Newsroom Technology

Newsrooms do a lot more today than they have ever done. A few deadlines a day have been replaced by rolling news. The newsroom computer system has evolved from a simple text-based wire browsing, script and rundown editing system. It has become a multimedia workflow engine that spans well beyond the newsroom floor. Third-generation newsrooms have to provide all of the content management and production tools required to provide media to televisions and radios, as well as to a growing range of interactive platforms. The digital newsroom is fast becoming the core groupware platform and workflow engine of successful broadcast organizations.

Today's broadcast revenue streams are challenged by fragmenting media ownership and the emergence of new delivery technologies. The cost of broadcast news and program production remains high. Even though the days of unlimited budget lines for newsrooms are long gone, ways of working have changed little. Most news organizations that want to remain financially viable are in urgent need of business re-engineering and change management. They are in search of ways to improve their financial returns, reinforce their broadcast quality and drive value.

An increasing number of broadcasters are moving away from the legacy model, whereby the newsroom computer system is an island that perceives the outside world as a series of passive devices and black boxes. Information technology has matured enough for an enhanced news operating model to be a faster, cheaper and more efficient alternative.

Analog workflow of paper and tape

The past 25 years have seen the successive deployment of various newsroom computer systems and digital media production solutions. First-generation newsroom systems, such as Basys or NewsWire, provided text-only computing platforms that allowed for wire stories, scripts and rundowns to be computerized. These newsroom computer systems ran on computer mainframes or minis and were often the first computers to be deployed in broadcast facilities.

These systems replaced telex machines with dedicated receivers and typewriters with passive terminals. They ensured the distribution of wire stories and facilitated simple editing of scripts and rundowns; some offered basic search features and e-mailing functionalities. Because newsroom computer systems involved large numbers of users, these systems introduced concepts such as user rights management, allowing system administrators to define cues or categories and to specify who could access what.

Although these first-generation newsrooms accelerated the turn-around of stories, there was only so much they could do. They mimicked the workflow inherited from the analog world of paper and tapes. In the 1980s, computer systems could handle only alphanumerical data sets, so while scripts and rundowns could be manipulated in the NCS, the relevant audio and video remained on tapes.

When it came to gallery operations, automation systems and machine control were already seen as the way to go. However, their complexity and proprietary architectures resulted in costs that made their systematic deployment an exception, not the rule.

Audio and video go digital

As computing power increased in the 1990s and network technology became more reliable, news production systems were deployed, and the replacement of tape as a production medium began. But in television, these two processes rarely happened consecutively. This radical evolution was in fact more significant in radio, where the relatively modest bandwidth requirements of digital audio could be handled by adapting standard information technology and office networks.

Newsrooms had facilitated the exchange of scripts and rundowns a decade earlier. News production systems now simplified content sharing by allowing several journalists or editors to simultaneously access media; their introduction brought productivity gains and lowered operating costs by eliminating the need for tape duplication to allow and the maintenance of the associated tape decks.

But other maintenance challenges were introduced. Broadcast organizations now had to maintain two computer-based systems: one for handling text-based operations and another for producing and broadcasting media. Each system was handled by a different department. The newsroom computer system would typically be maintained by the IT department, whereas news production systems remained firmly in the hands of broadcast engineering staff.

At the same time, an increasing number of organizations sought to have certain editing jobs done by editorial staff. Both systems needed to communicate in order to facilitate the job of these producers and allow for rundowns to trigger the right external media elements.

Journalists in the drivers seat

A second generation of newsroom computer systems appeared in the mid-1990s to address that goal. With the introduction of its Electronic News Production System (ENPS), the Associated Press achieved a tour de force by successfully defining and imposing a new protocol — Media Object Server (MOS) — as a standard communication mechanism. Systems such as Avid iNews and Dalet OpenMedia followed suit. The industry took advantage of MOS to achieve dynamic communications between newsroom computer systems and news production systems. Although each system remained a proprietary island, both could exchange basic data through MOS messaging. Improved communications resulted in a breakthrough, which in turn allowed for the partial re-engineering of news production.

