Newsplex Puts the New In Newsroom

By: Meg Campbell

The mad scientists of media have a new laboratory in which to conduct their experiments. Newsplex, Ifra’s newsroom of the future, opened for business last month at the University of South Carolina (USC), and is already booking time for training, research, and education. The goal: to give the newspaper industry the push it needs to truly converge.

In the next-generation newsroom, reporters float with laptop computers on wireless networks while conversing with sources and colleagues via tiny mics and ear buds. Books and equipment are moved around and out of the facility, tracked by sensors. Furniture is pushed about the large, open space as news gatherers work in groups or alone to decide how best to report and present a story. While a news-flow manager tracks the day’s events on an audiovisual wall, the news resourcer routes live information and research to reporters and editors. For production work (or simply a little quiet time), reporters go to the “docks,” insulated cubicles well-equipped for producing Web, audio, and video content.

Welcome to the work world according to Newsplex, a newsroom “simulator” designed to show editorial teams how to deal with an issue dogging the industry: using new technology and work flows to gather and prepare content in a convergent manner for print, broadcast, Web, and wireless distribution.

With its directors scrambling until the last seconds to get everything ready, the micro newsroom was inaugurated Nov. 13-14 during Ifra’s Third International Summit on Newsrooms, “Defining Convergence,” in Columbia, S.C. There, media executives from around the world debated the meaning, the impact, and the process of converging their newsroom spaces (and employees) — and got a first look at one possible answer.

In fact, the $2-million facility is itself an example of convergence. Brainchild of the worldwide media association Ifra, its backers include international and national media corporations as well as two publishing-systems vendors. It belongs to USC’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, where the dean is former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer, and it’s housed by South Carolina Educational TV.

Newsplex is designed to be a lab and demo space for cutting-edge technologies, a training ground for media professionals, and a teaching tool. “It’s where the future of journalism and news technology intersect,” declares Kerry Northrup, quoting the slogan of Newsplex, where he is executive director. It is nonprofit, although training sessions have been priced to help Ifra recoup some of the $500,000 it has invested and to pay operating expenses and the incorporation of new technologies. (Directorate members pay discounted rates.)

“Multimedia publishing is a must, it is an unstoppable process, and newspapers have lost time already,” says Ifra CEO Reiner Mittelbach.

High achievement

An industrial-looking design by architect Saf Fahim, Newsplex has high ceilings and glass walls hung with nylon grids (“soft egg crates”) used to soften the light. Workstations on wheels face an audiovisual wall with a large flat screen and monitors. A spiral staircase leads to a mezzanine, to be used for meetings or as an observation deck. Down the hall, push a spot on a sleek aluminum wall, and doors to news-dock cubicles appear.

Metal trenches holding high-speed cables are capped flush with the stone floors so that furniture, TV cameras, and other equipment can be easily moved, while wireless network nodes and sensors dot the beams high overhead. Books and equipment stored on shelves will be tagged with electronic chips that can be read by the sensors, allowing users to find them.

Journalists work on laptops, slightly inclined on ergonomic pedestals, or at workstations equipped with software for producing audio, video, Web, and print content. Digital still and video cameras, camera-equipped mobile phones, and digital audio recorders fill out the toolbox.

According to Northrup, instruction at the Newsplex will focus on management techniques and technologies more than production processes. “It’s not so much about the production systems, it’s their integration in the overall management of story development,” he explains. For example, one of the first applications the center will experiment with is Canto Software’s Newsmap, which generates topographical “maps” of news as it comes into the newsroom. Larger and smaller mountains indicate the volume of information arriving on any given topic, such as financial, sports, or local news, enabling a news manager to get a quick overview of how the news is distributed. Another application, a tracking program called Control Tower, lets editors follow story assignments and assign reporters and resources according to the multimedia requirements of each story.

The Newsplex is meant to be a test bed for such new technologies, a place where vendors and newspapers can try out new ideas without putting daily operations of papers at risk. A true techie eager to test the newest equipment, Northrup already has his eye on one-minute videos and e-paper.

