Automation

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Editor: Christopher H. Sterling
Date: 2009
From: Encyclopedia of Journalism(Vol. 1. )
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,416 words

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Page 146

Automation

In both news gathering and production/distribution, automation can be divided into three separate but parallel aspects. These include newspaper automation of both layout and printing, broadcast automation of studio operations, and more general automation of news writing, editing, and distribution functions across media platforms. Naturally, there has been a progression of convergence among these three aspects of automation as the technologies of printing, broadcasting, and news gathering move several different technologies into common digital platforms. Both journalists and the general public have maintained a neutral view concerning the impact of news automation, praising the efficiency, speed, and control it allows, while remaining guarded about its negative effect on the workforce, the growing reliance on technology, and a continued conglomeration of news outlets into fewer corporations. Most powerfully, news automation has long been a self-reinforcing cycle, with one form of automation leading to the adoption of another.

News automation has had an enormous impact on all forms of news gathering as well as entertainment productions. Automation continues to be a driving force across all electronic media. At one extreme, news automation can be considered a form of “strong” technological determinism, whereby the techniques and technologies used in a process become the driving factors in the content produced. For example, newsroom automation and other technical advantages have made realtime satellite uplinks and downlinks commonplace. Frequent use of several direct satellite connections is now perceived as a necessity for many television newscasts. The ubiquity of the technology begins to control not only the format but also the content of news gathering and production. However, built-in checks and balances, particularly editorial oversight and professional adherence to journalistic and ethical standards, remain a balancing factor in news automation both now and into the future. This balancing of editorial standards with the effects of technology is referred to as “weak” technological determinism, where news automation is one of many social and cultural factors which have pronounced effects on news gathering and production but do not control form and content. Other examples of technological determinism include the addition of complex moving graphics to broadcast journalism, the publication of zoned editions of metropolitan daily newspapers, portable in-field production and editing in radio news, and the expectation of frequent updates and headlines in all news media.

A continuing argument regarding news automation is that it inherently created the 24-hour news cycle. This would be an example of strong technological determinism, stating that the technological advances in journalism drove the society that produced them to find newsworthy events more frequently in order to create content for ubiquitous news media. The counter argument in favor of weak technological determinism is that as societies Page 147  |  Top of Articlegrow larger and more sophisticated they create both more information and the technological means for easy gathering and mass distribution of this information. However, both arguments agree that there is an expectation by both society and professional journalists for speed as well as accuracy in news gathering that did not exist before industrial automation.

Automation in Print Media

In print journalism, automation of the printing process in turn created the need to automate and streamline the editorial process in order to take full advantage of the opportunities of faster print times. From the late nineteenth through the twentieth century, the process of typesetting, printing, and finishing newspapers and magazines was increasingly mechanized. This process began with the labor-intensive procedure that required editorial staff to first arrange, then proof the typesetting placed on the print sheet. With the development of mechanized presses, precision manufacturing, and print-finishing (folding and binding), printers no longer had to feed individual sheets into presses, making creation of larger newspapers—and more of them—fast and fairly inexpensive. As printing times shortened, editorial roles adapted to allow more last minute deadlines and coordinated drop-shipping of finished newspapers. With each technological advance, the trend of shorter and shorter production schedules, driven by commercial competition, continued. The technical evolution of print automation included the linotype, which allowed for faster mechanized typesetting; off-set lithography, which allowed images to be printed from reusable plates; and rotary presses and flex-ography; which used flexible rubberized or silicone plates that curve as they print their image onto paper rolls. Each of these technological advances allowed for more rapid and increasingly sophisticated typography, higher-quality illustrations and photographs, and faster layout of individual print runs. These physical printing processes were collectively referred to a “hot printing.” In the 1940s the process of phototypesetting, or “cold printing,” was perfected. It involved making photonegative images of typesetting and illustrations that were then transferred directly to curved silicone plates for printing. Again, this process made page layout faster, necessitating increased automation of editorial oversight.

