The Cloud, subscription, security and new working practices will all play a part in the future ways that news is gathered and distributed, but how will that future play out and how far away are we from realizing it?
In this episode, we discuss the technological challenges to make this vision a reality and discover how one news team is transforming their operation and moving it more than three thousand miles, while still staying on-air.
Listen to Hear:
- The hybrid technical model for news combining Cloud and on-prem capabilities
- Why storycentric news is the future
- The flexibility which a subscription model can bring to a news business
Our Guests This Episode
Ali is a seasoned TV executive with over 18 years of experience in broadcast business transformation and technology, He brings a wealth of expertise with particular strengths in areas such as transformation, mergers, centralization, business processes and both technical strategy and operational oversight, with an abundance of international experience, Ali has a strong understanding of various content generation, distribution models throughout America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Currently, Ali operates as Director of Broadcast Operations & Creative services at Fadaat Media, Al Araby Network, which he joined late 2019; His responsibilities include IT, broadcast engineering, Broadcast IT, operations, information security & Creative services.
What we want really is to have this Cloud infrastructure where all my contributors, all my collaborators, all my journalists or my reporters and correspondents are available. Wherever they are, all they need - the mobile device, a laptop and an Internet - and they can write their scripts, do whatever they want, do the edit, browse, access archive, which is a very important part, do their rough cuts and send it back to location for a final distribution. -Ali Husseini, Al Araby Network
Mentioned in This Episode
Making the Media S2E01: What’s Next
Find out how Europe’s major news broadcasters are facing the future
Craig Wilson: Hi, welcome to the Making the Media podcast. My name is Craig Wilson, and I am delighted that you have joined me for the latest episode in our second season.
Upgrading technology at a news station has sometimes been likened to changing the tires on a car while it is driving full speed down a motorway. The needs of the newsroom and viewers dictate that you can’t just switch things off, do the upgrade, and come back on-air or go online again. You need to keep delivering while the change is happening.
But this is the kind of challenge which Ali Husseini has thrived on for many years. Previously, the Chief Transformation Architect for Al Jazeera Media Network, and with a wealth of experience across the globe, he is now Director of Broadcast Operations and Creative Services at Al Araby Network.
They are in the process of moving their operation, which has been based in London to Doha in Qatar. I spoke to him about moving workflows to the Cloud, the growing use of subscription, story-centric ways of working, security, and much more, but I began by asking him about the challenge of moving an entire operation more than three thousand miles while still staying on air.
Ali Husseini: So, it's challenging. These types of massive migrations are really, really critical in both operations, people, and technology. Why we see it challenging? Still, we are a channel that is existing and operational and on air, and it had been like for six years almost now. And we decided to move its operation to Middle East, mainly because it's an Arabic speaking channel, news mainly, and we found that being in, it puts some constraints, and mainly the constraints are attracting the right caliber of skills that we require that they have a good command of the language. In some areas it's fine, it works, we are at multi-cultural, multi-national TV station and network. But when you broadcast for news in Arabic, it's a bit challenging. So we took this decision and we started.
The main challenges are in, in simple terms, first, we need to keep the channel on air. Second, we need to build a new channel. Do the technical fit out, the interior fit out, the show formats, they deploy the technology, and then deploy the workflows which must be similar to a certain extent between the two locations, so it will allow a smooth transition. So how do we imagine it? One day you are in London, you take flight, you reach [inaudible] you relax for 24 hours in your hotel and the second day you look and you come to the new location, you log in using the same credentials, you will have the same access to the same tools that you use and then you’re on air.
On paper, it looks amazing and easy and nice, and it's not. So one of the major challenges we had when, when this team of the migration was formed, and we decided this massive project. The first task that we had to keep in mind is that we need to have technology and operational model alignment between the two locations, which is by itself was challenging. How you can predict in two years what will be there and how you’re going to do it.
