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When it comes to news production workflows and collaboration, the broadcast industry has long pursued methods of more seamlessly working remotely while, simultaneously, trying to keep up with the need to efficiently push content to a rapidly growing number of radically different consumer viewing platforms. In the view of industry veteran Andy Wormser, director of support and project management for the Associated Press’ (AP) ENPS and Playbook, the sudden and devastating arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on those pursuits—it has sped up and intensified the pursuit of solutions.
“When I was a news director, we had regular conversations about ‘let’s keep our crews in the field as much as we can,’ ” Wormser recalls. “For some time now, there has been a push to do everything more cloud-based, more digital, in terms of editing and other things, while keeping crews in the field for faster output. But pre-pandemic, there were limits to where we as an industry thought we could go. We didn’t think we could push all editing into the field, nor push our producers and directors to regularly work from home. It just wasn’t feasible. And then the pandemic came along, and everyone had to go home immediately, while the demand for news was enormous.
“So that [changed] the way the industry viewed the question of how to work remotely. Now, the answer simply can’t be ‘no.’ The question now is, ‘how can we?’ How can we enable crews to work fully remotely, along with our producers and broadcast directors? There has very quickly been an enormous effort to accommodate that. Now, we can just about work fully remotely. This has changed our thinking about what the right mix is of people in the field, versus in the building.”
At the same time, Wormser adds that the number of platforms that broadcasters have to push their news stories to “has simply exploded,” further complicating matters.
“Today, even in small markets, news broadcasters are on the air for multiple hours during the day, and then you have to add on top of that the website, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and others,” he relates. “The problem has been that all of these competing channels have needed their own authoring solution [for the same stories and other forms of news media content]. In other words, today, if I have a story to publish, I now need to create it in a number of different solutions. At the most basic level, I’m taking text and marrying it with some form of media, and then outputting it to all these different platforms. [At the AP], we have spent a lot of time in newsrooms, observing users. What we’ve seen is news people using all sorts of different tools, with multiple browser windows open at the same time. That just slows everything down in terms of finding information, and being aware of what new items are coming in.”
Therefore, “the more we can figure out a single solution [for authoring content to different platforms], the more our storytelling will benefit, no matter what platform people are using to consume the content.”
Conceptually, the goal here is “to create content in one place and be able to publish it in many places,” Wormser emphasizes.
As digital news production and distribution arrived more than 20 years ago, so did one important piece of the puzzle designed to move closer to serving this agenda—the publication of the Media Object Server (MOS) protocol. This development enabled newsroom computer systems (NCS) to be able to communicate with a variety of production-related digital tools like video and audio servers, character generators, and more, using a common communication protocol.
“That certainly was an important standard development,” Wormser says. “MOS was developed as a way for various newsroom systems to integrate with all sorts of other production devices without having to do custom development for every new version of those devices that came out. This gave us more of a plug-and-play approach with vendor equipment for newsrooms.”
However, Wormser adds that as technology marched forward, a wide range of web browser-based tools for news content creators burst forth in the form of low- or no-cost apps. Many of these are prosumer or consumer-type apps of use to more people than just news professionals—software tools that are routinely updated by developers every few months or so. As Wormser explained in a recent article in the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal, this development, while producing useful tools for the industry, resulted in “market fragmentation” for users that meant, “workflows are also fragmented.” Integration of these new tools into a news organization’s unified content management system (CMS) can therefore be difficult and expensive.
Major news organizations like the AP are constantly striving for better integration processes, Wormser says. He points out that the AP has been using and selling to customers worldwide a sophisticated news production system called ENPS for more than two decades. ENPS is a system designed to integrate a wide range of tools, communicate efficiently across their organization, handle and combine multiple forms of media in one interface, and so on. More recently, the AP added a unified planning solution to the mix—a solution called AP Playbook, which uses a single interface to allow news content creators to more organically make assignments for all platforms and formats, and seamlessly communicate that information across the organization.
“Playbook was our first foray into solutions that are focused around multi-platform use from the start,” he says. “It’s a planning solution that is truly agnostic to the output type. This allows us to more easily bring our various global teams together, and it has saved enormous amounts of effort in trying to do planning on a global scale. Now, everyone across the organization can see what is going on, and then filter that data for what is most important to them.”
More work, however, needs to be done across the industry to achieve true modularity between newsroom systems and this ongoing slew of new software tools and apps in order to achieve fundamentally streamlined news workflows, he suggests.
“For broadcast workflows, we are already there,” he says. “Our ENPS system is the main driver for newsroom organization and planning. But you can also plug in a graphics device, video server, video editor, or teleprompter. Thanks to the MOS Protocol, those kinds of items are plug-and-play.
“Playbook will connect with the AP’s upcoming authoring solution. If your organization has its own authoring solution, you can just link it with Playbook. If you have your own planning solution, you will be able to use our upcoming authoring solution. That functionality is there. And it’s an idea that builds nicely off the app world. But the other piece with tying in modularity is that there are so many free model solutions out there today, so you now see a lot of newsroom technology growing from the ground up, rather than the other way around, which was the traditional approach.”
Wormser points to the example of instant newsroom communication tools. All sorts of options for that application exist, of course. But how best to integrate them into an authoring tool and larger workflow system is not as clear, he says.
