For a little more than a year, I wrote and edited Broadcasting & Cable’s NewsCentral Internet newsletter on the TV news business. Here are some of the best of the stories from that project.
Are Newspapers Better at Online Video than TV Stations?
Former TV newsman Randy Covington: “If you look around the newspaper world today, I’m seeing innovation that I’m not seeing in broadcasting.”
By David F. Carr — Broadcasting & Cable, 5/7/2008 12:01:00 AM MT
As a former TV newsman who has now turned his attention to media convergence on the Web, Randy Covington believes that TV news is asleep at the switch.
“The TV stations don’t see the train that’s about to run over them,” says Covington, who now teaches at the University of South Carolina and serves as director of the IFRA Newsplex, a new media convergence study and training center. “If you look around the newspaper world today, I’m seeing innovation that I’m not seeing in broadcasting,” Covington says.
As newspapers seek to make their Websites more engaging, they have latched onto Web video with an enthusiasm most TV stations haven’t matched, he says. While many TV stations make video from their newscasts available on the Web, newspapers are using video to add value on the Web, enhancing and expanding on their news reports for print. And while TV stations assume that their proficiency in producing on-air video gives them an automatic advantage when it comes to putting video on the Web, “they don’t see how easily their strengths can be replicated,” Covington says.
Kenn Venit, a former TV and radio news director and broadcast industry recruiter who now teaches at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., is seeing much the same thing. TV stations are moving “somewhat reluctantly” to post their newscasts to the Web, he says, “but I don’t think they’ve made the commitment that says ultimately this may be the driving force.” Newspapers, in contrast, are taking concrete steps to shift resources to the Web. As an example, he points to The Day of New London, Conn., which used an early retirement program as an opportunity to bring in new people focused on producing material for the Web, with video as one significant component.
On Sunday, for example, the newspaper’s feature “A Long Way from the Sea,” about the Navy’s role in Iraq, was accompanied by a short video entitled “Sandbox Sailors” that featured Navy Capt. Bruce A. Derenski from the submarine base in Groton talking about his work at a prison camp in Iraq.
The Web, in combination with low-cost technologies from the world of consumer electronics, is making it possible for newspapers to become broadcasters without duplicating the broadcast engineering overhead of a newspaper, Covington says. He is helping accelerate that trend through his work for the Newsplex, which is backed by IFRA, a global association of newspapers and publishers headquartered in Germany. One current project, in cooperation with the Shelby Star newspaper in Shelby, N.C., is the Star Car, a rolling multimedia newsroom. In contrast with a traditional TV microwave truck that might cost $400,000 or more, the Star Car cost about $30,000, plus the cost of the vehicle, to pack with equipment that in many respects is more modern and better-suited to quick-and-dirty reporting for the Web. In addition to still and video cameras, the setup includes a file server, a portable Wi-Fi network, cellular transmission equipment, and laptops for video editing (as well as writing and editing stories). In one case, when reporting from the scene of a plane crash, the Star Car enabled the newspaper to get its video from the scene on the Web first, while the TV trucks were still struggling to get a signal.
Even without such a fancy setup, many newspapers are producing innovative video and multimedia content. One of his favorite examples is the “Going Down the Crooked Road” multimedia site the Roanoke Times of Roanoke, Va., produced to accompany a feature on mountain music. In addition to videos of the musicians talking about and playing the music, it features an interactive guide to bluegrass instruments where you can click on the icon for a fiddle or a banjo to read about it while watching a demonstration of it being played. There’s even a Flash-based music mixer that lets you dial up and down the volume of the instrument tracks for a music sample. Covington calls that “rich, deep content, using the medium to the fullest.”
Covington advises newspapers whose staffs are not comfortable with video to start with slideshows, which can be shot by the paper’s professional photographers, taking advantage of their skill at producing compelling still images. Using software such as Soundslides, they can easily add an audio track with narration or clips from an interview and publish the result as a Flash file that plays like a video. The results can be powerful. For example, in 2006 the Rocky Mountain News photographer Todd Heisler won a Pulitzer for his work on “The Final Salute,” the story of the U.S. Marines charged with telling families that their loved ones have been killed, and the Pulitzer committee specifically mentioned the accompanying online feature that paired the photos with audio from an interview with one of the widows.