So we started by the [inaudible] and now I'm not being like advertising Avid or being commercial. So our first stepping stone was to upgrade the newsroom in London to the latest. Avid infrastructure and tools—without the IP part. I'm talking now from operational perspective for the newsroom and the operational team. So we went a full-fledge MediaCentral | Cloud UX, full-fledged MediaCentral | Transcode engines. We prepared the complete workflow and we started training people in London to be a well versed and very familiar with the type of workflow that we are envisioning and seeing. And we insisted on that part to allow a smooth transition, at least from a user experience, that the people are ready to move on. And we started deploying this model gradually with the core component, like news production area, layout area, graphics area. The main component that we require that the people will be able to perform their job with minimum changes, but not in drastic changes, and to train them again from scratch on a normal workflow.
So this was one of the first challenges that we are trying to cope with. Then we had Corona. Then COVID started in the middle of it and honestly, I can say like with the help that we got from [inaudible] and multiple other vendors, and I think here with Avid, we were the first clients that we completely did the commissioning and the training on the E-Learning platform end to end to update for over 300 people. And it was, to a certain extent a success for both of us. Lesson learned how you can deal with this project, and it opened a wide question and wide spectrum on how we deal with all this virtualization, cloud management, remote working, and I feel that when we started with Avid in these discussions and I remembered with my ex-employers that the term of the newsroom everywhere. We started this maybe like 10 years ago and I think you were part of this ongoing discussions. I think now we are closer to this. Unfortunately, it happened because of a pandemic that colleagues of ours and people we know that got affected, but in some positive areas, it made us a little bit closer into that goal. How can we manage all of this? How newsroom can be evolving cloud-based virtualized and you can perform better.
The other challenges are the same when you build the TV. Rebuilding the business processes, the cultural changes, the skills of people, the human factor of people moving from one location to another, recruitment processes, training… all of those. But we are working closely with our system integrators and our technology partners as well as you guys and hoping that it will be a success.
CW: So how difficult is it to do that kind of planning? You talked about cloud, you talked about virtualization. Maybe we will come on to them. But how challenging is it to try and plan 2 years ahead almost knowing that by the time you get there, the technology will have advanced.
AH: Actually, it's not. I'm going to be always positive. It's not a challenging, it's frustrating. And trust me on this one. Every plan we put, it couldn't sustain for three months. So we are like in a manner of enjoy planning, the same way we deal with software’s and products, we are energized, planning, we're talking to the vendors, we're talking to the product developers to see and to understand what is their road map, what is the alignment of their road map, how they see things going to work in a very short period of time. And unfortunately, again, this year as well, We missed NAB, we missed [inaudible], we missed IBC. So we are trying to push with our partners to understand what's the road map. It's very challenging from a technology perspective, but at least I can say now that because of the whole global situation, the main product players are taking a breath because they understand that these type of things… it puts it puts on them a pressure as much as the clients. If I want to make an order right now, I want to start the high-level design and they keep on changing with no clear road map, everyone will lose. So we can sense now the understanding. It's really it's really hard, but it's not undoable. It's based on trust and understanding of where the things are going.
And again, going into virtual and cloud and the minimum driver used and more into API world, it's making things easier. It's about talking to the product owner, talking to the development teams and R&D and understanding the protocols, and it will become easier and easier with multiple vendors. But it's definitely challenging crack.
Like, if I remember the first RFP we wrote for this migration, we reached at least version 4 until we are happy and confident with the multiple vendors that what we are proposing as a solution will be doable. And not only doable, that it will sustain.
CW: So when you look at the cloud at the moment, are you looking at it for specific workflows? Are you looking at it as a workflow enabler? You know, what's your view of things when you look at the cloud for news and things at the moment?
