A Content Production Revolution
In the Belgrade headquarters of RTVB92, an important change is under way. The broadcaster, which became a thorn in the side of the former Milosevic regime by delivering independent news and programming, is now embarking on a content production revolution.
The aim is to deliver news to every text-based platform that B92 users turn to, without reversioning. It means that content, created once, will automatically be published, simultaneously, on the Web, on WAP, SMS, TV text, and any future digital platforms.
• Veran Matic, B92 CEO and editor-in-chief
• Nikola Tomic, B92 website editor
• Dejan Restak, director of B92 Interactive
• Vojkan Rados, head of B92 IT
• Sanda Savic, head of B92 News
• Vlada Calic, webmaster for B92 Online
In the technical department, Vojkan Rados has drawn up plans for a system that promises to alter radically the way that the news operation produces, displays, stores, and delivers its content. All tasks are essential to the plan that the head of news, Sanda Savic, and her editorial and technical teams have agreed to introduce. In a corner of the same room, Vlada Calic is working on some code that also promises to change how B92 manages content forever.
Tomic knows that his Web team, working in RTVB92's new, converged Belgrade newsroom, has a crucial role to play. The site he manages, B92.net, is to become a central cog in a revamped and converged B92 news machine.
The site has two roles to play. It has to display the top stories covered by B92 TV and radio for the benefit of existing users, but it also has to deliver that content to all the existing digital platforms B92 is accessed on and be capable of providing content to future platforms, all from existing resources.
Restak has been exploring the various business opportunities ahead. He has been keen to offer B92 news on more platforms. However, Restak, Tomic, and Savic know that hiring more journalists to reversion content for these platforms (and inventing new systems for processing that content) is out of the question. What they need is a solution that enables content, created once, to be delivered to every text-based platform without further human intervention.
The plan is simple. They've examined all current platforms and calculated how much content each requires. They then worked out, by counting the character requirements for each platform, what common character limitations were needed to serve all. These limitations are now being introduced into the content management system to force all journalists to create content in the required form.
There have also been changes to the way journalists write their news stories. Even the most sophisticated technical solutions will be challenged by text created in an undisciplined way. There need to be rules. The journalists had to think about the content they were creating as part of the technical solution.
Interestingly, it meant going back the basics of good print journalism. Headlines had to make sense standing alone. They needed to be sentences, not labels. Subject, verb, object. Pyramid journalism based on facts, not padding. No wasted words. The basic editorial formula -- who, when, why, where, what, and how. All fundamental stuff most journalists were taught their first day on the job. It's interesting to think that the best practice of old is also the best solution for delivering content in the digital age.
Some B92 journalists questioned whether the Serb language could be reduced to short headlines, essential for working on SMS, WAP, and TV text. Such arguments are usually a sign of fear and were soon blown away. Others thought that the system might cause the journalism to be weakened, but they soon saw that crisp content meant sharper journalism. It took only a few hours of training until all were convinced and already proving that it could be done.
That breakthrough meant that the technical team could then introduce tools to enable that content to enter the database as tagged component parts to be extracted and pushed to the various digital platforms.
Calic smiled from the corner of the room. "Let me show you something," he said as he took the TV remote and walked towards the set in the middle of the development room. He punched in the channel number for B92 TV, pressed text, typed in the number he had allocated for the mock-up test page, and up came the exact text that, seconds earlier, had been saved and published on the web.
We were looking at the first version of a fresh B92 news product created from the content already being used online. B92 isn't the first media outfit to do this, but it might not have been introduced so quickly before and with such determination and energy.
The whole idea had been given the green light by B92 CEO and editor-in-chief, Veran Matic, only a month earlier, and here we were, seeing the first mock-up of a totally new way of working in less time than some media operations would have taken to form a working party and carry out the first draft of a feasibility study.
It was clear that Matic wanted to create the most converged, multiplatform, multiskilled newsroom in the Balkans. His team was merely acting out his instructions to push the plan though in the shortest time-scale possible.
Matic knows this multiplatform strategy offers his influential news operation another tool in his sustainability kitbag. Matic's growing media operation, which has moved from its guerrilla phase to become a mainstream independent broadcaster, needs all the revenue-generating opportunities it can harness.
As the system was discussed, it was interesting to see how all the arguments against the plan were brushed aside. The strategy was essential: there was no room for compromise, dilution, or delay. It had to be introduced quickly and it had to be introduced now. That speed of acceptance and introduction was impressive.
Where some bigger broadcasters might have been inclined to delay while they examined the pros and cons, B92 just got on with it. The results of the process will start filtering through to output throughout the summer of 2004, but the idea has been accepted, the team has signed up to it, systems are being created, and the journalists have responded positively. Hopefully, fresh opportunities for revenue-generation will then be exploited without having spent a single Euro on extra staff.
The B92 news and technical teams are proud of themselves, and so they should be. They have responded to an idea and introduced it without hesitation. They have set an example that others might do well to follow, because it's not just media operations in transition states that are coming under pressure to reorganise and rethink. Even the bigger, richer, and more mature media organisations are feeling the need for change.
In the context of a rapidly changing media environment, all are grappling with similar issues. The mature Western media sometimes has the advantage of money, people, and technology to throw at the problems. Perhaps those in emerging democracies have an advantage of their own: they have needed to be nimble, adaptable, and frequently brave, just in order to survive the difficulties of recent years. Could it be that they set the pace by taking the risks and, as a result, start to lead the way by developing and introducing fresh, imaginative, cutting-edge solutions that all can benefit from?
David Brewer has been helping B92 with their converged content strategy as part of a programme of training being offered by the BBC World Service Trust's ECBJ (European Centre for Broadcast Journalism). These remarks were prepared for a talk he is giving at the RADIO NEWS SPECIALIZED MEETING in Geneva, 13 RADIO May, 2004. Invitations have gone out to EBU Radio's 66 active members in 50 European and Mediterranean countries, as well as 52 Associate Members in 30 countries further afield.