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CIO Magazine Clips

CIO Magazine: 5 Things CIOs Need to Know About Mainframe Modernization

CIO Magazine has assigned me to write a series of these “5 Things” pieces, which are challenging me to write in a very brief list-oriented format (as opposed to my big blowout Baseline cover stories). It’s good for me!

5 Things CIOs Need to Know About Mainframe Modernization

It may make more sense to migrate than modernize, and other advice to keep in mind if mainframe modernization is on your agenda now.

Clips Defense Systems

How the military is unifying communications and collaboration

My latest for Defense Systems Magazine:

How the military is unifying communications and collaboration

The lessons of VOIP are helping expand and combine rich communications and collaboration on military networks

Although military technologists sometimes talk about the Global Information Grid in the present tense, one element of the GIG vision that is still in the works is the implementation of a global everything-over-IP network that allows phone, videoconferencing and other synchronous communications to ride over the same IP network that e-mail and other data communications use.

The transition to unified communications and collaboration is also playing out in the corporate world, where voice-over-IP (VOIP) phones are appearing more frequently. Richer communications sessions that combine voice, video, chat, Web collaboration and desktop application sharing are also becoming more common. And the same is true in the military — at least, in certain enclaves that have deployed the required network upgrades. But making such services span the full breadth and depth of the military is a much bigger challenge and will take years to achieve.

Read More

Web Development

Just Launched:

We just launched for Mark Marciano, candidate for Florida House District 83. This is our the first Carr Communications client website to launch on the WordPress content management platform. Features my custom plug-ins for event management, RSVPs, volunteer sign-ups, and PayPal donations. I’ve been delighted to find out how easy it is to extend the WordPress environment, while still taking advantage of all its standard features and popular plug-ins such as Sociable for cross-promoting website content via email and social networks.

The blog portion of the website is actually not active right now, but I’m using WordPress to manage the home page, bio, events calendar, and other content. The blog will follow as the campaign begins to make news.

The design will probably change, but here’s what it looked like on Day 1

Launch day version:

Web Development

What a Web Site Costs

I’ve been doing some research, and it looks like my rates for web site development are on the low side – although, of course, I probably can’t raise them too much or too fast, not in this economy.

Clients have been telling me that I’m charging a lot less and delivering better work than other firms they have dealt with. At the same time, I’m conscious of the existence of rock bottom pricing (including free options) for the small businesses I typically cater to. As my friends in the newspaper industry can attest, competing with free is a tough nut.

Still, after browsing a few relatively recent “How Much Should A Web Site Cost?” articles and blog posts on the sites of other web consulting firms, I see that I’ve been pricing my work at the bottom of (or even below) the range they quote for a small business website.

For example, another Florida-based firm, Altius, says:

A basic designed website, acting primarily as an online brochure to merely establish a necessary presence online to answer the questions ‘do you exist?’, ‘are you professional?’ and ‘what do you do?’, can be done for a mere market average of $2000. This website will not allow you to interact with your audience (social networking, blog), transact business directly through your site (ecommerce), or enable you to manipulate and update the pages and content within your site without hiring a web programmer/designer to do it for you (Content Management System does enable this for more $$$). (more here)

I have been charging significantly less than that for a small business website and routinely including blogging/content management (WordPress) because I believe it’s important for my clients to be able to manage their own sites. To be fair, Altius looks like a fairly substantial firm that probably has specialists in a number of different programming and graphic arts disciplines. In contrast, Carr Communications is a family business. But even in those cases where I’ve subcontracted or teamed up with another specialist, such as a graphic artist, I’ve turned in complete websites for less than $2,000.

Another blog post from WebpageFX of Pennsylvania provides a nice historical summary of how web development prices have dropped over time as competition has intensified. I’m not sure how scientific it is, but they surveyed other developers and related specialists and came up with a price range of $2,000 to $7,000 for a small business website during the period 2004-2008. I’d have to suspect there’s been some downward pressure on prices over the last year, though, given the state of the economy.

A third firm, Webconsuls of Tuscon, AZ, has a breakdown of the components of a website’s cost, including design, hosting, and domain registration. Again, I find myself at the low end of the range.

