MEDIA CONVERGENCE FACES TECH BARRIERS

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Many Newsrooms Still Use ‘Sneakernet’


ORLANDO, Fla. – For all the talk about the challenges of
overcoming corporate cultural resistance when newspapers merge
their newsrooms with broadcast and online news partners, it turns
out the biggest barrier to multimedia convergence remains
technology.

Consider The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, which is
probably further along this path than any other newspaper in
America. After several years of planning and ever-increasing
cooperation among its media properties, Richmond, Va.-based Media
General Inc. cemented their convergence last February when it
moved the Tribune, NBC affiliate WFLA-TV, and the Tampa
Bay Online (TBO) Internet service into a $40-million building
designed to encourage interaction among the news-gathering operations.

Last year, Media General recorded 660 “acts of convergence,” as
the chain calls news stories that employ the resources of more
than one medium. “Convergence has become a day-in, day-out part
of our culture,” Patti Breckenridge, the Tribune’s
assistant managing editor for organizational development, said
during last week’s Newspaper Association of America (NAA)
SuperConference technology symposium.

Yet even as the Tribune and its electronic news partners
have overcome the ethical, philosophical, and personnel issues
that arise in convergence, “no challenge has been greater than
the technological challenge,” Breckenridge added. Because all
three media partners have different – and incompatible
– computer systems, this model of convergence shares news
budgets or stories by printing out hard copies and running them
around to the various departments.

After the Tampa news organizations have finished their intensive
coverage of this year’s football Super Bowl, which is being held
in the city, they will start using a browser-based intranet
application the Tribune created to share news budgets,
newspaper stories, and TV news scripts. Even that will not be an
ideal solution, Breckenridge said: “I expect resistance because
BudgetBank will force everyone to learn a new system –
another one.”

The Chicago-based Tribune Co. has discovered the same problems as
it attempts to integrate the new newspaper and broadcast
properties it acquired in last year’s purchase of the Times
Mirror Co. “An appalling amount of what we do is ‘sneakernet,'”
said David Underhill, Tribune’s vice president for intergroup
development, using the term for physically carrying information
from one point to another.

An even more serious problem, however, is the paucity of software
that can simultaneously handle newspaper text, online copy, and
video. Breckenridge recalled a whiz-bang demonstration of one
attempt that could efficiently handle electronic and video
information – but hadn’t been configured to allow reporters
to see the size of their stories. “A single vendor with a
solution to all these issues simply doesn’t exist yet,” she said.

Still, Tribune’s Underhill said he is confident technology will
provide the answer to these technological problems, especially as
media adopt new communications and news-handling standards that
are evolving from XML (extensible markup language). Applications
incorporating such newspaper-friendly standards as NITF (news
industry text format) and NewsML (news markup language) should be
available in a matter of months, said John W. Iobst, NAA’s vice
president for newspaper operations and research.

NewsML, which was co-developed by NAA, uses headers of “metadata”
that allow transmission of “news objects” – which can
include video, audio, photos, graphics, and text – from
point to point. The language also employs 17 standardized subject
headers that will allow for easier archiving and retrieving.

Reuters is already using the language, which was approved only
last October, in its Showcase service, Iobst said. “NewsML is
critical to the development of new applications,” he said. The
Associated Press has also begun using NITF for many of its
services, and MSNBC now offers 50 services that use the format,
Iobst said.

NAA and other industry groups are also working on JPEG 2000, a
wavelet-based compression program that will, Iobst said, allow
retrieval of photos even if a little data is lost. “This will
make it easier to transmit [photos] and work with them in
NewsML,” Iobst said.

Would-be convergers may discover that arriving at a useful
language is only the start, warned Martin Bailey, senior
technology consultant for Harlequin Ltd. “A complete and reliable
file format is only a small part of the game,” Bailey said.

To handle an ad, for instance, newspapers and their customers
need to know such technical requirements as bleeds and agreed-
upon color reproduction standards. “And then, at every stage, you
need to proof the darn thing,” he said. Standards groups in the
United Kingdom are addressing the problem by creating standards
not only for file formats but for work flow as well.

But the real key to progress is likely to be pressure from
newspapers, The Tampa Tribune’s Breckenridge said. “It
wasn’t all that long ago when newspapers wanted to move from
proprietary [front-end] systems to desktop publishing,” she said.
“That transition happened because newspapers demanded it.”



Mark Fitzgerald (mfitzgerald@editorandpublisher.com)
is editor at large for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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