PA zooms in on multimedia news service

The
Press Association is adding video packages to its traditional newswire
and photograph services, creating a fully multimedia operation. Ian
Reeves sees it in action

MIDWAY THROUGH my tour of
the Press Association newsroom, a reporter stands up and starts
applying make-up from a compact. Now I like to think of myself as a
liberal sort, but I can’t stop myself doing a double-take at the fact
that the journalist in question is, well, a bloke.

Nobody else bats an eyelid.

Clearly my guide, editorial
director Tony Watson, is too immersed in his new role to remember what
would have happened when he was editing the Yorkshire Post if one of
his male reporters had done such a thing. He laughs at my reaction.

The
journalist in question is Wil Davies, whose application of face powder
turns out not to be an exercise in vanity but preparation for an
appearance in front of the camera.

He doesn’t have far to travel to get there either.

Make-up
fixed, it’s a journey of about ten paces to what is called the “soft
studio” that now sits slap bang in the middle of the PA newsroom, to
record his latest piece to camera for a video “package” he is working
on.

Using a laptop, he selects the images on the bank of 16
screens that will appear as his backdrop and then walks round and sits
on the stool in front of the camera. Using a remote control, he tilts
the studio camera until he’s happy with the angle of the shot, which he
can see in a monitor in front of him. A foot-pedal on the floor allows
him to control the autocue for the script that he’s just written. He
presses the button and begins recording. No one else even looks up.

Leap forward

This is the heart of PA’s great leap forward, to which it has
committed “several hundreds of thousands of pounds”. “This is not a
project,” says Watson. “It’s not an initiative. It’s absolutely what
the agency’s going to be about going forward. It’s probably fair to say
it’s one of the most important developments in the agency’s history.”

Watson believes the fully integrated multimedia newsroom is one of
those ideas, much heralded over recent years, whose time has now
finally come, largely thanks to the developments in mass-market
broadband technology which mean the reality has finally caught up with
the theory.

With uptake of broadband internet access now running
at up to 60,000 new customers a week in the UK, and with an increase in
advertising spend on websites – double-digit growth in some cases – he
says the agency’s offerings should be pushing at an open door.

“If
we’d been having this conversation 12 months ago, people wouldn’t have
been anywhere near so receptive. What we found going round to see a
whole range of customers – national newspapers, regional newspapers,
internet service providers – the timing seems to be absolutely right.
Nobody’s saying ‘we don’t get this’. They are saying ‘this is
absolutely where we need to be’.”

The fact that the “soft” studio
occupies such a central place on the newsroom floor at PA’s Victoria
headquarters is not down to a lack of space elsewhere in the building –
there is, after all, a conventional broadcast TV studio on another
floor. It’s an indication of how fundamental multimedia thinking now is
to the agency’s news operation.

It intends to supply video
content, for a variety of media platforms, to its customers alongside
the text newswire that has been at the heart of its business since its
launch in 1868 and the stills photographs it added in the last century.

This
makes PA a fully multimedia operation, although Watson reckons this is
a term that will eventually disappear. “Multimedia is, to my mind, an
interim term,” he says. “It helps people understand we are doing
something new – PA is associated with text and stills – but over time I
would expect that term to disappear.”

The plan has reached
fruition after about 18 months of full-on development. PA wanted to
utilise lightweight, and relatively inexpensive, video camera equipment
to help make better use of its network of journalists and
photographers. Initially, it wondered whether there might be a market
for it to supply simple “rushes” footage from breaking news stories to
traditional broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV or Sky.

When it became clear this would not be enough of an outlet on its own, the team turned its attention to “new media” platforms.

It
hopes one of the bigger markets for this new content will be the
websites of its traditional national and regional newspaper customers.
It will offer finished, self-contained video “packages”, either as
individual news stories or bulletins, supplied as what Watson calls
“white label” files, in other words not branded on screen as being from
PA. This allows customers to add their own “idents” if they wish.

Asha Oberoi is the specialist who has been brought in as head of multimedia editorial to oversee this part of the newsroom.

She
shows me several packages the agency has been producing, as live, for
the past few months. The first is an entertainment package, done as a
trial for a national newspaper website. It’s a bulletin of around one
minute 30 seconds and includes items on the Michael Jackson trial, a
Kelly Holmes interview, Little Britain, Natasha Kaplinski and Ant &
Dec. PA broadcast journalist Charlotte Cross is the presenter and all
of the interview and general footage is material that has been gathered
by PA journalists.

“Everything we produce for this we own, which
means everything we deliver to the end customer is theirs to use
without worrying about third-party rights,” says Oberoi.

She also
shows me a news bulletin presented by Ayshea Buksh (five items
including pieces on Ken Livingstone and Amnesty International), a
business bulletin presented by Nikki Cryer (five items, including a
breaking story of a Greenpeace demo at the Stock Exchange); a
standalone showbusiness news clip (an interview with Hugh Grant at a
film premiere)n and a regional bulletin, tailored specifically for a
daily title in the north.

