Making the Media Episodes

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Making the Media S3E01

Look Ahead


Craig Wilson: Hi and welcome to the first episode of season three of the Making the Media Podcast. I’m your host Craig Wilson. Welcome back if you have heard us before, and if this is your first time listening, then it is great to have you join us for another season of in-depth discussions with the people who are making the media.

We are starting off this season actually very close to home here at Avid, with a discussion with Avid chief executive officer, Jeff Rosica.

Jeff has been CEO since February 2018, having joined the company five years earlier. He has more than 30 years of experience in broadcast, media, and entertainment technology, which includes a variety of senior leadership roles across the industry. He is also board chairman of the Boston Arts Academy Foundation.

With the industry undergoing constant transformation, there is a lot to discuss, so I began by asking Jeff to assess the scale of the challenge facing the broadcast and media industry as the media landscape continues to evolve.

Jeff Rosica: This is unprecedented, the amount of change going on between how business is changing and how that informs the operational requirements of companies and broadcasting media and the technology shifts going on. I mean I remember in my history maybe one or two shifts were going on. Remember, you know, we went to file-based and we went to, we went to digital first and then file based and then went to HD and so there was usually like a couple of technical shifts.

Today it's unprecedented what's going on. I mean people are again changing their business, changing their business models, how that informs their organization, and the transformations you have to go through and just the, the massive amount of technology shift, whether it's going to IP or going to 4K UHD workflows or dealing with Dolby Atmos® or dealing with, you know, streaming services… I mean it goes on and on and on with what's going on in the industry.

So I think what customers are coming to us with is pretty consistently, I think I would say, Craig, is that, as you travelled the world, I remember across my career there were different things going on around the world. People in different parts of the world had different priorities. When you look today, it is—I think you would say the same thing—it's pretty consistent from customers what they're looking for. They're trying to deal with this massive amount of transformation they have to do as a business. How they're going to leverage technology strategically when so many technology shifts going on and how they're going to really just create more content, more efficiently.

I mean almost everybody, you know, as they launch more direct-to-consumer models or streaming models, they are looking for ways to get more efficient, to create really high-quality content in a much faster, more economical way. They've got to do more. And I think that drives a lot of demand around things like working flexibly and working with people in a very distributed way, and you know obviously with COVID—I'm sure we'll talk about it—it really helped the industry I think kind of understand what was possible in this kind of distributed way of working. So yeah, but it's pretty consistent what I'm hearing, whether I'm in Japan recently—actually I wasn’t in Japan, some colleagues were, but I was in Germany, I've been in Finland, UK, and around the US, and so I've been starting to travel again pretty extensively after COVID, and it's a pretty consistent message we’re hearing.

CW: And do you think that the other thing that they're having to deal with is changing consumption models? Where, you know, there are so many more channels that are potentially available whether that is traditional linear television or whether it's online or it's video on demand. Is that also driving the kind of change that they're having to cope with.

JR: Yeah, I think it's to the point—exactly Craig—is that the direct-to-consumer models, or the ability you know, to get to your viewers in a more direct way has really opened up a lot of new ways for people to get content to the consumer. But conversely, it's created a lot of demand. The appetite for high quality content has never been as large as it is today as an industry. So what the pressure it puts on I think most broadcasters and media companies is they've got to produce more content, as I said before, but how are they going to do that in a more efficient way? They can't spend the same amount of money per minute as they're spending before creating that content, so you've got to do it in a much more efficient way.

But the demand is for higher quality, not just higher quality and resolution or audio, it's actually higher quality storytelling and higher quality in information gathering. And so, it's interesting to see that people have to figure out ways to do things, again, much more efficiently.

CW: Yeah, I think there was a sense a few years ago that, you know, YouTube was going to be full of cat videos. I think it still is full of cat videos, but it is that high-quality end of content that I think has surprised people and is driving so much within the industry.

And one area that that has also come up when I've spoken to some people, it's just about coping with that demand simply from a talent perspective about having enough people to create that kind of content, and also I’m wondering what customers are saying to you about the sheer amount and volume of content that they're having to produce.

JR: Yeah, I think most are struggling with that volume question. And I think, you know, one of the key points you make is around talent is what I do hear consistently is that they're having trouble finding talent—especially wherever they are locally. And, you know, they've had an issue with trying to find enough production people and editors and, you know, audio mixers and just, you know, generally people, you know, across the entire spectrum of positions across the production. And I think that they were facing that problem before, you know, COVID came, and I think with COVID, COVID was a disastrous situation for the world, but one thing it did teach our industry is you really have to figure out a way to work collaboratively in a distributed way because, you know, obviously COVID forced people to work remotely. But what it also did is I think it made people realize, you know, I can work with people somewhere out in another corner of the globe or another part of the region of the country I'm in. And I and I think what people have seen is that, you know, this kind of, you know, gig economy, which has been expanding over the years and the ability to really, you know, get to workers, whether they're freelance or whether they're employees, get to people wherever they are and get more talent to help them produce content—that has helped.

I would say, though, that that's still going to be a problem long term. Near term, I think it's good that, you know, people who want to be in this industry can get a job and work probably with almost anybody around the world because there's, you know, so much is possible remotely. But we are going to run out of talent. I really have to say, from my perspective, when I look at the forecast of how much content is going to continue to be produced, the increase in production is going to happen over the next, you know, three to five years. And you look at the amount of talent coming into our industry, no matter what the role is, we're really, I think, going to have a… I think the shortage we have in talent today is only going to get exponentially worse in the coming years.

So, I think from a technology company perspective, we have to help figure out ways to be able to leverage the talent much, again, much more efficiently. How do we get any member of the talent to be able to get more done? And so whatever we can do to make more efficient workflows, to automate processes, to do anything we can.

You know, a lot of people talk about AI, and they talk about how it could potentially remove jobs. I don't think that's the case at all. I think it really is how to get more mundane tasks off the plates of creative people or production people. And how do we do that in a way that can give people a lot more possibility to leverage their talent because there's going to be a tightening of talent in the future that I think it's one prediction I'll make that I feel pretty strongly about.

CW: Is it also the case that because of the distribution of talent, that another huge challenge people face is actually change management. It's actually about trying to organize themselves. So it's not just the technology, it is about how do you create teams; how do you create that sense of working together when people are apart. Is that something you feel people are wrestling with as well?

JR: Yeah I think so. I mean even this, even Avid as a company is in the middle of a big transformation to really become much more digitally savvy, cloud first, you know, mobile first kind of company. But there's so many changes we're having to face as a company as we get more modern and more digital and how, not just the products and services we produce or we offer, but also is how we operate as a company.

I think what we have to do is probably a fraction of what most broadcast media companies have to face. This changes I talked about before Craig, this monumental amount of change going on in our industry and what people are dealing with or our customers are dealing with requires massive transformation, as I said earlier. And that transformation, to be successful, takes change management, and it takes transformational management. And I think that's a big need for our industry.

As a technology supplier, we do our best to try to help our customers manage that transformation. But you know, I think it's going to require a much broader look at change management and transformational management again, as an industry. It’s critical to success. You can deploy a lot of technology, but as you said, Craig, if you can't look at the organizational aspects, the cultural aspects, and the operational aspects of it, you know, technology investments can fail if not deployed properly and deployed in a way that people can transform what they're doing.

CW: One other area where, you know, the industry is transforming, and I think just generally our lives is transforming is around the use of subscription. So for example, now, you know, I think most of us at home have got some kind of subscription service for whether it's Netflix or Disney+ or you know one of the others that's available to us. So it's part of our normal lives, but it's also something within the industry that's changing in terms of a subscription model, as opposed to additional CapEx and OpEx. Is that a change that you’ve seen accelerate again throughout the course of the last couple of years?

JR: Yeah, I think absolutely. You know, there are people—there's still a lot of debate around subscription models versus, you know, more traditional old fashioned kind of perpetual and hardware purchase upfront models. I think the reality is look, the industry is becoming much more of a subscription economy, as you said, you know as our lives as consumers. But also if you look at most IT organizations, a lot of what they deploy and have been deploying for years has been subscription based or pure SaaS-based, which is really on demand based. Our industry really it is just, I think, in the early days of making that transition, and I think it's a good thing for the industry.

Obviously it's good for everybody. It's a win-win for the for the suppliers of the industry, but it really is important for the customers, the consumers of these technologies. The reason I say that is that if you look forward to the business models people are dealing with, as you said earlier Craig, people are producing a lot more content. I think the old model where I went and dropped you know spent $1,000,000 or a couple million, you know, pounds or euros, you know, on an installation or sometimes more to start a new show or a new channel, people can't do that now today. They need to be able to try things, and if they don't work, move on to the next thing. They've got a lot more of a of a trial kind of mentality and also there's so much, as we talked about, to create more content, so much demand on that. But capital budgets can be strained and, you know, capital budgets often can't handle the kind of requirements that we see in the industry today.

What subscription does is a number of things. One is it people forget that it really reduces substantially the upfront cost of deploying technologies into an environment, and so it allows people to as I said earlier to startup channels and startup programs or shows and try a show, and if it doesn't work out, they can stop subscription or they can stop consuming on demand SaaS environments. But it really does help that.

Secondly, it really variableizes the cost base so that you can really kind of match the cash flow. I mean a lot of people debate OpEx versus CapEx, but I think that debate is kind of the wrong debate to be having, to be honest. Those are just ways in which you treat things on a P&L or a balance sheet of a company. In the end, cash is cash. It's all about cash. It's all about the cash that people spend. And if you can, you know, have that cash go out over time better match to the income that you're getting as a broadcaster media company, that's a benefit. And so that's important. And I think that, you know, and everyone talks about this, but I think nobody would debate is our industry often has to burst to do special events—Olympics—you know the Olympics well, Craig, you've worked a lot of them, whether it's, you know, elections or or special sporting events, you name it, your ability to subscribe and add capacity during those times is also a real benefit, that variability aspect.

So I really think it's overdue for our industry. I think it's a perfect type of business model and a way to deploy technology. And I think it's you know, just for us as a company it's taking off very, very rapidly, not just for individual creative consumers but also for enterprise customers. And I think the whole industry—put the debates aside—I think the whole industry will move to this over time. And I'll just say wrap it up on this point by saying if you're going to go to the cloud, you have to be subscription based. That's by default what it is. You know, it is either a software subscription you're deploying in your own tenancy in the cloud, or it is a SaaS, which is basically on demand subscription. So I think the reality is the industry has to go there especially if they want to embrace the cloud as they as I think the industry does.

CW: You kind of preempted my next question, Jeff, because that was exactly where we're going to head for is looking at the cloud. You know, I think a few years ago, I think people saw the cloud as maybe a panacea—it was going to solve everyone's problems and you know, we're going to transform everything there. And we've gone through periods where I think people have been a little bit suspicious about it, concerns about security. What does it mean for my workflows? Where do you think we are now in that kind of journey to the cloud? It's being embraced for some workflows, but not all, you know, where do you think we sit at the moment?

JR: Well, I think it's feels like in the last, you know, 2-3 years, the whole debate around security and trusting it, I think that's been resolved. I think people really do understand that these environments, while they're not perfect, they are way more capable from a from a scalability and from a security standpoint than any broadcast media company can do in their own back room or in their own, you know, plant infrastructure. I think it's now just the normal transition you would see where people are looking at economics and looking at workflows and looking at really how to best fit their business environments with the cloud. I think everybody realizes they're going to have to leverage the cloud in some way they do today. There’s probably not a company in the world that doesn't leverage cloud in some part of its infrastructure. So I think we're just in that transition mode and I think people are starting to realize the benefits of what cloud can bring people.

Look, it's just a technology. I mean it's, you know, everyone talks about it being a panacea. It's just a unique way to deploy technology that gives a lot more flexibility for people, but also gives the ability to scale differently, to go global in a much more efficient way, to enable, you know, remote workflows or distributed teams to collaborate… I mean there's so many things that does.

There is a cost element for sure and people are always checking the economic model of moving a given workload or workflow to the cloud. But it also is an enabling technology that enables things that again if we want to really as an industry go to much more of a distributed team, virtualized environment, cloud is a—whether that's a cloud in your in your back room, a private cloud, or whether that is a public cloud, cloud technologies are crucial to realize the strategic direction our industry needs to take as a as a whole.

CW: I think another question that it kind of prompts is that if you simply want to continue what you're doing today but do it in the cloud, you're probably not going to realize the benefits they can actually come from, I guess it goes back to that transformational question about you know what is it you really want to do to take advantage of it, and then getting a picture of what that TCO is, and really understanding the economics of it compared to what you're doing perhaps on prem?

JR: Yeah, I think look, people have to remember, and I say this all the time to customers and it's interesting how many haven't really thought this through completely. But I'll say here, it may be obvious to some customers who may be listening or industry people listening to this podcast, but when you when you outsource your infrastructure to a cloud provider, hyperscale provider like Microsoft Azure, AWS, or Google, or pick your provider, you are outsourcing everything. You're outsourcing not just the storage or the, you know, CPUs or infrastructure. You are outsourcing the racks, the power, the air conditioning, the building, the people, the security infrastructure. It's all being outsourced in that environment. If you're not going to be really moving those costs to that provider, if you're still going to keep the buildings you have and all the real estate footprint you have, if you're going to keep all the people and keep all of the infrastructure that you have, you're not going to save money. I mean it's going to be expensive in that comparison. But I think if you look at a real TCO where you where you are transforming as you said Craig and you're really moving that off into another provider. It does give a real good TCL economic benefit in the long run, and it really, I think, aligns to what most media companies really want to get to is: What is their core competency? Media companies and broadcasters, I would argue their job is content and everything else is just a must have. I mean you need the technical infrastructure to do this, right? You need people, you need a lot of things. But their job is to tell stories, whether that's entertaining people or informing people or educating people or just liking people. That's their job. And so I think they have to think about what their core competency is. Is it building technology infrastructure or is their core competency really just creating content and think about maybe some of the infrastructure should be, you know, put off into the cloud. Not saying every workflow or every workload makes sense in the cloud right now today—it will over time, but I think we're in that mode where people need to analyze their transformation plans and where do they see their three and five year plan for a company and build up build a plan to get there overtime because it will be, I think it will be commonplace five years from now.

CW: Yeah, I still think a lot of places are going to look at a hybrid model. You know, we've still got studio infrastructure, but we do some things in the cloud, and you know, that's part of the journey I guess to get there.

What I wanted to ask now really was about innovation within the industry. Because if you are going to transform, then you know innovation is kind of critically important as well. What do you think are the key areas where innovation can help that kind of transformation?

JR: Well, I think I think as an industry we have to be a little careful. Again, being on the technology side my whole career, seeing how much is going on in the industry, it can put a lot of demands not just on an Avid but on every supplier across our industry in a lot of innovation required across the board, and I think as an industry we probably have to—now it a really important time to be really well aligned with what do we need this year, what do we need next year, what do we need three years out. If we, if we go in too many directions at once as an industry, I think we'll slow ourselves down. I think, you know, having these, these discussions and constant dialogue, something we're doing very often with the ACA (or the Avid Community Association), we were just both in London at a recent event and having that dialogue with customers is so important because we've got to keep our innovation plans aligned to the real priorities because again, you can end up innovating in 50 different ways right now as an industry and it just slows you down or it gets you defocused. I think when we look at it as a company, I think what we look at is again back to the core message we talked about the beginning of the podcast, is people are looking to do more with less, or do more with the same amount, and so they've got to get more efficient. They've got to look for new ways to get jobs done, they've got to look for new ways for teams to collaborate, they've got to look for ways for people to work in more flexible ways. How do they get workflows more efficient? And so how we can innovate in how we can virtualize teams, how teams can work in distributed way, how we can handle the more complex workflows but in more efficient ways. I think how we leverage AI and ML techniques to meet all that. I think that's where the key innovation is needed as an industry.

And then I would say how people think about storage, or where am I going to put my metadata, or where am I going to store my content, whether it's raw or whether it's finished. I think that whole paradigm is shifting drastically, and I think people are going to be thinking about data with a big D and how do they capture all the data they need to drive their business and whether that's, you know, content, whether that's metadata, or that's other types of data, but how do you manage that in a distributed world? And it's going to get more complex in managing, you know, data, whether again from audio and video content to metadata. Mention that in today's environment is already difficult. I think if you look forward with distributed teams that only gets more complex. And so how we're going to do that in a simpler way when it's actually getting more complex and making it easier for the users? And how do I find the content I need or how do I find the data I need to make a decision—that's crucially important around innovation, our industry.

CW: Obviously when it comes to technology companies as we are, part of what we have to do to try to innovate, I guess, is to experiment, is to try new things. So there's two elements to that; One is how important is it that we experiment? And the other thing is how actually important is it that at times we fail and then learn from that?

JR: Yeah, you have to fail. If you're not failing, you're not innovating, or you're not innovating fast enough. I mean, you can innovate and not fail, but you have to worry that you're not either innovating enough or innovating fast enough to fail.

You want to fail, but you want to fail fast. You want to make a decision and move on. And that's important and so that's a change of culture that we're going through as a company and I think it's important for all companies—including our customer base, whether you're a broadcaster, media company, or a post house, you name it. You've got to try things and be willing to fail, and I think our industry in the past has not been really mindful of failure—it's almost failure was not an option. It's kind of the concept of our industry and I think that we all have to realize that we've got to try things and fail because that's how innovation happens. So it's pretty important. It's a good question, Craig, it's something I worry about that we won't fail enough, which means we're not innovating fast enough.

CW: One thing to pick up on your previous answer, Jeff, you spoke about big data, and big data is something that other industries have used for a long time. Look at medical, look at financial technologies, they've used them for a long time. So, is it also the case that the media industry has to look around and has to learn from other industries perhaps in ways that they wouldn't necessarily have thought I could actually benefit from something that's been done elsewhere.

JR: Yeah I think we do. But I think we also we're unique industry and I think that we're not just dealing with data about a certain thing, like your customer. I mean that's important, obviously, but there's so much data we have as an industry from how content was created, information about that content, information about everything that feeds that content—doesn't matter whether you’re news or sports or entertainment. Data is so important.

We as an industry have kind of managed things in really compartmentalized, siloed ways, not always very efficiently. That has to change, I think, because data is so important, especially in new business models to drive how people make decisions, how they inform their engagement with their consumer or their viewer. So I think it's going to be important we do that, and again, that only gets more complex in a distributed world where everything is not, let's say, at the headquarters in one big monolithic storage environment. Now it can be everywhere. It can be in users devices; it can be in a number of areas. And so how do you ensure that, you know, you can virtualize all that data and keep it connected so that you're not using much of human intervention to try to put data back together with content or to put different elements of data together. I think we are, as an industry, I mean there's some examples that are pretty impressive, best in class examples, but I think we are as an industry collectively in the early days of becoming more sophisticated. But yes, we've got to look at other industries that have gotten really good at using data in their business models.

CW: Something else that I guess the media industry still is early days at is actually looking at environmental considerations. You know, we've done a podcast episode here in the UK with the albert Organization which obviously looks at helping companies reduce their carbon footprint and work in those ways. It was something that came up in the voice of the customer event that we attended in London, Jeff is this something—it's not just about being good corporate citizens—but this is something that is kind of fundamental to the future, and I wonder how that plays into how we develop our own solutions and act as a business?

JR: Yeah, it's a good question. I think we've got to do more as a company. We, you know, in our journey as a company and since I took over as CEO, this is one of our priorities but we didn't make it the early priority because we had other things to focus on as a company, but what we call ESG or environmental, social, and governance issues, which are important to our customers, to our users, to our partners, and even to our investors, it's very important that we are focused on this. And so we've got a number of areas that we're looking at in this regard.

I think we talked about the impact to, let's say the sustainability as an industry. I think again, back to cloud—if we can help our industry work in distributed ways so that people don't have to commute to work every day or don't have to live in urban environments or don't have to consume the same, you know, carbon footprint to do their job… if we can use cloud to do that, which, you know, obviously you look at hyperscale providers, they're on a journey themselves, but they're making huge strides in how they're creating environments that have a very, very, significantly improved footprint—a carbon footprint is one example.

So I think that when we leverage these technologies as an industry, we are helping feed that. We are helping or improve that as an industry. So when we look at our development program of products, we're looking at that very closely. Where we do have to do build hardware, we're being very careful about, you know, how we build that hardware and how the hardware is going to impact, you know, our environment as a world. But again I think the more we can stop shipping things around and moving things all over the place and the less people have to travel… I mean I think, in general, there's so much as industry that are benefits we're going to be able to have and do our part, I think it's going to be important.

So it's an important part of our strategy. It's going to continue to be a more important part every day going forward. And the UK is a great example where I think the society, and your culture, and the industry has really been leading the way, and I think they are a good example for our whole industry to follow.

CW: So Jeff, we've covered lots of ground there in terms of, you know, lots of different aspects that have come up in the podcast from all various discussions that we have had. If you could look, you know, forward say six months or a year, what do you think are going to be the big changes between where we are today and where we get to in about a year's time?

JR: I don't think it's going to be… I wouldn't say any big changes are ahead, Craig. I would say that we're going to make a lot of movement towards this kind of future state that we as an industry, I think, see. And when I talk to most customers and users around the world, they all see kind of that future state of a very virtualized world for how they work and how teams are going to work very distributed around the world, and kind of how their workflows are looking at creating content in a digital first kind of environment.

I think what we're going to see over the next six to twelve months is just progress. I think pretty solid progress. If you and I talk a year from now, though, we talk all the time, but I think we talked on this podcast a year from now, hopefully what I'm going to tell you is that we made great strides as a company delivering on some of the solutions that we intend to deliver to help these, these very issues I talked about. But also I think we're going to see our customers have made a lot of progress towards their transformation plans and I think we'll have a lot more examples in the industry of successful transformation a year or six months from now.

CW: So Jeff, I know you listened to the podcast because you know, you talked to me about it. And so, you know, there is one final question that I do ask everyone on the podcast. So what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

JR: Ah! Yeah, I've heard it a lot, but you know, it's funny, I've heard this podcast, but didn't even think about the fact that you're going to ask me that question.

I think that probably what keeps me up at night is just worrying about how we as a company are going to meet the needs of the industry to innovate—and innovate fast. I mean, that's really… it's thinking about, you know, where do we take the company; where is the most important place that Avid can help the industry and, you know, solve the problems they're facing. And I'm always thinking about, you know, are we doing the right thing? Are we prioritizing things in the right way? I think that's the most important thing that I think about that keeps me up at night.

And I think again, there’s just so much we have to do—not just we at Avid—we as technology suppliers, as an industry, have so much to do to help our customers and users meet the needs and demands of today. Hopefully all my counterparts are thinking about that when they fall asleep at night.

CW: Thanks to Jeff for joining us on the podcast. Now, don’t forget, there is always a full transcript of the podcast available on our episode page online on the Avid website.

And if you want to find out more about some of the things which we discussed with Jeff then why not check out the show notes. There you can discover links to a recent webinar which demonstrated how distributed teams can work together, and also an article with the CTO of American broadcaster Sinclair, discussing their use of the cloud.

Don’t forget you can check out all our previous episodes from seasons one and two on your podcast platform of choice—we’re available in lots of places—and subscribe to get notified when new episodes are out.

You can always contact us with feedback! On email we are [email protected], and on social I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram.

Thanks to our producer, Matt Diggs; thanks to you for listening; and stay subscribed for more episodes, coming soon, with those Making the Media.

Dolby Atmos is a registered trademark of Dolby Laboratories.