“A producer, digital editor, reporter or photographer goes looking for a solution for something that is bugging them,” he explains. “They eventually find a helpful messaging application like a free version of Slack, which can provide unlimited group chat channels within your system. So they start using it for easy messaging. That’s great, except now everyone is in a separate tool for messaging. And there are many other tools like that, such as Microsoft Teams. For various applications, there are literally hundreds or even thousands of individual apps out there being used. So the idea is that it wouldn’t be as productive for us to try to recreate Slack or Microsoft Teams to put everyone back into a proprietary communication system. Instead, it would be more valuable for us to provide a bridge to work seamlessly with all those solutions. I want to be able to plug my communication tool, whether for messaging or other things, into other tools and use them all seamlessly. That’s one important thing our industry is working on.”
Then, Wormser adds, for other types of tasks, the industry is looking at tools that are essentially API middleware solutions to permit automation and content sharing. He points to tools like Zapier, a Cloud-based platform designed to allow end users to integrate various web applications, and IFTT (If This Then That), a web-based subscription service designed to achieve similar integration, as examples. Both, and a handful of others, are now routinely being used by journalists and content creators worldwide, Wormser emphasizes.
“If you tried to have a developer stitch together via API each new system you want to integrate, that would be like the hamster wheel,” he says. “So the concept of API middleware is a great alternative. API’s are ubiquitous for all sorts of digital uses and communication uses. But in many cases, you need a developer on each end to stick it all together. With these kinds of new products, I can plug my planning system into my communication tool, and I can do it pretty simply. I don’t need a developer to do it. That takes some work off the development team and moves it into a less technical realm, which therefore reduces the resources needed for integration.”
For some forms of media development—particularly video quality, compression, and formats—Wormser says the news industry is largely following and trying its best to incorporate larger media industry advances in this regard. However, news broadcasting, in particular, has unique challenges regarding metadata organization and use, rights’ management, searchability, and so forth, since news, by its nature, requires the incorporation of various types of media from many different sources to weave together useful news reports. Lots of work in recent years has been done, according to Wormser, to address such challenges.
“How to capture and keep up with both the video and text from all the metadata we have gathered along the way is a big issue for our industry,” he says. “SMPTE, for example, published last year [in partnership with the Media and Entertainment Services Alliance, MESA] the Language Metadata Table [LMT] standard [designed to streamline media asset management of metadata that can be used, according to the MESA website, ‘operationally, rather than by application developers’]. Also, the International Press Telecommunications Council [IPTC] has given us a separate metadata hub for video management that further simplifies things.”
Wormser expects the industry to further develop standards to make it easier to incorporate new apps and software tools into the mix over time. “We are seeing organizations trying to coalesce around a common standard for apps across platforms, both within and outside the newsroom,” he says. “This will allow news people in the field to enjoy a more low-friction way to fully create stories in the field, and complete their jobs more efficiently.”
Among other developments, he also points to the growing incorporation of smart computing/artificial intelligence technologies into news-oriented workflow systems in such a way that automation increases while human decision-making remains at the forefront.
“We’re certainly starting to see AI coming into our industry,” he says. “The AP itself uses AI to deliver a select number of automated stories around corporate earnings reports and some sports previews, for instance. And we’re seeing others in the industry using AI and machine learning, though I would not say adoption is yet widespread. From my perspective, where AI can help is in allowing the journalist to tell better stories. That could mean suggesting content that is related to the story the journalist is working on—whether text, photo, video, graphic, or audio—that the journalist may not have time to find on their own. Where AI may well find a home is in flagging content that may need an extra set of eyes, or helping to manage usage rights for particular content. But we certainly do need to retain human decision-making when it comes to ethical judgments, and that will certainly continue.”
New LA County Production Guidelines
Even as the state of California was lifting its statewide stay-at-home order recently, leaving it up to individual counties to decide depending on their own data what businesses and activities to allow, the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health issued updated and cautious guidelines for TV production protocols in the county as the pandemic continued to ravage Los Angeles. According to a TV Technology report, the guidelines issued in late January applied to all TV, film, and music productions. They include the requirement for a safety plan to be submitted for review at least 10 days before a production’s date of commencement; pre-employment Covid testing for everyone on all productions, and weekly testing of crew and performers during the life of a production; strict screening of employees and visitors to sets or worksites; face coverings for staff working in cubicles; shields in addition to masks for employees in close proximity, and much more. The website Deadline recently published the full text of the order here.
LA Production Outlook Still Dicey
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times recently published an interview with Paul Audley, head of the film-permitting group FilmLA, discussing the pandemic’s impact on production in Los Angeles specifically, and offering a sober prediction for how long the downturn might last. In the interview, Audley discussed challenges still on the horizon, such as the possibility of pausing filming in the city at the start of February, except under very special circumstances; backlash from the public when film productions were allowed to proceed while other businesses were shut down; the financial impact on industry professionals and on FilmLA; and the possibilities of ongoing future shutdowns. Audley predicts production in Los Angeles won’t return to near normal levels before the fall of this year at the earliest.
Big Tech Union Efforts
A recent Washington Post article offered a comprehensive outline of the recent drive to unionize Big Tech workers at major companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others. The article suggests that some employees want to improve wages and safety standards and get a bigger say in the types of products and services offered by such companies. The article points out that Silicon Valley has always been resistant to such moves, seeing its industry as generally a well-paying meritocracy that would see productivity suffer if unions were widely accepted. However, the article states, with Big Tech companies surging to the forefront of the corporate world, what happens with them will impact how other industries view their workforces and policies. It points to an ongoing initiative to unionize interested workers at Google, but says even with recent growth, that effort involves only a small slice of the company’s overall global workforce of some 260,000-plus people. The article also talks about an ongoing controversy to unionize Amazon warehouse workers, and said a “major labor battle” is currently brewing between Amazon and a large group of warehouse workers in Alabama.