First, Live, GlobalSignificant newsgathering advances spring from coverage of this year’s breaking international news 10/24/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern
In what has been one of the busiest years for
coverage of international news stories—from changes
in governments to war efforts to the death of Osama bin Laden—global news organizations have been battletesting
a host of technologies that have both improved
their stories and laid the groundwork for further advances.
“International news coverage is a place where—perhaps
more than any other area—technology meets the news,”
notes Stuart Karle, COO at Reuters. “Our future
lies in taking advantage of technology and deploying it to
get the story as efficiently as possible to our clients.”
One very notable development has been the improvement
in delivery of video over satellite and cell
phone networks that have allowed news organizations
to stream much more live video.
Reuters, for example, began offering live video from
the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and quickly found
that demand was so high, they developed a regular
“Live Stream” service, notes John Clarke, global editor
for TV at Reuters.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Associated Press
launched a digital version of its live service APTN Direct
to capitalize on the growing demand for live content
from portals and online sites, notes Sandy MacIntyre,
vice president and director of video news for AP.
Better systems for streaming video over smaller, lighter
satellite gear or over cell phone networks have also
allowed news channels such as CNN and the BBC to
offer much more live coverage.
During BBC’s Libya coverage, for example, commentator
Ben Brown anchored newscasts from the front
lines, feeding live video back to London using a BGAN
satellite terminal, notes Martin Turner, head of operation
and newsgathering at BBC News.
“It took viewers to the front line in a way that I don’t
think people have seen before,” Turner says. “[Brown]
was not only describing what was happening where he
was, but " ipping to other BBC reporters.”
Such technologies are only likely to improve in the future.
Wider availability of 4G networks will increasingly
offer users faster data speeds over cell networks, and satellite
service providers are also making significant advances.
Last year, Inmarsat’s Stratos division significantly
increased its data rates with the launch of BGAN XStream
service, which was widely used by the BBC and
CNN during their Arab Spring coverage. And the company
is looking to increase speeds even more dramatically
with deployment of a new generation of satellite
in 2013, notes Gerbrand Schalkwijk, VP of global enterprise
sales at Stratos.
That system, which will have global coverage in 2014,
will offer 50 Mbps rates for larger dishes and speeds that
are comparable to current ADSL speeds with smaller
laptop-size units, he explains.
Ultimately, those improved speeds will
allow news organizations to produce more HD
reports from the field.
Perhaps more importantly, these improvements
in cellular and satellite transmission
services have provided news organizations
with more flexibility in difficult environments.
“The key is being prepared so you have options
to get a connection, and having people
trained so they know what options are available
when they hit the ground,” says Parisa
Khosravi, senior VP of international newsgathering
at CNN Worldwide, who adds that CNN
uses a wide array of transmission technologies.
Flexibility has been particularly important in covering
the Middle East, where governments have taken
down cell phone networks to restrict communications,
and where reporters are sometimes forced to work from
places with poor cell service.
“There is no such thing as the best technology for the
story,” notes Clarke. “In Egypt, we started with bundled
cell technology and then had to switch to satellite when
the government shut down those networks.”
“For me, 2011 was the year of one giant step forward
in terms of the coming of age of live-streaming
video equipment” from suppliers like LiveU, adds AP’s
MacIntyre. “But that’s also one giant step back when
governments cut off the 3G services, so we had to go
back to more conventional satellite technology.”
Having smaller equipment is also important for safety
in many of these international stories.
“In the past when your only option was big clunky
cameras, you were just an obvious target in dangerous
surroundings,” explains Khosravi. “With the smaller
equipment, we can now be much more discreet depending
on where we are and what the crowd is like.”
Khosravi adds that a newer satellite service allows
journalists to transmit with small antennas while they
are driving, which speeds up transmissions and improves
their safety because they don’t have to stop and
set up bulky equipment.
All of the different technologies, however, make
training and preparation much more important. “In the
past, you had very limited choices for sending video,”
Turner says. “If you compare that to the multiplicity of
technologies and devices people now have, it means
that things have become hugely more complicated for
people on the ground. The biggest challenge is making
sure that people know how to use those devices.”
Production and editing systems also need to be much
more flexible so they can handle receiving video from
many devices. “There was one report that [CNN’s] Nic
[Robertson] did in Egypt in Alexandria that had eight
different sources of video,” notes Khosravi.
As user-generated content continues to grow more
important in international coverage, “one of the biggest
technical challenges is to bring in all this citizen-generated
content and quickly turn it around so that you can maintain
some technical consistency,” adds MacIntyre at AP.
Another logistical challenge is verifying the content
and putting it into context. While that has opened
up the reporting on a wider range of opinion—and
in the case of the Arab Spring, provided
an outlet for more democratic voices—
MacIntyre also cautions that “this content
needs to be treated as one side of the issue
and conversation and shouldn’t be treated as
fact. You have to still ask the right questions
and supplement it with other material.”
The availability of this material also puts
greater pressure on news organizations to
speed up their operations.
“The reality is that we are competing with
individual members of the public who don’t
have to worry about dealing with a production
system when they want to upload things
directly to YouTube or stick up something on Twitter,”
He also notes that they will soon deploy a file transfer
system developed in-house at the BBC that will help
them move files more quickly. They are also upgrading
their production system to better handle material sent
in from iPhones and other mobile devices.
With news organizations being more successful in
delivering higher-quality live feeds, they face new pressures
to increase their production. “As an agency with
many broadcast customers around the world, when you
do something clever and are able to provide live signals
in a way you couldn’t before, all of a sudden the bar is
raised,” says Reuters’ Clarke. “All of a sudden everyone
expects that and more for every story in the future.”
Better technology is also important in allowing news
organizations to do more in a period of tight budgets.
“The BBC and everyone else face pressures of limited
income,” says Turner, who adds that flat license fees
have forced cutbacks at the BBC’s news division. “Being
able to produce content and get it out quickly is
absolutely crucial [when] dealing with a world where
we have fewer people [that are] trying to meet the demands…
and the deadline is right now.”