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How Talking Points Memo Gets News First with SnapStream

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"News happens pretty quickly in our space and in the space of our competitors, so obviously, not only is it important to be accurate in everything we do, but also being quick and being the first to spot things that are newsworthy ... can be a real competitive advantage,” says Paul Werdel, associate editor for political news site Talking Points Memo (TPM).

What’s got Werdel talking about being fast and accurate is SnapStream the video recording and transcription service that inspires slavish devotion from those who rely on it. It makes searching through hours of recorded material a snap, so editors can grab the clips they need quickly. It’s used by The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to gather those perfect moments when a politician puts his foot in his mouth. It’s one of those rare products that works as well as the makers say it does.

Werdel helps run TPM’s New York bureau, where SnapStream constantly records eight news channels. TPM records cable news heavyweights such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, as well as C-SPAN, CNBC, Bloomberg, and a few rotating channels. It records all the coverage on those channels 24/7 and turns the recordings into mostly accurate transcriptions. TPM editors use the service to hunt down clips that can be used in quick news stories or to verify facts. Several people in the TPM newsroom are responsible for listening to the main cable networks for breaking news and mining the transcripts for newsworthy elements. 

TPM’s physical setup involves a locally stored SnapStream server that is connected to eight Time Warner cable boxes. All reporters on the TPM LAN have access to the SnapStream software and are trained on how to use it, so they can listen for stories and clip out video when needed.

“We have one lead video staffer who’s in charge of all our video operations, so he is far and away the biggest user of SnapStream,” says Werdel.

One area of TPM that needs quick video is the Campaign In 100 Seconds feature, which gives readers a tongue-in-cheek look at the day’s happenings. It’s woven from newsworthy bits taken from the daily news programs.

“Our video editor is constantly mining and trolling through our SnapStream transcripts to find [not only] the most newsworthy bits of the day, but also the other sort of slightly sillier bits and pieces that he wants to build around,” says Werdel.

Election campaign debate nights are also busy times for TPM, as the team wants to edit footage and serve the best video highlights to site visitors as soon as possible.

While Werdel typically delegates stories he wants clipped from SnapStream, he’s also a hands-on user of the platform, monitoring streams and clipping out video when needed. He also has to double as TPM’s SnapStream tech support on occasion, troubleshooting the platform on rare occasions.

The SnapStream Workflow

The usual workflow at TPM goes something like this: Werdel sees something on a news program that he wants, setting several tasks in motion at once. He sends his video guy a request to clip out a section of video, letting him know that it’s a priority. The video guy then finds and grabs the video, converting it from MPEG to DV and polishing it in Final Cut Pro. When finished, the video clip is exported to TPM’s YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, an editor works on the text story to go with the video clip. Once finished, the article and video are typically posted on TPM’s Livewire section, an area of the site devoted to short headlines and brief stories. Once live on YouTube, the clip can be embedded in a TPM story.

“Our workflow for actually getting stuff off of SnapStream and onto our channels or onto our site is worked down to a pretty smooth process,” says Werdel. “All I need to let anybody in my chain know is what I want, where it happened, and what time it happened or what the source was, just to help him out.”

While all in the same office, Werdel’s team communicates via Skype chat, which Werdel uses to dictate assignments to his editors.

Sometimes Werdel and his editors have to rely on SnapStream’s transcription to verify that they heard a quote accurately. The built-in transcription is a rough guide, says Werdel. While the transcription is mostly accurate, an editor still needs to listen to the video to make sure that it was transcribed correctly. SnapStream is able to create transcripts nearly instantly, says Werdel. It outputs a long block of minimally formatted text.

“It’s as quick as doing a browser search for a keyword to find the basic section of what you’re looking for, and then once I’ve found the section, I can zero in a bit closer and use that as a rough guide to go back and get a precise transcript by listening to the clip,” says Werdel.

One thing that impresses Werdel about the transcription tool is that it can usually understand who is talking and can create a new line break for each speaker. The transcript also helps the editor locate the needed section of video, which makes for quick editing. The transcripts regularly add timestamps, so the editors can quickly find the section of video they want to clip out.

Werdel estimates that his team uses the SnapStream transcripts for stories just as much as they use the video. They don’t always need video, but they always need to know what was said and by whom.

“It’s important to have quotes be 100% accurate. Any serious news site can’t be in the business of misquoting people,” says Werdel.

SnapStream’s transcription isn’t a substitute for real reporting, notes Werdel, but it sure is a timesaver.

“I have never in my experience of using it found it to miss any key bit that I really needed or [to have misspelled something so disastrously] that it couldn’t find what I was looking for,” says Werdel.

The transcription can understand proper names or accents, so it’s useful for capturing dialogue from any speaker.

“The majority of keywords and transcriptions always seem to be spelled exactly in the way that you’re looking for, which makes things much more reliable and [makes it] a much more speedy tool to use,” he adds, calling it impressively accurate.

Clipping and Archiving

Recording eight streams of round-the-clock video takes a lot of storage, so TPM doesn’t keep video for long. The site only stores 3 days of video before the system automatically deletes it. That gives the team plenty of time to isolate important material.

“If there’s something in a given day that we haven’t considered newsworthy on that day, it is unlikely that we will return to it,” says Werdel.

Even if the editors don’t plan on using an item right away, they clip and archive material that they may want to use in the future. For some events, the editors do more than store separate clips: When the primaries are over and the general election begins, for example, Werdel says they’ll save every debate. During the primaries, they’re only storing the highlights.

During the debates, however, the TPM editors put SnapStream through its hardest workout. As editors watch the live debates, they check with SnapStream frequently to confirm that they heard quotes correctly. Werdel says they’ll typically check with SnapStream dozens of times in a 2-hour debate, verifying quotes before they put them in front of readers. They’ll first use the transcripts for a rough check and then go to the video to get precise quotes for articles.

“In ways large and small, I would say we easily make use of it 100 times a day, sometimes even more,” says Werdel. “It’s one of those things that it’s so elemental to the way in which we do things that it’s easy to forget and take for granted, but it’s a real key tool to the way we do things in our space.”

What would Talking Points Memo be without SnapStream, if the editors had to record video some other way, without automatic transcription, and find needed clips by scrubbing through recorded material? Werdel doesn’t even want to think about it.

“If we didn’t have SnapStream or something like it, it would make a whole section of our site—which is the video part of our site—a much less lively place to be. And it would make the whole process of reporting in our space a much more difficult and a much more time-consuming process,” says Werdel.

For anyone who has ever wondered how a TV show pulls together several talking-head clips to make a point or how a site quickly posts clips from TV news shows, the answer is likely to be SnapStream. It’s making a name for itself as the must-have tool for our quick-delivery, instant news culture.

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