 


Making the Media S3E02

Tomorrow’s News Today


Craig Wilson: Welcome to the Making the Media podcast. I’m your host, Craig Wilson, and thank you so much for joining us for our latest episode.

This time around, we are delving deep into both the business and creative side of news production, exploring in detail the challenges and opportunities which the industry is facing.

To do that, I am joined by Mark Harrison, who is chief executive of the DPP. Mark started out as a historian before working as a filmmaker and has held many senior roles within the production sector, including a spell as head of arts at the BBC in the UK, and director of transformation for BBC Design and Engineering.

He was instrumental in the creation of the DPP—initially defining technical standards before it became the international business network it is today. His organization has just produced a series of detailed reports into the News Industry, called Tomorrow’s News, so Mark joined me to discuss the findings, but I began by asking him to initially outline the work of the DPP.

Mark Harrison: We really do two things for the industry. We generate and share strategic insight, which is very real because it comes from people in the industry. So it's not like some external consultancy coming and taking a look. It's actually generated by insiders. You know, you've been a part of this work yourself, Craig. And then in the process of doing that, we also network people. And although we have a very strict policy that, for instance, a vendor can't make a sales pitch in one of our workshops or one of our events or meetings, nonetheless, they will be in conversation with either their actual customers or people they would like to have as customers, and that's where they build relationships and they quite often then go on to, you know, to do business together.

CW: Obviously one of the things which the DPP does in terms of, you know, sharing that knowledge around is work on certain projects and produce reports. So there's obviously the tomorrow's news project that we've been involved in, you know, with yourselves. So tell us a little bit about really how that came about what, why do you think there's a need to have this kind of project or to have that kind of discussion about what the future is for news?

MH: Yeah. Actually, the genesis of that is a great example of how we try to work. You know our antennae are up and out the whole time. We're listening to what people are telling us that they really care about and we also observe what seemed to be core issues. And, you know, we were noticing that in many respects, there's some challenges around the modernization of production processes and the application of technology to production in a rapidly changing content environment. Sort of found this kind of apotheosis in news because, you know, on the one hand, it’s like a factory environment. It has to be because of the sheer volume of content that it receives and then puts back out. And in that sense, it makes it very susceptible to the application of technology, one would think. But also, a lot of news operations are historic. This is like, you know, the old world of broadcasting, really, and therefore almost inherently quite difficult to modernize. So you have this immediate tension, which is really interesting.

But beyond that, you know, what we observed was that for many broadcasters, particularly established broadcasters and national broadcasters, and particularly those that have public service readmits, news is almost like it's the core part of their being. You know, when the regulators have come in and stripped out everything else, or when the need for, you know, financial constraints have meant they've outsourced lots of other things, they'll still have news. When everything else is gone, there's still news. And so there's almost like this sort of… the identity of broadcasters almost gets tied up in news. And what we observed was that with this, it was almost both the strengths and challenges and tensions of culture within an organization, within a broadcast organization, would be kind of personified in what was happening around news.

So, it felt like a really great time to try and dig into it exactly where the world of news is right now. And I must confess, because it wasn't me that did the work here, it was my great colleagues ever at Qualtro and Rhonda Pomeroy, who actually did the work. But, you know, what I'd said to them was, “Oh, it's going to be great. One of the things we're going to take out from all this is we'll be able at the end of this project to describe a best practice workflow for a modern news organization.” Yeah, right.

CW: Yes. Yeah, news is a very interesting area. So, let's dig into a little bit of detail then around the project first. First of all, explain a little bit of the methodology of actually how you've done it because there's a series of reports and there's three reports that are coming out and how have they been done, how do you do the discussions, how does that kind of work together? And then maybe we'll get into the meat of what the reports themselves actually say.

MH: Yeah, sure. Well, two of the reports were done by an a classic DPP methodology, and then one was slightly different. We did one which was called the news business, as it suggests sort of, you know, where the potential now is and the relationship between making news content and trying to make money. Or, if you're in public service, to run an efficient operation. And then the other called Making the News was about the technology and workflow of modern news production.

And what we did for both of those was to identify experts within DPP membership, so from a huge range of both vendor companies and also news makers. Most of the most famous news content organizations from the agencies like Reuters and AP and PA, right through to the likes of CNN and BBC. But also abroad, your TV2 in Denmark, ZDF in Germany, RTF in Netherlands. Huge, huge range of news organizations. And we, you know, we reached out to the those experts and asked them to come together in workshops, and this is very much the way we work.

So we would bring into the workshop a whole series of what we regarded as being key questions, and then we would, you know, share those with our participants and get their feedback and their discussion and synthesize that discussion into reports. The other piece I mentioned, which was a scene setup that we did, is something slightly different, where actually, we wanted to… set the scene with a real-world picture of what it's like to be making news today. So we got four very senior editorial figures together for a roundtable conversation and, you know, we recorded that and then summarized that back out in a report and that was really great, because there were only four of them, so they could go quite deep on what it means to try and be a news organization today.

CW: One of the things that that came out particularly of that discussion was a bit of a discussion about what actually constitutes news. I think this is something that a lot of organizations themselves are struggling about because you mentioned earlier on that news is core to many organizations and a lot of organizations, particularly public service organizations, very much founded on news. It's absolutely the core of what they do.

So I'm interested in that looking at the business side of things and saying, “OK, so news is core to what we do, news is also quite expensive to make.” You know, you know, what were the discussions? What are the kind of findings, the report about how to make news, in a sense, pay its way?

MH: Huh! Well, you’ve gone straight into the big one there, huh Craig? Umm... What I found really interesting here was that if you listen to the editors in chief, what they say is nowadays, a news organization has to go to where its audience is. You can no longer expect the audience to come to you. There's very little appointment to view, certainly not from the younger audience. It's a mobile audience. Your competition isn't other news organizations. Your competition is anything else on a mobile phone. What they call adjacent content—which I think is a great phrase, actually. Who knows what that adjacent content might be? It might be a game, might be another piece of video, who knows?

And they've become very adept at doing this and working out how to make credible and effective news content, particularly for a younger audience, and on platforms like TikTok. Trouble is, where the audience is isn't where the money is. Where the money is, is actually still overwhelmingly in linear services. In longer form content.

So, we're in this place where the historic model is still paying the bills, but the new model is where relevance is maintained. And what's going to be so fascinating for the evolution of news is it's sort of for how long do you go on running with both of those horses? You know, is there going to be a point of crisis? Or are we actually speaking to something a little bit like, you know, we remember, those of us of a certain age, when video on the Internet first became a big thing and felt like nobody under the age of 30 was paying for anything. It seemed to be ripping off content everywhere, including, you know, all the big high-quality series. And a lot of people said at that time, “Well, this is the future, you see. Young people will never pay for content.” What it actually was was a phase. And now, young people do pay for content. And, you know, it could be that actually we find that news does manage to balance this out and we find that younger audiences actually do start to come to subscription services or to appointment to view services. You know, that's going to be fascinating.

CW: What are news organizations saying about how they try to balance this out? Because as you said, is that, linear television—or reach, I guess if you look at yourself as a public service broadcaster—is still the biggest driver. Yet that audience is aging with the best will in the world. I mean, Mark, you and I are not the youngest, but you know I get a lot of my news on my phone now, travelling a lot of times. That's just how things are.

So where they are having to balance, we have to deliver content for these other platforms along with we still have to do the core business. Is it really business efficiency is what they're really looking for now when it comes to the technology landscape to allow them to deliver across all these platforms?

MH: Well, one of the things that was said very clearly was that this is efficiency goes straight to the bottom line. You know if we can be more efficient, then we can make more content and get more content out there. Where exactly the “out there” should be, I don't think anybody really knows. One great quote from the work was this. “We've got loads of hooks in the water, and we're all going fishing. And, you know, exactly which ones will bring in the fish kind of remains to be seen.” But in the meantime, operational efficiency seems key. However, I think a lot of what I was getting back from the work was that a lot of news organizations are still finding that very, very hard to do. And actually, not so hard to do in the news gathering, where there has been a revolution in how news is actually collected out there in the field. And it's incredible what people achieve now with such lightweight and low-cost resources. But in the newsroom itself, and that's where I think many people involved in this world would say there has been far less change than they would have expected.

CW: To pick up on what you said there, remote working is not something that's new, in journalistic terms. You know, everyone has always gone out to gather the news. But what I think of change of course in the last few years has been the impact of COVID remote and distributed working across the whole broadcast industry—not just, you know, specifically in news. Do you get the sense that people think that has changed that dynamic forever, that we're not going to go back to being back based in newsrooms, people are going to rely a lot more on connected technologies to allow them to work effectively?

MH: Well, interestingly, one of the comments that was made was that perhaps actually the COVID effect is already wearing off, and the newsrooms are going slightly backwards. Which I found really interesting, you know, as we gradually return to more in-person working.

I think there's a distinction here between again between news gathering, where you just feel that reliance upon delivering back from the field has become stronger and stronger. Nobody’s going to wait for you to bring this up back home. It's going to be from, you know, you're going to be sending it back almost as you're making it, not even after you're finished making it, it's coming back while you're in the field. And that's why things like bonded, you know, solar cellular technology has been so important and 5G will be so important and so forth. That contribution model.

But when it comes to the news factory, if anything, it looks to me—and this does this does actually fit with other work the DPP's done in the last couple of years—it looks to me as if that hub model will become actually stronger than ever. The need to have people in close proximity actually becomes, if anything, even greater because you're trying to get always now a smaller and smaller number of people, because that's the way everything goes, is fewer people do more, you know, to collaborate more and more tightly around more and more different kinds of output. Always be more effective if you actually sat right side by side.

CW: Going back to what we said earlier on about news being core, is it then the case that change management is a fundamental if people really want to implement lasting, effective change to deliver. Do we change that mindset from thinking linear to thinking digital? Is that something that people are wrestling with, as well?

MH: Yeah, yeah, I do think this looks like just a huge change management challenge, and, you know, one bit of me wishes we could sort of put aside our day job at DPP and just sort of go somewhere and see whether or not we can help because it's almost painful to observe… you know, there are tired cliches about, you know, trying to sort of redesign the car whilst the wheels are turning and, you know, and all that kind of stuff. But that is so true about the world of news. It never stops, and you are measured as a news organization on being on it the whole time and being right, you know, being accurate and effective. To be maintaining that culture of speed and responsiveness and reliability at the same time trying to fundamentally change everything you do from a technological point of view, it is like the ultimate business change challenge. I think we can't underestimate how big an ask this is.

But one of the things that that got exposed to, that I think took us all back quite a lot that we didn't really count on was actually we saw more tension between the customer community and the vendor community around this business transformation question than in any other area of the media industry. Umm, which I found fascinating, and essentially, what it comes down to is that, you know, we've got broadcasters saying to their vendor partners, you know, how could we possibly create a fully integrated newsroom, unless you start giving us totally different kind of tools that really are built for the modern journalists? And meanwhile, the vendors are saying to the broadcasters, how can we possibly help you change your workflows when you are so resistant to change and you're still locked into kind of 1980s view of what The Newsroom should be? You know, in all these different silos? And both parties kind of want change, but are finding it really difficult to sort of identify a common language and a starting point perhaps because there is no room or appetite for an in between state, so everybody needs to just tip into something brand new. And that's so hard.

CW: Yeah. One thing you mentioned right at the start, again, Mark, was perhaps at the start you thought we’ll come out and there’ll be a unified workflow that we can suggest, and this might be how things work. Did the report really just emphasize how complex news is and how complex the workflows are?

MH: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, how complex they are, how incredibly challenging it is to unify them because they never stay still. I mean we know this to some extent around all content that, you know, even when a prerecorded long form film is delivered, and it could be delivered with all its production metadata. But things will still be done to that piece of content subsequently and that's always been a challenge, how you maintain that metadata you need and how you add in new metadata to help get that piece of content to your audience effectively—but that is nothing compared to news.

You know, constantly changing and being reshaped and being, you know, added to and subtracted from, being put out to, to different platforms and markets. It was actually you, Craig, in one of our sessions, that I think provided one of the best quotes of the work, which was that you said that metadata is the most important and the most boring word in news. And, you know, it's brilliantly put because you can see that from a journalist point of view, it's like, “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” You know, “Really, I might like previously under fire, and I've got to get this story in, and you're telling me that unless I tag everything from the very beginning, then, you know, it's going to inhibit the journey of that content subsequently. And yet those things are true. You know that you cannot possibly extract the value from that news content that is going to, in the end, enable news to remain profitable unless you got metadata.

CW: Yeah, it's very, very true. And what were people saying about the cloud and how they are looking to take advantage of that? Was that something that came up as part of the report?

MH: Yeah, it did. And I think the view was that that is the next journey that has to happen. Let's take note that use of IP has been spectacular in news and, you know, rapid and dramatic and important adoption. So it's another piece of revolutionary change that really has happened within news.

But whereas perhaps others have been focusing on cloud, IP I think has been more of the focus for the world of news. And it feels as if news is coming to the cloud a bit later. But everyone can see the potential for what somebody described as being a bureau in a MacBook. You know, that if you can, virtualize both where the content is and the tools to work on that content, then the potential is enormous because like all other forms of media, agility is king, and that's what the cloud is best at.

CW: Would you see it across the board that the challenges are universal? Or are they still specific to different geographies?

MH: That's a really great question. It doesn't feel as if they're specific to different geographies, except insofar as public service news production is very much a European thing. Certainly rather than a North American thing. But I would I would say it's more that you can see differences between, I guess, three groups. One is the kind of historic broadcaster, and then use operation, then there is the agency, which, in many respects, the news agencies better placed on all this. Because it's always lived or died by a story-centric view. Basically, you know, it gathers content and then it has to mine that content out to all sorts of customers. So it's in the DNA to do that and some of the greatest modernization is happening in companies like PA and AP and Reuters and so forth.

And then there's the new generation of news suppliers like VICE Media doing some incredible work and a really important player. But you have to say, of course, we would have been talking to them and many others only a few years ago, and BuzzFeed, Huffington Post would have been really important players, and you know, we're seeing with their story just how difficult purely digital native news is. We'll see whether the news movement, which is a new operation in that space can do better in that regard.

CW: It certainly is a very difficult industry to make money with. It’s a fantastic industry to be involved in. I've been lucky enough to be involved in for a very long time, Mark, and it's a great industry. The reports are very, very detailed, and I would encourage everyone who's listening to this to get the reports and to read through them. They contain a real wealth of information.

If there's one thing you think that comes out from them, what do you think the big takeaway was for you?

MH: Well, can I, can I cheat? That’s one annoying thing that people do to very good interviewers like you, which is to say two things because I want to say one thing which is about the editorial and content side and one that's about the tech side.

It was it was a bit of a penny drop moment for me when my colleague Rowan said “Have you noticed that generally in the media industry, production, it hasn't really changed very much, really. You know, for generations. But massive amount of change in how that content is handled and processed once it sort of arrives at its commissioning entity, at the broadcaster, or at the content platform. And yet news seems to be the inverse of that. News… massive change has happened in that production process, and in the creation process… but then remarkably stuck at the point at which that content comes into the commissioning entity. So I thought that was a really, really great insight. I hadn't thought of it that way before.

And then on the making content side, what somebody said in one of our sessions was you have to realize that the editorial community were the ones who want to go to the new platforms. And it's the business community that actually is wanting to stay more traditional. And again, that's actually an inverse of what you might expect, because you know, often it said that it's actually the editorial community that are very conservative, and it's the commercial teams that are trying to drive them towards some new markets. And that's simply because news people, you know, they want to get their news to the audience. And if that means TikTok, it means TikTok. The fact that TikTok doesn't earn them a bean, it's kind of neither here nor there, whereas their business colleagues are saying, “Hang on a second… we need our own app” or “We need our own platform” or “We need our own channel so that we can identify who we're giving content to.” We know whether or not we're engaging with them and we're also we can have advertising.

CW: Yeah, really, really interesting, Mark. So I think as you know, there is one final question I ask everyone in the podcast, so I will ask it to you. What is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

MH: What it is right now, Craig, is the huge amount of revision I’m having to do for my wine qualification course and exam that's coming up. I'm actually rushing back from IBC on the Saturday night because I'm spending all of Sunday in the second of three day-long courses that then will culminate in an exam. And this is for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust level 2 certification. So, at the moment I'm trying to work out how I can be doing grape work whilst also doing great work for the DPP.

CW: I'd also like to think there's a lot of practical work involved in that exam, as well?

MH: We’re promise that we're going to get to taste 43 different wines, which doesn't sound too bad.

CW: Sounds like my kind of exam. Thanks to Mark for joining the podcast, and I would really urge you to download the reports to find out more.

News is a critical industry for Avid, so check out the show notes for an article featuring key players from the BBC and ABC sharing their thoughts. And also check out the links to discover more about the story-centric capabilities of MediaCentral | Collaborate and how it is bringing news teams closer together to enable new, efficient ways of working in the newsroom.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Making the Media to make sure you get notified when new episodes are released and please share with your friends and colleagues to spread the word about our new season. You can always reach me on social—I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram. Or email us, we are [email protected].

That is all for now! Thanks to our producer Matt Diggs and the rest of the production team, but most of all thanks to you for listening. My name is Craig Wilson, join me next time for more Making the Media.

 

Making the Media S3E03

Standing Out From the Crowd


Craig Wilson: Hi, and welcome to the Making the Media podcast. I'm your host for the show, Craig Wilson, and it's great to have you join us. In this edition of the podcast, we're going to focus a bit more on studio workflows with the executive director of the UK-based news channel TalkTV, Erron Gordon.

TalkTV only launched a few months ago with the headline show presented by the broadcaster and journalist, Piers Morgan. Erron was heavily involved in the launch and directs Piers’ evening show. Erron has an extensive background in television and confesses to being a TV nerd, fascinated by the way it works and how it looks. In his career, he's seen technology evolve to change the way shows are produced and presented, and how the audience interacts, regardless of the platform on which they are watching. So, let's hear from him now, and I began by asking him to outline what his current role entails.

Erron Gordon: So, initially I was brought in to help launch this new news and views channel on behalf of News UK, and that was, you know, creating the look for the channel that, you know, the audio, the sound for the channel, the on-screen graphics, and the set design. And a lot of my efforts went into launching Piers Morgan Uncensored, which is the sort of flagship program on the channel, but it also is a global program, it’s broadcast on Fox’s successful streaming service, Fox Nation, in the United States, and it's also broadcast on Sky News Australia, as well.

So yeah, it was busy time, but a lot of things to juggle. But nowadays it's more day-to-day directing, so I direct Piers Morgan’s show every weeknight, and as well as that, we're kind of managing our studio teams, you know, making sure that we're running because we've run a quite a number of studios and we've got, you know, we've got several directors and vision mixers and it's quite a big team, actually, because you know, we've got two studios at London Bridge, and then the studio here at Ealing Broadcast Centre as well, which is the timeline facility.

CW: So Erron, how did you get into directing to start with?

EG: I was a floor manager at ITN many years ago and the role, the actual title of the role was Genius Studio Producer, and that was because as well as floor managing the main news bulletins on Channel 5 news, you would also TD, so you would technical direct, vision mix direct the news updates, the 5 News updates. So I started, believe it or not, sort of directing, but not in the true sense. It was running a minute-and-a-half news bulletin at like the age of sort of 18 because 18, 19.

So that was my kind of—and then I got a shot at directing the Saturday morning breakfast show that Channel 5 used to do 5 News Early. Which was fun, you know, it was a good—and I had no idea what I was doing, you know, I really didn't, you know, and it was an amazing opportunity and it was sort of, that was my first kind of foot in the door of directing. But then I went into vision mixing. I've got a job at Sky News, vision mixed there, and then became a vision mixer at GMTV. Back in what, 2001, I think. I was there for about three years, vision mixing TV, then went back to Sky when they got the 5 News contract to make the news bulletins for Channel 5. And I was vision mixing there and then once again started directing the kind of the weekend programs and the Evening News bulletins and things like that. And then I became a kind of fully fledged director on Sky News, I think 2007 I think it was, and that was when I started directing full time.

And then from then moved back to GMTV to direct that and then was at ITV from that period onwards, from sort of 2008 to about this time last year.

CW: I think it's really fascinating how people’s careers develop and, you know, careers change. I'm sure there's a lot of people I speak to who could never have really imagined they'd be in the kind of position they're in now, you know, when they look back at where they began.

EG: Yeah and but I mean I think that's the really exciting thing about television and the industry. You know, I love this industry. I think it's a really great place. Great. You know, I'm really fortunate to be doing a job that I absolutely love, and you know, I've had some amazing opportunities, you know, and I'm coming up to 25 years in television next month, and you know, I started when I was 16 and I was given an amazing opportunity by Chris Shaw at ITN, who was the editor of 5 News back then, and, you know, I was just a weekend runner. I was, you know, tea boy, photocopying scripts, that sort of thing. But a lot of the people that I've worked with in those early days are now really senior people, you know. So, you know, the people that were kind of news editors and program editors back then are now industry leaders. So, I've just been really lucky.

And I think the other exciting thing when I joined the industry to where it is now is how technology has changed and, you know, I think when we, when I was at 5 News at ITN in the late 90s, it was, you know, we didn't have a lot of, you know, it wasn't… there weren't… there weren't automated control rooms, there weren't, you know, robotic cameras. I'm sure they existed elsewhere perhaps, but they didn't there. And that enabled me to kind of pick up more skills. So, you know, I was just as annoying 16 year old that was just saying, “Oh, can I do that? Can I do that?” And I ended up, you know, ended up doing really random things like writing the weather bulletin. And things like that, it was just, you know, odd things like that, you know. So I didn't really know what I wanted to do back then. I used to work on the news desk and do assignments and things like that. But all of that has helped because I understand more now in the position I'm in, you know, it's quite handy to have had a sort of dip my toe into all those different fields, different areas of the industry, because I kind of have a bit more of a broader understanding of it.

CW: It's definitely about taking the opportunities that come along and I guess are placed in front of you. So let's maybe talk about launching the show and launching the channel. You know, it was a big thing just a few months ago. So really what I'm interested in is, you know, what happens when someone approaches you and says, you know, “We've got this position, want you to do it. We want you to launch this show. It's a big name, obviously, with Piers Morgan.” So really, where do you start with something like that?

EG: Yeah, well, I mean, interestingly, it was Piers himself that reached out and Piers and I worked really closely together at Good Morning Britain, um, and you know, we worked there for a number of years until he left, which I'm sure everyone was aware of or is aware of. And, you know, I was really happy at Good Morning Britain, really enjoyed my time at ITV. But one of the things that was that was probably getting to me was after 13 years was probably the 2:00 o'clock in the morning alarm call. So when Piers reached out and said, you know, “I'm launching a new show, it's going to be very exciting, you know, new opportunity, you know, it's not going to be easy because we were building from the ground up, but I'd really like you to get involved, and not just that, you know, I want you to kind of be involved with the channel.” And you know, it sounded like a really exciting opportunity, you know, and it's a huge risk leaving the kind of security of a job and a role at ITV, you know, the biggest commercial broadcaster, you know, making flagship morning show for ITV for a huge network, and you're kind of stepping into a world that is, you know, it's very different. And you're having to build your team and build and create new looks and. Because I'm this kind of huge TV nerd, like, I literally get my kicks by watching, you know, other news programs, I mean it's really sad, but I enjoy it, so whatever, you know. I'll spend an evening on YouTube watching the new look RTL or something like that—they just launched a new studio. To me I find that interesting, which you know, I probably need to get out more, but actually, that's what I think makes me good at my job is that I kind of look at all those things and it creates new ideas, things like that, so.

