Bobby Hain on the Making the Media podcast

Making the Media S1E05: Our Virtual Reality

March 8, 2021

The pandemic has forced us to re-conceptualize the newsroom from a physical location to a collection of people who could, in theory, be anywhere. 

In this episode, we ask: What does a virtual newsroom look like? And to follow on: What is gained or lost in a virtual environment? Is it realistic in the long term—or even desirable? And what are newsrooms doing today that could stay with us even after we’ve resumed some sense of normalcy?

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Listen to Hear:

  • How STV stayed on air with almost their entire organization working remotely
  • How video conferencing has democratized the newsroom and changed contribution standards
  • Why caring for staff mental health is a critical concern for news leadership

 

Our Guest This Episode

Bobby Hain is STV’s Managing Director, Broadcast. He is responsible for the company’s PSB licenses in north and central Scotland. Bobby has over thirty-five years’ experience in broadcasting across television, radio, and online, having started as a presenter in 1981. He is a member of both BAFTA and RTS Scotland. He is a member of the Management Board of the Industry and Parliamentary Trust and a former chair of Creative Skillset Scotland and Scottish Youth Theatre.

Mentioned in This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, it’s Craig Wilson here, and thanks so much for joining me on the Making the Media podcast. This episode is about something I think we can probably all relate to—remote working. How has this impacted how the news is gathered and delivered, and what does it mean in the longer term for how companies will adapt? 

I spoke to Bobby Hain, Managing Director of Broadcast at STV, based in Glasgow, in Scotland, about just this subject.  

STV is a commercial public service broadcaster, but the pandemic has forced them to make changes to their news operation. Now, full disclosure, Bobby and I are old colleagues. Before I joined Avid, I worked at STV, starting as a TV reporter at Grampian TV, before making my way up the management chain to be head of news and current affairs at STV North in Aberdeen. So, it was great to catch up with him again.  

We began by discussing how STV reacted initially when the pandemic struck.  

Bobby Hain: We obviously have established production centers with galleries and studios, where programs actually happen and they have traditionally been very much the focal point of where people have worked. So, in a traditional workflow, most people would come into one of the operational bases and we've got five of those in different parts of the country and they would start their day by attending the office, and then they go out and collect material and report on stories.  

We do have a number of people and some freelance resource around the country that wouldn't be in the office every single day, but before the pandemic, it would be normal for people to start the working day by going to work wherever their home base was, and obviously that's changed since we're now deploying people direct from home. People are working from home. Only the essential staff are coming into the offices.

CW: So, what's that meant for things like planning, team communication—the fact that people aren't coming to those central hubs and they're now working a lot more from home? How has that worked in practical terms for how you've continued to deliver the news?

BH: Well, one of the challenges we had in the early days when the pandemic hit the first time in March and had a significant impact on everyone's lives—in doing two different programs with four opts, because the country was locked down, there wasn't much news, frankly, because there was there was no business. There were no courts. There was no sport, actually, the professional sport to start with, so many of the things that would normally constitute part of our programming was missing. And there was a single story which had different shades to it, and that was the coronavirus.

And because Scotland has a devolved parliament with control on health, for example, public health and NHS, and so on, the narrative around the coronavirus progress and what politicians were saying—in particular the first minister—what the health officials were saying and commentators, what academics were seeing, that was what people wanted to hear. Alongside the stories of people working in hospital, people whose businesses were affected everyday life, in other words.

But those stories were common to all of Scotland, so we reduced our output to a single program that covered all of Scotland. And that was a big change, but it allowed us to reduce the number of people who had to come into any of the offices, which was beneficial for the health of our staff. It also meant we were working with fewer external contributors to news, and therefore that was good for the wellbeing of people who were on the news and featured in programs.

But it did mean quite a turmoil in establishing a new format for the program. Because the program had established formats and shots blocked and ways of working completely set out as templates. We had to invent that—which is a version of what we did, but not quite any of the existing programs. And we were deploying people direct from their homes.

And actually, fortuitously we had a big technology update, just a couple of years back. And we have the technology and the skills for people to self-shoot, to edit on location, to send back via 4G their packages that can be included. So, we're pretty well catered for, in terms of technology that helps us work remotely rather than have reliance on central resource and apparatus, in order to do things.  

So that was fortuitous, but we had to invent a template for the program that didn't exist, and then we have to populate it with material every day using a reduced number of people all across Scotland.

CW: Yeah, one thing that's come up in a number of conversations I've had with people has been that because it's impacted everything about people's lives, in some respects, it's actually made people more willing and able to adapt to change—perhaps in ways that they wouldn't have been, had this event not happen.