Each increased degree of automation required fewer workers. The new printing technologies did not require heavy and unwieldy metal type plates, which in turn meant that the physical location of the printing presses could be moved away from the newsroom and layout facilities. The printing and editorial staff became increasingly specialized and removed from each other. Throughout the late twentieth century this process of automation continued to decrease the production time for all printing, allowing for later deadlines and the contraction of the news cycle from several days to just one or even less. With the advent of computer-assisted layout toward the end of the twentieth century, software programs such as PageMaker and Quark XPress pulled the process of layout out of print shops and into the desktop computers of editorial personnel. Simultaneously, wide-scale adoption of word processing software allowed for full workflow automation of print journalism from the reporting and editing stages to layout and printing. Today, this automation has created nearly real-time news cycles, with even newspapers able to respond to last minute events and still achieve widespread and timely distribution.

Automation in News Gathering

The process of automation in news gathering arguably began with the first news pools in the early nineteenth century and continued with the establishment of news agencies in the mid-1800s. News pooling involved an agreement between several newspapers in a metropolitan area to send a single reporter to cover a predictable news story or area, for example, a minor city hall hearing, small press conference, or ship arrivals and departures. Simple reports involving basic facts, and little or no editorial opinion, would be copied and sent to all participating newspapers. This practice evolved into separate news agencies that collected information, press releases, and on-location stories and automated the process by regularly sending the information to subscribing newspapers. Individual reporters and editors could access basic factual information gathered by other on-location reporters not necessarily directly employed by the newspaper (or later broadcast network).

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Early news pool and news agency stories and information were gathered by editors and physically posted or filed in newsrooms. News agencies grew in sophistication thanks to the telegraph and undersea cables, which came into use in the 1840s and 1866, respectively. This allowed for dispatch of news agency stories from considerable geographical distance for use in local newspapers. More importantly, the text of a news agency story could be integrated into the local reporter's story. As information arrived in newsrooms faster, the process of story assignment, research, and writing was increasingly automated.

By the mid-twentieth century, news agencies adopted Telex and teleprinter automation technologies, which took advantage of the newer pulse-dial telephony systems to deliver formatted text to multiple terminals. This also allowed reporters to file stories back to newsrooms from remote locations, further speeding and automating the process of news gathering and dissemination. As individual newspapers and broadcast stations adopted computerized word processing, news agency stories could be directly electronically copied into news stories in progress. For stations and networks, production rundowns (an outline of each news production's content) moved from being a physical print-out or paste-board to an electronic document. Editors and multiple reporters could directly collaborate and edit one single news story in the process of preparation while approaching deadlines could be pushed close to broadcast time thanks to broadcast automation.

Broadcast Automation

The rise of radio networks in the 1920s, and television networks three decades later, posed several logistical problems that were resolved by automation. Broadcast journalists and newsroom producers face multiple live events and dozens of playback sources, far tighter broadcast deadlines than traditional newspapers, and the need to standardize the division of labor within broadcast facilities. Early broadcast automation included control of film or video playback machines and switching to and from the network signal using simple electronic pulse control. This automation was standardized using time code for program switching in television network news gathering and distribution.

Time code involves assigning each frame of video a sequential number allowing for perfect cuing of sources. The Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) sets and maintains the engineering standards for broadcasting. SMPTE time code is the most widely used format for broadcast automation. Networks and television stations adopted a master clock to generate a time code to which all playback and routing devices are synchronized. A central control device, usually the facility's broadcast switcher, can then control live elements and combine them with prerecorded playback.

Proprietary engineering of individual playback devices was slowly replaced with open technical standards that allowed for better integration of equipment. This trend expanded in the 1980s and 1990s to include graphic character generators, TelePrompTers, and robotic cameras. As most video production by the turn of the twenty-first century became digital and “tapeless,” all playback devices can utilize an expanded form of open standards referred to as MOS (metal oxide semiconductor) technology. This ensures that all equipment will be compatible with all software, a change from earlier engineering systems, which were still split into production automation (such as the BASYS system for tape control), and work flow automation (such as scheduling software). (MOS technology should not be confused with the script marking of “M.O.S.,” an abbreviation for “minus optical sound” referring to any visual medium used without sound.)