Yeah, that's kind of… that helps with the challenge. But yeah, it's a big, it was a big challenge. It still is a big challenge because you know, I've only been on air for a few months. I mean, and you know, it's tough launching a new channel and finding an audience and also in this new multi—you know, we're in a multi-platform world, unless you're BBC or BBC One or ITV or one of the mainstream broadcasters, it's hard finding a new audience. So you're kind of—what our offering is and one of the things that we're very keen to do, it's mmulti-platform. If you don't watch the full hour-long show, that's fine. Actually a lot of our YouTube channel is doing great numbers for Piers’ show, and you know, all the clips that are generated from across the network get really good pick up on you know, TikTok, and things like that, and YouTube. So these kinds of platforms that are finding new audiences that just aren't watching traditional linear television.

CW: That's actually something I wanted to ask a little bit about because you know, we do talk to a lot of people on the podcast about, you know, multi-platform distribution, the rise of TikTok and Instagram and other ways that news is distributed. But, you know, I'm still interested and I think there's still a huge appetite across all these platforms for well-produced studio programs, and I think at times people maybe ignore that and they think a little bit more that it's just about getting content out to these people.

So I'm interested in, you know, what you think about how the show is crafted and is that done really with other platforms in mind, or are you just focused on the TV show?

EG: Yeah—look, I'm a TV person. So, first and foremost, I want to make a really good looking television program and you know I think that we have achieved that here and I'm really proud of what my team and I have done. And, you know, actually we were just nominated—one of our [inaudible] music was just nominated for an award for, you know, for original sound design, and you know, so those things are really I think are hugely important.

But of course you are thinking about the other platforms and you're thinking about you know the size of the—you know one of the things that we think about is in our banners, our on-screen banners is you know the size of the text on screen. A lot of networks now kind of doing much smaller typeface and not bold, big you know it's looking a little bit more conservative and one of the things that I wanted to do here is just make a much sort of louder you know bigger arguably tabloid in some respects. Look, and I think that's because when people are watching on their mobile device, it's easier to read.

CW: So, when it comes to creating the look, you know, you mentioned earlier watching that new RTL show, you know, what are you looking at you know to try to find inspiration?

EG: Yeah I am. And I just because even if it doesn't sort of—even I don't get inspiration from it, I'm just, I mean I'll look at really old stuff as well. You know I'll go down looking at, I mean honestly it's very probably niche, this sort of random old TV clips and things that I look at, but, um, but I love it because I think it does inspire me, you know, theme music, set design, on-screen graphics. Especially whilst working on Good Morning Britain, and we when we launched Good Morning Britain, a lot of our inspiration was from the American morning shows and the same thing with Piers’ show.

Now Piers' show is very glossy. It's… people will say it's American, it's arguably, you know, very American in its design. But when people say it's American, they said that about Good Morning Britain, actually. To me it's not American, it's just well done, and I think US television news particularly does a brilliant job at making sort of news output, adding in some of those entertainment, you know, high-production values that you would see on shiny floor shows like Strictly or Britain's Got Talent, things like that. And you're pumping those into news and current affairs because just because it's news doesn't mean that it's boring. And that kind of goes way back to when I first started in 1997 at Channel 5 News, which was this really innovative news program presented by Kirsty Young. She was perched on her desk, she was walking around the newsroom and the newsroom was the studio. So if she was talking to the political editor, she'd walk to his desk and talk about politics and so I think that has always stuck with me being a sort of child of or a student of 5 News circa ‘97 is what sort of made me such a nerd today, because TV news shouldn't be boring, it should be engaging and interesting, and even more so with, you know, people making their own kind of news, you know, channels on YouTube and things like that. People are doing their own things. There's so many options these days to choose from. You've really got to stand out. And I think that what we've done with the look of TalkTV and Piers Morgan Uncensored is that, you know, it's eye-catching, it's bold, it's loud, and you know, hopefully it does stand out in a crowded market.

CW: Ultimately, of course it is really the content of the show that that is key to everything else. But you know, you talked a little about your background and an interest in technology and in news. So what kind of innovations do you think have also maybe helped articulate those stories better?

EG: I think the biggest tech innovation, you know… I love technology. I'm not an under the bonnet guy. So even when I was a vision mixer I was very much more about the look, the, the piercing it together rather than the programming and the engineering. You know, I leave that to kind of the experts because that was never my, that's never been my sort of field of expertise. But I think the biggest technological innovation that I can pinpoint off top of my head right now is live view, and I think live view has just changed how we make television programs.

Before, jacking a live up at a location took quite a lot of effort. You know, links truck and you know all that. You know so much involved in it. Now you turn up with a backpack and you're off and you get to places that you would never have got to. With that, you know, you've got that freedom to move around, which is incredible, not being tied down to one spot. So, you know when it comes to breaking news and things like that, I think that for me is one of the biggest innovations that I can think of in my time, anyway. I mean apart from what the obvious ones like moving away from—you know when I first started at ITN, we had betacam and you know and there was a, you know, we called it STACK, but essentially it’s a betacart machine, you know, but you've moved from that to digital and things you know. So you know that those are the obvious ones.

CW: One of the things about an organization like TopTV, I guess, is it's relatively small in comparison to obviously what you've done at GMB as part of ITV. Does that maybe allow you more freedom to perhaps innovate and do things quicker?

EG: Yeah it does, it does. And that's one of the really exciting things about being on in this new role coming from a bigger organization like ITV is that you know there just it is a smaller—obviously TalkTV is part of News UK, which is part of News Corp, which hugely successful. Massive organizations. We've got a great backing from all of our leaders, and you know managers across in the United States and here in London as well. But you know TalkTV particularly is a small operation but there's less red tape. So we're launching new programs at the moment and kind of as part of my role as Creative Director as well is that, you know I can say to a graphic designer “This is what I want. This is the brief. Off you go to make it happen.” And when they start presenting their work, you know, we as a team evaluate the work, we show it to executive producers, things like that. But ultimately it comes down to whether I like it, you know, it doesn't. Which is really quite, you know, unique really. But that's amazing for me as a TV nerd because I get to basically create looks, you know, I'm not, I don't design, obviously, but, you know, working with really talented people, you know, we create, you know, we cut through the kind of, you know, the red tape and just do what we want and what we think is right. I'm surrounded by people that just love television and that's what makes it so exciting.

CW: Obviously we've been through in the UK a fairly extraordinary few weeks with the death of the Queen. And that's really what I wanted to talk a little bit about, you know, being in the gallery, being in the control room when things happen, you know, clearly shows are produced, they're prepared. But of course, one of the great things about news is times change, things change, and the running order changes. So, you know, really, I think that's what makes television really exciting.

And so I'm interested in maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the experiences around handling you know the area around the Queen's death and perhaps reflecting on I guess which is probably one of the biggest stories of your career.

EG: I know, absolutely. I mean, you know, first and foremost, I prefer it when the running order is thrown out. That's my type of telly. You know, I love… that's why I really love doing news because you know you get your kind of straight laced days where you follow the running order but actually when it's thrown out the window and you're having to, you know, think, you know and I learned a lot of those skills directing Sky News, the interesting thing about the Queen's death and all of the rehearsals, you know, we used to have regular, you know, rehearsals for Operation London Bridge and ITV and before that, ITN and Sky. The difference between the Queen's death and a regular breaking story—I've covered huge breaking stories, you know, Grenfell, Brussels terror attack, you know, I wasn't on air at the time, but I was working at Sky News during 9/11, you know, I was at Channel 5 News during the July 7th terror attacks in London. But the difference between those stories and the Queen's death is those are breaking stories. You get that on air immediately, you get it, you know and you report as the information's coming in.

With the Queen, the way I was always taught it is you don't treat it as a breaking story. You get it right. You go on air once you've got the facts. So it's not about being first, it's about accuracy, it's about being right. And, you know, that's what we did and you know, we were well prepped and one of you know, again, can't quite believe we did it because we've only been on air for a few months. But on the actual evening in the gallery, I was there with Piers Morgan, it was very, you know, textbook Queen’s death announcement. So it was really, you know, I'm Piers Morgan in London, this is the announcement, fade to black, run the national anthem, fade to black again, come back to vision, repeat the announcement, and then go into an obituary VT, which is how I’d always been taught that you should break the news. And the team that I work with here, really experienced editorial team that have worked at big broadcasters, that's how they knew to do it as well.

So I'm, you know, incredibly proud of the way we handled that for a channel that has only been on air for a matter of months. And I think that's a real testament to the talent and the skills of the people that that we have here. We may be a very small startup outfit, but actually we have some real, really good and smart talented journalists and production to make it happen behind the scenes.

CW: You've mentioned that you've worked with Piers Morgan for quite a long time. I'm guessing there's probably never a dull moment?

EG: No..! No, there isn't. I mean, I first met Piers. I can't remember… I think it was the end of 2015 where he came and guest hosted Good Morning Britain for a week. And, you know, I'd never worked with him before. I didn't know him at all. And I was like, this guy is really interesting, you know, like he's, you know, he's very different, you know, bringing something very different to the table. And obviously when Piers was brought back, I can't remember the actual timeline of it, but I think it was early the following year, he was brought back to kind of anchor the show with Susanna Reid. And it was… it's been a roller coaster ever since, and actually, you know, I loved Piers and Susanna on screen together and the ensemble cast of, you know, Charlotte Hawkins and Ranveer Singh, Richard Arnold, Kate Garraway… they were an amazing team of presenters and created, I think, a brilliant morning show, really, you know, different morning show. The thing I used to love about that was it was kind of, I always thought of Good Morning Britain as kind of Sky News meets the Big Breakfast. That's what it was always for me, it needed to be different from BBC Breakfast.

But Piers was just nonstop fun. And craziness and challenging and pushing me and sometimes pushing me on air and actually name checking me if something didn't work, you know, and things like that. But we went and interviewed… he interviewed, I directed, you know, his interviews with Donald Trump, President Trump. In Davos, Switzerland, and on Air Force One. Incredible, incredible moments for me as a director, so I'm very grateful to him for all of those opportunities.

And then obviously the morning, I think it was March 2021, Piers you know, all blew up with the Meghan Markle stuff on Good Morning Britain, you know, that was a really different day to be directing. It's quite a… you know, I've never had a presenter walk off set in the middle of directing a program. And, you know, people often don't remember it, Piers actually did come back on set and presented the rest of that day's program, which turned out to be his last program. And, you know, so he left in this kind of, you know, bombastic way that is typical of Piers, and then working with him here as well, it's been a huge challenge, but it's been really exciting. Piers is so invested in what he's doing, you know. He really cares. You know, he cares for the team and you know, he really wants it to work and it's important—we want it to work, you know, it's a huge challenge for all of us and that's why we took the challenge in the first place. But yeah, he's, you know, he pushes you because he's a smart guy, you know. He's been an editor of a national newspaper, he's been huge name on American entertainment television, big CNN show, you know, he's been there, he's done that, he understands it. You know, he doesn't suffer falls, but that ultimately just makes you stronger and better at your job, I think.

CW: You're being challenged and I think responding to those challenges is one of the things that then drives you on, you know, as a, as a career person as well as something that's really interesting and stimulating that as well. So perhaps as we get towards the end of the podcast, what are you looking now for now as the next kind of, you know, innovation. What are you seeing that you think, “Yeah, this looks really good. This can perhaps help us drive things forward.”

EG: Yeah, it's good question. I mean, regretfully, I wasn't at IBC this year, but you know, I always sort of think about those events as exhibitions as a good way to sort of think, “Well what what's the next innovation in broadcasting and you know where do we take it?” And we do have to start thinking more about the nonlinear platform, you know. TV, You know, it's changing a lot and, you know, in another 10 years’ time, it will be very different to what we know, what I know, and what I was taught. And I'll become one of the old guard, you know, and I'll be the people that I first met when I first started TV. But it's important to, to keep up with the latest innovations in terms of, you know, what we're doing in studios and particularly things like on screen graphics and things like that, you know, and information, how you tie information into on-screen graphics. Um, you know, things like if you're writing a breaking news strap that goes on the television, pushing that out as a mobile phone notification and things like that, which I know some of our rivals do. Those sorts of innovations interest me because I think you've got to start thinking about the product as not just a television product. You've got to think about it, you know, on every different platform.

So, you know, off the top of my head, I can't think of a piece of equipment or something that is in mind at the moment, but I just think at the forefront of everything that I do and that we do is thinking that this is not just a television program, you know. How will this look if it was clipped up on TikTok or as a tweet, that's all really important as well. So yeah, there's no one sort of piece of equipment, I would say, but it's just thinking about the future of broadcasting.

CW: So, Erron, you spent many years in breakfast television where of course you were up very, very early. You've now moved on to maybe a few more regular hours. But you know, there is one final question I ask everyone in the podcast. So what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

EG: I actually sleep really well at night, Craig, to be honest. And yeah, no, what keeps me up, I don't… I mean, nothing, really keeps me up at night. It depends what sort of period we're in. I mean, we're in a busy period at the moment, we're launching new shows with Vanessa Feltz and Jeremy Kyle and you know, a lot of those things I'm thinking, you know, gosh, have we done, have we actually done that or have that graphic being made? There's so many components to what we do. So, if anything, you know, I'll wake up in the middle of the night and, you know, I actually did this week and just thought, “Oh, gosh, I must, I must e-mail that person to make sure they're aware,” you know, it's things... and again, this goes back to being part of a smaller sort of startup organization, it's that, you know, we were talking about scheduling, you know, have we spoken to the scheduling team and told them that we're doing this or that we're doing that so.

Generally I sleep quite well, but every now and again I'll just wake up and sort of think of random things and jot them down on my on my phone and kind of go back to sleep.

CW:  It's good to know after all these years of breakfast TV that Erron is enjoying a good night's rest these days. Thanks to him for sharing his views with us. What do you think? Let us know by e-mail, we are [email protected]. Or on social, I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram. You can of course also follow any of the Avid social accounts too.

Also check out the show notes where you can find another podcast with John Mason, the head of program output for STV in Scotland, where he discusses his passion for live news. You can also find information there about Avid Maestro graphics, now available as a software-only subscription.

Now talking of subscriptions, don't forget to subscribe to the podcast to get notified when new episodes are out. We're on all the major podcast platforms.

That's all for this episode. I hoped you enjoyed hearing Erron's thoughts. I know I certainly did. Thanks as always to the production team behind the show, producer Matt Diggs, thanks to Erron for joining us, and thanks of course to you for listening. Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more behind the scenes chat with the people making the media

 

Making the Media S3E04

Get in the Game


Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here and welcome to the Making the Media Podcast, thank you so much for joining us.

The world of sport remains one of the biggest drivers for live television viewing, delivering lucrative audiences which advertisers crave. But that comes at a price as we have seen with the exponential rise in the cost of rights in recent years.

And these markets are not just in the countries where the sport is played—the NFL has taken the initiative to routinely stage regular season games in the United Kingdom in recent years, using the event and TV coverage to expand the game beyond its traditional home-grown audience. And you may be as likely to see someone wearing an English Premier League team's shirt in downtown Bangkok as you may in downtown Birmingham with the league’s appeal exploited globally.

But if you are an organization which is covering sport, how do you meet that demand to create the content as more platforms emerge and that demand is not just from the very top leagues, but from the teams themselves, and it is not just teams at the top level, but every team in every league or division. And of course, it’s not just football.

The appetite for sports-related content may seem insatiable, but can the industry keep up? Joining me to discuss all of that in this episode is Brian Leonard, who is head of engineering for post and workflows at IMG in the UK.

Brian has worked there in a variety of roles for more than twenty years and has seen the massive expansion in demand for sport grow through that time. So I began by asking him to explain a bit first about who IMG are and what they do.

Brian Leonard: It's probably easier to say what IMG don't do in the grand scheme of things and especially IMG's a bigger name in America and probably than it is in the UK because in America, IMG's heavily involved in all the universities and the academies and training and basically big in tennis, big in golf. So there's an element, that's one part of what we do.

IMG necessarily have got—it's main thing was agency work. That's how it sort of was founded. It was being the agent for people and then sort of a television [inaudible] TWI, but we're also rights owners, right and broadcasters. So, Endeavour, who's the person who owns IMG, owns the UFC as well, so we've dipped our toe in all that sort of sports ownership.

There's IMG models, IMG Arena, IMG Arena does streaming to bookmakers and sports books. Endeavour Streaming does the OTT side of the business, so like your designs, we got our own solution for that, and then media is the department I sort of worked for. And then there's two sides, there's production and then there's the studios. And this is where the production is obviously making the TV shows and the studios is the area I fall into which is making sure that we give the facilities to these people to necessarily create it in the easiest, most comfortable way possible.

CW: And the kind of facilities that are on offer, you mentioned there about streaming, about teams, leagues, federations, that the market itself has grown massively in in recent years. It's not just about…I'm old enough to remember, Brian perhaps you are as well, you know match of the day here in the UK on a Saturday night was maybe the only time to you had a chance to watch football highlights never mind actually watching live games. So that market has just expanded incredibly.

BL: Right, and part of what we do is where you've got the sky doing the BBC and Amazon's doing the UK we're distributing for the rest of the world. So, the Premier League is pretty much 50% of our business. So, and again even in my period of time, we've gone from having studios to necessarily...so it started off doing one game, then it was two, then it was all of them, then it was—it's just literally feels like it's just how do we keep on growing. So, every so often we go back to the Premier League and say “We think you could do all of these new things. Have you got any appetite for doing it?” Depending on where they see what they're trying to achieve depends on where we go next.

CW: And what difference do you think it's made to the way that content is kind of created and delivered that there are these other markets that people are now looking to get into? It's not just about the domestic market, it's very much about how they can brand themselves, I guess, across the world.

BL: Again, it's just looking to grow. I think everybody wants to grow, everybody needs to grow. So there's an element of once—and again, when you look at a local football club, you think to yourself, “Ok, how do we grow that football club into getting more eyeballs watching it, more people watching it”? And you basically use what is probably available to you. So if you have 10 international players, maybe if you create content for those 10 international players you'd hit those 10 international markets easier and you'd be creating more demand for your particular team, your particular club, and you'd potentially bring in the eyeballs there.

The Premier League is such a beast and it's a very good beast in the fact of they don't do things necessarily just for the fun of it. They do it for a dedicated reason. So that's one of the reasons why I think there's—that's why you just want to do more and more and more and more and more.

CW: But it's also not just about the teams at the top level is it? It's about every level. I mean I know we're talking about football here or soccer for an international audience, but it is not just that top tier that's looking to get into those kind of markets as well. Do you see that as well?

BL: 100%. So it's actually getting to a stage now where I actually think that the lower tier—and again you can take this across any sport—it's got more opportunity to do more things that are innovative purely because the bigger boys are very risk adverse because if they make a mistake, it's huge, it's noticed, it's publicized. And then you have to think very carefully of why we are doing this, for what benefit, and what's it going to bring the federation or the league or the broadcaster.

So, if you're a lower tier, you don't have those same constraints, so you necessarily can push the boundaries a little bit more. And if you make a mistake, then it's not the end of the world because you might have only seen a few people see it. But if you pick on something that brings eyeballs and everybody goes, “Wow, that was interesting. Wow.” All of a sudden other leagues, other federations are looking at you thinking “Why aren't we doing that?” And I always think that's the biggest compliment you can give to anybody when it comes to innovation. If all of a sudden you start doing something and then people start copying, then you did something right. Whether how you financially gained from that is a tougher argument but I see huge potential in the the tiers below any big premiums—and again it's whether the tier below sees it as a tier below and that's also part of the part of the problem.

But you get to a stage where, you know, if you look at Wrexham and we've got nothing to do with the Wrexham operation that I’m aware of—just look at the interest that that's generated just by having two American owners, you know, celebrities owning it. All of a sudden, you know, I was hearing on talksport the other day they were saying you know my wife was asking about you know a non-league goal scorer and that is just generating interest that was not there before but because Wrexham are not necessarily pushing the boundaries from that perspective, it's interesting. It's interesting to us all. You know I'm one of the people who watch that show.

CW: Is it also at the top level though? I think one of the previous episodes we we've done was with Darren Long who you know was a long time at Sky obviously and Darren spoke a lot about the kind of innovation and quality that sky been involved in. Obviously, BT Sport have brought you know new things to as well and other broadcasters.

So is part of it driven at a quality level at the very top end. But I guess part of it the other side is about volume and about delivering that kind of volume of content. I'm interested in and how you've seen that develop.

BL: I’ll give you an example. What I've noticed as well is the manufacturers of televisions want you to necessarily go to newest 4K TV's, newest 8K TV. Sport has struggled globally to necessarily go into the next tier of UHD, purely because I don't think the fan is seeing a huge benefit. But going to 4K UHD 8K means you have to triple, quadruple your costs in delivering that signal to them. And when you deliver the signal and they can't really see a huge difference, then why are you doing it? So, that's one of the things where again, sky and BT had their own agenda for necessarily pushing UHD, so there's an element.

And again, no one's going to deny it's better, but is it worth the additional cost is what a federation would necessarily have to take that into account. So that's one of the things. And on the delivery, I'm lucky enough to be IMG where I see us sometimes as a tanker. So we're not necessarily the most agile all of the time, but what we can deliver, it is a beast. So we can come along and deliver 14 times the amount that someone else, so I always describe as a tanker, but we've also got speed boats on the side that are delivering to digital and delivering to everybody else and a helicopter and occasionally to necessarily get content to somewhere else. And again, we're always looking in the sky seeing these two big jumbo jets or the AWS and the Azure thinking, well maybe we start delivering that way. So it's…when you've got a beast like that you can necessarily deliver massive amount of content. And does a fan want to see one polished clip. Or does he want to see 75 different renditions of that clip? And it's always, it's a tough, it's a tough one to work out who wants what, because you may want to see the story, but as a fan, I might want to see the specific action and it's trying to please everybody at the same time. And so it's one of those things that's tough.

CW: Do you think football is unique in the way that it has a sort of dominance in the media in this country in the UK but I guess if you look abroad—I've been lucky enough to be to India a few times, it's cricket that's the main sport there. We were talking just before we started recording about the American football the NFL being in London you know so in the US you know soccer is growing but basketball, ice hockey, NFL, they're still—baseball—dominant sport.

So from I guess when IMG. Perspective, are you trying to look at the other markets and say “Are there other things that we can do here that's perhaps not just limited to what you do in football?”

BL: I think it's fair to say that everybody's looking at everybody. So if I'm watching an NFL game and they do something I'm thinking “Ohh well we could do that and we could do it in a slightly different way to take benefit.” I think part of the problem and it's one of my struggles is that we've been doing football very, very well now and I think this is the same across all sports for 20, 30 plus years in television. So to come along with anything that hasn't already been tried is tough. And so, if you're then going to do it, what was the benefit?

So, you know, there are times when you could say, “Ok, let's have 8K cameras all around the time” But if it costs you 75 times the amount and no one really sees a benefit, what was the point? And so who are you trying to please and why are you trying to please them?

And you know, I think one of the things is always harsh to to a federation is when you see YouTubers out there and influencers doing amazingly well and they haven't got any content and you're thinking “How are they doing so well?” They're shooting it in their living room. They're shooting it with their, you know, wash baths and in the background. And why are they pulling in the numbers? They're pulling in the numbers because they're controversial. They're saying things that aren't going to be—no television broadcast is going to come out with half of the stuff they get away with because there's comeuppance, you'll be reported, you won't be allowed to do that. So what's what's allowed for the influence of this world is not necessarily allowed for the rest of us.

