News broadcasters need to continually evolve the way they tell
stories and interact with their audiences in order to remain relevant and not risk becoming “legacy businesses.”
In this episode John Mason, head of program output (technical) at
STV in Scotland, outlines how they are addressing the need to retain their traditional TV audience while moving heavily into the digital
Listen to Hear:
- The democratization of programming driven by the pandemic
- The need to cater to a younger, more diverse audience
- The changing nature of news storytelling
Our Guests This Episode
John works in the news division at STV in Glasgow, Scotland, and is responsible for a number of programs covering news and current affairs, as well as some lifestyle and entertainment shows for the channel.
His role is to connect editorial, technical teams and resources to ensure the highest standards are met and that products remain relevant. As a former senior news director, his passion has been live news programming, but his latest challenge is working with location (ESC) teams to deliver high-quality and entertaining productions. He is still heavily involved in news and current affairs and aims to innovate and diversify their output, to reflect the outward-looking confident country in which he lives.
"We don't want to end up being a legacy business that eventually just dies. That would be the worst thing that could happen."
– John Mason, STV
Mentioned in This Episode
Public Service Broadcaster Radio Televisione Italiana (RAI) Upgrades NewsroomRead the article
Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here, your host for the latest episode of the Making the Media podcast. Great to have you with us once again, and if you are a new listener, then welcome along.
Marrying the creative process with the technical realities of delivering live or recorded shows is a challenge which every program maker faces. Deadlines have to be met, budgets have to be hit, and all the while the balance between the wants of the editorial side and the realities faced by the technical team has to be struck. It’s never easy.
It’s a balance which John Mason faces regularly in his role as head of program output technical at the Scottish broadcaster, STV. Now, full disclosure here, John and I used to work together when I was a program editor at STV and John was directing or vision-mixing the shows I produced.
So it was great to catch up with him again to discuss his role, the changing nature of news programming and digital challengers, and how they’re attempting to diversify not just their audience but also the contributors to their shows.
We began by discussing the importance that both sides — editorial and technical — understand and appreciate the role each other has to play in producing the best shows.
John Mason: The business has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years and a lot of people are now very multi-skilled, maybe journalist or technicians, but we've obviously moved away from just broadcasting and we're now digital and every aspect of what we produce.
So there had to be a sense that journalists have good skills and have very good technical knowledge. These days they're used to picking up a camera, they're used to editing their own videos at home, and now they're used to being professional editors in terms of their own output. So there was always a danger of that they were maybe taking other people's jobs, and in reality, what has happened is that they supplement the technical crews that we have and allow us to do a lot more with the number of people that we can employ.
We work to budget so everything has to be balanced in terms of costs, so the ability to have a lot of journalists and pick up a camera and go out and film good quality packages and edit them is vital for us, but we have craft crews as well who are out there filming.
I've been working on Sean’s Scotland, which is a program we do which shows the kind of beauty of Scotland and the interesting people that live around the country. That's all filmed with a craft camera person, but we've got a shooting AP alongside who's filming as well. So there's a natural coming together of the different roles that we have in our newsrooms, and it's kind of important that the communication between both sides works and that everyone sees that we can work as a one big team to produce great programs.
CW: I think it's interesting what you say there about the skillset that comes complements the craft skills that exist. Do you think that goes both ways that also on the craft side, people, perhaps on learning from the other side, who are perhaps not thinking in the same way?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. It's really like when I was a director and a vision mixer, then I was really interested in the editorial and news junkie, watched the news channels to silly times in the morning, particularly when the US elections are on, so I had a real interest in what was happening in the world and what we were putting into our programs and how we were reflecting that.
I'm keen that the technicians that work around me and with me are also keen in the news agenda and their job is not to just sit there and help get a program that they don't get about, because that's not the best way of working. I want them to have a passion for the programs that they are creating, that every bit as important as the journalist and getting these programs made.
And, as I say, with the change in how we broadcast and the changes in digital, we're now using lots of material that we source online. They have to be able to find that they have to know the best narrative that we're going to take and how to find the material that complements the film packages,
CW: So John, I think what you've illustrated there is obviously there's a passion that you have for the job, and then translating that passion into the others that you work with. And one thing, of course, that's changed a lot in the course of the last couple of years has been the increasing use of things like Zoom and Teams you know—here we are on Zoom doing this. And I'm interested in your thoughts on how that has changed the dynamic of some of the programs that you do?