So how did you find staff that were able to adapt to that change in circumstance that happened?

BH: People were very adaptive. They were very creative. We invented ways of doing things that, if we hadn't had the necessity of getting stuff done we would never have done. If you'd said to us before the pandemic, “Let's think about a world where you deploy people from home, they go and cover material and cover news stories, they don't come into the office, and you've got a single program that can work for all of Scotland,” we would never have gotten around to making that happen, because we had no need to do so.

And it's absolutely true—necessity is the is the mother of invention, and we just had to create ways of working. And the imperative of getting the program done, and being part of the system of communication and information.

I mean, journalists very early on were designated as key workers, and that is both a privilege and a responsibility, and drove us to get the news out. To make things happen. To report. To tell the story of what was going on. To reflect people's lives back to themselves—because that's the value of what we do.

CW: You know, one thing that I think has certainly happened is that the nature of the programs have changed, because people are doing much more on Zoom, as opposed to having to come to the office, or sending a crew out to go and interview them actually on location.

And you talked, yourself, about making sure that staff are safe and people that are obviously involved are safe as well. Do you think that kind of thing is something that's actually going to continue because people have become used to seeing—for example, here, looking at your office, or looking at peoples’ houses—as opposed to crews actually going out, and it may actually change the nature of newsgathering as you as you move forward?

BH: I think it's a very interesting question, and it's difficult to predict in many respects, because we are absolutely used to compressed video, with often slightly imperfect audio, because what you want to hear someone say is crucial, and that's the only way you've got of reporting. It is the only option you've got—you can't send a crew, you can't get to somebody to get high-quality, perfect sound pictures, so you have to make do with what you have. And actually over time you would expect that the quality of those pictures is just going to improve, that the technology will get better, the compression will get better, and will be, over time, less difference between what you might gather by going to get something in person, versus what you can pick up remotely.

And there are of course huge advantages to just collecting pieces from people as talking head pieces, but it's not a substitute for finding stories, and of course it's not seeing what's happening, it's listening to contribution.

So, for one aspect of what we do, I can see it will continue to work and it be a valuable way of achieving more contributions, but it won't replace going out to find stories and actually filming things happening. That's, of course, in a different category. But I do think it will have a lasting effect on how easy it is to contribute to news programs.

And again, if you go back a year or two, many newsrooms—and we were the same—were a bit sniffy about taking a Skype contribution, or a Zoom contribution, instead of a proper HD video piece with proper sound. I think there's less of a difference now, frankly, because of technology, and I think the audience has become used to seeing contributions that you may not have chosen to include for technical reasons, a year or two back.

CW: How does it work in terms of planning now? Because, with having the different areas of Scotland that you cover, you mentioned at the start about there are some programming that's done, or some packages that are done, that are common to both shows, and obviously there's other particular pieces which are then local.

How does it work in terms of planning now? Because again, you would normally have a normal morning conference where everyone is together in one room, probably speaking between Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Dundee. And now people now just doing that from home? Or are they still coming into the office to do that? How does that work, just in practical terms?

BH: They're working as far as possible from home. So you have a core team required in Glasgow to plan the program, to produce the program, and then to run the gallery and present the program as it goes out.

Apart from that, as far as possible, people will join by video conference. And there are small numbers of people in our studio centers elsewhere. Sometimes there's no one, but on most days there will be one or two people, at least, in the other centers for operational reasons. But generally, as far as possible, we’ve got 130 people around Scotland. The vast majority of those people do not touch the offices now, and will join by video conference for exactly the kind of meetings you describe, Craig.

CW: How has your broadcast engineering and IT side had to work and adapt to this kind of way of working? Because I'm guessing in the past, people necessarily wouldn't have VPN access or take laptops home with them. I guess that's something else that you've had to try to address as well.

BH: It is, and I think, in terms of the control rooms, for example—we run our own playout center that goes out to transmitters from here, so we're producing an entire schedule. We get the network programs that come up the line, we add all our local branding, and then the service goes out from Pacific Quay in Glasgow as a finished feed that goes different ways, and there are four different versions of that feed as well as HD, their IP streams, as you might imagine, for different delivery points. And the service that does that was, again, fortuitously refreshed in the past three or four years.

So, a lot of it can be remotely driven. And in the early days of the pandemic, we were actually operating the entire TV channel from people’s homes so that the playout engineers and the transmission controllers who run the schedule and play in the breaks and make sure that everything is ready to go were able to access, through laptops and VPNs, our system, and they didn't even need to be in the building. And that was a great advantage to us because it gave us the space to think about how we could run a safe and practical environment. And it also allowed us to set up duplicates suites elsewhere in the building. So, although we've got the main operation center, we can toggle between that center and other parts of the building, or indeed people’s homes, in order to clean down and make sure that there is a safe environment for everyone so that there’s not a hot seat changeover like there would normally be when the pandemic is not an issue.