AH: Actually, we're looking at it in 2 streams. The corporate stream, which in the admin world, the CR arms, the view of the audit report, which is I guess now the industry is now mature enough to grasp all of this and with all the advancement that happened in the last couple of years, we are fine on this method and this street. The other stream will be the broadcast part. I think the most important part for us from a newsroom perspective, is the newsgathering. The actual newsroom now are are pretty much different than the old ones, and news does not happen in one room in a building in a closed box. News is important. News is field. News is bureaus. News is the world out outside. So what we want really is to have this cloud infrastructure where all my contributors, all my collaborators, all my journalists or my reporters and correspondents are available wherever they are. All they need is my mobile device, a laptop and an internet. And they can write their scripts, do whatever they want, do the edit, browse, access archive, which is a very important part, do their rough cuts and send it back to location for a final distribution. So we are approaching the cloud is like an enabler and a core function. It's going to keep us going.
CW: What is cloud coverage like in the Gulf region just now? I mean, part of that obviously has to be around the availability of data centers, and part of it also has to be the cost because you know it has to make economic sense, I guess, to do it.
AH: Yeah, this is one major factor and it's not only about the cost of the cloud, it's about the licensing from the product owners because they they got the trick. So it's expensive from both ways. It's not only the tunnel that you're going to use to connect your people, it's also about the licensing fees to use all these products, which we understand the costs associated with it.
In the Gulf, it's expanding. We have multiple data centers built now and operational for Microsoft, Google, whatever. In Qatar, actually, multiple big providers are now building their own data centers and we are in discussions with them and we are looking into a partnership because this is the future. It reminds me of the early days of broadcast when we were all on SD and then everything moved to HD. If you want to go in your house and you buy a TV, the HD pricing were like 10 times more expensive, but with time, and consumer changes, the habits change, and the manufacturing cost one class. The same with the Internet—we started with DSL and now it's fiber, so it's, it's moving there.
The infrastructure in the Gulf can support it definitely. Fiber is available everywhere. The infrastructure is amazing. The costs associated with it, it's something that, to enable the future, we have to do it. At a certain point we are in constant discussion with the providers communication, product owners like yourselves and others to try to make this cost workable.
CW: So I think most channels you know you're still going to have studio infrastructure, so in reality, is a hybrid model more of what you're looking for?
AH: I can see, yes, the complete switch and the turn off of the two separate model. I don't see it happening in the next five years. Yes, it's evolving, but I don't see it, like I don't think we're going to shut down the complete type of physical production. It will be easier building remote sites. It will be easier controlling remote sites. Instead, if I want to build multiple broadcast centers or multiple regional bureaus, I don't need to invest a lot. I can do a setup and remotely can be controlled from one area. So things are evolving, it's the way. At the end, even if we say that everything is going cloud, everything is going virtual, there is somewhere—even the cloud, the cloud is a physical data center—it's not on your promises and you cannot see it, but it's there. And we are not talking about floating data. It's there somewhere, you rent it and you use it. It's a service. And I think we are going into the same. Instead of now having multiple bureaus or multiple news gathering points that I need to be completely fill out. No, I can build whatever I need, I can control it remotely, I can create my business process and workflow, automate those on the cloud while I have a complete management over it, taking into consideration the risk that they are arising from security and how you’re going to secure your cloud infrastructure and your virtual infrastructure. But we're almost there. The industry is moving forward.
CW: So when you talk about security, is it things like zero trust? Is it, you know, multifactor authentication? Is it VPN? You know, what's your view on the best way of securing content? And also of course, access to your content.
AH: On this one, I want to say there is something that is related to technology geek that they control the infrastructure which is common needs on a very top layer of security to maintain your operations. The challenges that we face in security are with our normal users. At the end, you are enjoying environment. You are like you have multiple talents. You have multiple skills, and you don't recruit all your stuff when you when you operate on TV asking them them to all be certified cyber security experts. So in here you start balancing your level of security on which layer you want. Definitely the infrastructure should be on the maximum level. Maximum level of protection with what's available. For users, we need to start to enforce some cyber awareness because one mistake is your last mistake.
CW: You talked about things being available as a service, so I'm wondering if that's changing from a financial perspective. You know your operating model—traditionally you'd have this cap ex model where you invest, you sweat the kit for five years and maybe invest again, so you know, is subscription moving to OpEx something you see changing in the industry?