JM: Yeah, it's kind of been forced upon us for obvious reasons. Traditionally we would have said satellite trucks to do remote interviews. We would have brought them into studios and we still love doing that. And obviously you don't get better than a face-to-face interview in reality. But COVID kind of forced us to find new ways of getting people on our television. So we had done Skype interviews before but we were always maybe this snobbish about it for the quality’s just not good enough. And it's getting better and better. It largely depends on the quality of the camera the other persons using and giving them a bit of advice on how to frame their shots and light the shots and the Wi-Fi and broadband is really important, as well. But we do interviews now that you couldn't tell the difference at times as to whether they've been in a studio in London or whether they're sitting in their apartment in London doing the interview for us.
So the great thing about it is, it’s democratized. The ability for people to get on TV in the past where you would find that people couldn't come to the studio for very good reasons for family reasons just because of the distances they had to travel. So often, you found that people in urban centers would be involved in studio debates and programs, but those out in rural communities couldn't be quite as easily—it’d be a big effort for them. So through necessity we started using Zoom, we use QikLink, we use Skype, and we're getting a whole lot of new contributors to our programs on air.
And in the early days of the pandemic is was really how we kept the news going because there were days that we were in the studio for hours at a time, talking people through how to do their first ever Skype.
We had a great one with a man who I think he was in his mid 80s and I remember being on the phone with him, talking to him and explaining. He managed to set up his Skype account and then we explained to him how to get the camera activated and how to get the best picture for us and he was delighted that everybody was going back to tell them all we've done a Skype—it's great.
CW: You talked about democratizing, but I'm interested in sort of diversity and inclusion perhaps, as it's had an impact on that as well.
JM: Well yeah, a good example is our Scotland Tonight program, which is a current affairs show and it goes out on a Monday to Wednesday about 10:40. So it's quite late. So very often in the past when we tried to put guests for that program, often, if it was a female contributor, they would say no to you because they had family commitments. They had children that were in bed that they didn't want to leave. It was easier to get men into the studio. Women were more of a challenge.
The minute we were able to say to them, look, we don't have to leave your house. You can get involved from your living room or wherever your office is set up and we can get you on air. And that opens up a whole new group of people that we can get on the television, and you get away from the same faces you see again and again because it's the same people that have that ability to commit to driving into Glasgow or Edinburgh and Aberdeen to go into studio.
And then beyond that, it allows us to get people all around the world into the programs without an exorbitant cost, which in the past would be prohibitive and would put you off maybe using someone in North America or elsewhere in Europe.
CW: So John I'm interested in how perhaps it's changed that some of the dynamic for the presenter themselves. You know, we talked about there's nothing better than a face-to-face interview if someone is in the studio and it's obviously a different dynamic if they are remote, so I'm wondering from the sort of presenters perspective if they've had to alter perhaps their approach at times how they do interviews.
JM: Yeah, it's lovely to see that it's on the guest, we've started to piece them back into the studio in the last few months and most are delighted to be back, but there will still be people that aren't comfortable with that at the moment, so we will continue with like any hybrid model. I don't think we're looking towards pulling things back to full studio interviews because I think we've really benefited from this period and learning new technologies and getting new faces and the TV.
But our presenters have to be aware of it. It's much more difficult to challenge an interviewee when you're doing it as a remote interview. Interrupting them sounds rude, as if you're being a little bit rude at times, so you have to pick your moment. Delays can be an issue and that can be a little bit of a problem and we've all seen the one person delays the other. The other person then delays them back and you end up from this bounce around so the presenters have had to learn that they have to really interpret when someone's about to stop talking so that they can come in and not just interrupt them mid-sentence.
Professional interviewees benefit from that. Because they can continue to just talk and talk and talk and talk, but could be really difficult to get. But I think most presenters, I think, will think there's a big benefit in getting the diversity of guests, and that's worth sacrificing the face-to-face interview for.
CW: And I presume, by extension then John, you don't probably see things going back to how they were done before, where you have to have people in the studio in order to perhaps do the program?