And then on the technology, we didn't really have a lot of remote editing facilities. We have a post-production business that operates across edit and sound dub and so on, and digital delivery, but that was all done in a traditional way with people sitting in suites and operating equipment. But very quickly we added in the facility for remote access so that people don't even have to be in those suites—now they can use the editing power and the processor power, but they're using remote screen connections in order to make things happen, and again, don't have to be in the building.

CW: One thing that I think this is, again, it's come up in other conversations, is people looking at cloud as a methodology and ways of working. But you touched on there about having remote access, because you clearly have facilities that you want to continue to use. So, is cloud something that you look at as a sort of DR possibility in the future? Or is it more about just providing remote access to what you have?

BH: I think for us, because we are a significant public service channel and we have been in our building for about 15 years, and with a recent technology refresh which is based around a kind of bricks and mortar application, if you like, cloud does play an increasing role in our business. More on the office IT side, though, in common with many other people. However, we have the infrastructure in a fairly recent technology refresh that will see us for the next 5 to 10 years at least—so that's not something we're moving to immediately, and as you see, it's more around external and remote connectivity to that system rather than reinventing it with a cloud system.

But I think it's interesting when you look back at all the DR planning you've done—and I've been in this business for nearly 40 years—I've never had a DR scenario where we were dealing with a scenario that we couldn't get in the same building together. Usually, it's your power is going out or the building's disappeared, or you can't get close to the building for a period. But the idea that you have to be out for nine months and not mix in the same room is not something that we planned for. But I think it does focus the mind on cloud and remote access very, very quickly.

CW: Yeah, it is really interesting you mentioned that, Bob, because I don't think anyone planned—I've gone through various DR scenarios as well, and I don't think anyone considered this kind of thing that would happen.

You mentioned there about certain things that you did at the start, and clearly as time has gone on, things have changed and you're able to do certain things and perhaps things that you did at the start that worked, but you wouldn't necessarily want them to continue as we (hopefully) come out the other end of this at some point in the next little while.

But when you look back, what do you think about it has worked and other things about it that you might want to continue, even if things go back to a more normal situation?

BH: I think that's a really interesting question, because what we did to stay on the air and keep the lights on was effectively an emergency response. We were making it up as we went along—in common with lots of businesses—and we managed to keep audiences served, we managed to keep news flow happening, the technology stayed on the air. And if you had again said to us, “Can you design a system in the next two or three years that would allow everybody to work from home?” One, I think we would say that's not possible, and two, it might not be how we're doing it today because we didn't have the imperative of having 24 hours’ notice to get things done.

So, it's been an amazing learning curve to assure yourself that you are adaptable as an organization, that you can rise to the challenge, and you can get things done and keep things going. And I think the question in my head is, how sustainable is that? Because, I think, for a lot of businesses—ourselves included—as we look for the medium and long term, will our business look the same, with the same kind of buildings and the same technology as we've known for decades? Or will it be different, informed by how we work now and what is safe for people, and the mix of working at home or working out of home versus going to the office? Because going to the office is just being such a kind of taken-for-granted element of what everyone's done for so long, and no bigger disruptor than the pandemic to make you think again, frankly.

And to your point—I mean, it's really clear to me on video conferencing—I couldn't have all of the 130 people who work in our newsroom and the rest of the people who work in the broadcast business (which is 250)—I couldn't have them all in the same room because they're all in different offices, they can't leave their office at the same time and come to one place because somebody has to be back holding the fort, but they can all be on a call together, on a video call, side by side, and I can hear all of them reasonably well, rather than struggling to hear the ones at the back rather than the ones at the front, if they're in a room together. And that's a huge learning curve for us, because that really democratizes how people interact in your business.

Now, the cost of that is you're not sitting next to people, you've not got the serendipity of bumping into people or leaving a meeting and saying, “I know what I wanted to ask you about,” and then carrying on a different line. So, you miss all of those things. But there are absolutely things that we will carry on with because they're efficient, they work, and they open up new possibilities for how we work.

CW: As managing director, Bob, you've obviously got a wide responsibility, but I guess your first responsibility still remains to be staff’s health. And this is something that—there’s obviously the physical health aspect to it, but there's also people's mental health. And I'm wondering whether you've had to take that in consideration. Of loneliness—people not having that office environment, as well. Because it's quite difficult. I think a lot of people I've spoken to talk about the kind of creative atmosphere that you have in the newsroom, or in a production department, where you could turn to the person next to you and say, “What do you think about that?” And that's lacking now. So how—from a kind of corporate responsibility, I guess—have you managed to handle that?

