Field Journalists Have Left The Building. Engineers Are Working to Keep Them Out There
Prior to the pandemic, newsrooms were already moving toward creating more ways to work remotely — shooting stories from smartphones, editing in the field, transferring data-intensive files quickly and storing them on the cloud. Post-pandemic — after two years in which no one came into the office — these practices have advanced so much that many field journalists see little need to ever come into the newsroom.
That’s meant station group engineers and technology leaders have had to keep up with the pace of change, which is no small challenge at large and dispersed organizations.
“We’ve enabled [our field journalists] to work from anywhere, and now it’s up to individual newsrooms to determine where and when people work,” Mike Palmer, senior director, media management, Sinclair Broadcast Group said at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum in New York City on Dec. 13. “We are providing our newsrooms with the tools that they need to use in the way that they want to use them.”
“If there’s a position in the TV studio that needs to be decentralized to function independently and quickly, it’s the field journalist,” said David Burke, CTO, Gray Television. “We all have an increasing demand for more and more original content and the only way you are going to get more and more original content is to get more and more stories. The less time you can add to field journalists’ work regarding ‘how do I transfer this file back,’ ‘how do I edit it,’ ‘how do I connect live,’ then obviously the more content they can create.”
Although it’s relatively easy for field journalists to shoot in the field — whether from lightweight high-definition ENG cameras or smartphones — the challenge is in editing that video and then sending large files securely back to home base.
“Remote is where everyone wants to be,” said Craig Wilson, global media and cloud product evangelist at Avid. “It’s about trying to enable the teams that are out working in the field … to have the same tools they would have if they were in the building.
“We’re trying to make it much easier to share content back to base and from the base back to the field,” Wilson said. “It’s an ongoing process; it’s not something that is fully there yet.”
Station groups like the idea of working in the cloud, but just making the move from client-based systems that are securely contained on laptops to cloud-based solutions is not so simple.
“The workflow needs to be as seamless as possible,” Palmer said. “If we are going to work more in the cloud in the future, we need different workflows. Just replicating what we do in the cloud with what we do right now isn’t getting us that far. What we’re working on is having connectivity directly from the camera in the field back to the newsroom. That takes a step out of the process and that’s a fundamental change in the workflow.”
Like shooting in the field, editing in the field is something that’s been happening for a while, Burke said. Gray equips its multimedia journalists with laptops loaded with 32-bit Grass Valley editing software. Once videos are edited, journalists send the completed pieces back to the studio using any one of a number of possible networks: 3G, LTE, 5G, hot spot or wifi, depending on what’s available.
“To me, video editing in the field is a fairly mature technology that most stations are taking advantage of,” Burke said.
That said, some stations are looking at cloud-based editing software versus client-based software, with both offering pros and cons. Cloud-based software means the final product is already uploaded so that the studio can just grab it and go, while client-based editing assures that editing can happen even if connectivity is limited.
Considering how much video content field journalists are producing daily, another challenge station engineers face is sorting and storing all of that content so that it is accessible for future use. Applying metadata to every piece of content seems like a nitpicky ask, but it’s essential for content creators to include so that producers and editors can quickly locate video.
“Video without metadata is a liability, not an asset,” Palmer said. “Too many of our vendors do not pass the metadata through. It has to be passed down through the editing, transcoding and distribution systems and even downstream from that. Too many of our broadcast products are very effective metadata filters.”
Palmer and other news producers are working with a group called C2PA that is a collaboration between companies including Microsoft, the CBC, the BBC and others. The goal of the project is to provide technical mechanisms that allow descriptive metadata to be passed automatically from the camera through production, transcoding and distribution.
“If it can’t flow through to downstream systems, then it’s all been for naught,” Palmer said.
Station groups also are moving to put more of their workflow and media asset management systems on the cloud, although that’s a work in progress, panelists said.
“Cybersecurity is putting its thumb on workflow,” Burke said. “We are trying to transition these things to zero-trust type applications. Most of the newsroom control systems have some sort of lightweight client that journalists can load and install.”
“We are looking at moving our newsroom computer system [NRCS] and other tools to the cloud,” Palmer said. “Many of the traditional and established vendors are not yet cloud native. It’s an interesting dichotomy — established vendors have well-established feature sets that everyone is used to. Cloud native applications tend to lack full feature sets. We’re really looking for that convergence where either the established vendors refactor their applications and make them cloud native or you get the new cloud native systems that round out their feature set. We’re looking for one of those two camps to basically win the race.”
As all of this comes into play along with all of the different ways news and content are now being distributed, station news producers have quite a bit with which to contend. That’s required some groups to bring in change management and training to help employees adapt quickly.
“I don’t know what’s more of a dirty word — metadata or change management,” Burke said. “We just started a pretty formal training platform in-house that we had already done for the sales department and now we’re starting to do basic video training that’s Gray specific.
Recruiting and training go hand in hand, he added, noting that Gray has opened a media training center in Jackson, Miss.
“Change management is difficult for both the managers and the employees,” said Rich Paleski, director of operations, WCBS New York. “If you are going to ask someone to do something differently, there should be a benefit to them or to the product they produce. We do a good job of training the tech people when a new technology is available. Filtering that down to everybody is something that requires more formal training. It’s difficult to do because you are asking everyone to stop what they are doing and attend a training session.”
To manage that problem, Sinclair has been breaking up training into much shorter segments.
“Rather than doing traditional monolithic training, we’ve been breaking everything into 30-second chunks and then we link to it in the context of where I’m at in the user interface,” Palmer said. “We’ve had a lot of success with that.”
Looking ahead, TV stations are flipping the switch on ATSC 3.0, which should help advance some of these efforts, especially when it comes to compression and encoding.
“From the newsroom perspective, you’ll see our linear signal in NextGen look more like our current digital streams,” Burke said. “And because NextGen is geolocated, we’ve been doing this test with our digital software developers — if you take the ZIP code from the TV set and apply it to the broadcast app, we can then serve up archived video to viewers that is specific to their community.”
“ATSC 3.0 will allow us to put out more streams using fewer bits, allowing us to free up streams,” Palmer said. “There are lots of things that the newsroom can do to engage around NextGen.”
Besides ATSC 3.0, TV station group engineers are also looking at technologies like bonded cellular and Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network for two-way secure connectivity in the field.
“We’ve all talked about how it would be useful to link a bonded cellular system to Starlink or some other little [low earth orbit satellite] system — well, I saw this work,” Paleski said. “Sometimes there are bandwidth issues, but what I saw was 18 megabits per second (mbps) upstream, 120 mbps downstream. With that kind of bandwidth and promise, I think we need to get involved with this.”
For more NewsTECHForum 2022 stories, click here.