The new newsroom
Digital technology ties news system closer together
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/31/2002 7:00:00 PM
It has taken a while, but the digital newsroom appears to be ready for NAB, and not just as an impressive technology demonstration.
"Last year, we estimated, based on industry reports, that only 3% to 5% of all newsrooms had transitioned from analog to digital," says Roland Boucher, director of marketing, Digital News Production, Thomson Broadcast Solutions. "Since then, we've seen the standardization of major-market leaders, such as NBC and ABC, on digital news-production systems, certainly a bellwether for what the mid- to large-market operations are going to do over the next couple years.
"Nowhere is the need for cost and workflow efficiencies more evident than in small-market environments."
Adds Steve Jacobs, Sony senior vice president of broadcast and professional systems, "The promise has been fulfilled. Technology manufacturers have brought mature products to market that actually help broadcasters connect the dots in newsrooms."
Those dots would include ingest stations to get material brought in from the field digitized onto servers. Journalists and editors outfitted with a number of editing and graphics tools access that footage on their desktop computers. They also have access to the newsroom and asset-management systems.
Those desktop systems could offer access to low-resolution "proxy" copies of the clips on the server, allowing the reporter to more closely tie images to the script, or it could allow access to high-resolution clips so the package can be put together on the desktop.
Connecting the dots has been a challenge. In fact, discussions with broadcasters and cable news network engineers suggest that making a newsroom work easily is really hard work.
That's because one goal of a truly integrated digital newsroom system is to make it easier for newsroom personnel to operate complex tools without having to be schooled for months on how to use them. That puts the burden on engineering and IT to make the complex simple.
"Newsrooms will get more complex to design and build and simpler to operate," predicts BBC Technologies CEO Philip Langsdale. "Stories will be handled more quickly and more dynamically. And content will be held in one core format and distributed using simple re-formatters to a wide variety of receiving equipment: TVs, PDAs, Internet and mobile devices."
Associated Press Director of Technology Development Mike Palmer says customers are also asking for the ability to create more content without expanding staff. "They want to repurpose their existing content to multiple output channels. This is an important issue, as they wish to use content originated for network TV, for example, on their cable station, Web site and radio broadcasts, too. They want to create efficiencies from within."
BBC Technologies will head to NAB with its Broadcast Network Control System. "It's a control system which can be used to control all elements of a media-production and -distribution system, whether for TV, cable or satellite broadcast," says Langsdale. The PC-based touch-screen system integrates all items under a consistent user interface running on Microsoft Windows.
More-advanced digital newsrooms require a number of desktop clients to be capable of accessing material on the server.
"Typically, requirements call for for 30 to 50 desktop clients for browsing and low-resolution editing on the journalist's desktop in applications such as our NewsBrowse system," says Thomson's Boucher. "That system lets journalists browse, assemble, and save shots, clips and complete sequences all from their desktops."
AP's Palmer observes, "The journalist workstation should no longer be thought of as a dumb terminal. Through AP ENPS, the journalist workstation is able to provide a range of tools, from text editing to video editing, appropriate for the skill set of the person sitting in front of it. The same workstation can be used at one time of a day for a person working exclusively on text editing and later in the day by someone who wants to produce a show and cut video teases."
Boucher says systems like the NewsBrowse capture incoming video, audio and data for both high- and low-resolution needs. "Asset management allows tracking, movement and selection of the media," he says. "Links to third-party asset-management systems are also offered to provide additional functions, such as automatic scene detection and voice to text."
The digital newsroom has become an ideal for manufacturers and broadcasters alike. For broadcasters, the advantages are the ability to get story on-air faster and to repackage it more easily as well. In essence, better product leads to better viewership and better ad revenues.
It's the same for the manufacturing side: Better products make for better revenues. BBC Technologies obviously sees some money to be made. For larger companies—like Thomson Multimedia, Sony, Grass Valley Group, Pinnacle or Avid—the business opportunity is larger still. This is particularly true for a company, such as Avid, that offers nonlinear editing systems, a newsroom system and video servers, providing a quasi–one-stop-shopping experience for stations.
"A large part of our effort has gone into making the system easy to install, manage and maintain," says Avid Broadcast Director Dave Schleifer. "The backend management is minimal because the workflow of using the systems moves media from outside the facility, through the production process, and, ultimately, to air, the Web and archive. The systems don't require regular maintenance of any kind."
But it's the challenge of building and maintaining a digital newsroom that is the largest leap.
Schleifer says Avid has tackled the problem in two ways. "First, we've made sure that we can deliver a complete solution, problem-free, and complete with the ability to stand behind it. Second, we've provided a deep set of partnerships and integration points where third-party products can fit into our system so that we can integrate yesterday's technology with the nonlinear workflow."
One of those areas of integration is with automation systems. Sundance's NewsLink system is designed to integrate newsroom computers, servers, editing systems and graphics devices.
"Interoperability is a central reason customers need our participation," says Sundance President Fred Schultz. "Corporate culture and market forces conspire to keep manufacturers of servers and editors tightly focused on refining their core product, resulting in scant support for interfacing."