Newspapers are acting partly out of desperation – they are motivated to invest in making the Web work for them because they need to compensate for the steady erosion of advertising dollars as money flows from print to the Web, Covington says. TV stations are also feeling the pressure, but not to the same extent. And most of them probably look at the quality of the average newspaper Website video as amateurish by TV standards. But they shouldn’t take too much comfort in that, in an era where amateur videos distributed through YouTube can command huge audiences, he says.
The real advantage for newspapers is that they tend to have larger staffs than TV newsrooms, and as they put video cameras in the hands of more reporters and photographers, Covington says they have the potential to beat TV stations in terms of quantity, if not quality. And he adds that smart stations will need to invest more resources if they want to protect what by all rights ought to be their natural advantage in Web video.
CNBC Extends Its Reach With Cameras Everywhere
Tapping Webcams, Corporate Videoconferencing Systems
By David F. Carr — Broadcasting & Cable, 11/5/2008 1:50:00 PM MT
Investment bank CEO Craig Kaufman loves seeing Kaufman Bros.’ analysts on CNBC. He just doesn’t want them wasting the time traveling to CNBC’s offices in New Jersey to do it.
“It would take them four hours to go on TV for two seconds, so it kills the whole half a day for an analyst,” Kaufman said. “So if they can pop into a conference room here to do it live from here, that saves four hours.”
That’s where the firm’s Telenetix high-definition videoconferencing system comes in, the one Kaufman originally installed to promote long-distance collaboration between employees in his New York and San Francisco offices. CNBC actually volunteered to send its own “cheapo cameras” to be used for remote interviews, Kaufman said, but he figured his own equipment was better, and his tech people were able to figure out how to turn it into a CNBC video feed in short order. So now initiating a video call with the financial news network is as easy as walking into the conference room and pushing a button labeled “CNBC” on the touch screen control panel.
“They want to have cameras everywhere, and this is a lot cheaper for them than sending cameramen out,” Kaufman said.
It’s a strategy that more news operations may want to consider “if you’re looking for content, want to get more content, get more depth,” and do it at a reasonable cost, said Steve Fastook, vice president of operations and engineering for CNBC.
“It makes a big difference because our credibility comes from experts,” Fastook said. “There’s such a diverse opinion about what we cover, business, so we try to get as much opinion and insight as we can on everything we talk about.”
Although many news programs include remote interviews via satellite with interviewees at a sister station TV location, CNBC is making new connections over the Internet, tapping into the increasingly high quality and ease of use of corporate videoconferencing equipment ranging from high-definition setups to simple Webcams. Although some large financial institutions have their own TV studios specifically for this purpose, conference room and desktop video equipment is far more pervasive, Fastook said.
CNBC gladly pays for “first rate, top of the line” fiber optic network connections to key locations such as the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for the NASDAQ, he said, but if it had to stick to that standard for every contributor it connects with remotely, the network would be “financially limited” in how many contributors it could afford to have.
Broader geographical coverage with remote cameras – whether provided by CNBC or by the contributors themselves – has become particularly important to CNBC over the last two to three years, Fastook said, “because trades are not just happening on Wall Street anymore, they’re happening all over the country.”
Provided that the organization on the other end of the Internet connection has adequate bandwidth reserved for video, the image quality from videoconferencing equipment is usually good, Fastook said, and lower resolution webcam feeds can be resized into a smaller box on the screen to make them look better, Fastook said. There is a slight transmission delay, which varies according to the Internet connection, but there are control room tricks for compensating for that, he said. “You do have to temper your expectations on quality, and expect a slight delay,” he said.
Some of the latest corporate HD videoconferencing systems, sometimes referred to as “telepresence” systems, now also pay more attention to high quality lighting and the aesthetic design of the conference room in which they are placed to produce a “just like being there” effect for remote meetings. Bad lighting still comes up as an issue with some financial analyst partners, but it’s easily remedied by providing some lights or an anti-glare coating for windows, Fastook said.
Will Your Newscast ‘Ignite?’
Overcoming fears of production automation
By David F. Carr — Broadcasting & Cable, 12/3/2008 12:00:00 AM MT
Psychologists tell us fear can be a good thing, if we’re afraid of the right things and react appropriately, but not so good when it’s irrational and incapacitating, or prevents us from facing facts. When TV news people react fearfully to the news that their station is adopting an automation system like Ignite, their fear is not unreasonable considering consider what can go wrong.
