A news approach - Al Jazeera Arabic's new workflow

Al Jazeera Arabic, replaced a failing newsroom system with a new workflow to streamline operational efficiencies.

Original article published by BroadcastPro ME.

In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Miljenko Logozar, who headed the project and Ali Elhusseini, Programme Manager, provide more details about the installation

Snapshot

Client: Al Jazeera Media Network

Objective: To put in place a transitional and sophisticated newsroom system and related elements in the workflow at Al Jazeera Arabic until a more comprehensive and fully operational system can go live in Q4 2016.

Key vendors: Avid, Vizrt, Telestream, TSL, Pebble Beach, VSM, Dataminer, Calrec

With this project, the team achieved the following:

Update all AJA newsroom workflows to be compliant with the new technology and migrate all tape-based workflows to fully file-based ones

Design (create AutoCAD drawings, cable list, installation guidelines) and physically install new equipment

Build new network infrastructure in the newsroom and operational areas

Move to the new Pebble Beach Marina playout system in the transmission area

Upgrade video workflow in the creative department with the installation of new workstations with Adobe Creative Cloud and Media Composer applications

Install 120 computers in the newsroom and upgrade nearly 100 existing ones

Give training to nearly 800 employees (from the newsroom, technology and operations as well as the creative departments)

Move to a new control room and move to Mosart operations

Upgrade the full Vizrt infrastructure, playout, storage and design tools

Fit out a total of 11 edit suites for news and promos

The project

Al Jazeera’s Workplace Transformation project has been the talk of the region since 2011 but it looks like the pieces of the jigsaw may finally be falling into place with a tentative completion date in Q4 of 2016. One more piece fell into place with the transitional upgrade of the newsroom system at Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) in December 2015. Miljenko Logozar, Director of Technology Solutions & Integration at Al Jazeera, headed this project along with Head of Network Operations Standards, Ali Elhusseini, who served as Programme Manager on this project.

Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) was in dire need of a new and robust newsroom system, explains Logozar. For those who are not familiar with Logozar’s credentials, he is known as the man who helped build Al Jazeera Balkans (AJB) in Sarajevo, from scratch – literally.

“My passion has always been to move channels forward through new technical and operational challenges,” he says, and is presently engaged in projects that are being undertaken to migrate the network from a broadcast environment to an IP and virtualised environment.

At AJB, Logozar was responsible for everything required to build a TV channel from the civil design and broadcast technology to helping with the recruitment of staff for the Technology and Operations department. His core specialty has always been building or moving to new facilities. Logozar also led the technical design team that delivered AJAM in New York in 2013.

In this case, Al Jazeera Arabic was working with a Thomson Grass Valley News production system and an outdated version of Avid’s iNEWS Newsroom Computer System for the last ten years.

“The lack of upgrades to the system for many years has resulted in health and performance failures, along with serious hardware issues. When spare parts were required, we had to source them from commercial websites such as eBay, as they were no longer available from the official suppliers, so our Executive Director Mohamad Abuagla gave us the green light to proceed with the planning and execution of this critical project,” Logozar says.

With the Al Jazeera Workplace Transformation project announced in 2011, the team was hoping to wait until a complete system was implemented and fully delivered later this year.

Over the last two years, however, it became evident that the issues with the AJA production system had become critical, with the risk of the channel falling off air, explains Logozar.

Waiting could have become fatal for the channel.

“The AJWT project delivery for AJA was too far in the future and as such, it was necessary to urgently implement an intermediate solution to replace the old and unstable systems at AJA in the summer of 2015,” he points out.

Thus began the Al Jazeera Arabic project, which went live in December from Doha after months of preparation, testing and rehearsals.

The transitional system, which is based on Avid technology, paves the way for a fuller upgrade to AJA’s newsroom, which is due to come into operation by Q4 2016, when the workplace transformation project is also scheduled for completion. The system promises greater networking and sharing of material between Doha and Al Jazeera’s other newsrooms worldwide.

The installation includes a VSM main control system in the production control room (PCR) as well as a Viz Mosart main playout application for playing the video files.

“The new Viz Mosart user interface in the PCR is the first step towards more optimised AJA PCR workflows in the future,” explains Logozar.

“We have a Telestream Vantage in place. It represents the main transcoding farm for all incoming and outgoing files. Vantage is integrated with Avid Interplay via Avid web services. The complete electrical power infrastructure in the PCR and the edit rooms is monitored and managed by TSL power distribution units.”

To elaborate, the Telestream system is a fully redundant file-based workflow solution. It integrates Telestream’s Vantage Transcode Pro Connect, Analysis and Avid Advanced options running on GPU-accelerated Telestream Lightspeed servers alongside an Avid news system. The Telestream Vantage transcode farm is used to ingest media into the news production workflow. Its super-fast operation allows Avid editors to start editing while still ingesting news feeds from Reuters and AP. Both media and associated metadata are ingested, transcoded and delivered to Avid Interplay PAM via web services, enabling staff to edit stories very quickly, referencing valuable metadata and growing H264 proxy and hi-res media files far quicker than before.

To go back in time, Al Jazeera has been using Avid iNEWS since 2003, rolling it out for various channels and international offices as the network grew, with a programme of upgrades and new installations having taken place over the last few years.

“The Al Jazeera Balkans channel moved to complete Avid production in 2011, Al Jazeera America followed in 2013 and London, a year later. The last phase is our headquarters in Doha, which is the most complex of our news centres. Not only is it live, but there are multiple languages, including English and Arabic. We left this installation to the end because we wanted to build centres with the ultimate goal of connecting all of them with the main complex, and with each other, by 2017,” he explains.

