo Center in Miami initially directed about 850 of its 1,200-person staff to work remotely. In news, 70% were required to work from home, says Jeff Mayzurk, the network’s executive vice president, Operations & Technology.
“Covid definitely changed our workflow in terms of production,” said Ruba Ibrahim, director of operations, at Dubai-based Al Arabiya. “We had to send a lot of our staff to work from home.”
Only those required to be physically present for on-air production stayed; the rest, including those working on packages and documentaries and media managers, were sent home to work. Ibrahim estimates at the beginning of the pandemic three out of four Al Arabiya news staff worked from home.
While a dramatic step, directing staff to work remotely in the initial phase of the pandemic also set in motion a major rethink and retooling of news processes and workflows that promise to leave a lasting mark on how TV news is gathered, produced and presented.
For some newsrooms, like those of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s news-producing stations, Covid-19 served as a catalyst that accelerated adoption of planned changes aimed at improving the quality and growing the number of news stories produced for on-air and digital distribution.
“Covid moved us five years forward in a matter of five weeks,” said Bill Anderson, Sinclair’s director of Change Management—News. “It forced change that was probably inevitable and necessary.”
It demanded change in how news is gathered, meetings are conducted, interviews done, stories edited and newscasts produced and anchored, he said.
CHANGES IN ATTITUDE
To change just about every aspect of the television news process is no small undertaking. Not only did news management and engineering teams have to establish new workflows, but long-held attitudes and institutions in the newsroom had to change.
For example, the morning editorial meeting, a newsroom fixture during which news management and journalists sit around a conference table to set the direction of the day’s coverage, was no longer appropriate at a time when the public was being directed to maintain 6 feet of social distance.
In its place, the in-person meeting was replaced with virtual equivalents leveraging video conferencing apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack. What was once a sacrosanct part of editorial operations changed in an instant and in the process revealed where new workflow efficiencies might be achieved.
“The editorial meeting as an institution is very important. However, I think for those of us who have been around the news game for a while, we understand that institution sometimes could be a time waster,” said James Finch, director, News Services at Gray Television.
Participants now come to these meetings more prepared to execute the newsgathering mission of the day than they did when they simply sat around a conference table “tossing out ideas that may not be viable and wasting time,” he said.
“My hope is that if we’ve found efficiencies in shaping content for our audience that we will stay with what we are doing rather than going back to something that is traditional just because we’ve always done it that way,” added Finch.
A free download of the entire white paper is available online.
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