One problem with trying to make these comparisons is the issue of who you are hiring to do the work. A larger firm may be able to provide a team of specialists that I cannot match. Other small firms like mine may have slicker designers or more hard-core programmers than Carr Communications. But I also hear horror stories about a lot of my competitors who charge much more than I do, while sending most of the labor offshore and delivering inconsistent customer service.

We compete in this market as competent generalists. I know a lot about works on the web, both through my own experience and from my study of other web operations as a business and technology journalist. Beth Anne is my editor and design coach. And we want your business.

Clips Defense Systems

Interview I Did on “The dark side of Web 2.0 technologies”

Federal News Radio 1500 AM: The dark side of Web 2.0 technologies

The Interview came in response to this story for Defense Systems:

Social networking poses risk to operational security — Defense Systems

In an earlier era, “loose lips sink ships” was the military’s warning not to let even small details about military movements and operations slip in casual conversation.

Web Development

Web Site Rescue

I’m developing a specialty in what I call “web site rescue” – bailing out site owners who have had a falling out with their web developers or simply been abandoned by a developer who skipped town.

A few of the scenarios I’ve seen:

  • The web developer is the only one who can make updates to the website but has stopped moved out of the area or stopped returning calls.
  • A volunteer set up the web site for free (for a community organization or nonprofit) but then lost interest.
  • The web developer makes the updates, but takes several weeks to do so even for simple changes.
  • The web developer turns out to be outsourcing most of the work to offshore laborers in someplace like the Philippines. (Carr Communications web sites are made in the USA).
  • Some of my clients have churned through several web developers whom they found to be unreliable or unprofessional.

In one e-commerce example, I found that the previous developers had created a shopping cart program (or perhaps modified code they had obtained from someone else, or downloaded off some free website) without quite knowing what they were doing. The shopping cart turned out to have some problems with math that did not show up until it was asked to handle bigger-ticket items. Once the price tag exceeded $1,000, it stopped calculating the totals correctly. Turned out the software was storing the dollar amounts as formatted strings, rather than numbers, and when it was asked to do math with those values would automatically drop everything after the comma – so that $1,000 would turn into $1.

So everyone should hire me, because I never make mistakes, right? Right. But beside that, there are a few words of advice I can offer to anyone hiring a web developer on how to protect yourself:

Make sure you can post basic updates to the website yourself, without necessarily requiring the services of your web developer. You should not have to be a techie to go in and correct a typo, or post an event, or add a new product to your product catalog. A good developer should be able to provide you with some self-service tools. The current solution I am offering is based on WordPress, which in addition to being a great blogging tool is pretty capable as a general content management system. That means my clients can use a word processor-like user interface to post and edit information on their home pages or other pages of their sites.

Control your domain — the .com, .org, or other identifier for your website. It’s common for the web developer to register a domain on behalf of his client, and I often provide that service to my clients who are less comfortable with such things. But it is better for you to secure the domain directly from a registrar such as or

The problem with letting your web developer handle the registration is that it puts the “keys to the kingdom” in the hands of your web developer. If you decide to switch web developers, you’re left in the awkward position of having to go back to the person who originally registered the domain and secure their cooperation to move it to a different server. If they should refuse, you would have few options short of a court order for regaining control over the domain.

To the domain registrar, it’s a question of who is their customer. If you are the customer, and you have the password, you can point the domain to the server of your choice. But if the registrar’s customer relationship is with your former web developer, the developer effectively owns the domain.

One compromise solution is to have your web developer set up the domain registry record with you, or your firm, registered as the “administrative contact” and the web developer listed as the “technical contact.”

But my first recommendation would still be for you to register your own domain. Just make sure to provide complete contact information so that you will not miss future billing notices and let the domain registration lapse (if that happens, you can be left in the ugly predicament of having to buy back your own Internet domain in an auction).