For example, KHON in Honolulu suffered through months of missed cues, dropped audio, and frozen video after the station adopted Ignite, culminating in a June 2007 train wreck of a broadcast that weekend anchor Jai Cunningham described on air as “smooth as sandpaper.” After several failed attempts to introduce a segment from a golf tournament, sportscaster John Veneri added, “I’ll tell you what folks, this really sucks.”
KHON’s bad night lives on as Internet video, and ammunition for anyone arguing against newscast automation. But the technology also has its success stories, and KHON eventually became one of them.
“It was rocky, I would say, for the first few months,” News Director Lori Silva said. “Once we got through that rocky period, it’s been fine.” The specific problems with the “smooth as sandpaper” broadcast were traced to a faulty installation of the software. But mostly it was just “a big transition for our directors and technical people,” she said, given that the software essentially took over the work of four or five people.
With Ignite, the director’s plan for a broadcast is programmed into the system and played back with audio, video, and graphics transitions cued by the computer system rather than by technicians. It’s often deployed in combination with robotic studio cameras. Grass Valley, a unit of Thomson, acquired the base technology from ParkerVision in 2004. Since then, the software has gone through a complete rewrite, making many criticisms of the technology obsolete, says Product Manager John Benson. “The early adopters were really going out on a limb,” he said. “The older, first generation system did have a lot of limitations. But now directors tell us they feel they’re more in control and executing their productions faster and cleaner now than they ever did before.”
The stations implementing Ignite aren’t necessarily cutting back on their news operations – some are using the efficiencies they gain through automation to shift personnel to producing content for the web, affiliate stations, and digital channels, he said.
Adam Wright, senior director at WFFF in Colchester, Vermont, who launched three new newscasts within the last year on Ignite, and says moving to the technology can be a positive experience if you prepare properly. “I won’t lie to you and say the system is foolproof,” he said. “There certainly can be mistakes, but a lot of them can be prevented by double checking and triple checking.”
“Don’t be scared, that’s what I tell people – you can do it,” said Mark Rosen, News Director at WJBF in Augusta, Ga., whose station was among the first to adopt Ignite. His station experienced some “hiccups” early on, “but they weren’t enough to make us throw up our hands and say this isn’t going to work,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to our people. They weren’t going to let it beat them.”
Rosen agreed that preparation is important. “Have a backup plan to your backup plan,” he said, so that you know exactly what you would do if automated switching between segments fails, particularly in the beginning. “Once you’ve prepared for it, it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Some fears are unfounded – for example, the notion that Ignite can’t handle breaking news. Current versions of the software feature “late breaking news keys” that a director can use to quickly cue up live shots or recorded segments that weren’t part of the original plan, or to orchestrate broadcasts that are by nature largely unpredictable.
“That part of it is not a problem,” KHON’s Silva said, noting that the system worked fine through this year’s primary and general elections.
In fact, that feature can be one of your best defenses, WFFF’s Wright said. “I would recommend getting to know your way around those late breaking news keys really well because if the automation messes up on you, that’s all you’ve got.”
At WRTV in Indianapolis, which used the ParkerVision system before recently upgrading to the HD version of Ignite, engineer Mark Barnack has reconciled himself to working with the system, but he can’t bring himself to sound enthusiastic. “It’s all computerized, so if the computer crashes, you’re pretty much stuck. It isn’t as flexible as when we had [more] people here,” he said.
Stations adopting the technology should “be prepared to have a lot of mistakes on the air and things that aren’t quite right until you get all the bugs worked out,” Barnack said. On the other hand, it saves a lot of money, he acknowledged. “If you’re willing to give it time, it’s not a bad thing to have.”
“One Man Band” Video Journalist Model Proliferates
By David F. Carr — Broadcasting & Cable, 4/1/2008 1:53:00 PM MT
Call them VJs, backpack journalists, or “one man bands.” Whatever you call them, these do-it-all reporter/photographers are turning up all over at stations trying to cut costs, broaden coverage, or simply put more flexibility and options in the news director’s toolkit.
The ideal VJ knows how to report, write, shoot, and record good sound, then edit the resulting video on a laptop computer and transmit the story back to the station – typically using a broadband cellular modem rather than a traditional microwave truck.
A few stations, like KRON 4 in San Francisco, have gone to an all-VJ model. Many more are introducing the concept selectively. They may ask all their reporters and photographers to be able to go into one man band mode in a pinch, yet employ dedicated cameramen for the more important shoots.