He points out that Associated Press, which makes the ENPS newsroom system, resolutely avoids the entanglement that adding machine control to its ENPS newsroom system would bring. "There also seems to be little customer enthusiasm for Avid's BCS machine control of iNEWS. These market realities are major structural reasons that something like NewsLink is an essential keystone for successful digital news build-outs."
Beyond automation, there are mountains of other products designed to help improve newsroom operations. Sony will exhibit NewsBlast, an automated system that will allow reporters to file stories or microwave frame-accurate video directly into the newsroom server.
Jacobs says Sony will also demonstrate drag-and-drop exchange with Pathfire, the IP-based satellite distribution service, and will announce new interoperability between NewsBase and ParkerVision's PVTV technology.
If there is a common thread among the many players in the newsroom market, it is the desire for standardization. One standard they're committed to is MOS (for Media Object Server).
WHEN MACHINES TALK
"MOS is the industry-accepted language for a variety of hardware for a host of production systems," says Jacobs. "Sony and the Associated Press were early pioneers in MOS. Anytime equipment talks with other manufacturers' hardware, there is a benefit to customers.
Standards from MPEG to DV to MXF are examples that advanced technology is more and more acceptable for broadcasters, he says, adding that "IP-addressable equipment is another way users can share data as Sony will demonstrate with its e-VTR."
But it is MOS that seems to grow on every newsroom-related product.
"MOS is the accepted standard for interfacing newsroom systems to production equipment," says Palmer. "It handles a wide range of equipment, from sequencing still stores for air to desktop editing. And it's flexible because it was created through a collaborative effort of many different manufacturers of various types of equipment; it wasn't written specifically for one type of media and then adapted to another."
Pinnacle Systems Vortex Product Manager Danny Peters maintains that no manufacturer's product can afford to be isolated in the new newsroom environment. "The systems' architecture must use standard protocols, such as MOS, to communicate with other newsrooms and production systems."
He adds that accessing and transferring metadata related to content is essential. "Getting the open protocols and databases of all the different manufacturers' equipment communicating effectively to understand each other's metadata is the key for the success of the digital newsroom."
Sundance's Schultz says that MOS enables event lists resulting from story sequencing on an network-control-system rundown to be passed to the respective media devices. "MOS opened newsroom computers to communicating with key media devices. Server/editor manufacturers have successfully packaged the right functionality for news editing on stable integrated editors using shared storage. But, as solid and as richly featured as both of those systems are, until now, a gap of functionality and control has kept them from working as the monolithic supertool our customers want."
Schultz adds that he has seen some confusion as broadcasters wrestle with MOS. For example, only a few people involved with digital newsrooms grasp the difference between identifying content for a device and specifying when and how that content is to be cued and played.
In addition, there's a split between AP and Avid over how machine control fits into MOS: AP holds that MOS is not the proper mechanism for machine control; Avid says it is.
"It is not trivial tracking what each does and the control each produces/requires," Schultz says. "Introducing MOS Protocol with its mythic but poorly understood powers makes confusion even more likely."
Schleifer, however, argues the MOS issues are more complicated than they need to be. "Each method of integration has a purpose," he explains. "While we support both MOS and direct machine control, we have found that the machine- control options are more powerful, faster and integrated through our ControlAIR user interface, while MOS gives us a basic level of compatibility with a wide range of vendors who support the protocol, with very little effort on our part."
He says Avid's MOS model is to download information to third parties or imbed their information in Avid's database as a method of coordinating events in disparate systems.
"In this type of implementation, for example, the rundown will be reflected in the partner's system, and it will play back each event under its own control to go to air," he explains. "Because the Avid iNEWS system includes direct links to our ControlAIR system, we can go much farther. We can actually aggregate control of multiple devices and present a consolidated user interface to the user, making it easier to coordinate the on-air presentation of the show."
He adds that, unless prior experience has primed a broadcaster to critically examine MOS for its ability to do both tasks, many seem to assume it probably does the second (machine control) because it clearly does the first (piping IDs).
"Broadcasters who have seriously tried to spec a digital newsroom have come to see the need to provide both functions," he says. "There are still a lot of bright and motivated broadcasters, however, who need to have this difference brought into sharper focus."
Nonlinear editing in the newsroom is also evolving as the manufacturers continue to refine their systems. Schleifer says the promise of nonlinear workflow is that it will enhance productivity and improvisation.
"It will give facilities the flexibility to react quickly when the demands change, whether those demands are for increased output or different content streams," he says. "We've just broken some new price barriers with a four-seat system with shared storage at under $150K."
The capabilities of nonlinear editing systems continue to climb as the prices fall.
"You can now build facilities where change can be as small as allowing a producer to preview a story before it goes on-air or as great as turning every seat into the equivalent of a three-machine edit suite," says Schleifer. "The people who deliver quality material using those tools will be today's journalists and editors, and our tools will help them do it better."
One factor in the use of nonlinear editing systems has been developments on the acquisition-format side, like Panasonic's DVCPRO and Sony's work around DV formats.
