TV News in a Postmodern World

The Unbundled Newsroom

by Terry Heaton
My father worked in a furniture factory to support his family in the 1950s and early 1960s. I visited the place once as a child, but I didn't pay much attention to what he did, which was to stand in the same place for eight hours and make the same router cuts, on identical pieces of wood, over and over again. I was too busy looking at the enormous piles of sawdust and smelling the smells to notice that, further down the assembly line, workers put his pieces together with others to assemble nice furniture.

This is the model of all manufacturing. We make the pieces that fit with other pieces that make up the whole, and it's the model of making television news as well. We come to work and have a story meeting. We brainstorm and discuss. We go out and cover. Armed with sophisticated computer technology, producers take a little bit of this and a little bit of that to shape their programs. Orders are passed along to field units who take the pictures and make the sound bites that are later cut to fit the needs of the producer. Live trucks and reporters are dispatched to provide a sense of urgency for every story, all under the guidance and direction of the producer.

And so it goes, in the same endless, repeatable cycle that my father knew in the furniture factory. Occasionally, something new and exciting comes along, but eventually, we return to the same system of building our news programs.

We're good at it too, having made technology our servant. Every significant television news technological development of the past 50 years happened to assist command and control of what's known as "real time production" — the ability to make complex, live television programs in one, fell swoop. The thinking has always been that pre-produced television was simply too time-consuming and costly to apply to day-to-day news programs. Besides, the deliberate shift away from substance to one of shallow coverage of breaking news events made the idea of pre-production seem silly.

"People want to feel like they're participating in history," we said, and that gave us live, live, live. The 24-hour news model led the way.

But now we find that for all our expertise at producing real-time television, people aren't watching us anyway (major event exceptions noted), and we ought to be thinking about whether our assumptions still apply. Just because we can do something well doesn't mean that we should be doing it, especially when the evidence clearly shows a major shift in the way media is being consumed.

Time has become the principal currency in our culture, because we're working more hours and playing less. So technology is helping us unbundle media from its pre-packaged state, so that we can consume what we want, when we want it, and increasingly, where we want it. This is the real enemy of the status quo. So powerful is this paradigm shift that it has the potential to destroy the fundamental business model of mainstream media unless we begin to adapt to it instead of fighting it.

You can actually pet a porcupine by going WITH the flow of its spikes, so let's try that with this new world. Let's dismantle a day in the life of a contemporary newsroom and put it back together in the world of unbundled media.

We know that seven in ten people who visit news Websites do so during the day, and most RSS-delivered subscription feeds also take place during the day or in the earliest part of the day. The consumption of unbundled media, therefore, takes place in large part before people go to work and while they're at work. This becomes our new target, and that impacts our current methods and systems, because we're used to making something that is birthed at the end of the day.

There is a growing discussion over whether it's good for business or not to permit workers to get their news during the day, but the reality is that it's going to happen whether it does so on the worker's computer or on some other portable device. That's because technology isn't what's driving it; time is the engine that's pulling the change. We must not forget that, as we move forward with our new model.

So our essential mission is to first serve the information needs of our community throughout the day, and then to create programs that will summarize the news of the day. This means a fundamental change in our approach to the news, for the best way to meet the needs of people during the day is to create news in an unbundled form. No longer can we simply repurpose content that's created for a bundled program and distribute it elsewhere. On the contrary, our unbundled content is what should be repurposed to create our end-of-the-day summaries.

Of fundamental importance in this paradigm is the recognition that every moment of our day is committed to meeting the information needs of an audience in that moment. This is the reverse of our current thinking, and whoever reaches this point first in a competitive marketplace will be rewarded by people hungry for news and information — including those who used to make up our audiences.

An unbundled newsroom begins earlier in the day, and its systems are built around immediate publication via the Internet. That means field crews need tools for directly publishing to the Web, including text, stills, video, blogs, e-mail, cellphones, handhelds, and especially RSS. We need to see ourselves as pushing content at every turn in the creation and development of our journalism. Nothing is too insignificant to justify a departure from this goal.

A single story, therefore, contains elements for publication at various points.

  1. We're pursuing this and why.
  2. Here's what we're finding.
  3. Here's what we've found.
  4. Here's reaction.
  5. Here's our finished product.
Think of these "points" as unbundled bits of media that we can distribute. We're dispatching a minimum of five elements on this story during the day in this model. That's five opportunities for a person to read, watch or listen and five opportunities for us to serve them an attached ad, assuming that's the revenue model we've chosen. Regardless, we're churning out a continuous stream of content choices for people in our community.

At each point of the story, we're also soliciting input from our audience in the form of comments and reactions. This can be incorporated later into our on-air daily summaries. All of these elements will be stored as part of our permanent record, so that they can be later called upon for use in long tail scenarios. We must never be fooled into thinking, however, that the permanent record is more important than meeting the information needs of people during the newsgathering process.

If we're going to make this happen, we have to drop our formality and move to a more authentic "voice." We're telling people what's happening in their community, not presenting a well-honed speech in front of an auditorium of thousands.

We need to treat every story as if it impacted everybody, because the reality is that it impacts somebody, and that's really the point of unbundled media. If somebody takes the time to read it, it's important to us. In a mass media, bundled world, we're trying to cast a net over as many people as possible, and that forms the basis of relevancy to us. But in an unbundled world, every single person matters. They are the ones in charge, not us. It's about relationships and conversation.

Since the industry hasn't demanded the technology to do this sort of thing (yet), we have to adopt the tools of the personal media revolution until it does. That means blogging software, FTP uploading, podcasting systems, small cameras, laptops, wireless broadband connections and a working knowledge of RSS distribution.

Our Websites will be transformed from petty marketing portals into interactive and customizable workspaces for users. Since everything we're making is RSS-enabled, we don't really care where people consume our content, and that includes places like myYahoo, myMSN, Live.com, Google's personalized homepage, or any of a hundred other web-based or desktop RSS readers.

Since all of this material is RSS-enabled, we can tag it and rebundle it in any form we choose. If users can rebundle our content (which we want them to do), then we should take advantage of the same technologies and rebundle items for our own purposes.

Our broadcast news products are an example of our rebundling. Producers are tasked with the job of repurposing the content created throughout the day and serving it in a summarized form, and in so doing, transforming newscasts from staged platforms with an artificial sense of importance into real summaries of the news of the day. Anchors can become genuine guides in this process, instead of reading predictable intros and scripted interaction with reporters in the field. Gone is the artificial energy created by an obsession with unnecessary live shots. That's replaced by the drama of real stories that impact people and the satisfying sense of being informed.

Purists will argue that there is a need for compelling live news coverage during newscasts, and where that's justified, we should do it. Perhaps we need a bridge between the old and the new, and perhaps that should be some sort of hybrid newscast. The only thing that matters is that the end-of-day products not be driving the ship.

Just as our forefathers had to make adjustments when our culture moved from agricultural to technological, so we must make adjustments as media moves from a bundled to an unbundled paradigm. The consumer/user is now clearly in charge, and that means our world has been turned upside down. We'll surely not respond properly, if we choose to view things from an upright posture in this stand-on-your-head world. We must break our existing habits and structures in order to find something new that appeals to people and sustains revenue.

My father quit the furniture factory after his three sons left home. He went to work in the motor pool of the local police department. It was work he loved, hanging around with all those cops. Always something new. Never boring. Meanwhile, the factory automated and later was assimilated into a multinational company and eventually closed. People still need furniture, but the way it's made has changed. There's no longer a need for a guy standing in the same place, cutting the same piece of wood, over and over again.

It kind of seems appropriate, somehow.