JM: Yeah, not at all. I don't think contributors will allow that. And obviously there are times when we will really push contributors to come in, if it was again a political face-to-face debate, we would try and get them there, but more general contributors, I think, will always say that actually it's easier for them just to be at home and to be on the program that way. And we don't mind that. I think that that's fine. Getting a good mix is the most important thing, and making sure people are comfortable being on TV via Skype, QikLink or face-to-face.
CW: So you mentioned earlier on John that you’ve had various roles, you know, you and I worked together for a long time as a director and vision mixer and I was producing shows, as well. I'm interested in how you think storytelling has developed not just in the last couple of years, but perhaps over that time as well.
You know, I can sort of go back to a case where that, you know, very very few pieces to cameras and packages, whereas now, you know, live is very much part of it as well. So I'm interested in how you think that has changed over time.
JM: It's interesting, the other day I was just thinking “When was the last time we recorded a phono interview?” Because the phono used to be your get out of jail card. If you if you couldn't get to the location and something just happened, you would phone them up and record them on the telephone line. And even that we thought was a massive technical challenge at the time, but I can't remember the last time I saw something like that on TV.
I think we have a much wider variety of media available to us now so we can gather from all sorts of areas. So yeah, we're looking at social media and we're doing a story to see what's there, and that's often the quickest way to get information and pictures back. It's helpful and sometimes dangerous to have to send your crews and your reporters to try and get the story.
I think our reporters are all pretty much digitally native now, so they don't think traditionally anymore. There's still a few reporters from an older generation who will still think that way, but I think the vast majority of the newsroom now their mobile device is their key instrument in challenging them to get material and contacts, so yeah, there's there are lots of piece of cameras. I think people like FaceTime. They like being on the screen so that certainly I think the personality behind TV has changed. I think a lot of even at a network level a lot of people like to be the focus of the package, which isn't always the best thing. I think we really want the contributors to be the stars of our packages.
CW: But John isn't the use of personality one of the ways that television news is trying to engage with the audience? You know, I can think of some sort of star correspondence, if you like, who run various channels here in the UK. So is that sort of personality not something that TV channels are trying to capitalize on?
JM: Absolutely and trust as well. Trust is really important, so we hope that the audience looked at our onscreen reporters and correspondents and trust them. We want our presenters and reporters to be warm and friendly so we don't have this quite as serious as an approach as maybe some of the BBC journalists have. We prefer to be seen as someone that you could almost go out with and have a pint with if you're a drinker or you could go have a coffee if you like, and trust that that person's telling you the truth when they're talking to you. So yeah, it is important that people recognize the talent that we have. But yeah, they become recognized places in your home, but they're recognized.
CW: You've done a lot of work as a vision mixer and a director in the in the studio, John. When it comes to looking at studios now, what are the things that you're looking at to really enhance that kind of storytelling ability? Is it the ability to do more live? Is it the ability to have multiple screens? Is it things like virtual sets? You know? How do you sort of look at things at the moment, and perhaps think ahead to the future?
JM: Yeah, it's interesting because the video wall has become king, hasn't it? It's everywhere. I follow a lot of American websites for their studio setups, for their local stations over there, and they've got massive video walls that curve all around the set and that was really dominated for the last few years. And we've got video walls in our news sets and our Scotland Tonight set and they really, they allow you to be much more creative and stuff with your putting great visuals behind the presenter. Great information sequences for the presenter to react to or live shots and to, I suppose, the natural move on from that is the virtual sets, which are really dominating, and now we haven't gone down that route yet and that might be something for the future, but they give you great scope to change your set for different programs. Really allows you to have a very small studio that looks like a massive studio by and just kind of creating a little bit of a cheat to the viewer but some of the things that have been done, for example BBC Sport and ITD support for the World Cup, it looked amazing for their sports programs and news is rapidly taking that in both as well.
CW: I'm interested in what you said there John that you look to stations in the US and you look at other places. What do you think are the kind of influences that you try to absorb I guess to try to then bring that to what you're doing with STV?
JM: You're just looking for the best ideas aren’t you. Very rarely do you create something that's completely new. Most of the time you're picking up tips from elsewhere. Our current Scotland Tonight set took some inspiration from a lot of areas—places like CNN, etcetera, and just looking at how they are doing it. And even a lot of the Asian stations, as well. They're really beautifully created and designed sets that kind of aspirational for you to try and get something that is as good as what they are doing, often with much smaller budget because they have huge budgets and resources available.