"Nonlinear editing has improved the process by allowing multiple versions to be cut easily for different newscasts, and we think the DVCPRO 4X transfer speeds the process," says Panasonic Vice President, Technical Liaison, Phil Livingston. "Systems like the Panasonic DNA system link nonlinear editors to servers, and playout from servers linked to a rundown system is operationally a vast improvement over multiple VTRs."
But that doesn't mean VTRs are the next industry paperweight.
"We have to say that current VTRs are incredibly cost-effective and multiple VTRs are incredibly flexible and reliable, so they're not gone by any means," Livingston adds. "The number of DV compression-based NLE and server products for news speak to our efforts to partner as well as to the success of DVCPRO and its core technology."
Schultz envisions that, as editing technology gets easier to use, stories that can be effectively told by cuts editing will be assigned to journalists, with only material requiring technical finesse passed to craft/staff editors. "With journalists providing rough cuts, editors will principally polish, with diminishing involvement in story shape and structure."
Peters sees a trend is editing packages that journalists are comfortable with. "The news editors' skills are required for the refinement of those packages. It has been the practice that the professional news editors have been using their skills to help train their colleagues in the art of editing pictures and sound. It has also been the practice that, in deadline situations, when a feed or the tape comes into the station and has to be turned around within minutes, that job remains the duty of the traditional news editor rather than the journalist or producer."
There is a caveat with the new newsroom workflow: Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
"Just because journalists have the capability to do cuts-only editing does not mean they have the skills," says Palmer. "Great tools are best used by people with great talent. Training is a key component in the installation of integrated systems that can often be overlooked. You need to give people the tools and the skills required to do a good job; a considerable amount of skill is required to edit a good package."
On the graphics side, VertigoXmedia President and CEO David Wilkins says that, in the past, his company would sell a few licenses of its newsroom template-editing software for a limited number of users, each with a specific responsibility in the production process. That has changed.
"Now our customers are asking to have the same software installed on all their newsroom workstations, giving everyone the ability to work on any component of a story," he says. "With the latest versions of our products, this means that journalists anywhere on the network can create broadcast-ready graphics and put them into the production rundown directly from their desktop."
While this makes work easier for journalists, it makes work more difficult for those involved with managing the system.
"The issue of permissions for different levels of users becomes important, as well as the issue of where various media and story assets live and how they get moved to the final output device in time for the broadcast," Wilkins says. "Our view at Vertigo is that the only solution is a central content server built on an industry standard, such as MOS, and that the process of creating the actual content should be independent of the type of device that will be used to send it to air."
The use of NLE and server-based content introduces another challenge: keeping track of who is working on what. Pinnacle's Vortex system has a metadata controller, dubbed MDC. According to Peters, it keeps track of all the data related to material that comes into the Vortex system. It tracks all of the edits within Vortex, all the playout of stories, and tracks the metadata generated within the system and with third-party systems.
"With Vortex collaborative workflow, journalists, producers and directors all have simultaneous access to that captured material to use in their work space, whether on the desktop or in the edit suite or master control," says Peters. "All of these people have ubiquitous access to material on-site and remotely. This collaborative workflow allows the news station to get stories to air quicker and more efficiently and at the same time enables them to reduce operational costs."
One Vortex product to be introduced at NAB, Vortex LN is "designed to give the edge to local stations that want to upgrade newsroom from tape-based systems and increase their operational efficiency and creative capabilities," says Peters. "It shares the same IP infrastructure as Vortex Network News and allows local stations to share media resources with affiliate stations across a wide-area network."
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT DIGITAL
Thomson's Boucher adds that there are still some misconceptions of the digital newsroom. "One is that the digital news production systems are expensive. Digital news production systems let news professionals work faster, better and more cost-effectively than VTR-based systems."
He also says that one of the hurdles of digital newsrooms, the need to dub before editing can begin, has been cleared. "In fact, with the Grass Valley Group system, editing takes place at the same time the media is being recorded, so it is not necessary to dub the tape first."
Livingston notes a common misconception that digital solves all problems. "One needs to work at designing a system to keep the quality consistent, especially for material retrieved from archives. And there are fundamental issues like network speeds, file sizes, rights and permissions, and the storage/archiving approach that need to be examined."
So what's the next advance in the digital newsroom? It may be the optical drive-based camera. It's already garnering buzz; Hitachi will offer a DVD-RAM recording-based camera back (see box, page 34), and other introductions are on the horizon.
"We understand the intense interest in an optical-drive camera," says Livingston, "and some users have even decided to wait until it arrives to 'go digital,' at least as far as acquisition is concerned."
He adds that the desire stems from having a nonlinear original so one could both skip the digitizing transfer process and get only the selected portions.
He sees three problems that manufacturers need to overcome: "The sustained-writing transfer rate of optical recording media is not as fast as tape; the current storage capacity is smaller than tape; and the robustness, or shock-resistance, of the drive during recording is not as easy to address as it is during reading."
But the topic is no doubt gaining interest—and expectations of the next-generation digital newsroom are already rising.
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