So we're always competing unfairly because if we're creating official content for a particular federation and it only brought in 10 viewers, but we could create—so you see then the unofficial content has got a million views, and you're like “Well what are we doing wrong? We've got the actual content” so on and so forth, but we can't compete. It's not a fair game, and I feel like federations are starting to realize that and there's an element of them actually putting content onto a YouTube as well, makes YouTube a better platform, which potentially hurts their own platform.

So you get into a stage where I wouldn't be surprised in time where more and more federations, more and more official sports really don't give a lot to the YouTube of this world because they see that the little dribbling of money, but they're sitting there thinking to themselves, “Well, YouTube taking a huge cut at that. If we control our own destiny, maybe then we'd get more money than we are on the current YouTube model.”

I think YouTube still has a place, the number of eyeballs it has, blah blah blah. So you use it in potentially in a different way, but the potential is I think there's a there's a chance where they could potentially change and bring sport in a different way to the YouTube and the influencers.

CW: I think this is something that's come up a lot is the likes of Twitter and YouTube are seen in some respects as necessary evils. You have to be there because you have to have a presence there. But from a financial perspective, and we talked a bit about this on news about, you know, the rise of TikTok and the rise of Instagram actually as news platforms, which might think a bit odd, but it's something that's happened now, but there's no money in that. And so what people are actually looking to do is to move that audience to their own platform, to their own website, to their own app. Is it the same in sport that that's really what the teams and federations are hoping to do?

BL: I believe so. You know, whether we like it or not, sport is news. So it's keeping up to up to date with what's going on. There's the live game but then everything else around it is news for me. That's what you're watching. So every problem that news faces is a similar problem we face. You know, when I've listened to the podcasts, I agree with practically everything that's been said. It's everybody sitting there going, “We have to do this and we make no money from it” and then we're going, “Well, why do we have to do it?” And I think the tide might slowly be changing. But it is a necessary evil.

And again, I'm thinking back to what other people have said in your podcast and in the fact of that's where people are. So if you don't go, it's a risk to necessarily say, “Well that content won't be available anymore. You now have to come to this location” because people are potentially lazy and they'll just stay wherever they're happy. And you know it's a tough one, it’s a tough one.

CW: You mentioned earlier on this sort of Amazons and Googles of the world and obviously cloud you know delivery and cloud production is something a lot of people are talking about. What are you looking at from that kind of perspective Brian because I guess one of the things you have to assess from that is you know is it going to make things better, is it economically going to work for me? Where are you on that sort of journey of looking at the cloud?

BL: I think we want to keep our options open and I think everybody does, and I think one of the reasons why potentially we won't move fast into that world is that there's CapEx cycles we have to worry about. If we've got an entire facility sitting here ticking over available to do a job, why would we necessarily go to the cloud and there's an element—that's a big factor for us. There's also that element of. Why did you do it if it’s not going to be cheaper and it's not going to necessarily bring you anything better. In fact, it's going to be more expensive and it's going to be more complicated to do, but we're still trying to push it.

I think the only thing it massively wins on is sustainability. So, that is a big thing and especially in the media industry. But there's an element of you probably could do four or five other things to counteract that and you'd still probably be in a better, better place. So sustainability is the only thing for me where it is winning, but apart from that...and that's why it's tough—it's frustrating when you still hear them saying “Well I don't know if we can trust it” You 100% can trust it. There's no doubt in my mind you know if big banks are using this technology it can be trusted you know no more than any other computer can be trusted you know so…it's a tough one because I'm struggling to see a huge benefit because we've been doing remote broadcasts for 22 years as long as I've been there—it's just now a buzzword and necessarily has got a lot of clout and again I think there's potential.

So giving you an example, if we can bring in all the core feeds for the main broadcast maybe we’ll necessarily give the content to broadcasters around the world to do a special section on the foreign player that that they support. So if you necessarily are doing a golfing event and basically there are four Japanese players, you can give all the content, put it into the cloud and then they can cut their own show as a special red button channel in their facility. So it's about offering capability, offering solutions. I'm not seeing anything…you know, if there's ever going to do a big Champions League in the cloud, probably not. But again who knows in time that might that might turn around but at this moment in time it's one of those that I don't think…It's definitely coming, I'm just not sure whether the big boys or our own board as much as they potentially will be in the long run.

CW: Yeah, I think there's a lot of assessment that's still going on at the moment. And one of the things I think people are still struggling to get their heads around is actual total cost of ownership because ultimately that's, that's the one thing that if you could look at it and go, “OK, my total cost of ownership is this today and this is what it would be in the cloud” and we've spoken to some people who it's quite difficult to actually do that kind of assessment. You know, it's quite difficult to work out what these things are in terms of the actual real cost I guess of what you do today and compile this into what may seem an inflated cost of what you do in the cloud.

BL: It does give you more options. So you know one of the other benefits of the cloud is if all of our content was in the cloud then potentially we could let AI access our content a lot easier. So there are there are benefits on that front and again who knows the AI might come in and bring in a new technology that allows us to distribute 100 times the amount we're distributing. So there's an element of no one's—definitely no one saying it's not going to win. It's definitely going to win, you just can’t compete with those with those boys in the long run from support perspective, you know, because when I've looked at the support argument is, let's say we've got an amazing support guy who's really expensive, really good, amazing at what he does. That's only one individual. The cloud potentially could have 50 of those people offering to do me 24/7, 365 days at a fraction of the cost of my one individual.

So they're in a strong position to necessarily, you know, take over. But it's going to take time.

CW: You mentioned something there Brian, I think it's quite interesting to talk about which is about skills and availability of people. You know one element that we've talked a little bit about in the podcast is there's a skills crunch I think a lot of people see within the industry kind of coming possibly, some of it the pandemic has kind of preempted you know some of the stuff that's happened. So I'm interested in what your own assessment is of just the availability of people to do stuff.

We've talked a bit about the explosion and the amount of content that's being created. Do you see that as something as a challenge? 100% we're struggling to find good stuff. And so there's an element of…I don't know because again it's not only a problem for us, it's a problem for the entire industry. So I think what it potentially might do for the industry is stunt growth. So there's an element of…if I can't find the people and we can't find the people, then we can't offer what technology they might be able to do because we haven't got the people to support it. And I don't think that's an IMG problem. I think that's a global problem. So you know, I think the geniuses I've worked with in the past when television was the most exciting thing in the world you had real intelligent people getting into television because it was exciting. It was the place to be. I'm not sure television is perceived as the bad place to be because one, you can do it in your own home, so it can't be that complex. Two, you necessarily got to a stage where networking and development and is probably seen as more exciting.

And it's a weird one because I don't…I don't really know how looking at computer screen tapping away at numbers is more exciting than necessarily television, but you do have that problem. And I don't know whether the computer market will get flooded and then we'll necessarily get the scraps of that industry. I'm not 100% sure if that's going to work out. But what worries me is that we might be able to technically do things, but we won't be able to do it because the lack of skills supporting.

CW: Yeah, and I think it's also competition from other industries which are perhaps seen as sexier, like gaming, for example.

So, one thing I wanted to ask about is where do you think the next innovations coming from? You know you talked earlier on about we've been doing live television, we're doing live football for a long time and live sport for a long time now, and there has been lots of innovation but what do you think could be the next thing?

BL: I do think that the Tier 2's of this world can step up their game, and again, I always look at the NFL as a founder of they will take the good and the bad and they'll necessarily sweat therein. WWE is another one I necessarily I know with your support or not. But there's an element to say that they embrace everything. And so necessarily, you know, giving you an example, there was an element of I was talking Spurs at their grounds necessarily had a mural on the ground of Ledley King. So an old player, you know, I necessarily said to the NFL potentially we could do a mural for every club in the EFL. Therefore that's 72 murals. We're doing an art show so we can expand into different areas that aren't necessarily sport and necessarily try and piggyback off of those sort of technologies potentially to draw people back to the sport if all of a sudden they see Ledley King they goes “He’s a nice bloke—ohh what teams he sport?” You know and you get people more subtly.

So the innovation that lower tiers have is potentially where it could be game changing because I reckon that if they start doing things that the bigger boys are too scared to do and it all works well and it all can be done well then they can turn around and the bigger boys will go well. “You've proved it on the lower tier, so let's us do it and we'll necessarily do it.” So we can still expand that way. But the federations are still risk averse. Broadcasters are still risk averse. So let's try it, let's push the innovation through.

One of the things we're not necessarily talking about is potentially taking a football match, doing the data associated with that football match and then putting that football match into Minecraft so kids could watch and basically see all the players running around the pitch pretty much live. And again, that might open up the Minecraft rights to broadcasters and no one's ever bought the Minecraft rights before so that's how other things can grow. But there there's still plenty of capability for innovation but it's not anything in my mind that is “Wow!”

You know I think in the last couple of times I've been to IBC, I haven't been…no one's knocking me off my chair going “Jesus I didn't expect that” And I think that also when you look at the 3Ds, I think the big manufacturers have been hurt because they're thinking I will bring this 3D will make a world of difference, and it didn't really. And so if I was them I'd be like “Right let's make sure this is something that's got some, got some legs.”

CW: I mean ultimately it is all about the product. It's all about the game. But I mean you talked all about studios. I'm interested in how you think studios have developed and the kind of looks that are created now to go and create content. It's not just about a guy sitting in a cupboard that's delivering the game. It is much more about that whole experience. So what are your thoughts on sort of studio development studio workflows?

BL: Very similar. You know, we've been doing studio for a long, long time. I think there's an element of I find that the green screen capability is getting better and better and better. So people can't tell you're in a green screen as often as easily. And then that potentially gives us as a facility the capability of switching it to one studio for this client and switching it to one studio for another client. Which might not sound very exciting, but from our perspective it allows us to sweat an asset even more and so. So that is a big factor to play because if you necessarily had to fix it and you have to pull it all out and put it all in, that takes 2 days. That's two days it's out for. So then you get to a stage where you just not using the studio as efficiently. So if we can necessarily turn that around, but again, what's a studio? You know, you get into a stage where basically I want to film commentators while they're speaking over the game because that's another camera angle, that's another content. So these commentators could be sitting in their own room just like what we are, so there's an element of “Are we in a studio now?” That we necessarily have to have our own green screen sent around to everybody so we can necessarily control what's on the background?

So the studio technology is there and again in our world we've recently made a big push for IP, so 2110 is necessarily used in our facility. So that's coming with advantages and disadvantages. It allows you to scale massively, but you're still on sort of new technology. So it's very, it just feels just like this—SDI did for me when on your first SDI matrix you had quite a decent amount of problems, it was a little bit flaky and then over time it become more stable and I'm 99% sure that's gonna happen with our IP matrix.

But again, let's see what that brings. I think it just brings scale cost effective. So hopefully that helps answer.

CW: As you head into the winter period where obviously you know it's a very big focus of football here in the UK, we've got the World Cup that's coming up in in the next little while which I don't know if IMG are directly involved in that, but what are you expecting to see from the from the World Cup because that's normally a place where people do perhaps try some different things?

BL: Well I don’t…and again, this is the ridiculous thing about IMG—I'm sure we are involved, I'm just not sure where. So from an IMG studios perspective we're not that heavily involved. I know we're gonna be doing stuff hopefully for the Rugby World Cup next year, in the Women's World Cup next year, but for the for the actual football, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of our staff went out there and a lot of the Premier League staff potentially that skill set necessarily goes out to a tournament when the Premier League not running. So it's quite a nice little, you know—so there'll be people out there but they're probably not representing us.

And again, I'm not expecting any ground-breaking technology. I'm sure they would necessarily try and push some stuff. I think the VR element is necessarily going to have from, and again, this is just me being a football fan, is gonna have a new change to it and the fact of answers will be given for offside a hell of a lot quicker than they have been in the past. So I'm expecting the technology actually on the pitch to be probably the most exciting thing. I'm not expecting the technology broadcasting-wise to be any different than the last tournament to be honest.

CW: And we'll see how England get on and Wales get on in this one. Of course Scotland not being…

BL: I was going to say, I'm sure you'll be wishing us your best of course.

CW: So Brian, great to talk to you, lots of things we've covered, I know you listen to the podcast, so you know the last question that is going to come. So what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

BL: I think it's the...I want to do more, but I'm held back by politics. And the politics is the thing that stops us from doing more. And so politics is the thing that keeps me up at night. So again, I don't think we'd be any different to any other broadcast or any other manufacturer, but it's that obstruction that really does prevent us from pushing boundaries and doing more.

CW: Thanks to Brian for joining us on the podcast. What do you think about what we discussed? Don’t forget you can get in touch on social through any of the Avid channels, or with me, I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram, or email [email protected].

If you want to find out more about sport, then check out the show notes with links to another podcast episode with Trevor Pilling from Olympic Broadcasting Services as he discusses the massive operation to cover the Summer and Winter Games.

And if you want to know how editorial teams collaborate on all this content, then check out the links to the latest information on Avid NEXIS shared storage and discover the benefits it can bring to your editorial teams.

Please share the podcast, we are always on the hunt for new listeners and subscribers, just choose your preferred podcast platform and subscribe to get notified when the next episode is out.

Thanks again to our producer Matt Diggs, thanks to Brian for taking part, but most of all, thanks to you for listening. My name is Craig Wilson, join us next time for the latest from the people making the media.

 

Making the Media S3E05

The Skills Crisis


Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here with the latest episode of the Making the Media Podcast. Thanks as always for joining us.

This time, we are going to take a look at an issue which is impacting broadcasters, production houses, and post-production companies across the globe—the skills crisis. The pandemic prompted many experienced people to reconsider their career choice and move elsewhere and as remote work increased, opportunities for young people to gain meaningful work experience dried up, and frankly, some other industries just seem a lot more attractive these days than one with a reputation for long hours and a complex career path.

To discuss this, I am joined by two guests—shortly we will hear from Jay Welk. Jay has recently retired but he was instrumental in the establishment of the Davis Catalyst Center, a technical high school in the American state of Utah, which is taking an innovative approach to getting young people interested in a career in the media.

But to start with, I am joined by Charlotte Layton, co-founder of the UK-based post-production company, Racoon. As we are talking about career paths, appropriately enough we’ll start with finding out how Charlotte’s career has progressed to where she is today.

Charlotte Layton: I had a really lucky start, I was one of the technical trainees at Live TV if you remember that little setup back in the 90s and it really was the best of groundings because I was lucky enough to work in the MCR with some ex-BBC engineers and they literally taught me so much that I have been grateful for every single day since, and from there I moved into MTV, where I was in transmission for years. And then actually I moved into studios and looked after the studios at MTV and then went into post, took a bit of a swerve, went into post production at the BBC, looked after EastEnders for a long while and then started to look after the studios as well at television center, moved them to Elstree when the wholesale process of the site went on, and eventually ended up at the farm, which is where I met my soul mates and spent seven years growing that business to the point where in when in 2020, myself and the senior management team there decided it was time to leave. The sale prices had successfully gone through for the farm, and we decided to set up Racoon. And why did we set up Racoon?

We set up Racoon because I think we recognized that the industry needs a bit of a refresh, particularly in the post-production arena. I think we recognized that the industry hasn't been particularly kind to itself and we wanted to try and help remedy that. We also wanted to take everything that we genuinely believed in in terms of harnessing technology—and this is pre COVID—we wanted to look at how we could support a work life balance that enabled people to genuinely live where they wanted to live, work where they wanted to work, work with who they wanted to work with and not be so constrained. And then, of course, COVID happened, and it became a different world, as we all know, kind of expedited all of our thoughts.

We realized that actually supporting people to work at home became a necessity. But post COVID, we now understand that people want choice and people want a bit of both. And I think that's what Racoon is there to do. Racoon is there to enable talent creatives to connect with their technology wherever they may be in what we see as a work-anywhere world.

CW: Yeah, I mean, there was a phrase a few years ago that I think some people saw as a bit of a badge of honor, which was post don't stop. I think there's been a bit of a change now that there is a feeling that actually post needs to stop at times.

CL: I totally agree. And I we've worked on some shows some classic big shiny floor shows. , the big Saturday-nighters—it does become a badge of honor. “I didn't finish till 3:00 AM.” “Well, I didn't finish till 5:00 AM.” And you just do start to think what sensible decisions can possibly be being made at those kind of times a day when everyone's run ragged?

So yeah, it is about trying to put the brakes on a bit and just take a step back and say, “do we need to be working like that?”

CW: So Charlotte, we've talked a little bit there about the pandemic and how COVID has impacted the industry. We're obviously here to talk a little bit about kind of skills and recruitment. And I think one issue that has come up is that the pandemic has actually prompted a lot of people to reassess where they are—not just in the media industry but in lots of other industries—and as a consequence of that, lots of people have left the industry. Is that something that you've seen happening across the post-production landscape?

CL: Absolutely, and not just post-production, production too. I think COVID did kickstart a huge reset in a lot of people's minds and a huge kind of introspective look at individuals lives as to “what am I doing”. And I think that time that people spend at home, which probably [inaudible] they hadn't spent any time at home, or very little time at home, did make everyone take a step back and think “Gosh, I actually do need to find a way to balance my life better.” And as I said, I think the industry hasn't been particularly kind to itself and you've referenced the fact that it became a badge of honor to work as long as you possibly could, as hard as you possibly could, and that didn't really allow for family time. Didn't allow for hobbies. It didn't allow for anything that you actually did outside of the work life.

So yeah, and I think equally coupled with that is the fact that the skillsets have changed. When you look at big organizations like BBC and ITV and how they've changed their dynamic and their setups, the training that, as an industry, I think we all relied on has fallen by the wayside to some extent and there aren't many other businesses that have the time or budget or ability to restart that into their own ecosystems. So I think what's ended up is that there's many, many individuals coming through the industry both in post and production who haven't had the benefit of experience or training and therefore they're often over-challenged in roles they're not prepared for, they lose their confidence, or they lose the confidence of others and that sends them away—drives them away.

CW: Do you think it's also a little bit of a double-whammy that we we've lost very highly skilled people at one end and then we don't have enough people coming in at the other end to even learn those skills because of the way things have worked out?

CL: Absolutely, and there's very little time for anyone to teach people the skills. And as you said, some of the high skills people have left, and therefore they're the teachers aren't even there even if there was the time, and I think something that I'm passionate about focusing on as well is that the people that are coming into our industry, it's not a sexy industry at the moment for individuals to want to enter TV. Kids think we're dull because they don't watch TV, they watch streamers. They want to get into gaming, they want to get into films. And so actually poor old TV is a bit of a poor substitute for them. But actually once you engage with them and start to show them what opportunities there are available and the kind of salaries that they might be able to aspire to and the travel that it might involve, etcetera, then they start to get really focused on “Actually, yeah, this is a great industry for me to get excited about and there are actually all sorts of roles. I don't necessarily have to be a camera person or a technical person or a creative person. I could be in finance in this industry. I could be in legal in this industry. , I could be a spark in this industry.”

CW: Is it the case that there's lots of media schools that are out there, lots of media courses that that exist, but do you think people are getting enough of the practical side of what's actually involved in in the industry? And I think this is something that's always very very difficult because you have got that kind of intellectual educational side of things and you want people to come through the are keen, enthusiastic, and have got great ideas, but it has to be rooted in this is actually what the industry does and these are the skill sets that the industry needs. Do you think there is a gap at the moment?

CL: I genuinely do and I think, and no disrespect to anyone in the education system because I take my hats off to any teachers, but I do think that the curriculums that they're being followed aren't necessarily setting students or graduates up with real life, working skill sets that we actually need and/or the expectations of what a career might look like and how long a career might take to achieve and to move along, and what the salary brackets that sit around that are too.

Looking at post, the way in traditionally has always been as a runner. Now, post-COVID, the runner opportunities are less because a lot of buildings have rethought how they operate and people have consolidated buildings so there's less requirement. But equally, as a graduate or a student leaver, you think “I don't think I want to make tea and coffee for people for two years. That's not what I joined the industry for,” and again, that sends them away into other avenues.

So yeah, I think one of the things we really need to address is making sure that if a student is going to enter the industry and has done a media-related course, that what they're learning in that media-related course is actually fit for purpose in our industry. They're learning skills that they can come ready to work on day one.

CW: Is some of it also soft skills? Like actual understanding of the world of work. Is there enough of that being done?

CL: Oh absolutely. It's a real… but I think this isn't specific to our industry, I think this is very much generic across the board which is I think young people now find it very hard to engage even just eye-to-eye contact and just understanding how to socialize inside a workplace, and of course that's been expedited in terms of problem in that often it's very difficult to get work experience on-prem because obviously the post-COVID world means that a lot of work is taking place remotely nowadays. So now I totally agree. It's just, it's that understanding of how to interact with other humans, it's that how to listen, learn to listen, because actually if you don't listen you often find it difficult to engage, but it's also having the confidence to have opinions in a forum where other humans are sitting and it is about having confidence. And you're right, soft skills are as important as the technical skills.

CW: So if these are some of the issues, what are some of the solutions? Let’s move to the United States now to hear from Jay Welk and find out from him how they are bringing media education to a new generation of students at the Davis Catalyst Center, but I’ll let him explain what that is.

Jay Welk: The Catalyst Center is located in Kaysville, Utah, which is about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City… we're not a comprehensive high school. We're what's called a magnet high school. So students go to their own high school and then they magnet, we call it magnet to the catalyst Center for a career choice that they might have and what we offer at the Catalyst, but they come there where they normally have one period that's 90 minutes long of instruction at their home high school, they come to the Catalyst and we call it double blocks—so they have two periods that they're working on their career interests, they're working in their career interests and they're actually working with business partners, industry partners.

CW: So what kind of age are the children who are coming there and how do they make that choice? How do they get into the programs that you're able to offer?

JW: Well, they are 10 through 12th grade. So sophomore, junior, senior. We have CTE programs throughout our district. Our district is the second largest district in the state of Utah. We have a K12 enrollment of approximately 73,000 students, 11 high schools, 17 junior high school, middle schools, and so on. So we really are trying to take at least the exposure to different types or sectors of industry all the way down into the elementary school. I mean, like we were talking about earlier, what used to be maybe a 9 through 12, it's really become almost a [inaudible] if you're talking about lifelong learning, that goes on with the students. So we're not asking them to necessarily choose a career in elementary school, but we want to expose them to different things so they might start thinking a little bit about—it could be computer science or whatever it might be. We want them to know that there are options out there for them. And again, this school is a different model.

CW: So, tell us how the kind of thinking behind the Catalyst Center came up and why going down this kind of route—because people might think it's unusual in a relatively rural part of America to have this kind of facility.

JW: Well, I'm a career educator, I just retired from education after 40 years in education, and looking at the traditional model of education here in the United States, it just doesn't work for everybody. The binary model of a teacher and a student and pretty much that's it, is teacher-student interaction, we really felt like we needed to make it a triangular model rather than this binary model.

So we really felt industry needed to do more to inform education and it's pretty much been education informing education. I was in meetings where we would have industry there, we would have secondary education, would have post-secondary education, would have government—they would all be together and we would start talking about the things—we call them strands and standards—that are being taught to students and in a different content area. And it was interesting because we'd have industry people say “That's not how we're doing it anymore,” but that's what we were teaching. So it really made sense to us that industry has to do more to inform what we're doing in education. And really our students come out prepared for what industry needs are, so that's really why we kind of went to this model.

Industry has a presence in the building. We ended the year last year with 53 industry partners across the content areas that we offered in the building. So it was really great—and if you talk to the students, that say this is just different, “I mean I feel respected as a student. I've never been to a college, but I imagine this is what college would be like,” but even college a little bit is still that binary model. It's mostly content knowledge that the students are learning. They're really not learning necessarily application of that knowledge or they don't have authentic learning experiences in the course of their learning.