AH: Definitely. Definitely. And I'm a fan of it and definitely this is the way we're going forward because it allows you on the cost and the depreciation of the assets you have to invest in more development to start thinking outside the box. This amount of money that you actually need at certain point you will put it somewhere else to enhance the product, to enhance the business process, to enhance the workflow which is an added value. And we all know this in the industry.
When I buy a product in the broadcast industry, the cost is on the hardware, and then I negotiate the vendors to give me a discount on their product. And now things are a bit changing. So this pool of shared computing power that you are able to use and put your subscription and money which is worse for your benefit and the benefit of the product owner because it will give him more funds to develop and to go to the extra stuff and add more features and add more advancement. As you remember like before, any new feature that I wanted, yes, the product development team will work on it. And once it's ready on the beta or release phase, they will tell you, but the actual hardware you have will not support it. You need to upgrade and go like skyrockets hardwares. Now, it's easier. In every aspect, it's easier. Do you think that actually gives you more flexibility? You're obviously in Qatar, there's the World Cup this year (the football [soccer] World Cup, so it also help spikes in production, where you perhaps need additional capacity, but just for a short period of time. Now with subscription, maybe it gives you more capability to spike up to deal with, you know, that kind of short term need.
AH: It is 100%, and I will give an example. Usually as a news channel, our main coverages are the elections. Every type of elections, Parliamentary elections, Presidential elections and whatever American elections is one of those. Before, it was costly. When the news management comes to us as technology and operation and they say “We are planning a big coverage for this elections.” The first thing you think about when you ask, “OK, so you want a small newsroom? For how many people? How many edit rooms you want?” So I don't start asking about what is the set, how many presenters, because these ones you can be available at any moment. Now, it's easier. “How many correspondents you're sending?” 5. “How many newsroom staff you're sending?” 10, amazing, very good. “How many edit suites you're gonna be using?” 3 licenses.
It's amazing. Enable it. And it's not only enabling it, it's enabling it, adding those having connectivity to your backbase, having access to archive, having access to wires, they are connected. So definitely the amount of money you spend into the service type model have advantages and disadvantages, especially in news. I'm talking specifically in news production and news delivery. It's essential. It's very, very essential. I'm not saying that it's cheap, but believe me, when we did our calculation the first time, you invest into that path. Yes, it's expensive, but always calculate on the ROI for the next five years. And actually, you can even calculate for the 10 years because some of your equipment, you are paying on SLAs as well as that on year five, on year six, they cost you more than the investment on the service.
CW: Now, you’re a broadcast channel, but clearly you have a presence online as well. So I'm interested in that balance between producing for broadcast and also producing for social, producing for online. You know, when you look at the channel, is the focus still on the broadcast side? Is it moving more digital? How do you balance those kind of needs?
AH: It's both, and we are trying to be balanced. We, we take it as a complete spectrum. We have our digital audience, we have our own digital platforms, we have our small TV online on digital platforms and for us it's unparalleled because the audience is not only sitting in front of a TV and watching you, it's over there and again we go to the basics. Content is the most important part. All these are platforms of delivery. You want to succeed, you want to do a penetration in the market? You have to be available on every platform where you can meet your consumer. So at the same time, for us, the way of thinking is we need to centralize, virtualize, make it smooth and accessible our production infrastructure. That I can send to digital platforms, social platforms, oddity platforms, linear broadcast platforms without having any issues or separation with my core production infrastructure. I don't want to divide my newsrooms, I want a coherent newsroom, coherent contributors collaborate that they can do a product in multiple versions and multiple ways of editing visual effects, something with narration for a broadcast, something without narration for digital, working on the same infrastructure that they can collaborate between each other. So this is the main challenge for us.
CW: What you've described there is what some people I think would describe as a story-centric way of working. Do you think that's going to become the dominant way that newsrooms work in the future?