But yeah, I just think it's exciting to see how sets have changed from when I first started in the business. They were very physical sets and they often looked great on camera. You went round the back of the set and they were death hazards, and as we've moved on we've kind of invested in technology, we've invested in higher quality sets because obviously we're now HD. Even 4K. You can have no blemishes visible, so we really try and get the best and try and make it interesting. Lots of different shots that will keep the viewer interested throughout the program.
CW: Yeah, because one thing I know that some people used to feel in the past was news in particular was pretty kind of formulaic. You kind of have blocked off how the show was going to go, and I guess, you know, to the extent that's what a new show is, but do you think there's more variety now than perhaps there was in the past?
JM: Yeah, well, for the start, there's more competition. There's news channels getting launched in the UK every day, almost. So you have to stay on your feet and users are feeding it obviously in other areas. People are getting their news from Facebook and Twitter. So as broadcasters we have to be very aware that there is serious competition out there from existing competitors and from new challenges. So we really have to keep it fresh for the viewer.
As I say, there is a sense of what always wanted. You have to know who we are and to trust us so we're not going to change our branding or our sets too often because we wanted that to be a familiarity about it. Even in the UK, the change that went through a few years ago where everyone went from sitting behind the desk to sitting on the sofa. It's part of the news. It just goes round in circles and now everyone's back behind desks again. It's interesting.
CW: Yeah, I guess another element and I see this when I've travelled around is the various different ways that graphics are used. You know, I’ve been fortunate enough to go to India at times and in India, it seems there's more graphics on screen than there is video on screen, so I'm interested in how you look to use graphics and again seek to, you know, look at how other people are doing things and perhaps incorporate those kind of things as well.
JM: Yeah, we had students across from the US a couple of years ago and they come in to watch one of the programs in the gallery and they were “Where's your ticker tape? You don't have a ticker.” But you're right, graphics are really important. They give you the real power to change the visual in your program and also to illustrate the story. So we really care about the graphics that we have and that we can add to the stories. And we’ve got a good talented team producing that.
But we tend to shy away from one screen graphics. That's not a big thing for us in terms of, as I say, bugs and tickers etcetera. It's a much simpler look that we use, and even in the last 26 months, we've refreshed the graphics and we've made the graphics all a little bit smaller, added a bit of transparency, and prior to that, they were big chunky bars that blocked the screen and you lost a lot of the imagery.
So graphics are a real friend to the producers and the directors in terms of how they can illustrate stories. So the tools that we have available now allow us to do things really quickly and render times have come down massively which makes a massive difference because in the past you would be waiting two to three hours to get your graphic rendered out for your package or for your studio elements. So again, in combination with the video. Also, it just gives us an awful lot of tools available to us to make the program interesting
CW: The way that the creative team have the time to do that is that also partly driven by the fact that you use templated graphics that the journalists use as well that they're not having to recreate absolutely every graphic on a daily basis.
JM: Yeah, absolutely. And we benefited as well from recurring stories, which you always get in the news agenda. So cool, that's been here for a long time partly the case here and may be coming to an end. So you do refresh and reuse graphics from time to time, but the ability for the journalists to be able to template their own graphics just takes the pressure off at times, particularly at times when we don't have graphic artists in it. Weekends and the evening shifts, et cetera. They need the ability to produce maps, to produce quotes, etc. really quickly, and get them on air so it's vital that we have that combination of completed graphics and crafted graphics and our teams. We have a good relationship between the journalists and the graphic artists and good early planning for big projects to make sure they get time to just the top quality visuals that we require. That's the most important thing
CW: Your job sounds like it's got a huge amount of variety to it, John, in terms of the type of programs that you're working on, both the studio, and you mentioned some of the other, you know, and sort of actually entertainment, you know, perhaps stuff that you do, as well. How important is that to you?
JM: It's great. As I said at the start, I'm very much a news junkie. That's my heart and soul. I'll always be interested in news, but the change of role that I've got now allowing me to look at other areas, we've got various program launches coming up, so it allows you to be very creative. It's brilliant sitting and interviewing new people and getting them into the business and bringing fresh ideas in.