So we're trying to create that for students and I think it's a model that's kind of catching on a little bit. One thing we did have to do is we visited several schools throughout the United States and looked at different designs and models, and we took up kind of a little bit of everyone—our school isn't like any one of them, but we took a little piece from the different places we visited.

CW: So tell us a little bit about the media courses that students can do at the at the center.

JW: So, Avid played a huge role. We were in a meeting with our architects and I had reached out to the Utah Film Commission and a lot of films like the series Yellowstone, I don't know if you've ever seen that before, but there's a studio up in Park City that a lot of the episodes were filmed, here in Utah, so, and things like that—Utah does more with film than people probably realize. So I reached out to the Utah Film Commission and asked them as we were going into the design of the studio what we might need to have and they referred me… We had a great conversation and they were very helpful, but I ended up being connected with a professor at the local university. His name is Ash Stone, he's done some documentary film, and we got talking about things and so I invited him to come into our planning meetings with the architects and with Ford AV, who did the design and build with our staff, our local staff. So we had a pretty big team in there. And I still remember in one of the meetings, one of the architects asked Professor Stone, “Should we have a green screen or a white screen in the studio?” And he said “I wouldn't use either one.” He said industries moving to LED walls, and so that's what we ended up doing. We ended up putting an LED wall in the in the studio, which like the Mandalorian series was filmed with an LED wall, it's a digital environment, it ooks like they're in the desert or they're in the forest or whatever, but it's just a digital environment and use epic games, Unreal Engine software. So our kids are learning those types of things, the Avid tools. We had to tie all of that together.

And then we when we came back to Avid, we looked at really what's kind of the industry standard that our kids would need to know in terms of Post production and editing software and what skills would they come out, Xould they get a certification there.

CW: Is it the case that you're trying to prepare students to go directly into work, or prepare them for college, or for both? Are both pathways available?

JW: Well I think not all students, not all people have to do for your university or college—so we say it's one, two, four, or more. That's kind of what we say. What we're hearing from employers are “We can teach them the skills but one thing we can't teach them is the professional skills. We can't teach them to be to work every day, to be to work on time, to communicate clearly, to look someone in the eye when they're talking to them, to engage them in a conversation, or work in a team, you know what I mean? Be able to work in a team and take their part of whatever the project is.

Those are the skill sets that industry is telling us they need as much as technical skills because we can teach them the technical skills. But if they don't come out with those other things, it's really, really tough.

CW: Another aspect of this, though, is the pool of people who are considering jobs in the industry. Back to Charlotte now to discuss how the issue may be addressed and the need for a more diverse approach to recruitment.

CHARLOTTE

CL: We have historically, probably just out of not laziness exactly, but just because it's easier to look amongst ourselves for when we're looking to recruit. So we end up with people very similar to ourselves that we know already, very city-centric, very white middle class, as we know. And I think we're all actively trying to change that. And I think that's one of the reasons that reaching out to students from as young as 11, it's really important to try and show them. Like we said, let's show them that TV is a great industry to be involved in, and actually TV doesn't mean TV—TV means making content and we're making content for all sorts of outputs. And yes, I think one of the things that we're passionate about Racoon and that we're also working with people like Carrie at Rise, it's to level that playing field.

It shouldn't matter where you come from, what your background is, where you go to school, what access to technology you have at home. Because let's face it, it's not the normal that you've got a whizzy-bang MacBook there and all the latest software. That's not the standard. And actually in this modern age, though, we should be able through the schools and through suppliers like ourselves, we should be able to give every kid access to the toolset so that they are measured equally.

CW: We had a bit of a chat before, Charlotte, and one thing we spoke about is that talent is equally spread but opportunity is not.

One of the things about obviously post-COVID is people are looking at remote technologies, they are looking at much more remote workflows. So do you think we're actually in a position now where some of the jobs which are going to be available would be as available for someone who's perhaps living in in Shetland on an island as they could be if they're living in Salford and Manchester?

CL: Absolutely. And I would just ask what Shetland's internet connectivity looks like…

CW: You actually find some of the Scottish islands, It's not too bad.

CL: There you go! That would be my only barrier to entry. Seriously, because actually, yes, and I think this goes really much wider than just geolocation in terms of “I may not live in a city center, I might live in the Shetland. Do I still have the same opportunities as the person that's living in London?” Yes, you absolutely should do. But it also goes wider than that. It's looking at individuals that for whatever reason may be housebound. But that doesn't mean or shouldn't mean that they don't have the same opportunities to take on some of the roles that our industry offers. Because actually if you look at some of the data wrangling and we're just thinking about it from the post entry level point of view, there's no reason why a media technician couldn't work in this modern world from home. We will find some brilliant minds I'm sure but for whatever reason those brilliant minds are trapped inside their homes. But why shouldn't they have the same opportunities to come and work inside our industry? That that's something we really need to focus on.

CW: One aspect that is being looked at here in the UK is the growth of what are called T levels. So if you able to explain a little bit about what T levels are and how they could perhaps have a positive impact on this at the moment.

CL: I mean, I think the T level is a brilliant introduction, and actually I, alongside one of my business partners, Cliff, sat on the Advisory Board with the NFCE who have designed the media broadcast and production T level which will launch Autumn 2023

CW: …and the NCFE? Just for people who don't know what that is.

CL: They are the organization that won the tender from the government to actually create the T level syllabus. They've created many other T levels in many other sectors and they're very experienced at putting a really compelling course together.

The T level is designed to… as an alternative to an A level. So a level, academic levels, T level, technical level, and we'll replace B tech and apprenticeships. The idea of at level is that it is equitable to 3A levels. So if a student chooses to, they can still apply for university and take that study path, or the hope is that the majority of students take a T level and then be ready for entry into the industry.

The first year of the T level is a generic course, which frankly I'd fail. It's really, it covers a huge amount of knowledge that I think is so vital for entr- level graduates to understand how businesses operate, how businesses run, it covers a very broad base, it's so useful in terms of the information it's imparting.

In the second year, the students get to specialize, and one of the specialisms is a media technician, which is the one that I've been focused on. And that media technician role then becomes a much more practical second year of learning where the skill sets, bearing in mind that these kids will graduate in 2025, some are off. We've had to be really mindful of making sure that the skill sets that they're being trained for will be relevant in that later-2025 when they want to enter the industry. And one of the major components of the second year of the T level course is work experience. And the students have to undertake each 315 hours minimum, which is a huge amount of work experience. You're talking 35-40 days worth of your work experience there and that is a massive ask of the industry. And at the moment, I'm working with people like Carrie to figure out and be ambassadors for and go into the business sector and say, “Right, come on business, we have a skills crisis. We all know there's a skills crisis going on in our industry at the moment. And we have to be active and responsible in helping to change that. And a way to change that is to offer these students that work experience. And that work experience needs to be considered. It needs to be meaningful. It needs to be not sitting in a kitchen in a corner making tea and coffee for people. And it needs to be, to certain extent, standardized so that it doesn't matter whether you're that student in the Shetlands or you're a student in London. You need to have the same level of exposure to skills, processes, et cetera.” So I'm very excited about it but it is daunting.

CW: Yes. I mean I was going to say that amount of work experience is a huge ask. But I think the other thing that I certainly found and benefited through my career was actually people in the industry were incredibly willing to give of their time because they liked seeing younger people coming in and they love to see people go in and progress. So I think one thing I was going to ask you about was if you are speaking to someone who is a student at school at the moment, what would you be saying to them about saying “Look, this is a positive course to do. It's a great industry to get into.” How would you kind of enthuse them about getting into the industry?

CW: You're so right as well and I think this is one of the dynamics that we really have to focus on when we're trying to attract people in this world where a lot of conversation is, is as we are now is remote, and there is nothing you can't be…physical connection, when you're actually in the same room as someone—which is a weird thing for me to say saying is I'm actively promoting as I’m remote working.

But I think what I would say to any youngster that was contemplating coming into our industry is “I'm 25 years-plus in and I wake up every morning and I'm still excited by what I do, and every day is different and you can genuinely follow so many different paths. And as you said, it's such a supportive—even though yes, we haven't been terribly kind to ourselves generically, we're actually very kind to each other from a supportive, caring point of view, and we do like to encourage success, and I think that's what I would say to any youngster is, “You might not know quite yet exactly what avenue you want to take, but as a whole, our industry is an incredibly exciting one, has a huge amount of diverse paths within it and we're very good at helping people to go on a path and not get stuck. We're very good at enabling career paths to bend and mold and flex as we work through our our work-life.” And that I think is one of the most exciting things. It could be very fluid and flexible.

CW: You mentioned there about T levels and the first such students doing them graduating effectively in two to three years time. What about between now and then? How do we get through the next, the next couple of years because I guess that's what's pressing a lot of people's minds at the moment.

CL: Yeah, a really good point, and there is no quick fix to this, there just isn't. But I think what we can do is just be very open to spreading our wings a lot wider. As you said, we're not… this country is not lacking individuals who are talented. We're just not necessarily going out and finding them all. So I think we need to be much more open in how we go and find people and how we try and attract people. I think businesses have to take responsibility for some training somehow or another, and that's supported training and not throwing people in at the deep end and sink or swim and seeing what happens.

And I also think that we need to actively support each other in enabling new talent in, and by that I mean, for example, when we're looking for editors and we're all desperate for editors, we're always looking at credit lists. But credit lists by default only become a credit list by allowing someone to have a credit on something. We have to be more supportive of bringing new names, new talent in, and giving them opportunities, supported opportunities, where they might be the second editor on something with a more experienced editor. That if we don't offer people these opportunities, we're never going to expand the resource group.

CW: Charlotte, really really interesting to talk to you about all of this. I think it's really interesting what Racoon are doing generally and I think it's an interesting approach that's taken and I think there are things in place that hopefully will address the issue.

But there is one question I ask everyone who is on the podcast, and that is what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

CL: Apart from too much wine!

CW: Apart from too much wine.

CL: I think genuinely it is this need, as you said, I can see long-term how we are going to open the doors and how we are going to bring people into the industry, but it's that short time, it's the next couple of years when we are trying to crew-up for any specific jobs, whether it be inside our facility or going out on location to Dominican Republic. It's where are we finding the resource from? And then how do I make sure that we don't break that resource and that we put them in positions that are ultimately untenable, and we as we said earlier, make them lose their confidence and then they run away from the industry. So that that's what keeps me awake at night at the moment is just how do we short term fix this skills crisis.

CW: And a final thought from Jay as he heads into retirement on what's keeping him awake at night.

JW: Well we've kind of touched on it right now, and it's the capacity for us to have students—the number of students that are able to come into the center like that. Our number-one thing is creating student opportunities and equity access. People think about equity and access and they think access is just having like a computer. That's access. Well, access is access to industry partners. It's access to a school like this. We even bus students into the school that aren't able to drive or don't have a car of their own. So we bus them from their home school to the to the site, the Catalyst Center, and then bus them back after they're done. We didn't want transportation to be an issue for them to be able to access the Catalyst. So that's the thing that kind of keeps me up at night or would at the time kept me up at night is not all students can get the same opportunities.

CW: Great to have views from both sides of the Atlantic on this crucial issue for our industry.

Both Charlotte and Jay make such important points for all of us to consider about who is going to make up the workforce of the future, so please make sure to share the podcast with your friends and colleagues, and of course, subscribe on your podcast platform of choice to get notified when the next episode is out. We usually release a fresh episode every two weeks.

Check out the show notes for previous podcast episodes looking at the role of education and the issue of diversity and inclusion.

And there you can also find out more information about Avid’s work in education, including the Avid Learning Partner program and much more.

What’s your own take on what is happening right now? Let us know—via email we are [email protected], or on social I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram.

Many thanks to Charlotte and Jay—but most of all, thanks to you for listening, and thanks as always to the production team behind the podcast. That is all for this episode! Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more behind-the-scenes discussion on the issues which matter most for those making the media.

 

Making the Media S3E06

X Marks the Spot


Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here, and this is the Making the Media Podcast. Welcome if this is your first time joining us, and for our regular listeners, thanks again for being here.

Michael Jermey is my guest for this episode, and he is the director of news and current affairs for ITV in the UK. He is responsible for all of the regional, national, and international content produced by ITV, who are one of the country’s largest commercial broadcasters.

So, how do they balance the need for high-quality local and national TV services along with increasing demands for digital content in a highly competitive market, retaining existing audiences and attracting new ones? Well, in addition to their current output, ITV have ambitious plans, including the launch of new streaming channel, called ITVX, which will have a distinct news service.

We will talk about all of that, but first I asked Michael to outline a bit of background to ITV itself.

Michael Jermey: ITV was the second channel launched in the UK back in 1955. The BBC were there before us, but we were really the first commercial broadcaster in Europe. It was set up in the 1950s as a collection of regional stations that came together for national broadcasting, evolved over the 50 years after that and then from about 2004 came together as one company. It's now one organization that broadcasts to most of the United Kingdom. It has a big international production business and in fact its production arm is as big now as its broadcast arm within the UK. But that regional heritage that ITV has had right since the beginning is still there with strong regional news programming right across the country, and we produce both network news and regional news and the viewership for those two is very similar. We get millions of viewers in the 6:00 to 7:30 news period and as many people watch our regional output as watch our national output.

CW: So you mentioned there about the strong heritage that ITV has in regions and I want to explore that a little bit. How would you characterize the kind of relationship that your audience has with the staff who work in the regions? One of the things that we've explored a bit in the podcast is about that close relationship that people feel to local news. I wonder how you would describe that within the ITV regions?

MJ: Yeah, no, I think you're absolutely right. My experience of that, and I've worked both in regional journalism and in national journalism is that viewers value both. But it's probably not too strong a thing to say I think that a lot of viewers love their local news broadcast. They feel that it's part of their community. They're much more interested in meeting their regional news presenter than they are a national news presenter. And there's a real affinity between the audience and the broadcast in most regions right across the country.

CW:And what do you think that says about the nature of news that's expected to be delivered in those regions?

MJ:I think people want slightly different things from national broadcasting and regional broadcasting. National broadcasting, they absolutely expect accuracy, due impartiality, high levels of professionalism, news that affects the whole country. They like a window internationally on the world. And they expect a lot of those same things from a regional broadcast. They absolutely want it to be accurate. They absolutely want it to be impartial. They want it to be professional, but they're also looking for a connection that involves warmth, that involves a sense that that broadcast is on their side, that it celebrates the region that they're in.

They also, are pleased when they see young journalists working on that service. Perhaps young journalists who've grown up in the region who are still learning their craft. They're pleased when they see those people's careers progress over time—sometimes very proud when a journalist started perhaps in their early 20s in their region goes on to be a national broadcaster later. And so there's a close connection between the audience and the regional broadcaster. It feels more a relationship of family, perhaps that may be an exaggeration but there is that sort of familial connection and it's a much more intimate relationship. People hear their particular village or certainly their town mentioned on the broadcast from time to time. They like that connection, and they feel a sense of ownership of their local station that perhaps they don't feel and it's much harder to feel of a national broadcasting.

CW: You mentioned earlier on about how ITV was that collection of regions that's come together as one company. How important is it to maintain that sense of a local connection even although it is now ITV PLC as opposed to Carlton? Or Granada, or Yorkshire, or the regions that existed before.

MJ: It is important, and it runs through ITV's DNA. So, we are a big company, ITV PLC, a publicly quoted company with, big international production arm around the world. But we are also a local broadcaster right across, the vast majority of the UK. We have 30 offices in every corner of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, southern Scotland, and the Channel Islands, and we would sacrifice that local connection at our peril. We get big audiences for our local news programming everywhere and I think the advantage nowadays of the combination of all those regions as part of a bigger news division are that they are fully invested in work on the latest technology, are able to learn from each other, but are also still genuinely authentically local. All the decision making about what they cover, the running order on a given day, the stories they're interested in, all those decisions are made locally rather than at a head office.

And in a sense ITV as a whole is able to support all those local newsrooms in making programs with high production values and with proper investment behind them.

CW: So you mentioned. What about 30 offices across the nations and regions of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland and southern Scotland. Some of the regions are quite large. I mean, Wales for example is covering an entire nation. So how important or how challenging is it I guess to cover some of those regions? I mean, you mentioned about the southern Scotland, so border, for people who don't know, covers the northern part of England, and southern Scotland… very rural area. Lots of different challenges along the way as the Isle of Man included in that as well. So I'm interested in how you deal with those kind of challenges of covering those kind of areas.

MJ:Sure, I think there's a balance to be struck. In an ideal world, most people would probably want a high production value, expensive-looking television news service about their local town. The truth is though that the economics of that just wouldn't work. And so if you try very local television on the whole it has much lower production values, probably journalism that isn't of quite the same standard, a look and feel that viewers feel doesn't compare with national broadcasting.

But what we've found with regional broadcasting is if you get the size of area right, we can discuss that further in a moment, you can have those same high production values, strong journalism, rich variety of stories, and a program that people feel is sufficiently local but also a compelling and attractive watch. ITV has tweaked the shape and size of its regions over the years, and it's been an iterative process. So I think where we are now with 18 separate and distinct programs, we've got the regionality about right.

So, in the northwest of England for instance you have one service that looks after the area of Manchester and Liverpool and the old mill towns in the northwest and has been doing that since actually since the beginning of Granada Television. And Granada has almost, its name itself is sometimes… people refer to that part of the country is Granada Land. Gave an identity to the region that perhaps didn't fully exist before and he brought it together. Some areas are much smaller than others.

You talk about a big rural region like border television and it covers from the Lake District up into southern Scotland, from Stranraer right across to Iron Mouth in the east of Scotland. But it's an area that has a very rural nature, a lot of issues affect people right across that area in common, and we devote a lot of broadcasting hours to a predominantly rural region. And the share for border television is higher than the share you get for a lot of urban areas. It suggests the viewers, even in a very big region, think we're doing something right.

CW: We've talked a lot about broadcast, Michael, but as we know, the world has moved on, it's not just about broadcast now. So how are ITV News addressing people who want to get news online, they want to get news on their phone. How are they addressing those kind of markets now?

MJ: No, you're absolutely right that consumer behavior has changed over the years. The advent of digital technology means people are consuming news in lots of different ways. And we're trying to, with both regional broadcasting and national broadcasting, reach viewers, consumers, even now readers sometimes about our content in the way they want to consume it.

So, our big broadcast programs are still very well watched, but it's possible to go to our app or to our website and see a similar agenda covered at all hours of the day. It's possible to engage with ITV News or parts of ITV News in different regions through social media. So we are on most of the platforms where our consumers want to see us and we've also in recent times honed our product to work on those platforms and also to go after the particular parts of our potential audience.

So we identified, for instance, a small number of years ago that young people, they trusted ITV News, but they slightly thought that it was something their parents watched. And here I'm talking about a teenage audience. So we launched a program specifically for them called The Rundown. We put it on social media platforms where they were active, our Daily Bulletin, we put out at 3:45 when schools were letting their pupils go home, and it's had a massively positive response. It has the same public service values as all our programs, which is presented in a style aimed at appealing to 14 to 17 year old’s. And the way we know that it appeals to them is we went out before we launched it and asked them what style they wanted that broadcast to have and have checked in with them subsequently.

So that's an example, if you like, of values that we hold dear around public service broadcasting—being impartial, being inaccurate, covering stories of some consequence, but very much doing it in a style that different parts of that audience want to consume. And I think that's one of the great benefits that digital technology gives you is that you can target specific bits of the audience.

You know, we launched on TikTok probably only a year ago and we've now got 1.3 million followers on TikTok. It's has a completely and utterly different style from our main programs, but again, the same value in the same content, the same essential content.

And one of the things we've actually found, perhaps a little bit to our surprise, is that elements of our traditional work can work very well in that different context. So, half hour program like news at 10 the top leading, written distinctly by Tom Bradbury, that really sort of sometimes cuts to the essence of the story, when you put that out as a 40-second TikTok, you can get an awful lot of young people who perhaps don't want to spend half an hour watching a program, but like a personalized take on the story, and that can really cut through in that new environment.

CW:That's really interesting, Michael. I'm interested in how you try to coordinate I guess between you the broadcast side of the business and that digital side of the business. Are your newsrooms trying to organize where it's about creating content and regardless of the platform or does one have sort of primacy over others?

MJ: It's really interesting question, Craig, because I think lots of news organizations over the last 10 years have tried different things in that regard. And I think what I would describe it as now is that our newsroom has a number of teams within it who are very conscious of the particular audience that they're trying to serve, but they work very well across the team. So, when we haven't got just a set of people who are putting out news at 10 and creating digital content and looking after the lunchtime news and trying to create TikTok, but we've got teams that are looking at each of those sorts of platforms and cross pollinating, looking at material that's gathered for news at 10 and how could that work in social media or how could it work on this platform or that platform. And also a lot of our colleagues work across those services. So you might be a producer who spends a time working on news at 10 but also wants to work on digital at other points. So it's a combination of dedicated teams but very much working as one team overall.

And in the sense I'd expand that to think about the relationship between our regional newsrooms and our national newsroom. Our national newsroom turns to our regional newsroom for a lot of material but also often a local take on a regional story and in the opposing direction some of our national journalists, perhaps on a big international story, will provide feeds to our local newsroom.

We are an organization of some size but small enough to better get that really cooperative environment going across all our services.

CW:And are you finding as newer journalist joined the organization there is a blurring of lines between the platform, which is seen as the most important one because I think our own experience in journalism, I came from newspapers and then moved into television. A lot of people now they're coming through colleges and universities, they're very much being trained as multimedia journalists, and that ability to work in that way. Do you see that with staff who are joining you now?

MJ: Absolutely Craig. I remember a good number of years ago now being used to the fact that I would sometimes be trying to persuade older colleagues of the desirability of journalists picking up a camera or operating various forms of technology and working across platforms and realizing that there was a degree of advocacy required to do that as we tried to move in that direction. And then talking to younger people who were coming out of colleges and realizing that they didn't need persuading, they thought we weren't multi-skilled enough. We weren't giving people enough opportunity to work across different platforms. And I think the young people who've come into our organization in recent years have been enormous catalysts for change we try to give them the opportunity to work on every platform and not to not use the skills they've learned before joining us. And we tried to add to those skills and give them the ability to operate across all our output and all our platforms.

I was talking yesterday to a young colleague who said she didn't own a television set and consumed all her media through her iPad and her phone and got an awful lot of her news from TikTok and other social media, and I think any well-established broadcaster needs to be very open to that and to be able to combine what we do and have done for a long time traditionally and very well and not give that up, but also to adapt and change to the way lots of younger consumers are choosing to consume news.

CW; We've spoken a lot about the regions, Michael. Perhaps let's talk about network and for a little bit if that's ok, how does ITV try to be distinctive in its news coverage? And what I'm thinking about here is not just the news programs, but what you do in current affairs as well. What's the kind of… I don't know if agenda is the right word, but what's sort of approach that you take to the program that you want to make?

>MJ: Well, we've expanded what we do in current affairs in recent years and expanded on what we do in in national news. And I think what I would say the theme of that expansion and adding titles is almost, I think the best way to describe it is the opposite of dumbing down. We think we have millions of highly intelligent viewers right across the country who want. To understand how the world works, want to understand the implications of government decisions and so forth, and that we have a responsibility in a completely [inaudible] way, in a way, to explain those issues, make them really accessible to our viewers. And we think of our viewers in a sense as friends we want to communicate with on a level. We don't see ourselves—as some, perhaps some national broadcasters do—as handing down tablets from the mountains about what the news is, but want to have a well-informed, intelligent conversation with our viewers and with our news broadcasting on television.