AH: It should be. Story-centric is definitely the future. Again, it's the future. Like if something happens now in London, the story is in London, the characters of the story are in London and I need to cover it right. The content is the same. The analysis pretty much, the facts are the same. How I'm going to recreate it to send it to multiple audiences depending on their age depending on are they Muslims, depending on their habits, depending on their interest is what I need to do, but it's the same content. It's how I deal with this content. How I can produce and distribute this content.
CW: I’ve be lucky enough over time to spend a lot of time in the Gulf region. I know it's a very competitive market for news, So what is it you would say that sets what you're doing at Al Araby apart from the others?
AH: I'm not going to be completely objective, answering this question, but anyway, yes, it's competitive, and yes, it's not easy, especially in news. But what I can say is Al Araby is a young channel and the approach of Al Araby TV staff management is around the youth and their interest and how the things that’re happening around the globe are going to have an impact on their lives. We are trying not to be a traditional one where we go and we say “President X did this, and President Y did that. We are taking the human story, the human factor being transparent, being unbiased with no agenda. And this is the most important part. So what really matters for someone who's like in his 40s, and what matters for Craig who’s in his 30s and 20s? What are the debates, the way of future? What type of news that will help them in being a better person? Understanding the complexities of the politics globally. So this is what we strive to do.
CW: You talked earlier about having an agile mindset for how you're delivering the project, and that's been essential because the way things have changed, you know things have changed for all of us in the last couple of years, but I'm guessing that even when you get to the point where the projects being delivered, you still need to maintain that kind of agile mindset because technology is advancing and changing so much.
AH: It is. The challenging part is when you freeze it, you have to reach a point and you say “freeze,” that's it. You cannot move forward—otherwise you will keep on waiting, which no one will accept. On a management level, or even if you are managing any project, you will fail. The challenging part will be at certain point you need to be confident about what you achieved about how things were going to look like, at least in the next two years, and say “I'm stopping here.” But when you say “I'm stopping here,” it doesn't mean that I'm closing down the project. It means that this is the steppingstone, I'm going into that phase, I'm going to succeed and later on, I will move on and start enabling more workflows, more business processes aligned with the new technologies that they're going to be on the road map.
CW: So a final question, Ali, and you know I really appreciate your time talking to us on the podcast. Lots of really, really interesting stuff there. But my final question is the one I ask everyone on the podcast: What is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?
AH: Now in this moment of time with this project, actually. Honestly, I'm just like, my worry is the supply chain and the movement of our partners, especially technology partners and with all the shortages and the impact on the supply chain that's happening globally. Because this is something really, really, really… it has an impact on the way we work. Because if now I tell you I need this product or I'm thinking of doing this. I have some people, some product developer will tell me, but at this moment of time we cannot do it because we have this and it will need the huge lead time so it becomes a little bit frustrating. But I'm with no shadow of a doubt, again, some of the positive things, like I've seen some partners that they were not able to provide some products because of the structures of the components they changed the structure of their components to avoid the use of the shortage of the component. So again, these types of things at the moment are like, yeah, when I go to sleep I try to not to think about those.
CW: Good luck to Ali and the team, and I’m sure, despite all the challenges, they will deliver, and thanks again to him to joining us on the podcast.
Let me know what you think about the cloud, story-centric, or any of the other subjects we covered. You can get in touch on social, my username on both Twitter and Instagram is @CraigAW1969 or email us at Makingthemedia@avid.com.
Why not check out the show notes to find out more about how Europe’s news broadcasters are facing the future in a recent podcast episode from the lead author of a major report from the European Broadcasting Union, and also discover how MediaCentral | Collaborate from Avid is enabling story-centric workflows in the newsroom.
Thanks so much for listening. Please make sure to subscribe on your podcast platform of choice to get notified when the next episode is out. Leave a review and spread the message about the podcast to your colleagues and friends.
Thanks to our producer Matt Diggs. My name is Craig Wilson, join me next time for more in-depth discussion about Making the Media.