Categories Clips

Blog Posts from

Cross-posting some links to my blog on

An Open Source Option for Enterprise Search

Staying Sane While Debugging AJAX

Studying Form Spam

Unpredictable Users

Netbooks and User Interface

Review: WordPress Plug-In Development

Connecting with Facebook, (Part 1 , Part 2, Part 3)

Bringing Hadoop to the Enterprise

Clips Defense Systems

Defense Systems Clips

These are excerpts from stories I wrote for Defense Systems, some of which were also picked up by other publications from 1105 Media, such as Federal Computer World.

Army puts FCS network through paces in demo

David F. Carr
Nov 17, 2008

C4ISR On the Move testbed shows Future Combat Systems prototypes in action

The future of the Army’s battle command- and-control systems came to life this summer at Fort Dix, N.J., during the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) On-the- Move Product Management Office testbed project there. In July, a convoy of modified Humvees loaded with racks of network equipment and experimental antennas rolled out for maneuvers in Vietnam Village, an area of the base’s training range.

The concept of C4ISR encompasses all the means for using electronic communications to gather and analyze information, command and control military units, and coordinate activities. The onthe- move generation of C4ISR technologies that the Army and Defense Department are working toward will expand the use of sophisticated computing and digital communications in the field and make them more available to warfighters as they move. They currently must stop to set up equipment and antennas.

The exercise used a mix of current and next-generation computing and communications equipment to test interoperability.

Compatibility will be important when the first Future Combat Systems (FCS) mobile wireless technologies and related battle command systems reach the field, They need to coexist, at least at first, with earlier generations of equipment.

The Humvees had a domed antenna for satellite communications and a cylindrical one to support the Army’s Warfighter Information Network–Tactical (WIN-T) program, a line-of-sight wireless communications system designed to support voice and data. Specifically, the exercise featured a test version of WIN-T Increment 2. Although the Army has already fielded a preliminary Increment 1 version of the technology for some operations, Increment 2 comes closer to supporting mobile networks that can automatically reconfigure themselves to support other available WIN-T antennas, even for a convoy in motion. Via the satellite link, the communications vehicles would be able to route voice and data signals among soldiers on the ground and vehicles in the area.


The C4ISR On-the-Move project was the first large-scale test of the FCS network to incorporate all tiers of communication from satellite to vehicles and equipment carried by soldiers, said Randy Zimmerman, a former Defense Logistics Agency officer who consults with the Army on these systems. Although there were glitches, the network performed well, he said.

The Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) in the Army’s Research Development and Engineering Command organized the testing exercise.

Although it was organized as if it were a continuing systems development effort led by Lt. Col. William Utroska, C4ISR On-the-Move product manager, its focus was on system-ofsystems issues rather than any one system.

“If you ask me what my products are as a product manager, the answer is I don’t build a thing,” Utroska said to a group of Army and DOD officials at an event planning session in late July. “What I do is provide a body of knowledge. I don’t have a requirements document. What I do is work off the Army Science and Technology Master Plan.” As the Army refines its plans for the suite of technologies it wants to deploy to maintain information superiority in the field, Utroska tries to assemble a representative assortment of prototype technologies.

In cases where a prototype is not available, he modifies current technology to provide an approximation of the desired capability or uses computer simulation.

The contractors and Army product and project managers who participate get immediate feedback on how their technologies operate and interoperate during simulated field conditions designed to be relevant to their mission, Utroska said.

One of his primary goals is to reduce the risk associated with new system development by identifying problems early.

CERDEC has been conducting annual On-the-Move test events since 2001, but since the effort was formally chartered in 2006, the center has also been conducting related activities year round.

Planning and preliminary testing for this year’s event began in April, but by the time Defense Systems visited Fort Dix at the end of July, operations reached a more intensive pace. They ran from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. to test how the equipment worked and how well soldiers would be able to operate it in the dark and when they were tired.

A presentation day followed the final week of testing. A formal report, including a detailed analysis of all the data gathered during network testing, will follow in November.


Many of the systems evaluated are still several years away from being ready for use in the field. Much of it is prototype gear that is half as rugged and twice as heavy as it is supposed to be in its final incarnation.

However, making products that meet military standards for withstanding vibration, shock and temperature extremes is expensive, and the Army to needs to evaluate whether these systems work well enough to be worth that effort, Zimmerman said. “Part of what we’re after is determining whether the concept itself makes sense.” The exercise showed that the FCS network could perform well when the conditions were right, although it is also important to analyze the conditions when it struggled, Zimmerman said.