While the plan here was to build the outer-lying global network first, the team knew that Doha was the ultimate priority as the iNEWS legacy system had reached the end of its life. With limited growth and no real potential for expansion to include new services and functionality, the current system was consuming the time of creative operational staff.

“There have been major changes in news and newsgathering in recent years,” Elhusseini, Programme Manager, elaborates.

“We reached the point where we had to make a change so as not to compromise quality. We knew we needed an entirely new file-based HD workflow, which would be an enormous and disruptive task, so in order to stay on air we decided to create a transitional system that would be an upgrade on the old version of iNEWS, and would also help us build an infrastructure able to cope with the heavy flow of media and information now involved in modern TV journalism.”

Among the main requirements for the new system was to upgrade to HD, based on what Elhusseini describes as ‘better orchestrated workflows’ that are both fluid and efficient. To achieve this, a complete production chain was created using Avid iNEWS working with Interplay | Production (production asset management), ISIS 7500 storage, AirSpeed 5500, Media Composer editing workstations, the Avid MediaCentral | UX web-based cloud interface, Interplay Capture scheduling and control and Interplay media services.

Avid’s Professional Services team supported Al Jazeera Arabic throughout the transition, from workflow design to project management to end user training support from both English and Arabic speakers.

The Interplay | Production system was selected so that material could be ingested, edited and played out in the newsroom, with full connectivity to other facilities.

Logozar explains that essential but time-consuming procedures such as transcoding, file delivery and quality control (QC) have been automated to allow reporters, producers and technical staff to concentrate on their jobs.

“More importantly, we had the engagement of the newsroom from the beginning of the project,” he says.

“The journalists are really experienced in using iNEWS but the challenge here was to train them in the end-to-end video workflow, allowing them to edit video on the fly and search for clips. The way they engaged with the new techniques was quite exceptional. The workflow is now easier from every aspect and the journalists are happy that the technology helps them deliver better stories.”

The main challenge of this delivery was that a new system had to be implemented within the existing AJA newsroom and operational positions without any downtime to the on-air output.

“Replacing the main production system when it is still in use is an extremely complex and time-consuming task within any 24/7 live news TV station. Nevertheless, believing in the potential of AJMN Technology and Operations staff and their capabilities to deliver such an ambitious project, it was decided that the entire planning, design, implementation and delivery process would be executed in-house. For the first time in AJMN, employees were able to demonstrate their skill and capability to deliver the project without relying on external systems integrators and consultants. This aggressive approach became possible with the full support and understanding of AJA’s news management team,” explains Logozar.

The transitional system will serve as a stepping stone to a more inclusive and sophisticated Avid-based newsroom network that will link Doha to Al Jazeera’s other broadcast centres, with all video material and supporting information available online for correspondents around the globe.

The transitional installation is about 20% bigger than the system AJA had been using for 12 years, offering more inputs for playout. The final system that will go into service at the end of 2016 will be designed very much around the needs of the users and be approximately 30% bigger again, with greater bandwidth and storage.

Once the new installation has been completed, the present system will continue to serve an important purpose by providing training facilities that will lead to the future of newsgathering for Al Jazeera.

Claire Humphries, Manager – Consulting and Training at Avid Technology Europe, says Al Jazeera’s project team “recognised immediately the value of preparation, consultancy, training and go live operational support”.

“We delivered over 160 days of workflow and training services and together we achieved a seamless go-live. It is a significant project that we can all be proud of,” he commented.

For the Al Jazeera team itself, this is just work in progress. The number of internal projects they are working on simultaneously is, in itself, impressive. When the final pieces of the challenging AJWT project fall in place, the network will have a solution that will be the envy of the Arab world.

Vizrt upgrade

The AJA upgrade includes the latest versions of Vizrt’s software for map creation, stills and video management as well as studio automation.

“The primary reason for the upgrade was to unify the Vizrt software versions across all of our production studios and transmission rooms at AJA to enable the usage of other products that would increase the efficiency of our workflow,” says Elhusseini.

“As well as general new features and improvements, the upgrade allows us to now use Viz World to improve the maps workflow, Viz One for stills and Viz Mosart to automate our studio playout.”

The upgrade also allows Al Jazeera Arabic to have greater compatibility with the Vizrt systems used at the network’s other sites.

Describing some of the challenges in their Transmission workflow (TX), Elhusseini adds:

“TX was a challenge for us as we had some very specific workflows that we wanted the new versions of the Vizrt software to support. Vizrt helped us convert these scenes and templates to the new versions so we could implement a fully automated workflow with automatic data updates that we need in TX.”

The AJA team has been preparing for the upgrade for several months, performing tests in the design room and dry-runs in the studios. Vizrt delivered comprehensive training to the staff at Al Jazeera to prepare them for the upgrade.

“Vizrt was on site to oversee the go-live period but at that point, our team was already quite comfortable with the new systems.

“We used Viz Mosart in Al Jazeera Balkans and were happy with the benefits it provided to our playout efficiency. This was one of the main reasons why we also acquired it for our Doha operations. Viz One and Viz World are also very important to us. We expect to be able to leverage their new features to see greater efficiencies across the whole system while also taking advantage of the latest developments and other new products from Vizrt.”

Read the original article by BroadcastPro ME.