We've expanded the duration of our main Early Evening News from half-an-hour to an hour because there was an appetite we felt from our audience for more news, particularly news right around the UK rather than being London-centric as some of the other broadcasters perhaps are. And news at 10, which we thought a few years ago that news at 10 comes at the end of the day, when nowadays so many viewers are very conscious of what's gone on through the day because of what we've seen on their phone or on social media or what have you. But news at 10 in a very distinctive style adds value to an explanation to what those big stories are at the end of the day, rather than just reporting the news. And so on television, we've invested in a sort of smartening-up process of the news on a belief that our viewers want information, but they are highly intelligent, sophisticated, and we don't need to dumb down at all.

I think that television 15-20 years ago probably across Europe and in the United States thought that you should do the opposite way to get viewers, was to make it simpler, to not deal with challenging subjects. And I actually think that what we've done, have become more challenging, and at the same time enormously accessible, and that's for us has been a successful format.

And as when we were discussing digital earlier, doing all those things not just on television but in digital versions, we've been doing quite a lot of podcasts, quite a lot of discussions on in an audio off the back of our television programs often related to our television programs and there's an audience for that. And we are before the end of this year launching a new service on ITV’s Player, which I think will move news reporting into an area that haven't really gone there yet. So ITV before the end of 2022 will be launching ITV X, which is a free player with 10,000-plus hours of entertainment, drama, not only ITV's back catalogue but original productions, big UK-based dramas launching there before they're on the main channel box sets, a number of fast channels where true crime or a drama channel will be available to people. So it won't just be a catch-up destination, it will be somewhere you can spend the evening discovering what you want to watch with some really high-quality material.

Similar, if you like, to some of the other big streamers that are available, but the big point of difference is that this is free to air, that people won't have to pay for it, and within that, and this hasn't to date been done I don't think on any other stream or at least not in this form, a prominent rail in there that is a ITV News, and you will be able to see an up-to-date video on-demand bulletin and coverage of all the main stories of the day, made for a TV X, made for the platform.

So we've taken on 20 new journalists working as part of the overall team, we're investing several million pounds in the news product on the rail. And at the moment, if you want to consume news, there are lots of ways of doing it. You can go to a news channel, you can wait for one of the big news programs on one of the big channels, you can go to your phone, you can go to your tablet. You can't at the moment see on a connected television set in the corner of your room news on demand that allows you to select what storage you want to be of high quality and constantly updated, so it's not repeat television, it's up to date news. That doesn't currently exist, and we think that's a service that our viewers will appreciate and want to use.

CW:And I think it's an interesting approach as you mentioned there, are we here in the UK, there are, of course, 24-hour news channels that have existed and since we’re in fact going back a long time, ITV of course, had a 24-hour news channel many a number of years ago. But I'm interested in that kind of approach Michael about is that trying to reflect the lives that people lead today where I've got 20 minutes free, I wonder what's happening, and I have taken try and take advantage of that, as opposed to appointment to view television, which is something like the news at 10 that you mentioned.

MJ: It is absolutely that and I don't want to be at all dismissive of other forms of television news.

There are times when you want to go to a news channel and you want to spend an hour watching a live event or even an hour just catching up on all the news of the day. I don't think appointment to view news programs on the big entertainment channels will disappear anytime soon either. Sometimes I think that's a great way of consuming news. You watch the 9:00 o'clock drama, then you can watch news at 10, and then you can watch what's after. And millions of people still choose to do that.

But I think you're right that consumers want to do what they want to do in the in the mood they're in. And I think that there will be an audience that wants to be honest streamer watching perhaps a live program on ITV through ITV X, perhaps planning to catch up on a new drama that dropped exclusively there a few days before that they haven't seen yet. And in between we'll think, oh, I haven't caught up on the news in the last few hours. I haven't seen the news at all today. Let me see what's on the rail, which of those stories of my particularly interested in, I'd like to hear all the news of the day, but summarized in two or three minutes, and all those options will be there. So this is about increasing choice for consumers, increasing choice for news viewers. It's not going to replace any of the other forms, but it does add something that's distinct and doesn't to date exist.

CW: So, we obviously, viewers consumption habits have changed, but also the technology has changed around the delivery of news, as well. So how does ITV try to take advantage of those kind of changes as well?

MJ: Now you're absolutely right, Craig, I think, it's interesting, I've worked in television news from the days when you would go out to do a live broadcast with a big crew, you might have to wait for permission from the post office or British Telecom to use a satellite dish. I'm talking about the rules in the 1980s…

CW: …I remember those days.

>MJ: …a world in which our journalists are equipped with mobile phones, can shoot on them, can feedback, can edit in the field on their laptop. And we've adopted every form of technology and try to use it for its correct purpose. So there will be high-end documentaries that we will still film on high-end cameras that use the latest, quite-large state-of-the-art editing equipment to produce an almost filmic feel. On other occasions we will use a single camera operated by a regional journalist who will turn that around on their laptop feedback over the 4G or 5G network and get it on the news within an hour.

And then I think most interestingly in a way is that middle space where you actually find some of that lightweight technology that doesn't slow you down, doesn't make you obtrusive used on some of our films. For instance, the documentary we're putting out this week on human rights in Qatar, where you make great use of that lightweight technology to tell a story that would have been very hard to tell with big traditional television crews. So it's finding the right technology and using it in the in the right way.

think technology is helping us link up our organization so that a journalist working in Newcastle can see instantly material shot in Bristol that might have relevance to the story that they are working on. That all our journalists can use planning tools where they see what every other bit of ITV News, whether it's elsewhere in the UK or internationally is working on that day. Accessing video from anywhere across the organization, being able to edit it and get it to where in different forms for different audiences. And I think technology over the time I've been working in television has just enabled better and better journalism. And I see that trend continuing.

CW:Is also a part of it about enabling people to work more efficiently?

MJ: Yes, it is. And I think liberating people to spend their time on the journalism rather than getting around the difficulties of old-fashioned, clunky technology. I think that the costs of television production in a sense have come down through the use of technology. But so in the opposite direction has gone the ambition. You can be much more ambitious about what can be achieved. And I sometimes think when people talk about a golden age of television journalism, which is normally, the decade in which they entered the industry, I think that's a myth. I think television news and visual news on whatever platform actually has gone from strength to strength, I think it's possible to reach more places, to tell more stories, to do it in more interesting forms than it ever has been before. And I think that's been enabled by two things. One, lots of new, younger, brighter people coming into the industry with new ideas and… it's a form of journalism that has existed for a bit over half century, but it's still developing in terms of the intellectual power that's being put into it, but also absolutely crucially in terms of the technology and the ability to take lightweight newsgathering or lightweight production tools, better move video around an organization and around the world quicker than ever before. All of that has driven our ability to an aged our ability to tell stories.

CW:Michael, I mean, it's great to talk to you. I agree. I mean I think it's a hugely exciting time to be in journalism. Lots of challenges along the way, but I do think it is and it's evident talking to you about how passionate you feel about it. What do you think the future holds for ITV News?

MJ: I think the future TV news is continuing to build on the great legacy that we've established over the decades of bringing to our audience stories that matter to them, stories that affect them, people, often people-centered stories to do that in a way that adds real public value to our society and our democracy. I think that we brought stories to people that matter, that have helped change the world, that have helped allow our viewers and UK citizens to hold power to account. And that in the future, it is continuing to do that, but always doing it in a changing context using new technology and new equipment that comes along to help us do that. And finding ways that younger audiences who choose to watch and consume news in different ways, that we adapt to that, but we don't get stuck in a view that the way we do things is the only way of doing it. That we learn from other bits of the industry, we learn from other content creators outside of the new sphere, that we continue to evolve and continue to be relevant to our viewers on whatever device or platform they want to watch. And I think ITV news does have a great history, but I also believe that our best years are ahead of us.

CW: Yeah, that's a great, great thought to end things on so. So Michael, there is one question I ask everyone who's on the podcast. So I will ask you. So, what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

MJ:I sleep pretty soundly. I don't worry too much about things. I think there are important challenges that we need to be aware of. I think there are more people than there were ten years ago who try to question the veracity of honest journalism. I think that some of the things you've seen in the United States where there there's a lack of sharing of a common set of facts which makes democratic debate really quite hard. And I think the importance of public service broadcasting has never been greater and I very much hope that in European democracies, in the UK, sensible things are done to ensure that that continues to exist going forward. I think in the UK we have a number of public service broadcasters and a competitive news environment, all of which help underpin free debate, freedom of speech, democratic politics under the rule of law. We are one of the institutions that reinforces that and allows that to be healthy, and I think all of us involved in that and also why the wider political world and the wider citizens should recognize the value of that and ensure that we preserve it for the next decade and beyond.

CW:Really fascinating thoughts from Michael there on so many different topics and a lot to digest from the way they are delivering news to the changing habits of consumers and beyond.

Now don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on your platform of choice to get notified when the latest episodes are released. And please share and spread the word to get more people involved in the making the media family.

Check out the show notes to find out more information about how broadcasters are dealing with the challenges of remote working. Avid is enabling both rundown-centric and story-centric ways of working with our new solutions.

Get in touch on social, I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram, or e-mail us at [email protected]. You can of course also follow Avid on all of our social channels to get the latest news on our products and solutions and other podcasts, too.

Thanks again to Michael for sharing his thoughts with us. Thanks to our producer Matt Diggs and thanks of course to you for listening. My name is Craig Wilson. Join us next time for more in-depth behind-the-scenes chat with the people making the media.

 

Making the Media S3E07

The VICE Squad


Craig Wilson: Hi and welcome to the Making the Media Podcast. My name is Craig Wilson and I am your host, thanks a lot for joining us.

Much of the media is dominated by well established brands—some public and some commercial—who have been part of our lives for many years. It is a tough market to enter, build a brand, establish a loyal audience who trust you, and continue to deliver high quality, and often expensive, journalism.

One organization which has been successful in building a distinctive brand on multiple platforms and staying true to its overriding ethos is Vice Media Group, and so my guest for this episode is Maral Usefi, who is their Vice president of news and editorial operations.

So, how do they operate, how have they built their brand, what is the role of online, social, streaming channels and even newsletters, and how do they stay in tune with their audience and expand that audience too? In our discussion we will talk about FAST channels, which, if you haven’t heard of them, these are Free to Air, Advertising-Funded Streaming TV channels, which are gaining a lot of attention right now for their ease of set up and ease of access to the audience.

Maral is multiple award winner for her work. She studied journalism at college in Missouri and worked in local television in California then moved on to some of the major cable networks. Here she outlines how her career developed from that point to ending up at Vice Media.

Maral Usefi: I started getting a bit bored with cable, to be honest. It became very cyclical. And so I looked for different challenges. I went to CNN and started a morning show, was sold at O'Brien that tried to break the mold and get a little bit more in depth, which was really my interest area. And that was cancelled, which was unfortunate, but it made me realize kind of what I wanted to do.

So I went through a series of kind of launches after that, went to Al Jazeera America and helped launch that network and do the morning show there. And then when that network fell apart, the opportunity at Vice came up and it became sort of this perfect opportunity at the time because it was really about honing in on what matters and more of a curation of the news than the constant news cycle, which was very appealing to me, both schedule-wise and journalism-wise. And that's where I've been since.

So I've been here for six years and we came on to launch Vice News tonight on HBO, and that was a really interesting experiment. I think it was kind of a groundbreaker at the time. No one was really doing the kind of journalism that we were doing on that show, I would say, where you were sort of turning very quick turn documentaries four nights a week, and that has now evolved to Vice News Tonight, which is two nights a week on Vice TV, which is our own platform. And that has leaned in even more into single topic documentaries, hour long documentaries, really embracing the kind of long form that Vice is known for and in our kind of topic areas. So I've been here for six years.

CW: An interesting path to get to where you got to. And so when you when you join Vice you spoke there about some of the attraction of why you wanted to go there. But can you talk a little bit about the program that you were first involved with and how from that you maybe took that experience to then go into other things?

MU: Yeah, that first program was really one giant experiment. We put together this amazing team and really interestingly pulled together a newsroom from all walks of life. We had a lot of magazine writers, people who had never worked in television, people from the podcasting world, people from newspapers, and then some sprinkled in from TV. And what was really valuable was bringing kind of everyone's experiences to the table and what mattered to them. And then we really experimented. I mean, we did so many pilots of that show and everyone weighed in.

And that was interesting because you really started to see what does this age group—Vice has a target audience, obviously—we're a youth media company and we very much care about kind of locking down that audience and making sure that they know that we are the ones delivering what they want. And so that kind of focus group of our staff knowing like this is what I want to watch, looking at the pilots and saying “that's not interesting” or “this is not paced fast enough”. So everything from the look of it to the content in it really went through months and months of changes and tweaks and adjustments and until we were happy with what we had.

And even over the 3-4 years that the show was on the air, it greatly evolved because the world evolved and the type of news we covered evolved and we had to really start to think about honing down those core authority areas even more, right? What was our audience actually interested in? What could we really deliver that was differentiated? And I think that has kind of set the stage for what we do now really well—that differentiation that Vice has that people know what they will get when they come to us. And we're not in the mix of the cable world or the nightly news world. And I think that that would be a real danger for us to attempt to be. And so I think that was the real lesson learned is this is what your product is, keep refining that product until you really stand out from the crowd, because we're just not big enough as a news organization, frankly, to compete in this CNN, MSNBC, ABC Nightly News kind of playground.

CW: Maybe we can talk a little bit more about the kind of content that you make in a little bit, but one thing I'm interested in is a lot of people we've spoken to the on the podcast by necessity as much more than anything else come from fairly well established broadcasters. They've been around for a long time, they're well known players in the market, whereas at Vice, I guess a lot of what you're trying to do is to build and establish the brand, and I'm interested in how you think you've achieved that.

MU: I think we've come a long way and I think we still have a long way to go. I think that we do have a core audience that likes us and comes to us regularly. We have I think 8,000,000 subscribers on YouTube. The HBO show did well, but certainly not well enough. They did cancel it. We have a great partnership with Showtime right now and we have a platform in Vice TV, but I think none of those kind of traditional spaces that we are airing our content are doing as well as we'd like. So I think that that's why for us it's been really important to kind of diversify our platforms. That's where social media comes in to kind of build that audience. That's where all of our kind of plays into the documentary world in terms of being a production house plays into building an audience.

So I think that we have come a long way in building kind of brand integrity, but when you are a youth media company, the youth kind of move on very quickly to the next new thing and that is I think always our biggest challenge, to grow with that audience. And I think the only way to do that is be very, very immersed in the culture. I think that's why it's probably more critical for us than anyone else to make sure that our staff reflects the culture. Because otherwise you become kind of these old dinosaurs, right, who don't know what the youth want. And we are very, very cognizant of that. And cognizant of then evolving our product, making sure that we are meeting the audience where they are. That's why TikTok is so important right now, though it makes us no money, and kind of making sure that we are sort of prescient about what's happening. I think that's a really core part of Vice’s brand overall because I think that is how you sustain a youth media model.

CW: Yeah, one of the things, again, that we’ve spoken to other people about is being a kind of trusted brand, I guess is one thing. But the way that you're talking there, the other thing I would say about a youth brand is if you're seen as inauthentic, that's almost as bad as being seen as someone who can't be trusted.

MU: Absolutely. That was a big discussion when we launched the HBO show originally. It was, “How do we come off as authentic in every way?” And so that was something as small as not having a host, right? We had no host because that felt like such a trope that the traditional anchor in a chair or behind a desk delivering you the news. That wasn't going to fly with this audience. And we again hired correspondents who wore their own clothes, who didn't wear makeup. Who really went out into the world as they were and used their own voice. All of that, while it seems kind of small, helped lend to a really authentic experience.

And everything from making sure everything we wrote felt like something someone would say. Everything we captured on camera felt like the correspondent was actually immersed in it and living it just like the audience watching it.

So we're very, very aware of that because it's true. Anytime we've kind of veered from that, we've experimented with having a host and have been called out for it, right? As soon as this audience sniffs out inauthenticity, they call you out on it. And I think that's really interesting. And I think if people are listening, that's actually another kind of touch point where you can realize, “Oh, you know what, we tried something, they called this out on it, it didn't work, let's move away from that.”

So I think it's actually an interesting feedback loop too, when you do try things to get that instant feedback from an audience.

CW: And I guess you also have to have a core of values, though, about the kind of things that you want to cover it. I completely get what you're saying, that you have to listen to the audience, but you still have to have “this is the core of who we are and what we're about.” Before we're going to try and achieve anything else.

MU: Absolutely. And I think again, if you look at the media landscape, a lot of us cover the same things. It's just sort of how we cover those same things. And I think that's where we are, making sure that we meet our audience. We have authority areas that we really believe in. Global trafficking, criminal justice, climate change, extremism. These are Vice’s core coverage areas, but how we attack them is really what sets us apart because you see everyone covering those same things. And to me, it becomes a matter of “We aren't going to go do a two minute piece on extremism in the military. We're going to spend two years really embedding and immersing ourselves in that topic and putting out a documentary about it.” So not having to chase the news cycle, I think lets us really really focus on what our values are, which are bringing in context, bringing in access, bringing in an immersive experience that people haven't seen anywhere else. So, at our base level, we are all journalists and that is the very bottom thing that informs everything, right?

Like our ethics, our values, how we approach what stories we cover. That is the base for everything. And then from there we build, we build what stories we cecover. We talk extensively and exhaustively about how we cover each story because not everything deserves the same treatment, right? And then how that will kind of play with our audience. So I think being aware of all those things at once is how we've been able to kind of differentiate what we do.

CW: Is also part of it giving your audience credence for their intelligence? I think there was a theory a few years ago that everything online, everything will be done in news is going to be dumbed down, it's going to become shorter. But I believe that some of the evidence actually is the counter, the counter of that, that actually the kind of documentary, longer form packages are actually things where because you get the analytics, you can actually see how things perform.

MU: Very true. And it's something we actually talk about from the get-go, right? We talk about our approach to a topic, what our angle to that topic is, and then in the script writing, I definitely recall having those conversations at other places where it's like, we need to write at an eighth grade level or we need to really pare down to make sure that everyone understands what we're talking about. That is not our audience. We never ever talk down to our audience and I think it would be a mistake to do so. We approach them as we approach ourselves. Again, it’s “What am I interested in, how can I relay this in the most interesting, most smart way possible?” And we go from there because we have found that to be true.

The things that we put on YouTube, for example, that are short, snippy, and kind of cover just sort of the survey layer of a story do very poorly. And then when we put up the same topic area, but it's a 44 minute documentary, those do really well, because I think there is this desire for depth in this generation and the younger generations because they have grown up with noise all around them, right. They've grown up with cable everywhere, they've grown up with social media everywhere, everyone has an opinion. They've grown up with Twitter. So it's all the noise that exists around you. And I think what we try to do is really say, “Ok, this is what we wanted to tell you, we will go in depth and give you the context, give you the access, and this is what you need to know,” right?

So I think that it really helps to be able to do that, to break through the noise. And I think that's how you build that trust. They know that we're not talking about a one minute piece on criminal justice. You can't cover criminal justice in one minute. You're talking about something that really matters, that really is in depth in the topics that they care about.

CW: But you also mentioned earlier on that, as well as the 44-minute documentary, you are using other forms of social media you refer to, to detect all we've spoken about Twitter. So how important are these other social media platforms as a way of getting the message out in advance and then driving content to your own platform?

MU: Well, I think that that's really, again, an example of meeting the audience where they are. We really saw our Vice World News and Vice News TikTok accounts just blow up overnight with the war in Ukraine. And that was because our correspondents were on the ground literally broadcasting things as they happened, the air sirens in town. And again it goes back to that very authentic way they were experiencing the air sirens on the ground and relaying it in this very relatable like “Holy **** I'm here and this is very real” kind of way.

And so I think that it's critical for us to be on that those platforms, but it's very critical to tailor what we are doing on those platforms to what makes sense for those audiences, right. We're not going to put up a documentary on TikTok that's 44 minutes long. It doesn't make any sense. But we are going to pull out the most important parts of our reporting and be able to relay that. So it's still differentiated and it's still our in depth reporting and ideally we kind of always push back to everything else we do as well.

CW: How, then, are you organized? And what I mean by that is literally in the newsroom, how do you work out who's doing what and how things go because you mentioned earlier on you're not a large organization in comparison to some of the your other competitors, I guess, in the market.

MU: We are better organized than ever and still have a long way to go. Both of those can be true. So we really are split up into kind of broadcast and digital and we make different content. The broadcasting generally makes the TV content right. We make Vice News tonight, we make Showtime, we make a slew of documentaries and series and features that we then kind of sell or have co-productions, and then we have our digital news arm and. Our digital news arm is the one that kind of does all the TikTok, the social digital video series. So those two sort of exist a bit independently, but at the same time what we've really tried to do, and you'll see this in a lot of newsrooms because of the times that we're living in, everyone is making sure that everything that they spent money on can be used across multiple platforms. And that's really where we've come together to make sure that deployments for example to Ukraine or to Lebanon are being used in every way. We have a documentary, we have a Vice News Tonight piece, we have a piece for Showtime, then we also have our TikTok content and our Instagram content from that same deployment.

So what's been really great and why I say we were more organized than ever is that over the last couple of years, we've really made an attempt for the leadership across broadcast and digital to come together and make editorial decisions together. And from the outset, what we found in a lot of instances in the past is that they were so siloed that we were sending people to the same place covering the same story, one for digital, one for TV. And obviously that makes no financial sense, that makes no editorial sense. And so I think bringing those teams together, which has been easier because we are a smaller operation—our leadership team is 10 people who talk every day and that is certainly easier to do than at CNN, for example, across multiple time zones, hundreds upon hundreds of people making decisions and outputting a lot more in real time certainly.

So I think the kind of curation that we do and the type of content that we put out and the sort of scale and timeline with which we put it out has all made a difference to make that easier probably for us than it is for others. But it has made a real difference. We feel that it's just, it feels more organized, it feels better for the audience, we are giving this sort of same messaging and we're saving money too.

CW: Yeah, another way that I know you're looking at getting content out is through the use of things like FAST channels. So if you talk a little bit about what your view is of FAST channels and how they could be used.

MU: So we've had a Vice FAST channel for a few years and that is largely our kind of entertainment content that existed on our former Vice Land TV channel and our Vice TV channel. On November 1st, we launched our Vice News FAST Channel, which we're really, we see that as a real opportunity to put out content. Right now we're populating it with a lot of the content we've made in the last couple years, which is hundreds of hours of series, of documentaries, of features, of short form, and what we're experimenting with is what will happen when we put out new content on fast. What will happen when we premiere content on fast? What will happen when we put out maybe live content on fast. And I think that what we're hoping for is an ecosystem that kind of mirrors the Internet, right, mirrors, maybe YouTube views, because right now we have hundreds of millions of people watching VICE content on YouTube that we don't really monetize. And so FAST feels like a place where we can mirror that and hopefully make some money off of it. And I think that we haven't seen any data really around FAST. We haven't monetized it yet certainly, but we know that it's a place we need to be and we want to be there from the get go, right. You never want to be late to the party and so we want to make that investment now. So I think we really do see an opportunity, but it's a little bit of a wait and see because we just don't have the data to know yet.

CW: I get the sense from a lot of the things that you've said Maral, that one of the things that VICE would encourage is experimentation. Would you say that's a fair kind of characterization for how the how you operate?

