News technology guru Michael Koetter is leading a CNN effort to tear down the data silos to give its journalists easy access to all the tools they need to build a story for distribution on one or any combination of platforms. He says it’s a philosophy of making the story, rather than the process, as the driving force.
TV newsrooms need to rethink and retool to compete in a world where the public is just as likely to scour the Internet for news on smartphones and tablets as it is to watch newscasts on TV sets.
That’s the assessment of Michael Koetter, Turner Broadcasting, SVP, media technology and development, and the person responsible for news technology at CNN.
And in this interview with TVNewsCheck Technology Editor Phil Kurz, Koetter discusses how CNN is trying to rethink and retool. It is tearing down the data silos to make all news assets readily available to all producers, regardless of what media they are producing for, he says. It is putting the news story at the center of everything CNN does rather than just using a process designed to create content primarily for television.
An edited transcript:
You recently said the TV industry in general — and CNN specifically — should engage in a fundamental rethink of how news is created. Why?
If you look at a typical news rundown, it’s a list, and it is a list in a table. It’s not really any more complicated than that. It’s pretty much the same in any newsroom system you look at.
That same model was the basis of the very first newsroom systems. So, while we have maybe fancier user interfaces and some workflow features with things like MOS, the data model is really the same.
When you are working at a certain scale to fill an hour of television, this is exactly what you want to do.
But there is a different way of working — one in which you are thinking: How can I define a story? What angles are we going to take on that story, and how is that story going to play out across all of our multiple networks, shows and digital properties?
You even want to think of how an individual might want to pivot around that story in different ways as a consumer.
How is this playing out at CNN?
If you have watched CNN in the past year under our new leadership, we go big on stories. We will pick the most important stories in the news and really go big on them.
To do that, you suddenly have a lot of reporters, a lot of photojournalists, a lot of video, a lot of social media and a lot of still images. You’ve got graphical assets. You’ve got editorial guidance and S&P [standards and practices] guidance — a whole universe of context that fits around this story. Usually that has tended to exist in lots and lots of different systems.
You’ve got the S&P guidance on the S&P site, images in a still image repository and a media asset management system with your video.
A lot of what we are thinking about is what is the data model of a story? If you could break it down in an abstract sense, what is a story? How does a story evolve? How does a story relate to a timeline, and then how do all of those assets and bits of information need to link in to a story?
So if I read between the lines a little, it sounds like digital distribution is at least partially responsible for propelling this rethink.
When we think about newsgathering and building systems to facilitate production, it used to be that we would bolt digital on the back of broadcast. Broadcast was the big gun that carried the big load, and then you would siphon off content for digital.
We really have rethought this and now are at the point where digital is 100% at the table and as important as broadcast. Speed to Web is now just as important as speed to air.
If I had to emphasize one thing that’s different now, it is the equivalency and periodic preeminence of digital.
OK, but what about the need to get the news on air?
You are always going to have things like rundowns. There are always going to be people who are tasked with filling an hour of TV, but that can’t be the fundamental organizational model for what we do. That’s the big shift.
That is the shift that a lot of news organizations and journalistic entities are grappling with.
They are thinking, “How do I not define myself by my CMS [content management system] or by my newsroom computer system? How do I define myself by the aggregate of my resources in the way that I want to carry a consumer or viewer through the story?”
So you want to organize news creation around sort of a one-stop shop that gives journalists easy access to all of tools they need to build a story for distribution on one or any combination of platforms.
Yes. You know there is a lot of great technology out there that does things like video asset management, or a system that does scripts and rundowns. But we haven’t been able to find that system that really links all of this together and provides that next-generation journalism data model. That’s what we have been working on internally.
Where does the newsroom computer system fit into this vision?
We are at the point now where we are starting to re-engage our vendors and say: “OK, let’s really take a look at the scripts and rundown system.” We want it to be something that can integrate pretty tightly into this larger experience.
I am not certain we are at the point that I would say we are not going to be able to find a good solution in industry for this. We certainly have the ear of Avid; we are an iNews shop. But by the same token, we don’t want to be held back by that.
So, I think we are going to be pushing the state of the art a little bit on this and pushing companies to evolve in this direction.
It is going to be a weird place. I don’t think many companies would say: “We want to build a new newsroom system.”
We try to build only the stuff we can’t find anywhere else. So, right now is the moment when we are trying to push and challenge our providers to think along this model.
How well does this model mesh with traditional news technology like MOS that is used to build and control newscasts?
It is a lot different. I think MOS is, and has been, a brilliant and very successful technology to provide both the workflow that integrates elements into a newscast as well as the machine control and execution of that newscast.
We certainly have some MOS at CNN. But I think looking forward, we tend to look at things more in terms of a Web 2.0 world where we are doing rapid application development and lightweight matchups of multiple data sources into one user interface.
I think to a degree the way MOS has gone about things in the past has been very limiting.
One of the things we need to get around is ActiveX. We want to move beyond ActiveX controls, which have been kind of gatekeepers in some of the user interfaces.
I think we would like to move to more of a Web-oriented RESTful [Representational State Transfer] API. These are more Web-oriented APIs that use more commodity technology instead of boutique technology that is specifically designed for the news industry.
I think if MOS can make the transition and the protocol can modernize itself, it can continue to be a viable entity. It needs to make this transition or people will move on.
What is your timetable to transition to a newsroom system that fulfills this vision?
I don’t think we have to get off our existing newsroom system by a certain date, but we are going to begin mapping out a definite strategy that is going to carry us forward in earnest this year.
We have every intention of trying to partner with our vendors to make this thing fly.
We want this to become more of an industry norm. But I think it is important enough that we would advance the state of the art on our own if we couldn’t find the right technology.
How have the technology vendors you rely on reacted?
To be honest, most everyone seems to be in agreement on this. But there is one big question: As an industry, is the newsroom computer market big enough to sustain what it will take to get us where we need to go?
When Avid and other companies look at their P&Ls, will they find a return on investment for the revolution they will drive with this news workflow?