In addition to user rights management, newsroom computer systems became more sophisticated. They permitted system administrators to define sophisticated workflows involving item status management, instant notification and versioning.

In the gallery, journalists and producers were allowed to drive things themselves. From the newsroom computer system, they could control and trigger third-party devices or equipment; automation was partially commoditized. Multichannel broadcasters started dreaming of “bi-media” operations in which a single newsroom platform could feed and control output to both radio and television transmitters.

Then the Internet wave hit. Web sites became a “must have” for all news organizations. For technology vendors, open systems became the rule and XML its lingua franca. Today, computing power, storage and network bandwidths have reached performance levels and cost points that make it economic for broadcast quality media to go tapeless. Last year, it became cheaper to store 25Mb/s video material on computer hard drives than on video tapes. The advent of tapeless electronic news gathering (ENG) based on Grass Valley Infinity, Panasonic P2 and Sony XDCAM is further accelerating this move to file-based environments. Gigabit Ethernet networks now offer the bandwidth required to migrate digital video from SDI streams to TCP/IP packets.

The workflow engine of tapeless facilities

As tapes disappear and files become the rule, broadcasters have the unique opportunity to redefine their production workflows. The legacy divide of news production — with scripts and rundowns on one side and tapes on the other — has been broken. The third-generation newsroom enables the whole workflow, providing a platform to share scripts and rundowns at various levels of completion, as well as of media clips and their associated metadata (the electronic tape labels).

In addition to providing user management and workflow functionalities, these third-generation newsroom computer systems (3G|NCS) allow for more sophisticated metadata and media management. By doing so, these 3G|NCS make it much easier to handle networked digital media; they automatically capture contextual metadata collected during news gathering and give system administrators the flexibility to tailor metadata schemas to fit the needs of their own organizations. In doing so, 3G|NCS make sure that editors can determine at any time who did what and why.

Finding relevant, accurate information has always been important to meeting editorial standards. Properly labeled material and sources have become essential to maintain both speed and accuracy in a very competitive environment. In this multichannel, multiplatform world, separating the shelf life of content from its transmission date has become of strategic importance. It allows stations to provide access to material that would otherwise be locked away in vaults.

Each media channel — AM/FM, digital radio, SD and HD television, Web sites and mobile services — has its own constraints and formatting guidelines. But there is huge benefit in providing mutual access to raw source material: the possibility to browse incoming feeds from any desktop, the ability to strip the audio of a radio story to produce a last-minute piece for the TV newscast or to capture frames from a video package and convert these into still images for a Web site facilitate the constant re-working of raw material and constitute the basics of any tri-media, multichannel newsroom.

To do this, however, 3G newsrooms need to make media migration from one news production system to another as seamless as possible. Such flawlessness requires integration that goes beyond the data exchange supported by the original MOS protocol. It implies that platforms be open enough to allow for media essence and associated metadata to migrate across the network, from system to system. It also means that wrapper and format conversions are automated in order to ensure that once content is found, it can be easily repurposed.

By merging such media asset management features with the core workflow engine found inside newsroom computer systems, 3G newsrooms are capable of much more than the day's news bulletin. They are the key to massive productivity gains. By merging media production and metadata intake into a single workflow, broadcasters can deploy a more cost-efficient news production model. Such a re-engineering of work processes can occur only through incremental change management. It must leverage on an open, scalable newsroom solution that combines the benefits of central media warehousing, integrated workflow, easy-to-use production tools, and automated broadcast and distribution.

In doing so, broadcast organizations can convert news stories and clips into corporate assets that can be redistributed over more and more delivery platforms. More importantly, journalists can be empowered with the tools they need to do what they do best: delivering the most accurate news, faster than the competition.

Nicolas Hans is director of marketing of Dalet Digital Media Systems.