Data collection and analysis are among the most important aspects of the tests, Utroska said, and his team has developed new techniques for analyzing ad hoc wireless networks that are more complex and harder to monitor than the static networks of the past.

The On-the-Move team also emphasizes designing a test architecture that will stretch the capabilities of every system it tests, he said.

“For example, we had one piece of equipment that in the lab provided the correct throughput that it was supposed to, but when we brought it out here, it was nowhere near that,” Utroska said. In resolving the issue, the vendor “was able to come up with a software bug that they never would have found through their analysis in the lab.” Too often, the difficult challenges of system-of-systems engineering — where what matters is not the performance of any individual system but how many systems fit together — have been addressed with Microsoft PowerPoint presentations rather than rigorous testing, he said.

“You’ve heard of ‘build a little, test a little,’” he said, citing a maxim for incremental system development. “Here, it’s ‘build a little, stress a little, test a little.’ ”


The scenario for the C4ISR On-the- Move Product Management Office testbed project involved an insurgent force that had a supply of AK-47 guns, rocket-propelled grenades and a suspected improvised explosive device (IED).

Shrugging off their backpacks, the soldiers deployed the antennas atop short tripods, plugged them into their Panasonic Toughbook ruggedized laptop computers and tried to see who could tune in a video feed from one of two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) buzzing overhead.

The Army conducted the testing with a combination of scripted scenarios designed to make technologies interact predictably and unscripted ones designed to test whether soldiers could make the equipment work for them during stressful situations.

With the officials on site, the foray to Vietnam Village was a more scripted test because visitors from a task force on IED countermeasures wanted to see specific capabilities demonstrated before they returned to Washington.

First, they got a walkthrough of the mission-planning technologies being used for the test, including a tabletop touch-screen system for displaying maps and sketching routes. Users could edit those maps and other images with their fingertips.

The mission planners then led the way to the next room in the command post’s maze of tents, where they walked through the scenario again, on conference room-size screens, and showed how the visualization system could pivot from an overhead view to a simulated groundlevel view for another perspective of the terrain.

The UAV video feed test used two aircraft: Buster, a twin-wing mini-UAV from Mission Technologies, and gMAV, a gasoline-powered version of Honeywell’s Micro Air Vehicle ducted fan design.

The scenario involved a soldier on the ground tapping into the video feed from a UAV someone else was operating. In future versions of the system, a soldier might also be able to take control of a surveillance camera mounted on the UAV – to zoom in on an area of interest, for example – without interfering with the UAV operator’s control of the craft.

One of the Army’s Future Combat Systems “concepts is that everyone should have access to everything that’s flying above them and be able to see what it’s seeing,” said Randy Zimmerman, a former Defense Logistics Agency officer who now consults with the Army on these systems.

After spending a few minutes examining the UAV video feed, the officials walked along a road to an area where an IED was supposed to have been planted.

For testing purposes, the IED was simulated by a siren triggered remotely with a handheld device in the same way that IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan are often triggered by a cell phone, garage door opener or other radio-based device from a concealed location close to the scene of the attack. After the test supervisor showed how he could trigger the explosion by making the siren sound with his remote control, the officials watched a scenario for proposed countermeasures.

First, a remotely controlled ground robot rolled down the road, peering into the woods until it saw the location of the IED. Then a patrol of soldiers followed, with one man carrying a backpack with a mast sticking out of it – a prototype of a system called Dismounted IED Countermeasures Equipment (DICE), which broadcasts radio interference across a broad assortment of frequencies associated with IED attacks.

The system proved that it could prevent the simulated IED from being triggered.

DICE is the mobile version of IED Countermeasures Equipment, which is usually mounted on a vehicle. The system’s goal is to provide a way to neutralize hazards such as IEDs when it’s not practical to avoid, disarm or destroy them.

After the officials left, Zimmerman said, “we reset the platoon and did the whole test as if the VIPs were not there at all,” making the exercise a little less scripted and the simulated IED harder to find.

