Story-centric workflow

Anyone who has spent time in a television newsroom as airtime approaches will tell you that the word “busy” doesn't really begin to describe it. The film “Broadcast News,” made in 1987, accurately captured the panic caused by late material as journalists and production staff battled to get it on the air ahead of the competition, despite all the obstacles put in their way by human frailty and unhelpful technology. It was amusing on the big screen, but it was — and still is — a lot less funny when you have to live it.

It has been almost 25 years since that film was made, but many of today's television journalists will readily recognize the world it portrays. The truth is that in many of today's broadcast newsrooms, working practices have still not quite caught up with the opportunities offered by new technology nor with the new requirements imposed by evolving business models for broadcasters.

A new way of working, in both technology and workflow terms, is not only possible but profoundly necessary. It's called story-centric workflow.

To understand why this is so different, let's look back at how TV news has traditionally been put together.

In the past, the work of creating news items and getting them on the air had to be divided up. There were a number of reasons for this, such as time pressure. Breaking an item down into separate small elements, each of which could be done quickly, meant (in theory) that the whole process would take less time to complete.

Also, people had different functions. For example, journalists wrote words but didn't edit video. That was the job of a craft editor using complicated and dedicated tools that required special training (and usually membership of a specialist trade union). Production and playout were separate functions requiring quite different teams of people with individual skill sets.

All the distinct elements of a given story — moving pictures, stills, graphics, subtitles, voice-overs, prompter text and so on — were created and stored in different places, using different systems that had little or no connection with each other, making any kind of repurposing difficult or impossible.

The old way

All of this was labor-intensive, inflexible and error-prone. At the heart of the operation were a series of separate “containers,” tapes with video or audio, scripts with words, and above all lists. The lists consisted of assignments, stories, scripts, video packages, graphical elements and audio clips. Playout was achieved by coordinating the lists and the simultaneous operation of all of the separate systems in what was a complicated process involving highly skilled specialist operators.

Late changes were possible but usually extremely difficult to achieve. Inserting a new story into an existing running order involved updating multiple lists simultaneously and then managing their coordinated playout, and it all had to be done with split-second accuracy.

When the program was over, all of the elements went back into their separate piles. To reuse a story, broadcasters had to access all the separate stores (if they were available) and reassemble the story as it had been transmitted. Then there was the matter of searching, which was even more difficult.

While enormous changes have taken place in the tools and techniques available to broadcast journalists, it's surprising how many of the old ways persist. It is much harder to change working habits than it is to update technology, and the innovations of the last decade or so have created their own issues and introduced new complexity, without necessarily changing the mind-set — or, crucially, the underlying workflows — of the people who manage and staff newsrooms. Change delivers enormous benefit to today's news organizations, but they must work to adapt and make the most of it.

Here are the most important evolutionary factors in broadcast news production, each with its advantages and challenges.

The new way: a story-centric approach

The story-centric approach to newsroom workflow exploits all of the innovations, evolutions and philosophies discussed to realize both efficiency and business benefits. The story becomes the basic unit around which management and creativity are organized. (See Figure 1 on page 34.) It is a virtual container that brings together all of the elements necessary to create, identify, modify and deliver a unit of news that can be delivered through many different channels. In other words, a story-centric workflow is not rundown driven but content- driven.

A story's life cycle is one of evolution over time. It may begin with little more than an idea, an item in a news diary, an assignment given to a camera crew or a placeholder in a draft running order. As time goes on, and as the editorial elements around it develop and change, the story will include a variety of elements: video clips, audio voice-overs, subtitles, graphics and references to sources such as wire stories, webpages, contacts files or news agency feeds, all of which may be useful at some point in the future. Crucially, the story may also include a number of different output formats or templates into which the content elements can be fitted manually or automatically.

This collection of material and references can be managed and treated like a reservoir from which a number of different versions can be derived to suit differing audiences or to reflect developments in the story as time goes on. Rather than managing each element separately, as in the past, the story-centric approach allows all of the elements in the story to be assembled and managed together as one unit.

These delivery channels illustrate another aspect of the story-centric workflow: automated processes to convert content from one delivery format to another, e.g. from a broadcast script to Web content, from one language to another, or into a templated format for an individual customer.

Another automated mechanism that is particularly adapted to 24-hour news channels is the concept of the wheel, a carousel of preproduced stories that are played out continuously, with the ability to update individual stories as news events develop.

In the story-centric process, each content item becomes a focus for the creative efforts of different people who can collaborate concurrently rather than wait for the previous step to be completed before they can begin their work. The story can be managed as a single entity from initial planning all the way through to long-term archiving. As the story evolves over time and is ultimately archived, all of its component parts and previous versions are kept together.

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The story-centric process is not just a more efficient way of working in the newsroom, it enables news organizations to cope with a number of new demands placed upon them by developing technologies and consumer trends.

The proliferation of sources

Today's broadcast journalists have a colossal quantity of source material available to them. From an internal point of view, newsrooms can often afford to deploy more crews because the equipment they use has fallen in price, and the links back to the studio are generally easier. Crew productivity is greater, and that means journalists have more material to assess, to shotlist and, ultimately, to edit and incorporate in stories and packages.

The same is true for news agency material, whether in video or text form; there is a lot more of it to monitor and read. The Internet has delivered a whole new world of source material and research capabilities, and then there is the proliferating availability of user-generated content (UGC), with members of the public capable of capturing breaking news on mobile phones and sending material directly into any news organization that is set up to accept it. There is also a growing trend to use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to both contribute and access developing stories.

All of this gives journalists more choice and the potential to cover stories more accurately and more deeply. But it places an enormous demand on the systems involved. There is more content to store, a greater necessity for material to be accurately indexed and tagged so that it can be retrieved and processed quickly, and the need to track source and rights information.

