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Boston 25 News' Ben Ratner Talks AI, Social, and the Future of Broadcast News

Tim Siglin, Founding Executive Director, Help Me Stream Research Foundation, and Contributing Editor, Streaming Media, sits down with Ben Ratner, Director of News Technology, Boston 25 News, to chat about AI, social media, and the future of broadcast news.

“I am here with one of our perennial guests, Ben Ratner,” Siglin says. “Ben has been in the industry for quite some time. What are you doing these days?”

“I'm the Director of News Technology at Boston 25 News, which is very exciting,” Ratner says. “First time working in a local market like this, and it's just an awesome opportunity.”

“So what are the differences?” Siglin asks. “You worked at the national level. We won’t say the name of the company…”

“It rhymes with ‘schmee-n-n,’” Ratner jokes.

What Are Some Fundamental Producing Differences Between National and Broadcast News?

“Are there noticeable differences between local versus national, or is the pressure still the same?” Siglin asks.

“The pressure is still the same,” Ratner says. “I get to work closely with the engineering staff and the editorial staff to find what both sides need, how to communicate it between them, but also figure out what new things we can use to make their lives easier and make the content better for the audience. National versus local aside, that particular opportunity, I think, is something that I only got to deal with [partially] at CNN, I get to deal with all of it here, so that's very exciting.”

Ways to Think About News Reporting Workflows in the Context of Social Media

“You were on the digital side there at CNN, which ran parallel to the traditional news here, though you're [now] full into traditional broadcast as well?” Siglin says.

Ratner emphasizes that social media is now a crucial part of broadcast news, even for local markets, though he says he is not directly involved with the social team at Boston 25 News. “I work alongside them,” he says. “Social's still a very important part of the audience because that's where a lot of people are going to see the content. Some people are going to watch it on TV, but you’ve got to meet the audience where they are no matter what.”

“It's interesting to think back to newspaper publishing and working with newspapers,” Siglin says.

“What is a ‘newspaper?’” Ratner deadpans.

“It's something that's still actually around and doing decently in small towns, just not in big cities,” Siglin says. “One of the conversations always there was you'd write up the article, then at some point, you make an editorial decision as to what page something showed up on, whether it showed up below the fold, above the fold on the front page and that kind of thing. But as you talk about social media, it's one of the things in newspapers you sort of thought, ‘What will bubble up to the surface and be there?’ Now with social media, you get the opportunity to see what's bubbling up in pretty close to real-time, which then could, from an editorial standpoint, inform what it is that you want to lead with in your breaking news stories. Having said that, it has the potential to be two different workflows, which makes it almost doubly hard.”

Siglin mentions that during his Streaming Media East 2023 opening keynote, Streaming Media: Where Do We Go From Here, and How the Heck Do We Get There? Renard T. Jenkins, Senior Vice President, Production Integration & Creative Technology Services, Warner Bros. Discovery, discussed repurposing information into a modular form that can serve different platform types. “Is that the kind of thing you'd be thinking about too…if something starts on social media and it's going to rise, maybe it goes over here to be part of the production workforce?” Siglin asks Ratner.

“Things certainly go on both,” Ratner says. He mentions his Streaming Media East 2023 panel Meeting the Live-to-VOD Challenge. “This is exactly what I think about all the time,” he says. “Do you have all of your feeds still intact? Do you have all your video? Do you have overlays that you're going to maybe repurpose for broadcast for as digital? So there are all sorts of different ways you want to think about your content. Is this going to go vertical because it's going on TikTok or YouTube Shorts? You have to work within your allocated resources. Do you have a dedicated editor, are you using software that's designed to do this? You have to think about all those things when you make decisions about how you're going to treat your VOD and social versus your linear.”

How Can Technology Streamline the Approach to Choosing Editorial Content?

Siglin says, “To a certain extent, you're somewhat of a translator between the traditional guys and the digital guys or the online guys, having to speak languages for both of them and then look at tools that fit within. So what are some of the big challenges you expect you're going to face as you step into this world?”

“Are there ways of using newer technologies that we can [use to] make the process more efficient?” Ratner says. “Because we still have our editorial, they're choosing what goes out, but are there ways to just make it easier? Is there software we could use instead of having an editor sit through every single second of this? Are there ways that we can have it summarized or transcribed [beforehand]?”

“Yeah, absolutely, that makes sense from any workflow standpoint,” Siglin says. “And from a software standpoint, where are you seeing trends in the marketing?”

“I mean, obviously I'm sure you've heard AI a thousand times,” Ratner says. “I like to call it really, really, really smart machine learning.”

“I was going to say, anybody who says ‘AI’ to me, I'm like, there is nothing intelligent about it,” Siglin says. “There's a whole lot of learning involved, and the learning comes from an intelligent person to train it.”

“So really, really, really, really, really smart machine learning,” Ratner says. “I think that's going to be a part of the workflow. I think today Buzzfeed came out with a whole thing they're going to do with some of their articles and stuff. But I think it could do things like, if we have two hours of video, we're only ever going to air, let's say, three minutes of it in the package. Can you help us get that onto a timeline with maybe the ten important minutes without an editor sitting through two hours of content? That's the kind of stuff where instead of doing busy, robotic work, we can have our editors do really smart work that only human editors can do.”

“You know what's fascinating is you go back to the S-VHS Panasonic broadcast camera days, you could push a button on there to essentially put on the S-VHS track that this was the acceptable take,” Siglin says. “To a certain extent, the machine…would learn that if you have multiple takes, perhaps the last take is more likely to be the best one.”

Referring to the present-day machine learning abilities, Ratner says, “Or it can know your script through AI translation and then be like, ‘Oh, you got it correct that time.’ Right. So…maybe logging might become a little bit easier. Maybe color correction might be easier because of the way that you can use cloud systems to process things better. So I think those are the things I'm excited for and I think are going to come around very rapidly. We just need to make that at my company, at every company, that we're doing them safely. We understand the repercussions. I'm not saying that assistant editors are going to go away, they're tremendously important, but they might have a different version of their job and we need to make sure that we're training people to work within the constraints of the new [media world].”

“And then editors also don't take just carte blanche what the system gives them,” Siglin says. “They think through, ‘Wait a second, there was another shot in here that maybe actually fits better.’”

“I was in conversations with a company that's able to take content and then basically give you the AI description of it and maybe turn it into a social post,” Ratner says. “And that's great, but I still want my social media editor looking at that post. First of all making sure it's accurate, because AI can make things up. But [also] making sure it's within the voice of the company, making sure there's nothing weird in there, and adding personality. Right now, AI isn't great at personality. These are still things that you need the human touch [for] because people are going to notice what AI ‘roboticness’ is. And people want that human interaction.”

Learn more about these topics and more at Streaming Media Connect 2023.

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