Toward Fully Automated Media

The development of television and later satellite/ cable network news operations was greatly aided by expanding automation. Television reporters and producers were able to cover multiple events. The movement toward full news automation allows newswire stories, production rundowns, and finished stories to be acquired, tracked, and loaded from individual reporters and editors into a central computer server for access by all members of the production and engineering teams. Central control of the production process has become “Rundown Based”; every element in a production is linked to a single electronic document that can be viewed by all members of the production team. Page 149  |  Top of ArticleKey to this process is the addition of standardized metadata and tags. Metadata are small pieces of information at the beginning (or head) of each digital file of information—scripts, rundowns, visuals, and moving image media that define the individual file based on which news story was created. This metadata allows individual operators to determine if the information is relevant to their particular production or news story. During live broadcasts, directors and technical operators can control all linked machines using one single protocol for moving information. Increasingly the open MOS technology uses XML standards for data control. During automated playback, a master control device can operate all devices, thus reducing the need for personnel. Broadcast automation has made possible the techniques creating interconnected global broadcast news operations. Automation systems also allow for inexpensive backup redundancy, archiving of productions, and a more intuitive graphic user interface that displays information in two-column script format.

Implementation of newsroom automation is capital intensive and has been resisted by some news professionals. Historically, small and midsized news-gathering operations first embraced news automation, and leveraged its benefits. Many newspapers and broadcasters adopted automation in phases. The first phase usually involves automation of playback devices (both analog and digital) and cameras. The second automates rundowns and story editing along with newswire services and TelePrompTers. The third phase involves a complete switch to all-digital media and the addition of metadata to all media, stories, and rundowns for control and oversight.

Many news organizations retain a “hybrid automation” system integrating personnel-based control with computer automation. Advocates claim this system allows for greater flexibility and faster reaction to unscripted elements such as breaking news, retains a human element, and allows for faster switching back to full manual control. Editorial objections to full automation include the idea that automation can obscure the difference between subjective reports and objective facts, the continuing problem of verifying multiple sources under tight deadlines, and the contentious idea that news automation weakens the editorial firewall between professional editors and corporate media owners. Many of the objections to full automation of news are being addressed by improved software and digital hardware, and by new generations of “digital natives” comfortable with an all-digital environment working in newsrooms.

Some news automation uses business enterprise software specifically designed for newsroom operations, such as EZ-News and Avid. Consumer software packages such as Adobe InDesign for desktop publishing and open source software such as CampCaster for radio news production bring converging news and broadcast automation within the financial reach of even small news organizations and citizen journalists. Collaboration brought about by news automation has also eroded the concept of single authorship of news stories. While individual field reporters remain, some news gathering organizations have begun to eliminate bylines as a direct outcome of newsroom automation. Paradoxically, some broadcast news has become increasingly “personality driven” as news anchors and reporters now require fewer technical skills in order to create broadcasts.

Continuing Impact and Evolution

Automation continues to converge print and electronic news to the point where historical divisions between them become obscured. Traditional employees in news organizations such as engineers and technical producers have been retrained or phased out. Personnel duties have also converged, as many employees have duties that combine elements of the technical, editorial, and creative. RSS feeds and news aggregators—automated computer software that collects news stories and has begun to assemble “news front pages”—are increasingly taking on the traditional function of assistant editors, who worked as background researchers. Archiving of news stories through automation with XML metadata allows for easy later retrieval by both news personnel and their audiences through ubiquitous websites. The tight deadline and scoop-based journalism that characterize the 24-hour news cycle are arguably a direct result of growing automation and greater connectivity. News aggregators and RSS feeds will likely continue this trend in the future with the audience automating its process of news consumption. Discussions and debates Page 150  |  Top of Articleabout technological determinism and other effects of automation will continue as the technology continues to evolve and change and influence editorial practices and methods of news gathering.

William A. Hanff Jr.

Further Readings

Blair, Scott. “11 Questions to Ask before Investing in News Automation.” Broadcast Engineering, August 2007.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technology Society. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Luff, John. “Newsroom Automation.” Broadcast Engineering, October 2005.

Newspaper Association of America. http://www.naa.org .

Samaddar, Ranabir. Workers and Automation: The Impact of New Technology in the Newspaper Industry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994.

Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. “Standards.” http://www.smpte.org/standards .

Winner, Landgon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3202300045