From linear playout to multichannel delivery

Broadcast newsrooms must produce a lot more than just radio and television bulletins these days. Low-cost and powerful technology in the hands of consumers — such as STBs, PCs and mobile telephones — has created an enormous number of new delivery opportunities for electronic media organizations: red button interactive services, VOD, mobile TV and location-based content delivery. This provides important and potentially lucrative new revenue opportunities for broadcasters. However, it also creates the necessity to make into a reality the often-expressed aspiration to “produce once, publish many times.”

This means, firstly, the integrated flow of content from system to system and process to process, with true interoperability based on compatible implementation of common standards. It also means the ability to automate processes such as standards conversion based on a set of rules and furthermore an architecture that not only allows an integrated infrastructure to be created in the first place, but also copes with changes and adjustments down the line as business and production requirements evolve and software versions change.

The result of all this in terms of the broadcaster is a flexible workflow design, not just a great story for playout on a single channel, and the possibility to repurpose content and rebrand it to exploit the maximum possible number of different outlets to potentially generate new revenue.

From dedicated hardware to desktop applications

Many, if not most, of the creative tools that are used to process media content are now available as desktop applications. They run on standard platforms such as PCs or Macs and connect using standard IT networks. This has revolutionized the journalistic process in newsrooms that have embraced the appropriate technology. These programs allow media content such as video, graphics and audio to be created and edited along with the words for commentary and voice-over in a fully integrated way that was never possible before. This obviously places a demand on journalists to become trained in new skills. It also completely changes the workflow from a largely linear procedure in which material was passed from hand to hand and from process to process to one in which people with multiple skills collaborate simultaneously on the same material.

From analog media to file-based digital assets

Underlying all of the above is the transition from analog to digital, from tape to disk, from linear communications to data networks. This is perhaps the most significant change of all and one that affects every aspect of work in the newsroom. Above all, it changes the basic mind-set created by many years of container-based work, where media was stored on tapes or cassettes, where the tape was indexed by writing its contents on the label, where the person who held the tape “owned” the story, where playout was engineered by complex manipulation of the containers, and where archiving was done on a shelf.

A digital, nonlinear, online environment conveys huge advantages, but these are hard to achieve without careful consideration of all the implications and requirements. It is much more than simply replacing VTRs with servers. It requires the simultaneous deployment of a number of overlapping and interdependent elements that are as much philosophies as they are systems and technologies.

What it takes

Deploying a story-centric approach in a broadcast newsroom requires both a variety of enabling technologies and the implementation of change in newsroom organization.

Media asset management

There are two questions that any media asset management (MAM) system must answer: What does it have? Where is it? Of course, that is just the beginning. Other business-critical information that needs to be tracked might include where it came from, how much it cost to acquire or buy, who now owns it, how many times it has already being used, and much more. The reality is that media assets must be managed from the earliest planning stages, which may have important resource implications, all the way through acquisition, indexing, storage, retrieval, processing, packaging, delivery, repurposing and archiving. In other words, they must be managed through the entire life cycle. Knowing all of this is the key to efficient operation, and it is essential for effective content monetization and therefore to the business viability of media-centric organizations.

Therefore, a MAM system is an essential element of the story-centric workflow. Moreover, it must be integrated with the creative process at every step because new metadata is constantly being generated and must be available to anybody who is involved in production or delivery. The days are long past when an archive system was quite literally a morgue, where tapes went on to a shelf following broadcast and, for the most part, gathered dust thereafter. The MAM system must be the foundation for the whole process because it is important to constantly keep tabs on content since one never knows when it might come in useful in the future.

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Collaborative creativity tools

The importance of the desktop environment for such processes as video and audio editing cannot be overstated. It ensures that all of the creative processes central to broadcast and especially to news production are capable of being carried out concurrently by production staff on a common stock of content.

The user interface, therefore, must cater to an extremely flexible approach. A story can carry multiple alternate audio and graphics tracks that can be selectively played out or delivered according to the demands of a particular channel. (See Figure 2 on page 36.) These become part of the overall metadata attached to the story.

Automated workflows

The complexity of the modern digital media delivery landscape is such that sophisticated rules-based automation capabilities are absolutely essential so that material can be intelligently reformatted and repackaged for multiple channels, multiple audiences, multiple devices and, of course, in the interests of generating multiple revenue streams. The time is long past when a news organization could afford to support separate newsrooms for television, radio and the Web. There must be an uninterrupted flow of material through all of the processes required to produce output in any desired format — a kind of content factory approach that operates like a production line.

The question of integration

Story-centric is not only about technology; story-centric is technology and a new, more flexible workflow that allows more efficient ways of organizing the newsroom.

Above all, it requires integrating systems and processes that used to be separate and compartmentalized. The environment must closely integrate the newsroom computer system (NRCS); MAM; production tools such as video editing, audio processing and graphic creation; archiving; automation; and tools to create and manage workflows appropriate to all of the above. All of this should be largely invisible to the journalists and production staff who simply want to create accurate, timely news content. Exactly how these capabilities are delivered to them is of little interest. They care about what technology enables them to do.

The problem facing broadcasters is that few manufacturers offer all of the above in a single integrated package, and integrating tools and systems provided by separate manufacturers can be dauntingly difficult.

But the benefits are so clear that the question has to be asked whether broadcasters can afford not to go for a story-centric approach. And broadcasters aren't the only ones. Enterprises in many industries are increasingly using digital media to deliver messages and sell products, and they have just as much need of an integrated creation, management and delivery system as the broadcasters themselves.

Either way, a well-implemented story-centric newsroom will take the quality of the journalism to a new level and is likely to cause fewer sleepless nights for the people working in it.

Raoul Cospen is director of marketing for Dalet.