He says he hopes this will help newspapers get new technologies into their operations more quickly. He also says that all new programs and equipment brought into the Newsplex are candidates for testing and scrutiny, including any technology provided by directorate members Digital Technology International (DTI) and CCI Europe. “The vendors are fully on board with this,” says Northrup. “They don’t want the Newsplex to be seen as a marketing tool or mouthpiece of their companies.”

The project would lose credibility if one or two vendors are present with their systems, agrees CCI Europe Executive Vice President Johnny Thoegersen. He says CCI has refused to install systems at Newsplex, and is concerned the project could focus too much on technology. “The Newsplex should be used to talk about scenarios for the future, as a place to come in and try out new ways of working and break down cultural barriers,” he says. If it becomes a place to simply test gadgets, “it’ll be great for USC, but will have limited industry use.” The merit of the Newsplex lies in its potential to inspire management and drive creation of new strategies, he says, which in turn would dictate the needed technologies.

DTI President Don Oldham is not troubled by this aspect, however, saying that being a part of the Newsplex will give DTI a chance to experiment (especially with TV technologies), to demonstrate products, and to train users. “The Newsplex is consistent with everything we have been trying to do; it is the next logical step for us,” he says, pointing out that DTI was in fact the first company to invest in the Newsplex. Students and professionals working at the Newsplex will have to work on something, he contends, and DTI will furnish some of the tools for them to use and learn.

Straight to video

Weeklong sessions will train groups of 10 people. The idea, Northrup explains, is to prepare a team of professionals so that they in turn become “agents of change,” that is, they go back to their papers and begin implementing the concepts of a converged newsroom seen at the facility.

Ifra execs are developing various training modules, although Northrup says sessions will be customized to meet a group’s needs. Modules include a technical unit that concentrates on news-management software; a management unit; a story-building unit, which focuses on fitting together different pieces of a story and incorporating video, Web links, and wireless device alerts; and a “backpack journalism” unit, training journalists in the use of equipment and technology to capture news in the field in its different forms, manipulate content, and send it back to the paper.

Another module aims to increase the video news skills of print reporters. “That seems to be a big demand,” says Northrup, explaining that the issue is not getting print reporters to look good on camera, but rather to train them with video and Web tools — for example, Visual Communicator, a software package developed by Serious Magic, which can be used to create short video segments complete with background graphics. The segments then can be sent for streaming via the Web site on a hand-held device or a PC.

Finally, there is a module on the new position of news resourcer, a hybrid journalist and information specialist who would “wield information tools like someone else would wield a camera,” Northrup says.

Media professionals attending the conference and inauguration were largely enthusiastic about the Newsplex, although some voiced concerns regarding the content and quality of training. Because virtually no company has a fully converged news operation, there are few experiences on which to base a training curriculum. Similarly, it’s hard finding professionals to teach it. Some also wonder whether the price tag of sending teams to South Carolina would discourage companies from using the facility.

Responding to these concerns, Ifra announced last week it has hired Martha Stone as the facility’s new training director. Industry consultant Stone has 25 years of writing, editing, and design experience for newspapers, magazines, and online publications, and last year was the co-director of the Online News Association’s “Digital Journalism Credibility Study” and an ethics fellow at the Poynter Institute. As the training director, Stone says her first task will be to polish the curriculum and prepare for the site’s first visitors. She stresses that training programs will be tailored to an individual group’s needs, and explains that the goal will be to create a “road map to convergence” for the group and then to follow that map.

England’s Manchester Evening News, a member of the Newsplex directorate, will be one of the first to send over a team for training, scheduled for the first quarter of next year. “We may have to move into a new building, and what we’ve done in the past is not right for the future,” says Editor Paul Horrocks. “Newsplex is a place to test out ideas, and to put journalists in a different environment. If you’re going to think out of the box, you’ve got to get out of the box.”

