The All-Digital Newsroom
Occasionally I do some work with our local 24-hour news station, NY1, an AOL Time Warner station that serves the five boroughs' Time Warner cable patrons. The folks at NY1 often turn to the editors of PC Magazine for comments on the latest technology news or gadgets.
Following one recent spot, NY1 technology reporter Adam Balkin mentioned how the station had gone all digital. He explained that he delivers his digital tape to the newsroom, where everyone can access it almost instantly. Balkin encouraged me to visit the station to see what the digital, object-oriented news delivery operation was all about.
Some weeks later I found myself at New York's Chelsea Market. The building that houses Chelsea Market is the 90-year-old former Nabisco factory that gave birth to the Oreo cookie. Now the massive building is home to an eclectic collection of businesses, including the office of the Major League Baseball Advanced Media Division, the Oxygen Network, and NY1.
The NY1 newsroom's centerpiece is a cavernous space that once served as the set for the HBO series Oz. Today the space is filled with computers, desks, and video monitors. Along one wall is a series of rooms containing stations for nonlinear editing, and just beyond the big hall is the nerve center of NY1—the news desk and studio sets.
I've been working with television news operations for years, but had little insight into the process that gets stories from the field to the editors to our TV sets. When I think of the banks of Betacam videos I've seen at most stations, I can't help but recall the scene from Broadcast News where Joan Cusack slides under an open cabinet to deliver a hot news tape. As it turns out, that's not very far from reality at most news outlets. Many stations, even if they do shoot digital tape, convert it to analog and use time stamps in an Avid edit station to create the news piece. They then shuttle the tape from the edit bay to the studio, often by hand.
NY1 director of technical operations and engineering, Jeff Polikoff, told me that NY1 is going a different route. He explained, in some detail and with obvious pride, how NY1 now takes DVC Pro digital video from its reporters and encodes it directly into a Pinnacle Systems Vortex digital video server (reporters can also deliver the video to NY1 from the field via a satellite feed). The server allows everyone in NY1's headquarters to access the video (and up to 600 hours of what Polikoff calls online video) almost instantaneously.
Polikoff walked me over to one of the reporter's desks and pointed out the two Dell systems (virtually every desktop and LCD monitor was from Dell). One was a Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional system that runs the three newsroom applications every reporter and editor uses to create NY1's myriad daily features and stories. Reporters write the scripts with the Associated Press's ENPS software, use Omnibus to find video stored on any of the three video server systems (online storage, nearline storage, and a robotic archive system), and access the Vertigo Graphics system for on-screen text and other graphics. The second system is a custom box built by Pinnacle. It's a dedicated Vortex News nonlinear video editing system. Nearly every desk I saw had this two-system setup. Interestingly, Polikoff explained that by the end of this year each desk may have only one PC that will perform all of these tasks.
Once the editor or reporter finishes creating the package, the entire thing goes into the run sheet (work queue), where it's electronically picked up and composited by producers in the control room. Nobody ever flips a Betacam tape across the room screaming, "This is urgent!"
Actually, the streamlined digital process begins a little bit before the reporter gets the story. This is where the "object" thing comes in. Every morning the news manager assigns stories and then gives each a metaname that can serve as both an identifier and a container for everything that will be poured into it later to create the story. The metadata is unique and unchanging and, again, it makes the process as streamlined as anything can be in the harried world of television news.
Having everything in digital format also streamlines the transfer of clips to the Web. As soon as clips have been readied for airing, the Web-site producers grab them and run them through Pinnacle Stream Factory to create high-bandwidth (256 Kbps) and low-bandwidth (56 Kbps) RealMedia streams.
The multimillion-dollar NY1 facility also features an impressive back-end infrastructure that includes three types of video storage: 600 hours of Data Direct online storage, which is available on every desktop and is intended for immediate use; 450 hours of nearline storage for any video that might be used in the next two weeks; and 4,500 hours of long-term or deep storage. Polikoff walked me over to a room with a large window. Through it, off to the left, I could see shelves and shelves of Betacam tapes. Polokoff described them as NY1's past. Right in front of me was the aforementioned long-term storage system: an Advanced Digital Information Corp. (ADIC) robotic library system. It's essentially a Sony AIT Drive enclosure with a robotic arm that moves and stores the tapes. Each tape stores up to 50GB of professional-grade digital video.
Having all this video available in real time (or close to it) means that NY1 can almost instantly tease stories that arrive at the studio. This can give NY1 an edge over the competition on especially hot stories. And because everything is identifiable as a unique object that reporters and editors can find via a SQL database search, NY1 can easily spin out new packages that mix old and new footage.
From where I stood, the whole operation looked pretty successful—it had to be the most relaxed, organized, and quiet television newsroom I have ever seen. Polikoff clearly thinks NY1 has hit on something, too, and boasted that CNN (which is also owned by AOL Time Warner) copied the NY1 operation for CNN Headline News.
For me, it was an interesting window into high-end digital videography that may in some way filter back to the world of personal digital video editing, especially the meta-information and object-oriented aspects. As we all shoot more digital video and begin storing it on massive hard drives and on DVD, we'll want ways of quickly managing, accessing, and sharing the content. NY1's methods may help point the way.