At first glance, the KRON story looks like a cautionary tale because the VJ model was one of the things that was supposed to make the station successful in an format dominated by 9 hours of news coverage. But Young Broadcasting [http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6539686.html], which bought KRON in 2000 and severed the station’s affiliation with NBC, announced in January [http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6522345.html] that it was looking for a buyer to take the money-losing station off its hands. In fact, it wanted to make the sale in the first quarter – that is, before the end of March – but so far, no buyer has emerged.
News Director Aaron Pero said he could not comment on the issues of finances and corporate strategy related to station operations, except to say that, judged on its own merits, he believes the VJ model has succeeded at creating a leaner and more effective news gathering organization. On a typical day, he has 10 to 15 reporter-photographers available to report the news, and he has been able establish beats with reporters specializing in topics such as transportation and real estate.
“When it comes to breaking news, we can just inundate a scene,” Pero says. “We’ve had a couple of examples in the last year or so. We had a guy in San Francisco who was driving down the sidewalks, and we had 14 VJs on the story that day. During the [Lake] Tahoe fires, we had 8 VJs and two satellite operators working the story, and we were able to have 8 reporters on the air. When we have earthquakes, we go wall-to-wall with it – we send our VJs out so they can start picking up different angles.”
The station wins strong ratings during those periods of crisis because viewers know KRON will have the most thorough coverage, Pero says. Where the news channel struggles more is in its day-to-day operations. Where other local newscasts benefit from having a strong lead-in, such as a popular sitcom or sporting event that viewers have tuned in to watch, the KRON news team is pretty much on its own because of the lack of a network affiliation.
At KGTV in San Diego [www.10news.com], News Director Gary Brown said he visited with KRON when he was planning his own VJ initiative, but he hasn’t chosen to duplicate its wholesale conversion to the VJ model. But since the fall of 2006, he has been training reporters to operate in VJ mode when it makes sense.
“We’re not necessarily going to say, everyone’s going to be a VJ today, but some days a reporter might work with a photographer, other days he might not,” Brown said, and photographers are also being cross trained to report their own stories. Some reporters and photographers are adapting better or more enthusiastically than others, and he tries to take their strengths and motivation into account when making assignments. “This is not a one size fits all strategy,” Brown said.
Brown said KGTV, an ABC affiliate, is adopting the VJ model less as a cost-cutting initiative than as a way to extend its coverage and create a wider variety of content for the station’s web site, as well as its broadcasts. Like Pero, he cited breaking news such as a recent road collapse and wildfires in the region as cases where “we have more video from out in the field because of these people.”
But VJs are also helping the station improve its enterprise reporting. For example, there was the Feb. 20 incident where police found La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid falling down drunk by the side of the road, and the city worker driving him home also intoxicated. The story revolved around whether the police acted properly by driving the two home without charging either, and KGTV’s first day coverage of the story was better because it had a beat reporter VJ in La Mesa who found out about the story and was able to catch the mayor at home and interview him on camera, Brown said.
“You can’t do beats easily in a TV station when you have 2-person crews,” Brown said. “So stations can’t support coverage from all their geographic regions on a daily basis. But you can with VJs.”
For entry level TV journalists, VJ skills are proving essential. During a Society of Professional Journalists conference at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina, WPDE-TV reporter Graeme Moore talked about “one man banding” at the Florence, S.C., bureau of the Myrtle Beach station.
He sees the job as a way of paying his dues, he said, but there are definitely times when he is working on a big story and finds doing all the reporting, writing, video, and audio himself overwhelming. “Those are the times I wish I had someone else,” he said. He finds himself spending so much time worrying about the quality of the video he is producing that he has less time for reporting, he said.
Still, Graeme was able to show some respectable video clips. Typically, his stories start with a stand-up from the bureau office, where he records himself standing in front of the camera on a tripod. In a feature on the economic challenges facing independent truckers [http://www.wpde.net/news/videoplayer.asp?v=news/~truckertolls], he managed to get a shot of himself climbing into the cab of a truck by first positioning the camera on the seat of the truck.
But KRON’s Pero says VJs shouldn’t necessarily always try to produce the same sort of stories that a traditional reporter photographer team would turn in. “Yes, my people have tripods, and they have lights, and they do their stand-ups themselves. But we also try to make sure that we’re only doing stand-ups for legitimate reasons, make sure we’re showing some actual information,” he said. “We don’t do live shots in front of a dark building,” like a court house where a ruling was handed down hours earlier, he said. “There are some crazy old television rules that we’ve broken, and we’re proud that we’ve broken these rules.”