“Playing with stuff here is a big part of it,” adds Michael Romaner, president of Morris Digital Works. Morris Communications Corp. is one of the latest companies, and the first U.S. media outfit, to join the Newsplex directorate. Morris’ The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle is close by, and Romaner says there are plans to use its newsroom as an “incubator” for new ideas generated by Newsplex.

USC journalism professors also are working on ways to use the new facility. The notion of teaching journalism students how to handle themselves in multiple media has become the norm, and many universities are overhauling curricula and building high-tech facilities. In this regard, Charles Bierbauer, the new dean, hopes the Newsplex will give USC an edge and lead to creation of broader programs. “The Newsplex gives us a venue to try things and apply them to public relations, advertising, and information retrieval,” in addition to journalism, he explains.

Convergent and conversant

Newsroom convergence continues to be a thorn in the side of the media industry. Hard to describe, harder to do right, it could become a more-urgent issue in the likely event the Federal Communications Commission relaxes media cross-ownership rules, and groups scramble to buy different media properties in the same market.

During the Ifra newsroom summit, about 100 media professionals struggled with convergence, touching on such concerns as the changing roles of the journalists, the mechanics of creating the converged newsroom, and content quality.

Convergence is critical, presenters contended, as it offers potential to streamline operations and enhance the quality of content and presentation. Besides, media users already itch for convergence. Stone cited a recent MTV survey showing most teenagers are multitasking — watching TV while surfing the Web, scanning magazines, or listening to music.

“It would be hazardous to not be where our customers are,” said Ari Valjakka, editor in chief of Turun Sanomat in Turku, Finland. “Even if the business doesn’t profit in the beginning, it strengthens the established brand.”

Attendees agreed that a key component of a converged newsroom is a journalist conversant in the languages of different media, but they rejected the notion of journalist as one-man band. “There ought to be specialists,” said Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editorial Director Hyde Post. “They [reporters] just shouldn’t have blinders on.” (One attendee used the term “amphibious journalist.”)

Ifra Director of Editorial Strategy Ruth De Aquino pointed out that many media houses are already convergent on a certain level, presenting four case studies of convergence, including The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune‘s well-known merged newsroom, highlighting the way each has sorted out the always-delicate who-owns-the-story question.

As she and others explained, for converged newsrooms, the question is not so much who gets to break the news as where the news would be broken most effectively. A number of presentations focused on such issues as quality and best use of the different media, as well as cross-promotional opportunities — for examples, using a Web site to direct a user to a newspaper story or the paper to direct a reader to a TV newscast.

Juan Antonio Giner, director of the Innovation International Media Consulting Group, made a case for recasting the newspaper as a daily newsmagazine, with intelligent analysis, original viewpoints, and value-added content, while Mario Garcia Jr., senior vice president of Garcia Media, emphasized the importance of using different media to do the best storytelling possible.

Sam Starnes, media-relations director at PR Newswire, startled attendees with his company’s own efforts at convergence. PR Newswire is now helping clients create full multimedia press packages that incorporate text, tables, video footage, all for the taking. (PR Newswire, in fact, is a directorate member of the Newsplex). Starnes gave an example of the new services: A company director had been filmed in front of a green screen, which was later replaced with footage of a golf course, making it look like the executive had been filmed outdoors. Editors in the audience questioned the technique, arguing that if they were to include that image in a Web or broadcast story, they would be misleading their audiences.

Stone, until now also an Innovation International consultant, made several recommendations to papers looking to converge newsroom operations, such as cross promotion and researching multimedia storytelling ideas, while Ulrik Haagerup, former editor in chief of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten in Viby, related his Danish daily’s successful move to convergence by taking advantage of a diversified group of local media properties to reach all population segments. The move was not without its agonies, he said, showing a curve that charted journalists’ initial resistance to their final acceptance.

“It’s not hard to invent new ideas,” observed Finland’s Valjakka. “It’s hard to get rid of the old ones.”

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