So again through the COVID period, we didn't have much of a chunk of staff. And since things have started to open up again, we're getting a healthy rotation of staff in and out of the building, which is a good thing. You're always sad to see someone move on, but you're always happy to see them get that chance to move on and develop their skills and careers. So we're starting to see a return of staff again.
I've been heavily involved in a lot of the recruitment in the last year or so, and it is so refreshing to meet these people that are just so enthusiastic and you're bringing them in and giving them opportunities. So I'm loving the fact that I get to work across a variety of programs, but it can be a challenge resourcing it all because we're not a massive organization so it really is a challenge of things.
CW: And I guess as well there's the here and now you have to deal with, the things that are on the go to go today. But I guess also John in your role now you have to have a bit of an eye in the future as well. So are you looking at your trends? You're looking at other things and considering different types of programming or different ways of storytelling, is that part of an ongoing process for you?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. And so again, we talked about sets. I'm constantly looking at what other people are doing and seeing innovators and set design. I'm looking at how they tell the stories in terms of the graphics. I'm looking at how they integrate contributors to their programs and how we diversify the people that are in our programs, as well. Because our audience is changing.
We also have to be very aware that we have a very loyal broadcast audience and that's really important to us. But there is a massive audience out there on social media as well that we have to attract. So it's how you take a piece of content and make sure that it works for different platforms. That can be a real challenge and making sure you get the right people in your organization that can do that. Because if people aren't using things like TikTok and Instagram. Like that's where the younger generation are. So we don't want to end up being a legacy business that eventually just dies. That would be the worst thing that could happen. We have to be prepared to find new areas, but always remain loyal to our broadcast audience because they've served us really well.
CW: You've mentioned Instagram and TikTok there and we've spoken to a few people on the podcast and it's quite interesting for Instagram and TikTok, you know, come up quite a bit now. And I think, you know, a few years ago perhaps people wouldn't see those kind of platforms as the battleground, if you like, for news. But it is about telling things in a different way, and so the question I wanted to ask about that, then John, is that you come across as still having that great passion and excitement about the business, which I think is fantastic. Is it that kind of passionate excitement of these new things that come in? Is that really where that's coming from?
JM: Yeah, I'm not sure, I have to be really honest here, I'm not on TikTok. I know what it is, but I'm not on Instagram. Yeah, I think Instagram is great because it's such a visual medium. And again, it's really obvious how you can tell a story on Instagram and put it to connect with people on TikTok. Something that I maybe have to learn. I don't think I'll ever be an active user of it.
But yeah, there's people out there and they're creating content and they're sharing it with millions and millions of people every day. And to not be on that journey with them, you're quite naive if you don't think that’s where things are going, so you really have to be open to the many challenges of taking on new platforms, new technologies to make sure that you remain relevant.
CW: So John, it’s been brilliant to talk to you again, John. It's obviously been some time since we've seen each other, but it's great to see you. There is a final question I ask everyone in the podcast and that is what is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?
JM: Well, the honest answer is my dog trying to kick me out the bed because you wake up in the morning you realize you're right on the edge of the bed and he's got most of it. That's the thing that keeps you up at night.
Our big challenge at the moment is diversifying our contributors. That's what we need to do. We really recognize that we have to do that so that that is something that is great fun. It's great meeting new people and getting them involved. And we've got some great processes here at STV. Our Expert Voices program has had over 500 people who have given media training too, so we're opening up new doors and getting new people involved in our programming. So the challenge for me is to make sure we deliver that on screen and those people that get through the process of being trained that we actually give them the platform and get them on. So I think that’s a great challenge to have.
CW: Thanks to John for joining us on the podcast, and fingers crossed it is not too long until we get the chance to meet up in person once again.
I think he had some really interesting insights to share there, particularly around the democratization of participation in shows which the pandemic has brought about, and also about the need for broadcasters to remain relevant and not become legacy businesses.
What do you think? Let me know on social, my username is @Craigaw1969 on Twitter and Instagram. Or email us, we are Makingthemedia@avid.com.
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Check out the show notes to find out why Italian broadcaster RAI is investing in the future with Avid solutions, and how the UK broadcaster, the BBC, handles change in its news division in another podcast episode.
Thanks again to John, thanks to our producer Matt Diggs. That’s all for this show, from me, Craig Wilson, thank you so much for listening. Join us next time for more insight into the world of making the media.