Chip Mahaney, the news director at WTVR and WUPV in Richmond, said that although he has not imposed a VJ model at his station, he already has three people who work that way as a personal preference. Certainly, he is thinking about the benefits of that model and looking for those skills in new hires.
“What I’d like as a news manager is flexibility with the staff I have,” Mahaney said. “On the other hand, I still want to have skilled professional people. If I have the best reporter in the market, I just want him to shoot. And there are people who are great reporters who have no business behind the camera. But my mission is to get as much content as I can on the web and on the air, and that may require more cameras on the street.”
Broadcasters Behaving Badly
Managing TV newsroom scandals
By David F. Carr — Broadcasting & Cable, 12/3/2008 12:00:00 AM MT
Philadelphia’s KYW, the CBS owned station in town, has had more than its share of newsroom scandals over the last year, building from former anchor Alycia Lane’s firing in January over a scuffle with police to her former co-anchor Larry Mendte’s trial and conviction for hacking into her email accounts.
By the time Mendte was sentenced last week to six months of probation, KYW was covering the story almost like any other news organization in town. But while the story was developing, the station squirmed like many another news organization caught in the awkward position of having its own people become the news.
KYW isn’t even the only Philadelphia station with a current anchor scandal – at WCAU former anchor Vince DeMentri recently filed a complaint about being fired over allegations of having an affair with a colleague and subsequently vandalizing her car.
AsPhiladelphia Inquirer TV critic Jonathan Storm noted in a column, “TV newsies elsewhere have had their woes,” this was an active year for newsroom scandals in Boston, New York, California, and elsewhere including incidents of public drunkenness, police confrontations, sex, and violence.
Storm said his public relations contact at KYW typically tried to go beyond “no comment” and at least give him some general statement to the effect that management didn’t yet have all the facts but was investigating. On the other hand, when these stories were breaking in the newspapers, the station at first would not report on them in its own newscasts – and typically other stations in the same market wouldn’t report on the scandals, either. Eventually, that had to change, once the FBI confirmed it was investigating Mendte and dragged him into court.
Earlier, instead of making a “big production” out of being horrified over the alleged offense, the station “surgically removed” the problem personnel from the airwaves. “That’s always the first step,” Storm said. “There was never any explanation of why these people weren’t there anymore.”
But Storm doesn’t judge station management too harshly. In fact, he thinks other organizations might have been tempted to try to keep Mendte and Lane despite their bad behavior because they were bringing in good ratings. “I think the fact that the station saw this behavior was just toxic, and recognized that was more important than transitory rating games, is actually admirable behavior on their part.”
Edward Esposito, chairman of the Radio Television News Directors Association, said RTNDA’s Code of Ethics includes relevant provisions about integrity and accountability, but he admits figuring out how to apply them in the midst of a scandal can be tricky.
“On a personal level, every news director has to keep in mind what an odd position they’re putting themselves in if they say ‘no comment’ when they’re asking for answers from other people who want to say ‘no comment,’” said Esposito, as a former anchor and news director, currently serving as vice president for information media at Rubber City Radio Group.
The station does have to balance the demands of journalism with its role as an employer, he said, and not be too quick to condemn employees based on charges that could prove unfounded. “However, if they are proven guilty – and ‘if’ is a big word there – then you as a journalist have to be fair to your readers, or your listeners, or your viewers.” In the meantime, it’s fair to put the employee on either paid or unpaid leave while awaiting a resolution in court, he said.
While he has never had to deal with a scandal nearly as big as Mendte’s, Esposito has had to work with station personnel who have been indiscrete with, for example, postings to Internet message boards. One of the things that’s changed about the news business is how quickly scandals spread in the digital age, he said. “You see it in how a salacious case gets passed along by email, and the subject line always seems to be, ‘You won’t believe this one,’” Esposito said.
When a scandal hits, you have to balance the requirement to project “as much transparency as possible,” while protecting an employee’s right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty, said Steve Ridge, president of the domestic TV practice at the consulting firm Magid & Associates. “If you’re holding yourself out as objective journalists who report the facts, you kind of have to take your own medicine.”
“The classic trap is that traditionally a lot of stations have tended to think of talent as being bigger than life, putting them up on a pedestal. And the problem with that is anchors are human beings, they’re people,” Ridge said. For that reason, his firm advises stations to build their brands around the competency of the news operation as a whole rather than any individual, he said.