More importantly, in the course of 10- day and 10-night missions, he felt he was able to effectively evaluate the technology and how the soldiers worked with it in a variety of settings and scenarios. “I got several things out of it, starting with insight into how a future force network might perform.”

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Training to go for Marines

David F. Carr
May 26, 2008

University is helping make portable simulators easier to use

Even as the Marine Corps begins using the Deployable Virtual Training Environment (DVTE) to offer laptop PC-based virtual training for infantry, helicopter, tank and amphibious operations, the Marines are asking the University of Central Florida laboratory that helped design the system to make it easier to use, particularly for instructors.

In March, the Office of Naval Research awarded the university a a three-year, $7.3 million contract for research to improve DVTE’s tools for setting up new training scenarios, gathering and analyzing the results, and giving feedback to service members who participate in virtual training sessions.

The university’s Institute for Simulation and Training worked on a technology demonstration project that led to the development of DVTE and now has been charged with helping develop the next generation of DVTE.

“Our research is on how to make simulators into training systems,” said Denise Nicholson, director of the university’s Applied Cognition and Training in Immersive Virtual Environments (ACTIVE) laboratory and principal investigator for the project. The lab usually works on cutting-edge projects and researches technologies that might not find their way into the field for several years. But DVTE is aimed at near-term practical results, Nicholson said. The plan is to deliver one incremental software upgrade per year during the next three years.

As its name suggests, DVTE is meant to be deployable, meaning that Marine units could take it with them when they go into the field. Although so far it’s mostly being employed at training facilities on the regimental level, amphibious units have reported using it for as long as 60 hours per week aboard Navy ships.

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Mashed intelligence

David F. Carr
Nov 17, 2008

Tech Focus

As part of an effort to allow military planners to bring more data from varied sources together on one screen, Defense Intelligence Agency officials are taking a mashup approach. Their strategy resembles Google Maps. But DIA’s data and maps are classified, so instead of using Google’s services, the agency created its own system, known as Overwatch.

The application’s developers say they have gone further than any other Internet service by allowing users to easily toggle back and forth among different visualizations of the same data.

“Using these mashup capabilities, we can deliver any combination of information at any time to any user,” said Steven Willett, an information technology specialist at DIA who has been leading Overwatch’s development.

Mashup applications emphasize bringing together the elements of an application within a Web browser rather than relying on server-based integration and aggregation.

Mashups use technology based on JavaScript and Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language, a technique for updating Web pages that eliminates the need to reload the page. By making a client program responsible for aggregating data and displaying the results, a mashup can eliminate the need for a Web server to first collect the data.

However, an enterprise mashup must meet higher standards for security, governance, monitoring and availability. Overwatch does that with a layer of server software that regulates the entire process and provides the client-side code.

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Federated architecture from the ground up

David F. Carr
Oct 20, 2008

The foundation of a solid enterprise architecture requires specific blueprints for systems

The Defense Department is working to define a federated approach to enterprise architecture to tame the sprawling complexity of the military’s communications and computing systems. Although many DOD officials agree that a federated enterprise architecture is a good idea, they must first decide what approach to take.

During the past year, DOD performed a series of federated architecture tests that produced significantly different approaches to the concept. Now the challenge is to fuse them into a set of recommendations and requirements.

A DOD Federated Architecture Working Group composed of representatives from the military services met in August to develop a set of guidelines that the group plans to release later this year. Federated architecture is a divide-and-conquer approach to achieving enterprise architecture. Federated architecture recognizes that the military services — and all of DOD – are too large for a comprehensive picture of their systems that would fit within a single diagram or set of documents.

Instead, the idea is to build a master plan by creating architectures for each system development program and thoroughly documenting its interfaces with other systems. The goal of enterprise architecture is to create a set of plans that define all the elements of an enterprise and how they interact, just as an architectural plan for a home or an office building defines everything from its physical structure to its electrical and plumbing systems.

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Broadcasting & Cable Clips

Broadcasting & Cable NewsCentral Clips

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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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 [], which bought KRON in 2000 and severed the station’s affiliation with NBC, announced in January [] 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 [], 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 [], 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.”

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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.

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