Click links below for examples
Showbiz News
Windows Media Player
Real Player
Royal Wedding
Windows Media Player
Real Player
London News
Windows Media Player
Real Player

These are all trial packages for the
sort of customers that make up PA’s more traditional customer list –
existing users of its wire and stills services – but the agency also
has its eye on a wider net of clients using platforms other than the
internet.

Open-Space Television is one of these – the big screens
you see on railway stations and other public areas, and in department
stores. Watson also believes the market for 3G mobile phones will, in
time, burgeon as an opportunity for PA’s content.

Commercial opportunities

Negotiations are taking place with several customers, although
Watson is guarded about the details. At least one national newspaper
and one big regional group are thought to be close to signing up and
negotiations are ongoing with various internet service providers.

Watson says his team are trying to emphasise the commercial
opportunities that PA’s new content could open up for its customers.
“There’s no real long-term future in this unless they can monetise
those opportunities. It’s not just another editorial ‘nice to have’
which costs money but doesn’t actually make any.”

So there could
be opportunities, for example, around regional newspapers’ Motor Show
supplements – traditionally a good advertising earner.

Watson
envisages an online element to these in future, including PA reports
from the event that can show readers more about the cars they are
interested in as well as being attractive to advertisers such as Ford,
which already spends money on online ads.

An
example of this is the trial PA did covering the royal wedding for the
Daily Mail. On the morning of the wedding, the newspaper carried
graphics showing how the day would unfold, and suggested readers could
go to the website to see footage. Later in the day, they could watch a
PA-produced video summary of the event. (See for yourself using the
link at the bottom of this piece.)n “You’re increasing the value of
that readers’ experience and if you’re pointing them back towards the
paper the following day, then you’re completing that virtuous circle,”
says Watson.

So there’s the business model. But what about the
journalists? Watson acknowledges that such a fundamental change in the
agency’s outlook has not been without its challenges.

Thirty
staff are now directly involved in the multimedia output, but other
journalists whose focus is the more traditional service are also
contributing.

“By and large, people here have embraced this – it
is very much taken on board by the senior team here and has been very
well supported by the command desk. We’ve had so many of our
journalists who have stuck their hands up and said ‘I want to be part
of this’.

“People recognise this is another skill to have on their CV – it makes them more marketable.”

More than 50 agency staff have so far been trained, and there are more to come.

PA
is at pains to point out that this development will not be made at the
expense of its existing wire service. Watson says: “We see this as very
much a business imperative. But what we’re not going to do at the same
time is compromise or undermine in any way the integrity, quality or
speed of the core text and stills wire service.

“We will always
have – and quite properly so – people who are specialists in writing.
But there is also a space emerging for multi-skilled journalists who
feel as comfortable writing for the wire, or for his or her newspaper,
as they are shooting some video.

“And I think that process is already going on now.

Regional
groups are already beginning to look at what is going to be the shape
of our business in the future, what is going to be the skill
requirement for our journalists.

“Now this isn’t for everybody.
We’ve said from day one, there is no compulsion here, this isn’t a
conscript army. People have to want to do it. It’s a voluntary thing.
Some people don’t feel comfortable in front of a camera, and we
understand that.”

Watson says the training element has been
carefully thought through so nobody feels they are being sent out with
their new Sony PD170 video camera without the necessary skills.
Similarly with the desktop editing software, Avid Express.

“People
are only going to embrace these things if they think it’s worthwhile
and it’s what they want to do,” he says. “If they feel they are taking
on new skills, they want to know that the training is going to be. The
next wave will be a bit more sophisticated and will be tailored
specifically to the markets we are looking at.”

Operationally, the multimedia team works in a fully integrated way with the rest of the newsroom.

Its
duty editors sit on the same desk as the desk editors, attend the same
conferences and are involved in the same diary process. “This is not
people squirreled away in edit suites,” says Watson. “They’re all out
there in the open in the newsroom.”

“The
buzz in the newsroom is amazing. It’s testament to the team’s
commitment – they know what they’re doing is groundbreaking. We’re
absolutely focused on this and it’s massively exciting.”

PA multimedia

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Cameras: The Sony PD170,
something of an industry standard for videojournalists, is used by PA
newsgatherers in the field. A pentagraph-mounted PD170, fixed to the
ceiling, is used in the newsroom studio.

Editing: Desktop software Avid Xpress is used both to capture the output direct from the cameras and to edit the packages.

Video streaming: PA has
linked up with a company called Eyeblaster, which provides what it
describes as “the first single technology solution to create, deliver
and manage all rich media formats through one online administrative
platform”.

USEFUL LINKS

To see PA’s Royal wedding coverage for the Daily Mail:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.ht
ml?in_article_id=344117&in_page_id=1770

To see examples of other PA bulletins, see this piece on www.pressgazette.co.uk

For more on the streaming technology: www.eyeblaster.com

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