Next-generation newsrooms are as small as your kitchen table and as big as the whole wide world. Sony’s Media Backbone Hive is the glue in a new interconnected way of doing reporting
Sony has been building specialised newsroom technology for decades. The first generation of systems was a lot of proprietary big tech, hardware specially built with news production in mind. At the centre was Sony’s hard disk system, NewsBase, which was announced in the mid-90s.
The second generation system, Sonaps, moved away from ‘big tin’ to a standardised IT platform, based on networked computer servers and storage platforms like Dell’s EMC Isilon. The first Sonaps was a small-scale system rolled out in 2004, with a larger system released in 2007, which has served TV productions until only recently.
The age of cloud has meant a third generation of newsroom systems: flexible, accessible from anywhere and scalable.
Dave Hedley, senior product manager at Sony Professional Solutions Europe, explains: “Customers were starting to say, ‘I don’t want to have all this equipment ticking over on my premises. I’d like to move this off-premises into data centres’. ”
Customers also need their systems to scale – and scale big.
“What we were seeing was an increasing number of small work groups building up, but a difficulty with them sharing content,” continues Hedley. “When social media and web content kicked off, newsrooms had to set up completely different systems in completely different departments in order to run them.”
There was a clear need for newsrooms and journalists to be able to collaboratively share content from the very beginning, which meant building bigger systems and giving more people access from multiple locations. Sony’s solution to these problems was Media Backbone Hive.
Sony Media Backbone Hive provided a flexible, highly customisable system, which could be deployed on premises, completely in the cloud – or in any combination of the two, with the ability to share access and content among a huge number of users worldwide.
“The existing IT platforms in newsrooms really didn’t scale that well,” says Hedley, “so we re-architected it completely, using fundamentally the same techniques for the Hive core platform that are used in the cloud, including IT technology, Open Source Technology, Docker software that is used by AWS and Azure, and so forth.
“We had customers who had contracted with Sony for building on-premise systems, where we deliver all the professional services, all the software, all the hardware. We test it, get it running, hand it over to them and then support it.
“But we saw the business models were changing. Because we had started to move into cloud-based technology, we’ve got a platform we can run either on a customer’s data centre – or private cloud if you will – or on public cloud. The customer can buy, or we can provide the computing and the storage, wherever and however they want to deploy it.
“The customers we are talking to have a lot of experience with cloud already. They’re already building their business model around it.”
Strange as it may seem, the technological step is sometimes the easy part of a newsroom upgrade. There is a reason many large media companies are reluctant to make changes to their existing system, even if doing so might mean greater efficiency and flexibility. Technology, by definition, is something that has to be used by human beings, and human beings don’t like working with technology that doesn’t suit them.
Journalists and producers are torn between their greater need to work remotely and collaboratively, and their need to change the tools they are working with and how they do things.
Changing how you do things is always anxiety-provoking, but when you have hosts of journalists trying to meet lots of deadlines, adding a new set of processes can look downright threatening.
“We’re not seeing customers doing this in one big bang,” says Hedley. “They want to be able to evolve it. You’ve got to bring the operational teams and journalists on board with you in the transition as you change the platform and the tools they’re working with. We’re seeing customers spending a lot of time doing what used to be called ‘change management’ – getting senior operators and the journalists used to using the tools.”
Sony often does a proof of concept with its customers, who want to get a clear sense of how the system will work within the business and on their own premises. They may even want to try a pilot implementation to see how their journalists interact with the new system and give them some opportunities to experiment with the tools before they finally move into the real production.
“There’s usually a proof of concept,” explains Hedley. “‘Does this actually work? Can I do what I need to do with this system? Will my journalists be able to do their jobs reliably?’ They let them play with the tools so they can get a real sense of what they can do and what they can’t do.
“What we are seeing is that once journalists start to work with it, they see the benefits. They see they really can do what they need to do from remote locations. Through this process, they are also starting to drive more interesting workflows and more interesting operations.
“But it is about giving the journalists and operational teams access and understanding what is possible, rather than just telling them what’s going to happen.”
The neverending story
Many newsrooms have been working in connected environments for some time, but these have often been piecemeal affairs, with new tech tacked onto older systems. But these cannot begin to match what a fully integrated (cloud) system can offer. With consumers ready and waiting to receive news at all hours in every city on Earth, only a hugely collaborative, scalable system is going to be able to cope.
Newsrooms need to be dynamic. When something big happens, they need to be able to access a lot of resources very quickly. This means having everything from the ability to upload and share images, to giving multiple journalists in multiple locations the ability to files stories with different types of media attached.
Operating a global, cloud-based system also allows a news organisation to have a 24/7 newsroom operating in shifts around the clock.
Hedley explains: “We’re seeing that news is a 24-hour cycle. This means the big national and international organisations are looking at being able to hand off stories into different regions as they progress. For example, if a breaking story in Europe happens at about 2am, local time, a broadcaster could control that story from their US operation and assign their US journalists to it before the UK or European journalists come online. Then, later, they can continue to move that story from the European region through to APAC and back to the US as the story progresses.
“For the larger organisations that have more international footprints, the ability to access the same content from wherever they are around the world and to be able to update that story is really important. And these are the organisations that have their operations fully in a data centre or cloud.”
The number of organisations resourced to do this kind of 24/7 storytelling is still relatively small but, as cloud adoption expands and tools become simpler and easier to access, the only real barrier in the future will be the forethought and planning about which collaboration strategies to use.
“We are seeing a whole transition away from having to be in the news building to actually being able to file, edit and publish a story remotely – whether it’s in an internet cafe, a hotel, my home or the front lines. The question we’re seeing in every other industry about remote working is also now critical to news operations,” explains Hedley.
Expanding the region
Some of the key customers for Sony’s Media Backbone Hive are the regional broadcasters. They are not – or not yet – among the handful of top-tier global networks, but are producing news and filing stories in volume and often across large areas.
One of the biggest areas they have to cover is the online world. These broadcasters are looking for improved workflow, especially among their social media teams and web teams. Until now, these organisations have had multiple systems interacting, but are at the point where they need to share content much, much faster.
“The goal of news has now moved from being the first to air on television. It’s the first to publish now. It’s becoming really critical to get the story, even if it’s just text, out and onto social media or onto the website straightaway – then the story evolves,” says Hedley.
It’s a hard truth that TV news is not the first to break a news story. Now, stories usually break on social media – and are frequently broken by members of the public instead of journalists. When speed is not going to be your USP anymore, which quality is going to keep people tuning into a news brand?
“Broadcasters are now competing with the large internet organisations – and even with the consumers – in sourcing stories. There’s a lot of content being generated by non-journalists and newsrooms have to use those as their first sources. So the real driver for broadcasters we see at the moment is not only speed, but the creation of a trusted brand,” says Hedley.
Increasingly, the new style of newsroom is incorporating as much speed and flexibility into operations as possible. But the key differentiator now is quality; the ability to provide trusted news consistently across a range of platforms, including social media, website and television.
“There’s a real drive now for broadcasters to become that trusted provider, rather than just the first to break the story. I think they see real value in effectively curated news and being the source people go to because they trust the people writing it. There’s a real battle against the whole ‘fake news’ phenomenon.
“The drive from our side is to give them access to the content and access to newsfeeds, so their editorial teams and their journalists can actually build those stories for them,” concludes Hedley.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of FEED magazine.