MU: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean I encourage that on a daily basis and would love to do more of it because again, as a youth brand, if we are not constantly evolving, if we're not constantly changing, we use the term “breaking the news” a lot here as our kind of brand mantra because we don't want to be 20 years down the road and our product still looking the same and our platform still being the same because that's not going to get us anywhere, right? As a young, small company, we need to constantly be the leaders in setting the stage of what's the next new thing, what's the next best thing, and the thing with experimentation, I think, where there is a hesitation among some of the larger legacy companies is it can be expensive and it might not work. And there is a real risk to that when you have advertisers already locked in for millions of dollars, for example, on your nightly news show.

And so I get it, right? I get why those companies may not be willing to experiment as radically as we are, but that's kind of our luxury. We really try to go out-of-the-box as often as possible. How can we break this model? How can we break this mold? How can we bring something that's new and different? And if it doesn't work, we try the next thing.

CW: You talked a lot about kind of newer technologies, but one thing I was really interested about, one of the technologies, the Vice News, is newsletters, which in many ways is a very old technology. So again, I'm interested in that. Why? Why choose to use newsletters? I know you're not alone in doing it, but it's an interesting approach.

MU: I feel like we're definitely not alone in doing it. There are million newsletters now. My inbox is littered with them. It's interesting. You're right, it's such an old school model. But I think it kind of comes back to that curation, right? It comes back to “I have subscribed to this newsletter from a voice that I trust, from a voice that I know will not litter it with other people's crap. And so I think that's why it's been successful. We're very particular about what goes out in our newsletters. We have our Breaking the Vote newsletter that's very narrowly focused on election news that is set apart from just sort of the horse race and covering every state. We certainly don't do that. It's very voicey.

And I would say that of all of our newsletters, our Motherboard newsletter is phenomenal, right? They break so many stories in the tech world and that newsletter is dedicated to that. So I think you see that you're like, I really love Motherboard stuff. I'm going to subscribe to their newsletter and I know I'm going to get a capsule of five stories that I've never seen anywhere else. And I think that's the appeal. But I honestly was surprised from the get-go that newsletters were doing as well as they are, but I think it's also another example of being in the game, right? There are definitely things that we don't want to avoid just because other people are doing them too, right? We need to be there, and we just try to make sure that our voice is at least differentiated in those spaces.

CW: Yeah. Another question I want to ask around is demographics and your audience, because I guess the audience and the brand, you talked a little bit about this early on, it's kind of relatively well defined. But I'm guessing part of what you also try and do is kind of go beyond that and we expand a little bit of the demographics. So maybe talk a little bit about who your traditional audience is and maybe some ways that you're trying to attract new.

MU: Well, I mean I think our base audience is kind of the 18 to 34. VICE is heavily male and we've tried to do a lot to kind of bringing females more into the fold with our content. But I think the unique thing with us is that's the core audience, but our platforms are not necessarily that audience. That's certainly the audience for YouTube and even younger for TikTok and Instagram. But we have a partnership with Showtime for a documentary series. That audience is not 18 to 34, and so being able to capture that with good journalism, and journalism that they care about—now that's slightly different because Showtime is also a subscription model, and so they have different financial goals for our series then say our Vice News Tonight Series, which is on linear cable.

Vice TV's median audience age is pretty significantly lower than other cable news networks, but it's still in that late 40s, early 50s, which is pretty far outside of our core target audience. And that actually I would say has been our challenge. How do we make the content that we say is for this youth demographic while being a youth media company, but still making it relevant enough that our linear cable audience also wants to watch it. And same thing with FAST, FAST as programmed in a linear way, and so while we hope the audience mirrors YouTube, we're not sure that it will, and it easily could wind up being an older audience.

And so it's tricky. It's very tricky. For Vice News Tonight, it's has been things as simple as what is the look and feel of it, what's the music selection, what's the wrapper look like to be able to get us to the field pieces that are kind of our core content. And so, we constantly tweak that.

I don't think we've been 100% successful in that because it's such a wide gap and those audiences are so wildly different that bringing them together feels impossible some days.

CW: It's also… it's a tough market. It's a tough market for audience wherever you are. There's a phrase that I hear some people use where they talk about low hanging fruit in certain opportunities. I don't think there's ever actually easy low-hanging fruit in in kind of anything, and I guess we've seen with other online news providers that it is a very, very difficult market to establish yourself as a brand and then generate the revenues, the necessity it is, because journalism is expensive. We can't hide away from the fact you require people to do it.

You talked about documentaries that perhaps take a year or two years to go off and to produce. So I guess that sits behind everything. While you have your journalistic integrity, there are commercial realities that you still have to deal with.

MU: Absolutely. And I think that's where we've really tried to focus our efforts in finding the right mix of that in the last few years. We have a content output deal with a partner that is 300 hours of content a year. And what we're trying to do is figure out how much of that is our core journalism, how much of that is Vice News Tonight and Showtime, and how much of that is something that we can commercially sell and make a profit off of that still aligns with our brand, that still aligns with our values. And that has been a real challenge though, I think working through that and kind of doing the same thing of experimenting and figuring out what the market wants from us that is commercially viable has been an interesting process.

We put together a documentary last year called the Big Squeeze on the GameStop chaos, and that did really well. We put out that feature doc pretty quickly, faster than really anyone else went to market. And what we found was we managed to sell it across the world, and so that was a great example.

The other good example, I'd say, was our first foray into kind of true crime, a series called small town secrets that wound up airing on Vice TV and we sold to several other markets globally. We've never done true crime before and we kind of put our own spin on it. But it's a topic that's obviously hugely commercial because everyone wants to buy a true crime series. And we went into it knowing that, right?

So that the conversation was “How can we do true crime that we know the audience wants, that we know global sales wants, but still make it feel very Vice?” And I think we succeeded in that. So that has been the constant conversation. What is the series that is commercially viable that people want to come to us for? What is the documentary that we can make that people will really pay for and make some kind of healthy investment into. So we are looking into different areas of that.

Certainly no one is going to come and give us tens of millions of dollars for our Ukraine coverage. So that is our journalism and you're right, it's very expensive, but that is the flagship, that's our flagship content and we will always do that. It's really just figuring out how can we then take this other bucket, make that very commercially viable to kind of fund the other and make money on top of that.

CW: Really, really interesting Maral. Really appreciate you joining.

So there is a final question I ask everyone in the podcast. So what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

MU: So many things keep me up at night.

I think press freedom. Disinformation. Keeping our team safe in the field. Those three things are all the same, really. It's kind of the world in which we are doing journalism right now can be very scary. And as an organization at Vice, we really put people in it. And I think that is very stressful. And we certainly… it's amazing what our field teams do and want to do, right. They want to be there and be immersed in a story in order to be able to tell it most authentically.

But in a in a world where you see the persecution of journalists constantly. You see press freedoms stripped away. You see very scary instances of people being harmed in a very real way. I think that's the scariest thing for journalism overall and certainly what keeps me up at night.

CW: I do not think we can underestimate some of the threats which exist to journalistic freedom. And I think Maral’s final thoughts will resonate with many of us. Thanks again to her for joining us on the podcast.

So many interesting points she raised too, so please make sure to share the podcast with your friends and colleagues, and as always, subscribe on your podcast platform of choice to get notified when new episodes are out.

Check out the show notes for a series of articles about a recent DPP report on the future of news, lots of fascinating insights there, and a link to another podcast where Avid’s chief executive, Jeff Rosica, shares his thoughts on the major challenges facing the media business.

That is all for this episode. We are going to take a break now for the festive season and will return in early 2023 with more insightful episodes. I would like to thank the whole production team behind the podcast—Matt Diggs, Owen Lynch, Wim Van den Broek and Greg Chin, for all of their work. Thanks again to Maral, but also thanks to you for all your support.

We are now heading into our third year of the Making the Media Podcast, giving you a behind the scenes look at the challenges the industry is facing. My name is Craig Wilson, thanks for listening.

 

Making the Media S3E08

Mental Health Matters


Craig Wilson: Hi, this is the Making the Media Podcast and my name is Craig Wilson. Thanks a lot for taking the time to join us for the latest episode in season three.

News reporting—whether you are a journalist or a crew member—can be a very tough business. Covering wars, witnessing first-hand traumatic events, covering stories which reflect the very worst of humanity all leave their mark on those who work in the industry.

Emotional distress is not limited to those who work in war zones. Those who work in journalism at a local level can equally be exposed trauma through covering court cases, for example.

And this, of course, comes at a time when journalism is under severe scrutiny. Press freedoms and independence are being challenged and the relatively recent development of online harassment is yet another issue to add to the mix. All of this is impacting on people’s mental wellbeing.

In recent years, there have been some high profile examples of journalists stepping back from their jobs to prioritize their own mental health, and there is, in some countries at least, a growing awareness of the issue and the need to support staff more.

In this episode we are going to explore this issue with journalist Hannah Storm. Hannah is one of the people behind an initiative called the Headlines Network, and we will discuss this in detail shortly. But first here is Hannah outlining how her own experiences led her to want to do more to help news teams deal with issues surrounding their mental wellbeing.

Hannah Storm: So I've been a journalist for close to 25 years. I've lived and worked and traveled in almost 60 countries around the world and have worked across all different manner of media, radio, TV, online, and print as well.

I began my career at Reuters, the news agency, and moved overseas when I was in my mid 20s, was the BBC freelancer in South America, predominantly in Peru and Chile, and spent quite a lot of time in Haiti as well. And fast forward I guess to probably 2010, having worked for various different organizations, I was at Channel 4 News when the Haiti earthquake happened, and I was the only person in the newsroom who, in inverted commas, “knew Haiti,” although I suppose that's quite questionable after an earthquake. But so I got sent to Haiti to work on the production side and logistics and to work with the teams covering the earthquake there. It was an incredibly difficult experience, and one that I didn't realize was quite so difficult at the time.

After that, I went to work for something called the International News Safety Institute or INSI, which is a journalism safety organization working with news organizations around the world to help them prioritize the safety of their staff going into difficult and dangerous places, both physical danger, digital danger, and psychological danger as well. And I was the CEO or director of there for a number of years through the Arab uprisings, through various difficult kind of problematic periods of time within the profession until about 2019-2020. I think the last few years have become a bit of a blur, so sometimes I forget which year we're in.

At that same time, I developed symptoms of what I now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and I was diagnosed with what's called complex—or there's no official diagnosis for the complex part in the UK. Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of my professional and personal trauma in my professional and personal lives. I'd always been passionate about working with other journalists and bringing cool people together, as I say, and interesting people together to connect them with one another. And about two years ago, I decided I wanted to tell my own story of the kind of mental health experience I'd had. And I did that through writing a story for Pointer, the organization based in the states. And from there it kind of spiraled in a way in terms of being able to feel the permission to tell my own story, because I experienced a lot of shame and a lot of kind of sense of isolation. And I thought, “How can I channel all of those experiences of the last 20 years as a journalist working in safety and working the different forms of media, supporting my colleagues to try to promote more open conversations around mental health at a time—we'll talk about this, obviously—at a time that's really challenging for our profession?”

CW: So explain really what the ethos of the Headlines Network is. You mentioned in what you said there about maybe a sense of shame, a sense of guilt that perhaps people have about talking about their experiences. Is it trying to say to people that there is no reason to feel bad about talking about their experiences and actually some good can come from that?

HS: So the idea behind Headlines Network was really that we saw a real need for people to take part in conversations around mental health. We saw a real need to promote more open conversations about mental health. And when I say we, this is John Crowley who is a journalism colleague of mine and myself. And we kept appearing on panels during the pandemic and talking about, “What more can we do to help support people from mental health perspective and in using in the news industry?”

And so John and I kind of convened around this conversation and decided we wanted to take practical steps and create a space where people could come together to share some of their insights, to share some of their challenges, and to think about and talk about some of the taboos and the industry, really. And what happened was we set up Headlines Network in the summer of 2021. So as we're speaking now, we're almost a year and a half old and we do three things really I guess and I call them the three T's—we do talking, we do tips, and we do training. And when we talk about talking, we run our own podcast where we speak with famous journalists who share their own stories, the stories that have impacted them and how they manage their mental health. We've really listened and we ran a set of workshops right at the start of Headlines Network, bringing together different people from across four different cohorts in journalism.

We really listened to the need and out of that it became quite clear that practical tips are really helpful. So we've designed a set of practical tips and we're keeping on doing that, addressing different issues including managing our own mental health and supporting colleagues, vicarious trauma.

And then the third element of the T is training. We develop training at the moment. The one we're focused on is training for managers in terms of helping them understand the needs to have conversations with their staff around well-being and kind of equipping them with the tools and have those conversations and the confidence to do so. The headlines, as I say, is it's run by me and John Crowley. John’s done a huge amount of work in the past and managing and leading these rooms, and has his own experience of burnout, and we feel like the kind of that both of us the experience we have of journalism, but also that kind of experience we have ourselves of struggling with our mental health and being able to feel more openly to talk about it is super important to the whole kind of ethos of Headlines Network.

CW: Is there enough of a recognition of it within newsrooms, or is it still something that newsrooms are trying to get their heads around?

HS: I would say yes and no. I would say that actually things have changed dramatically in the last couple of years and with the pandemic we've that kind of analogy of “We're all in the same storm but we're all different vessels.” This is we're all experiencing something that has compromised our ability to feel certain about things. We're living in unprecedented times. So we've all had something that has kind of made us kind of go, “Oh, I wonder if. Oh, and perhaps I should prioritize mental health.” And when I say all of us, I mean I'm seeing that across newsrooms.

Generally, and not everywhere, there is a difference across some parts of the UK, there's a difference across some parts of different countries as well. But there has been a degree of a shift in terms of kind of normalizing invest commerce, the conversation around mental health.

At the same time, because of some of the pressures we're facing as the kind of journalism industry, I fear that a lot of people are back to that shame idea. A lot of people don't feel yet safe to be able to share their experiences, partly because they're terrified of the repercussions on their career. And if you add in the kind of resource pressures we're facing as a journalist industry that, the job insecurity, the cost of living crisis in the UK… there's not a lot kind of to be able to encourage people to come forward and say, “Hey, it's ok, it's safe to speak about your mental health” and that's why it's incumbent on newsroom managers to say “This is a confidential conversation. Nothing you say here is going to impact your future career progression.”

And I think I would just say back to kind of the Headlines Network work, in terms of opening those conversations, we do it in three ways. I mean, we have a podcast, that's how we ended up connecting, I think we were on a kind of podcast communication on Twitter about kind of cool podcasts. I think it’s cool, but I think all podcast producers think their own podcasts are cool. But we speak with famous journalists around the world about their stories that have impacted them and and how they manage their mental health. And that has been really groundbreaking for us in terms of helping others kind of feel, “Oh, I'm not so alone.” And then we do the tips that we've talked about in terms of the solutions and helping people with practical steps to promote their own mental health and support others and then we do training as well.

So yes, it's been a kind of positive move, but then there's also those taboos in place I think. And I think the other thing I'd say is that we've become… historically, when we talked about mental health and journalism we often talked about the veteran war correspondence going into war zones and coming back with PTSD, perhaps, um post-traumatic stress disorder. Nowadays, there's a much more awareness that there's a spectrum of mental health conversations that needs to be had from burnout and anxiety. Now that I'm saying that that's some kind of… not that I'm diminishing that, but kind of right the way through to PTSD. And I think that's super important that we're talking about this whole kind of spectrum of conversations.

CW: Because I think one of the things that people might—like the hardest level associated with is exactly that: war correspondents. People who go to extreme events and experience that. But journalists, one of the things I felt as a journalist was you got a glimpse into people's lives and you can cover stories as a local journalist where you may cover court cases, for example, that are very traumatic. You may cover criminal events that are very traumatic. So I'm guessing it's not just the kind of war correspondence. This is something that can apply to anybody who's working in journalism.

HS: I think it's really important to say that research shows us that journalists by and large are resilient. So that's really important. It's not that we're all suffering and experiencing kind of mental illness and mental health. I think it's also really important to say that different people are impacted in different ways, and our history and our identities and our perspectives on things kind of impact the way that we experience stories. Often when you're involved in a community, and you see things and you witness things and you experience things that are difficult, it can impact you. So be that a court case as you mentioned, be that a car crash, for instance. Be that something that is kind of traumatic breaking news, but it's not necessarily the war zone experience.

And then I also think that it's a really important to say that cumulatively, experiences can build up on people. So the kind of cumulative pressures are perhaps not really really traumatic things, but the cumulative pressures of kind of the work environments and the stories we cover builds up on us and that can cover that can impact our ability to cope.

I think when you were asking that question there, I was thinking about we've been really privileged at Headlines Network to work with some real fantastic experts. So we've been working with Doctor Sean Williams, who's a broadcaster and psychologist, and she often talks about this notion of bearing witness. And it comes up a lot in our podcast, this idea of as a journalist, I bear witness. And she thinks that and I believe also that bearing witness, this idea that we remind ourselves of bearing witness to the stories around us can become a really protective thing for us. So when we're kind of perhaps questioning why we're doing this, we're struggling with our mental health, this reminder that we can bear witness, and we're doing so for a purpose, it's super important. And obviously, back to that kind of local journalism that's critical to bringing news to our communities.

CW: Another element of this as well which is being is something that is different in that it's still something that's very new is also about online harassment of journalists has become a bigger thing. Is this something else that's impacting on how people feel about journalism and an impact on their mental health as well?

HS: Yeah, sure. And it's interesting for me because also the other part of my life, a lot of us have these kind of multiple mosaic type careers nowadays and so the other part of my life is a media consultant, so I work with news organizations around online harassment and supporting them to help mitigate the risks and understand how it impacts journalists. And really we've seen a rise in online violence directed against journalists and perhaps the past decade and have been certain key moments in that decade that have really kind of spurred that increase of vitriol.

It began with kind of the Arab Spring, and then there were the moments sometimes things like Brexit, and things like terms of Trump, which kind of where there were events that polarized people and there were certain individuals who effectively licensed hatred against journalists.

I feel like it's something that in many ways impacts more people. So if you think about journalism and safety, there are very few people proportionately who go in to cover war zones. But if you think about journalism safety, the majority of us have some kind of online presence. And therefore there's this kind of frontline online or online frontline that we're experiencing where we're exposed to this kind of digital violence, if you like. And so some people go as far as calling it a war zone. I'm not sure if I'm not comfortable with that notion now, but it really is impacting a lot of people.

And particularly, again, the research shows us that it's people who are particularly marginalized by our historic white, CIS-male, university-educated industry. So people who are people of color and women are people from the LGBTQIA+ community who are more at risk of online violence. And the critical thing there is it's leading people to self-censor. And it's leading people to either not join the industry or leading people to kind of move away from the industry. And that means it has an impact on media plurality and media diversity. And so it's a massive issue. And I do think that it also intersects with physical violence.

We know when you look at people like Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered in Malta, who were online attacks against her, Gary Lankesh in India, online attacks against her. So we know there's a connection between the two and we also know that psychologically it can be incredibly damaging to have this kind of onslaught the minute you turn your phone on in the morning, when perhaps you haven't got, and again to use a term from Sean Williams, you haven't got your emotional flak jacket up there. So you haven't got this kind of form of protection that you can kind of build this barrier between you and the and the rest of the world.

CW: Are there practical tips that you can suggest for people about staying safe online?

HS: Yeah, I mean, there's quite a few practical tips. And I think again, it's the point that I would really like to make clear is this idea that often we treat those who experience something traumatic as the problem and we should not be doing that. So for instance, if something happens to you, you're the liability. We need to reframe that. We see that a lot in gender-based violence issues. What were you wearing? Or how much should you drink to encourage that? That's wrong. So we need to kind of start with the kind of reframing of the conversation in terms of “It's not a journalist's fault, a journalist is not to blame if they experience online harassment.” We need to understand that at the kind of institutional organizational level and the industry level as well.

It's not ok. One of the organizations I work with, CBC Radio Canada, we have this kind of phrase “Not Ok.” It's not ok to receive online hatred. It's not part of your job to receive that.

So I think that we need to recognize that. I think organizations and managers need to take an approach whereby they are showing that they're supporting their colleagues, recognizing that they're allowed to take time off, they encourage them to take time off if that's appropriate, a lot of a lot of the time encouraging people to take time off makes them feel worse about the situation. But they've got the support structures in place in terms of the before. So we often talk in journalism war zone safety about what do we do before, during, and after. Same thing with online harassment. What do we do to help mitigate risks? So one of our digital safety protocols, do we think about what we're posting online? Do we separate our public personal profiles? All of that kind of stuff. What tools are in place for reporting during it. What support structures we've got in place again, tools for reporting, and who's on hand for us to speak with, who we trust?

And then after one of the kind of psychological support structures we have in place and how do we continue to feel safe in the situation where we're actually we've had a degree of insecurity in our journalism lives?

I mean it's kind of, it's not as complicated as perhaps some people make it out to be. But I think it begins with that kind of digital hygiene and safety and thinking about what you're posting. But also recognizing you're doing your job and you shouldn't be experiencing vitriol for your job.

CW: Well one thing that has increased recently and of course has been people working remotely. We're doing this—you're at home, I'm at home and we're talking here, but remote working for journalists is not unusual—it's something they've done for a very very long time. You go into the field to report on stuff. But do you think that the events of the pandemic have meant that kind of sense of collaboration, sense of team has been weakened and that's also had an impact as well?

HS: I would say that remote working for some journalists is not unusual. I still think there's a lot of journalists who have not necessarily worked remotely pre-pandemic. And I think it's really important to note that I think that one of the things I'd say is that journalists by and large, and you'll know this from your from your past work, we kind of like to see ourselves as a bit of a tribe really. We're quite connected—we like to kind of have these kind of… we're very social. So I think I say often to people that what the what the pandemic did to us is we became disconnected and yet hyper connected.

So we were constantly connected to news that had no kind of… everything blurred, professional lives, personal lives, blurred. And yet we were disconnected from the people who are our people around us. We did learn. I think that a lot of people if you had said to a lot of people 2 1/2 years ago or three years ago, is it possible to create groundbreaking, prize winning, award-winning kind of news remotely in the manner that we have done? People would have kind of laughed but actually now we know that they can do that.

I think one of the things that… so the collaborations great. Democratically I found from speaking with colleagues that actually there's been a degree of more democracy in the conversations and the collaboration because we're quite a hierarchical industry and so that's been helpful also for the mental health conversations.

What I do find is that sense of the blurring of the world is problematic for personal-professional life. The fact that people who are isolated be more isolated in many ways and the fact that actually we don't have that spontaneity. Those kind of water cooler moments that perhaps we used to have in journalism where we kind of bounce ideas around.

But yet I do also think that, back to that point about used to working remotely, we do have some of the tools we already had, some of the tools we built on those tools, but we've also found other kind of really great innovative tools that have allowed us to kind of tell news in a way that perhaps we might not have done. And I think that, just before I kind of finish on this idea, I am concerned that one of the things that has been made worse, perhaps by working remotely, is the impact of trauma, particularly things like vicarious trauma.

So when we're working in a world where we're seeing things second-hand or second trauma, perhaps on screens, and we can't then turn to our colleague sitting next to us and go, “Oh my God, I just witnessed the most horrific thing, can we just have a chat about it?” I worry that that has kind of created more complications at a time when many of us are a lot more tired and therefore our coping mechanisms have been diminished.

CW: Are there any examples of kind of best practices of what people are doing within the industry hand that you could highlight of how people are addressing this whole issue?