BH: I think it's been a huge challenge, and I think one of the elements is you just don't see people the same way. And by that, I mean you don't see them as frequently. You don't see them as human beings quite the same way because they are on a screen. It's very similar, but it's not the same. And being able to detect the signs where people are struggling with mental health or they are finding it difficult to feel motivated or creative or that they can contribute—that’s tough. And that's even tougher to see when you can't see people and look them in the eyes and get the cues.

They're also more likely, I think, certainly in our experience, to feel a bit afraid, to feel that it's tough going pitching up in front of the screen every single day in the same room, day after day, if they're not someone who goes out and is a kind of news gatherer, for example.

So, I think that's been really tough and really challenging, and we've been very conscious to try and address that. We've done a huge amount in the business to bring people together, to encourage people to talk about their mental health, to help managers and remind managers of their responsibility to watch out for people, to take cues from people, to really understand where we can help and that we can do, and even simple things like letting off steam every so often with some kind of Zoom quiz or party or whatever. It's not the same as getting together, but it is, at least, a different flavor of working together on Zoom or on Skype or Teams—and that's been really important for us. But you just have to be mindful and careful and vigilant, and very, very compassionate to how people are feeling and how they're acting. It's a really tough time for everyone, that's for sure.

CW: Management itself can be a lonely place, so how do you cope, Bobby? Because it can be difficult to work in management, and particularly tough to deal with this as well.

BH: I think a lot of people have thrown themselves into things that they might not do. So, I usually am a very enthusiastic swimmer and I've not been able to go to the swimming pool because it’s been closed for nine months. So, I've taken up cycling and dusted out my bike and getting some fresh air. And you so often hear people advise, “Go outside, get some fresh air, spent some time, you know, sniffing the flowers or looking at the trees.”

And that has been my salvation, fresh air, even in these snowy, cold times here in Scotland, where it's minus one or two day after day for a long period, and it's been very, very treacherous out, hasn't stopped me going outside for a short period at least every day, and that's been my salvation.

CW: So, Bobby, there is one final question, and this is a question I'm actually asking everyone who's involved in the podcast series—what is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

BH: Well, I think it has to be the worry about the way out of this, doesn't it? That you, you know, for all that we've got coping mechanisms—whether that's in mental health as we've just been talking about, or in technology—editorially, I think we've found ways to tell stories week after week after week. That's been a challenge, but we've found new stories and heard new contributions in a way that has really struck home with viewers. And we're getting the biggest audiences we've had in decades of people wanting to find out what's going on and wanting to learn about the world around them in these really tough times.

But I think what keeps you awake is wondering how quickly and how soon we might be back to some semblance of normality, because I can rest easy knowing that the technology works, the channel is on the air all the time, our news programs are on time and full of stories that people want to watch, and that that is sustainable, I think. But we'd just like to know when we can get back to normal.

CW: I think that’s what we all hope for, and sometime soon. Great to chat to Bobby there, and I think the issues he highlighted are ones that many stations will be wrestling with just now, and into the future.

Next time on the podcast, we return to the United States, and to a topic we just touched on there with Bobby: how the last year has impacted the health of journalists, producers, and technical staff, in an interview with Bob Ellis. Bob is vice president and general manager of the Jacksonville-based stations WJXT and WCWJ. Here is a short preview.

Bob Ellis: You know, there’s been way too many stories—especially in this market, and in others—where journalists have been treated very poorly by the public. Attacked, in some cases. We’ve had a couple people here—we had a person covering a political rally that got hit. There was a person waving a flag, and they hit our photographer with the flagpole. We had a person, a reporter here, covering a different political rally, where a person came up to them with a bullhorn and screamed in their ear. And that worries me. I think what we do is so critically important, and to think that there’s people out there that have been emboldened to berate and attack—whether verbally or, God forbid, physically—our staff for doing their jobs and telling stories is very disheartening to me. And it’s bothered me a lot this year.

CW: Bob makes lots of good points, and I look forward to hearing from him soon.  

Check out the show notes from this episode for some of the things we talked about. We have a discussion of the long-term staffing implications of remote work for news organizations and tips for editing low-res footage, like Zoom, Skype, or Teams calls. We’ll also link you out to a collection of resources for supporting remote production teams.  

That’s all for this episode. As always, a big thanks to our producer, Rachel Haberman, and thanks to you, for listening, of course.  

Don’t forget to subscribe, like, and share the podcast. And please get in touch! I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @craigaw1969, or you can email us. Our email address is makingthemedia@avid.com.  

Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more insightful chats about making the media.

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