HS: Yeah, I think it's not necessarily helpful to name names but what I would say is where people have recognized that mental health is not a one-size-fits-all approach, that is the kind of absolute key thing. That because mental health impacts and trauma and stress impact people in different ways, therefore we need to have different types of responses and solutions for them. So where people are able to acknowledge that a bank of resources or training or policies or tips or equipment or support is on offer, that's great. So that can be everything from employee assistance programs at one end to conversations around—I mean I recently offered a writing workshop for instance to a news organization for writing for well-being. So that's great.

Putting people in certain health apps if there's an investment in health apps, creating kind of peer groups, connecting people together in conversations, recognizing that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to think.

One thing that I would say that where I really see people kind of starting to take this seriously and where I see the biggest influence I think is probably where leadership really gets it, where people recognize that leadership has to take the lead in this. Yes, it has to be a two way street in terms of learning from people throughout the industry and throughout their career, but we need to model good behavior in terms of leadership. We need to communicate effectively, we need to be empathetic, so we need to kind of use the tools of our trade, we use empathy to get great stories. But yes, let's use the empathy on ourselves. And actually we're taking this seriously and recognizing that we want to create open cultures that retain great people, that support great people to do their best work to be as well as possible. And that we have to invest in it financially. Because often it's a bit of an icky issue in terms of saying, “Oh, I haven't got any money for this.” But if we don't recognize it actually, if we don't invest in it, we're losing people. We're losing people. We can't retain people. We've got too much presenteeism where people are just turning up and doing kind of jobs, but not in a kind of great way. And actually it's incumbent on us to invest on it in because if we invest in this and mental health, we're investing in good journalism.

CW: Hannah, thank you so much. I think this is such an important topic within the industry. I think it's under… not so under reported, but it's not something people necessarily recognize enough. And I think it applies—I mean we've talked a lot here about journalists, but this applies to crews that go into these situations as well. So I think it has huge implications.

And Hannah there is a question I ask everyone on the podcast, so I will ask you—what is it that keeps you up at night?

HS: Ok, so I have two sides to this question because I never do anything easily, apparently, I never do anything simply.

The first one is PTSD used to keep me awake at night. It was… I had nightmares and I couldn't sleep. My friend, the professor Anthony Feinstein, who works in mental health and works at the kind of the crux of mental health and journalism says that sleep is the barometer of mental health. Nowadays my mental health is much better, therefore my sleep is much better.

What does keep me up awake on the downside is perhaps worrying about my kids occasionally, or worrying if I've got a deadline coming up with work. But good stuff also keeps me awake at night. So I'll wake up at night and think, “Oh my God, we need to have that guest on the podcast” or “Oh my goodness, wouldn't it be amazing to do a piece of work for Headlines Network around this?”

And then the other thing that excites me massively that keeps me awake at night is writing. I often wake in the middle of the night with a notebook—I keep a notebook now by my bed with the first line of stories because I write short stories as well. So I think that's a much healthier way of waking up at night or keeping myself awake at night rather than the previous stuff. But I do know that where we can support good sleep, it can be such an important thing to kind of help stabilize and regulate our mental health as well.

CW: Thanks to Hannah for the work she is doing and for sharing her experiences with us. I guess the message from that it that it is ok not to be ok and I hope in us making this episode it will encourage a wider discussion about the issue within the industry we all feel passionately about.

Please share the episode on your own social channels to further raise awareness of the importance of maintaining good mental health. If you want to connect, you can find me on both Twitter and Instagram—I am @CraigAW1969 on both platforms. Or you can email us at [email protected].

If you check out the show notes you can find links to two other podcast episodes, dealing with issues around diversity and inclusion. And we have also put there the links to the Headlines Network website too, if you want to make contact directly with Hannah and the team.

Thanks for listening, thanks to our producer Matt Diggs. Join me next time for the next episode of the Making the Media Podcast.

 

Making the Media S3E09

AI—Threat or Opportunity?


Craig Wilson: Hi, and welcome to the Making the Media Podcast, my name is Craig Wilson, I’m your host and it is great to have you join us for our latest episode.

Before we get into this episode’s subject, just a quick reminder that you can access all of our previous episodes, including a full transcript, just by going to our website—that is Avid.com/makingthemedia—and “Making the Media” is all one word.

But now onto the matter at hand, and that matter is one of the hottest topics in the media right now, artificial intelligence—often referred to as AI.

It is a subject we discussed way back in season one, but as the technology continues to evolve, we felt it was the right time to delve back in once more and look at how it can—and in some cases, is—being used in the news media.

Late in 2022, AI bubbled right back to the top of the agenda for many journalists with the unveiling of ChatGPT, an AI chatbot with a seemingly innate way of writing articles, prompting a lot of doom mongers to predict the end of journalism as we know it. If a bot can write an article which is pretty much indistinguishable from one put together by a human, then why hire any real people to write.

ChatGPT is simply one application of AI, but there are many, and there are a plethora of research projects going on right now to assess how AI can assist journalists and others working in the media, so clearly there is a balance to be struck.

To dissect all of this, I am joined by Charlie Beckett, an award-winning journalist who is now a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics (the LSE). He is the founding director of Polis, the international journalism think tank, and he is currently leading the Polis Journalism and AI project.

So, let's find out more about the project and the work they're undertaking.

Charlie Beckett: Yeah, well, for the last 15 years at the LSE I've been very much involved globally working with journalists as they try and cope with changes, not just technology, but in politics and economics and society generally. And I was fascinated by this package of technologies we call artificial intelligence—everything from machine learning, automation, all that kind of stuff. So, it seemed like the next logical step to get to grips with that.

So, five years ago, we started on a big global research project just to find out what was going on in news organizations with AI, and also, critically, what journalists were thinking about it. Were they frightened about it taking their jobs? Were they excited about the things that it could do to sort of superpower their journalism? And from that we built this program of very organically listening to what the news organizations were telling us. And so we built a whole load of online training programs which sought to kind of bridge the knowledge gap. We created a whole lot of resources like an AI starter pack and a kind of information hub. But perhaps the soul of this project has been two projects.

One is an AI academy for small newsrooms trying to provide training courses for smaller news organizations. But perhaps the most important thing is these AI collaborative fellowships, where small teams of journalists from different news organizations, sometimes from different countries, are working together to explore a challenge that they have chosen.

CW: Let's talk a little bit about those fellowships, Charlie, then maybe come back to talk about small news. I think it's an interesting and interesting area.

So, within the fellowship there are a range of different programs that people are doing and kind of working on. Maybe pick out a couple of those to highlight the kind of work that's being done and really just about how they go about it because it's a very international cohort that you have.

CW: It’s extraordinary. I mean, they literally go from Argentina to Australia and all points in between. And that is quite amazing. When we started the fellowship program this year, we thought, “Ok, we'll get perhaps five, perhaps six little groups.” We ended up, I think, with 10 people and they've just published their results. We had a festival, so they present their presentations and the reports they created are all online, and they all work very differently. They are all working remotely, of course. They're all doing it alongside their day jobs, and they're doing it voluntarily. We provide them with support, we provide them that mentorship, and we provide them with a little bit of tech investment as well, and they work it out.

They spend six months researching the problem, developing prototypes, testing them, and then they publish these reports so that other people can go down a similar path without having to reinvent the wheel. So people can sort of stand on the shoulder of the giants as, as it were. Some of them worked really well, some of them don't. I think it's really important. This is a space where people can go up different pathways that don't lead anywhere. And that's as important to learn, frankly, as often as the stuff that that does work. And, of course, each application is very different. So, one organization, they called it with a pun, “Bad Will Hunting.” And this is a great example because you've got a small news organization called Daily Maverick from South Africa working with a very specialist investigative organization from the Netherlands called Follow the Money. And, of course, The Guardian, a well-known British-based global news organization. And they were looking to work out how they could comb through big data leaks using AI to identify the bad people, basically. And it was fascinating. It was very complicated, and frankly I don't understand all the details of the software, but you can go and look at the report online and see how they did this.

And the point of this is you come up with concrete results at the end of it, but there's huge learning for the people involved. They all say they really benefit from collaborating across borders with different kinds of newsrooms. It's a kind of refreshment thing for them personally, but also that they can then take back into their news organization.

CW: I mean, one of the things that’s changed over the time period that you've mentioned is the range of journalism that's available. And what I mean by that is you and I, we started in newspapers, there was radio, there was TV. But of course, now with digital outlets, there's much broad broader kind of church, if you like, of the kind of organizations. And that was one thing that struck me about the fellowship, was there were newspapers involved, but there was television involved. There was radio, there was digital newsrooms that were involved in that as well. So is the interest in AI kind of universal across the different media types?

CB: Yes, it is. And I think you've hit on a big point there, Craig. One of the reasons I like this project—it's not just the tech. It's a way for me to explore the new landscape of news organizations out there across the world. And as you say, it's not just that it's broadcasting and newspapers and radio. There are now specialists, investigative news organizations, there are ones that actually report on AI itself.

So there's incredible diversity and bringing them all together in this project has been really, really fertile. And I think it depends very much on the kind of news organization about how they're going to apply this. If you're a big organization like The Guardian, then you're interested in things that operate very much at scale. But you might be something like Data Critica, which is a Mexican news organization that does very specialist investigations around, as the name suggests, government datasets, and so that's both the joy of AI, that it's such a great variety, that in a way matches the increasing variety of news organizations. But it also makes it somewhat messy. It's difficult to get a handle on it if you're approaching it for the first time. Which, again, is why we built various tools for people who are new to AI and like the AI starter pack, where they can investigate this tech on their own terms.

CW: And is it being driven at this point from the editorial side? Or is it something that's been driven by the technologists?

CB: That's a really good question. They always say that change happens from the bottom. You get kind of pioneers in your newsroom, and these will often be either tech people who have stumbled into your news organization, as it were, or they'll be a journalist who really wants to do something, say. Or perhaps a marketing person who really wants to revamp the subscriptions. And they've bothered to do the research and realize the AI can help.

The tough bit is then getting the buy-in from leadership, and leadership obviously is concerned about the bottom line, so they want to see a return on investment, or they want to see headlines being created by AI the next week. And I think there's a big strategical issue here where the editorial leadership especially has to think strategically. And to do that, it's going to have to talk to people who've worked in other technological settings to understand how can you adopt these kind of technologies in a systematic way? Who are the people you should hire? What are the kind of roles that you need in your organization? What are the kind of results that you can realistically expect?

CW: Is it also the case that, you mentioned there about organizations which have scale, but you equally mentioned at the start about programs looking at smaller newsrooms? Because I think having talked a little bit about AI before, some people see this as something that requires investment, it's something that applies at the larger level, the bigger organizations. So, what are the kind of implications for smaller newsrooms who perhaps don't have those kinds of resources to devote to it?

CB: Well, the first thing we said is that of course small newsrooms can also take advantage of big networks. So, one of the fellowships was about automating visuals. It was actually trying to build social media cards often around real estate, for example. And that was McClatchy and Gannett who are working with us from the states. And, of course, a lot of their titles are very, very local. So even some of the bigger-scale stuff can still work at a local level. But there's definitely a gap, and I think you have to be… we can see from past technologies that big players can often be the people to benefit.

So when the Internet comes along, BBC Online becomes dominant online as a news provider. When you see social media coming along, again, you can see certain titles, certain journalists, who are operating at scale. They have an immediate advantage. But you can also see a tremendous amount of really clever niche work, partly the investigative stuff, but also in terms of, for example, building a personalized newsletter. This is a great business model and format for smaller news organizations to create a little membership group or a sort of sub stack. And you want to use AI to personalize for that audience and to make sure that you're interacting with them and keeping them abreast of all the best content that you've got.

So, there is definitely a challenge there which we're trying to address with this academy for small newsrooms. But I think it's going to be a shifting landscape, as well, Craig. I think because newer companies come along providing specialist tools, and indeed news organizations will develop them as well. And it's important to remember that AI isn't just about big picture stuff, it can be something quite almost boring like transcription or translation.

CW: One area that I wanted to ask about was about data journalism, and not just about the analysis of big, large datasets which you refer to while they're on, but also for people also trying to use AI to maybe identify stories which are underreported, stories which are perhaps of interest to their audience that, unless you have a diverse newsroom, which is something we've talked about on the podcast before, these perhaps—it doesn't really come into your sphere of influences like these are the type of stories that we should be covering. Is that something else that people trying to use AI for to identify areas that perhaps aren't as reported as they could be?

CB: Yeah, that's a really good one, and we've had a couple of projects over the last few years where people have tried to do that. Story discovery, trying to provide better support for journalists when they are investigating, investigating an area so they can find fresh sources, fresh people to interview or to quote, and also fresh audiences. Finding “What are people talking about on social media and why aren't we paying attention to that? How do people feel about the content that we're creating?” And, of course, audience data is this huge new resource that we've got to learn more about what people really do with our news. What do they really like and enjoy and find satisfying and want to pay for?

So yeah, I do think that we're seeing this reshaping of the news industry generally. If you think about it, the kind of routine news that can be automated, the kind of general commodity news—perhaps like share prices—well, if the machine can do that automatically, then you start to wonder what's your news organization going to do that's going to add value and it's special? Now, it might be that you do clever things with the tech that you're better at going through data, or you’re better at data visualization. And data journalism, I think, isn't just about the tech, it's about the imagination of the journalists and the judgment of the journalists. And that takes you to the next bit where you can add value, which is: Get the machines, as it were, to do the boring bits, and focus your human journalists on doing the human journalism. That might be opinion or judgment or analysis or empathy or humor—all those things that humans are supposed to be good at.

CW: That makes a really, really interesting point, Charlie, because AI on its own is not, in my view, is not going to solve the challenges which journalism faces. There's more that's going to be required than just AI to resolve the current challenges which journalists and journalism faces. And I think the point that you may be making there is it is about efficiency. If there's a way that the AI can be used to automate these kind of tasks, then surely that is the better application for it, to then free up—whether it's a journalist or whether it's an editor—to go and do other work. Is that something that you would see as a practical way of AI being used?

CB: Yeah, and you can see that. Take a big organization like Bloomberg, which is basically a financial data organization. And, of course, vast amounts of their output is now automated. But what they've done very cleverly is expand their editorial content reach in other areas. They're doing far more analytical pieces, feature pieces to complement their basic data proposition. And I think you have to look at this. I mean, obviously, we're sitting here looking at this from a kind of media practitioner point of view, and we're saying, “Well, can AI solve the business crisis for journalism?” No, it can't. It can make it a lot more efficient, but efficiency in itself won't solve the problems of competition, for example, won't solve the advertising crisis, for example. And when you think of globally, it won't necessarily solve the problem you've got with authoritarian states, for example.

But I do think you have to look at it from a public point of view. In the end, the public doesn't care where they get their information from. If they want the weather, and that's given to them automatically by some software. They will be very happy with that.

So, as a journalist organization, you have to think: What is your added value? And as I say, that's often—when you look at the fellows, for example, that we've been working with, many of the news organizations that we've been working with have got a mission. They may be using the tech, but they've got a mission, and it might be to address a particular area, like gender inequality or racial injustice, or it might be to provide something very specialist, like a particular business specialism, or indeed something like real estate coverage or so on. So I think that's an interesting way that AI definitely is making the business more efficient. But the idea that it's some panacea? Forget it.

CW: So one area that has popped up a lot has been I think called ChatGPT. There's been a huge amount of interest in that. And for perhaps people who don't know what that is, Charlie, maybe explain a little bit what it is first and then we can maybe talk about some of the applications of it. So basically what is ChatGPT?

CB: It’s basically what they call generative AI, and what's clever about this is that it is a vast data set—that's the first thing—it's not connected to the internet. So if you ask it a question about something topical like “Who is Charlie Beckett,” it probably won't tell you. But it does have a vast data set. But more importantly, it has a sort of intelligence where it's able to think through much better than the usual software we've had before, predictive text, like when you do a Google search it starts to predict the question that you're going to ask according to previous answers. And this is not some sort of miracle. The ChatGPT is not some kind of a miracle. It's not suddenly that this thing is totally cognizant and intelligent like a human being. But it's now got so good that intelligently constructing cohesive texts and interesting texts that it is a much closer facsimile to that which you'd expect from a human. And it's much harder to differentiate from what a human might write.

What I think is interesting is there's some obvious applications at the moment. The people who are kind of worried are more on the creative, artistic side. And also we're worried of course about how this can be used to generate a misinformation.

One interesting comment from a news editor I spoke to recently when they were talking about using this kind of material was it would be great for horoscopes because horoscopes are a nonsense in the first place, so it doesn't matter what they create, and I think that's important. You wouldn't use this kind of stuff enough to write the front page news story. And I think journalism is definitely a different use case.

But one of the things, Craig, that I find interesting about this whole story, and it is very exciting and it's great fun and everyone should try it. One of the things I find interesting is the response of certain people, including journalists, to it. So the journalists quite rightly are desperately trying to catch this thing out. They're definitely trying to prove this not as good as them, and they're discovering that it is actually rather effective. And that perhaps much of journalism is less sort of special, less human, less creative than we thought.

So I don't think this is really going to take over the world, but I think we should be really paying attention to it and thinking about creative, possible positive uses around the news media.

CW: Is one of the things about it about AI having boundaries? One of the things—I watched some of the sessions that you've had from the recent conference and the one that you had last year, and one of the interesting things that popped up for me was about people really need to think about what the application of the AI can be and perhaps not thinking that through is as dangerous as anything else.

So is that an area—I mean, you mentioned there about ChatGPT is not connected to the internet, so there are limitations about what it can do—but with AI, is part of it about thinking what is possible, but it's also part of the thinking, well, actually, where do we want this to stop?

CB: And also to think about why. Why are you doing it? So we all are familiar with the problem of bias within algorithms and within datasets that humans originally chose what data is going to be fed in. So if those people have a bias or a prejudice or something or a selective, then the result from that data is going to be biased. We know about that discrimination thing, but I think there's an interesting question which is why? Why would you write a particular article or make a particular film? What's the purpose of it? Is it to inform? Is it to educate or entertain? What's the user need? And I think there's one sort of subtle danger of this technology is that you it's so wizard and magical that you end up creating content because you can rather than thinking about your mission as an organization.

But also why are you curious about this in the first place? Why do people need to know? And I think that can subtly—this is not a philosophical point; this is a quite practical point that can change the way that you answer it. The machine doesn't think like that. The machine thinks “What's the most predictable, sensible answer to that prompt that I've been given?” It doesn't think in terms of “Why do people need to know this? What is the tough question I should be asking? Should I be thinking beyond the normal response?”

So, again, I think there's a lot of latitude for what I would call good journalism to be supported and supplemented by these technologies. But I think it's even more interesting how it puts a kind of demand on those journalists saying, “Ok, you've got to be better than the machine. You can't just do routine formulaic journalism anymore because the software can do that.”

CW: That's really, really interesting Charlie. I mean, I think that human element, as you kind of called out there, is so kind of critical because I think there are some fairly apocalyptic views of what AI could potentially mean for journalism. I presume you don't subscribe to those?

CB: Well, it depends on what you mean by apocalyptic!

CW: I mean… we're all going to lose our jobs and the machines are going to write everything for us!

CB: ..and obviously people who were captain in canal barges in the early 19th century, when the train came along, were very worried about losing their jobs. But in the end, people wanted good shifting. And if the goods got shifted by trains instead of barges, well, that's what's going to happen.

I don't think there's ever going to be a lack of a demand for journalism and a lack of supply of people who want to do something that we’ll call journalism. And as you pointed out, there are so many new formats and ways of doing it. I do think it's going to have, though, a big effect on that kind of idea of commodity journalism.

I mentioned to you the idea of the weather. Now we all love still to watch the weather forecaster with the cheery smile telling us there's going to be snow tomorrow. But we can get that basic information very, very easily from an automated app. So I think, in a way, you could say this is… I don't want to sound too cheery because I do think there's going to be job losses in the sense of certain people are not going to be needed anymore. More importantly, a lot of labor is going to be displaced by this. On the other hand is going to create a whole new raft of positions that you're going to need algorithm editors and you're going to need data processors, people who bring human editorial judgment and oversight and development to these.

I mean one of the great things working with the fellowship teams this year is we deliberately paired, if you like, more technological with more editorial people to try and say, “Look, create something that the newsroom itself is going to appreciate.” And that's been a really fertile encounter for them. So I think that there's loads of opportunities in the same way there was when we first went online and when social media came along and those generations are now feeding through into this world—good God, it could be a metaverse world, couldn't it—where they're going to be these opportunities and especially when you think globally.

It's one thing to talk sitting here for me in London and looking at kind of western media landscape out there in the rest of the world, and a lot of the global south, times have always been tough. Journalism has always been precarious. They have huge struggles both financially and in terms of freedom of expression. So, I've just been in Africa at a big conference with investigative journalists, and they are super excited about the opportunities that these technologies give them to do their journalism even better.

CW: Yeah. I mean, certainly one thing that I've mentioned on various podcast episodes before is I think it's a really exciting time to be in journalism. It's different from perhaps how it was when you and I started out, but I still think it's a really exciting time to be there.

I'm guessing, Charlie, that trying to predict something in AI is a bit like trying to do the horoscopes as we talked a little bit about earlier on. But as you look to perhaps the next year or so, where do you think the main threads of things are going to go in the next year, perhaps?

CB: Well, I think there's going to be a… partly, it's going to be sort of invisible. I think that a lot of organizations in this sort of four years we've been working on journalism and AI, at the beginning, there were some pioneers, but there's been very rapid adoption. And I think next year you're going to see a lot of medium-sized and larger news organizations going through a kind of tipping point in terms of synthetic media. And by that I mean the proportion of content they generate semi-automatically using these technologies is going to go from single digits into thirds and even halves of their output. So I think that's going to be significant and the user might not even really—or the public—might not even notice that. But I think that there's this structural shift where more organizations are now getting on board in a strategic way.

The other way is I think we're just going to see a lot more clever—we've seen the generative AI around text and imagery, and I think that's going to be really important in the next few years as the journalists start to get to grips with this.

I've talked a lot about the investigative journalism side of it, but there's also the whole commercial side of it. Things are going to get really, really tough the next couple of years. The global economy is not great. Advertising is not thriving. It's going to be even more important that we use this automation to optimize the experience.

A lot of people are quite sick of the news. Now, it's not a question of thrusting more of it down their necks, but it's kind of coming up with clever ways to automate and personalize your content so it doesn't frighten people away, so it keeps people curious and interested and gives them news that's relevant to them in a way that they feel comfortable with. So that I think is a big challenge coming up, and I think AI can be helpful to sort of tailor-make and tailor-serve that kind of content.

CW: Yeah, I think that's a really great point to finish up on, Charlie.

There is one question I ask everyone in the podcast, so I will ask you. What is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

CB: Do you know what? It's got nothing to do with technology. What keeps me up awake at night, in terms of journalism, is the stories I hear from around the world, from places like Mexico, places like Brazil, places like Nigeria, and the Philippines, of the physical danger that often quite ordinary journalists are facing. The murder, the harassment, the violence against them. I know it sounds a bit somber, but it's a very real thing and I'm in awe at some of these people who just go about their work despite the risks.

CW: Powerful words indeed there from Charlie to conclude his interview, and thanks so much to him for sharing his thoughts on a fascinating topic.

If you check out the show notes, then you can listen back to our previous episode on AI, the link is there, along with links to a series of articles around the future of the newsroom.

Please share, write a review, like, subscribe, and spread the word about the podcast. And if you want to, then get in touch. I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram. There are, of course, all of the Avid social channels too, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok. Or you can email us, we are [email protected].

That’s all for this episode. Thanks, as always, to you for listening, and thanks to our producer Matt Diggs. From me, Craig Wilson, goodbye, and join us next time for more people Making the Media.