Nigel Baker is managing director of APTN
So what is an international television news agency? Simple. It’s like an international news channel – without the presenters. It supplies broadcasters, websites and mobile phone companies with breaking news, entertainment and sport which they can put to air under their own brand.
And how do we get the pictures to them? Used to be simple – not so these days. Time was when dealing with just broadcasters was easy.
The video went up to a satellite and into TV newsrooms where experienced journalists turned it into well crafted reports.
Now there’s a daily conversation about bits, bytes and bandwidth over how to get the key stories to that new breed of customer – 3Gphone companies and broadband operators.
Technophobes look away now, as today we discussed delights such as MPEG4, Real Video and “automatic player installation detection”. It proves that if you don’t understand the technology nowadays you will have difficulty keeping up.
And it disproves the 20th century maxim that the only key invention to advance journalism in the past century is the ballpoint pen.
Today I brought key sales, marketing and editorial managers together to refine what kind of news is now selling on mobiles, and the ever-changing technology needed to do it as 3G phones are rolled out.
In the new world, the agenda is dominated by glitz, glamour and celebrity, interspersed by the occasional breaking hard news story. A sharp contrast to broadcast news channels.
Broadcasters rely on TV news agencies to cover the news in the world’s most inhospitable places. Iraq and the Palestinian Authority areas are the classics, where news agencies are expected to provide the bedrock of the world’s TV news coverage. In January we’ll be flat out in both locations, with elections looming in both.
A large part of today was spent bringing editorial and technical departments together to ensure that we not only cover the two stories as comprehensively as possible, but that we have enough satellite capacity to ensure that we can get the key events live to our customers and also help them go live from the scene with their own correspondents.
Planning is crucial in international TV news. The more spontaneous it looks, the more planning is often required to get the right people and gear to the story in advance of it happening.
Today we realise that we’ll need 20 satellite pathways for January, to avoid a traffic jam in the skies.
It’s the weekend, but old habits die hard. As a former head of news, there’s a constant need to know what international news is breaking. The internet means I can access wires and a rundown of APTN’s output at home. But the fastest way to get a snapshot of what’s happening in the world is still BBC’s CEEFAX. The day begins and ends with it, and in between come countless TV radio and news bulletins.
There’s nothing worse than taking the breathless call asking for permission to spend “big time” on a breaking story, when you’ re not aware it’s happened.
Always keep one step ahead.
Sunday sees worshippers in Kiev praying for a peaceful resolution to the turmoil besetting the country. I suspect APTN’s staff in Kiev are praying they don’t have to spend much longer covering demonstrations in freezing temperatures. My main concern is whether Ukraine will erupt into violence- and the additional investment the story might require.
But the politics continue to play out, and our team even finds time to cover the couples who have found love among the demonstrations, and married fellow protesters.
Monday is the kind of day when broadcasters look to the agencies to provide the key images for their news bulletins. The headlines are dominated by bombings – first of the American consulate in Jeddah, and then a series of small bombs in Spain after a warning from Basque separatists.
In each case, we obtain first pictures from local broadcasters who quickly have cameras on the scene. But there is a need to get our own coverage – particularly in Saudi Arabia where access is difficult for most international broadcasters, and international interest high.
As well as using local stringers, our senior producer from Cairo gets access to Jeddah and obtains a graphic TV exclusive from the injured in hospital.
One describes how the gunmen who attacked the consulate burst in, shouting: “Where are the Americans?”
We’ve never managed to capture a miracle on camera-but we managed to perform one behind the cameras in Afghanistan today. It’s the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as the country’s first popularly-elected president.
One of our senior managers, Chris Slaney, jets in from the Middle East to direct live coverage. Foreign dignitaries include Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. So much for my words about planning. Bureaucracy and security issues mean Chris has 24 hours to pull the coverage together, working with the combined resources of our own staff and two other agencies. Three of the four cameramen are Afghani and have never worked on a live TV event before. A rehearsal is not possible and vital equipment can’t get there in time.
But the live coverage is seamless and 48 hours after arriving in Kabul, Chris heads for home.
A visit from a tireless APTN producer, based in Asia, who has been the driving force in ensuring that we’ve been able to cover North Korea more than any other western news organisation in the past three years. The person concerned embodies the best of quiet British diplomacy, journalistic persistence and raffish charm.
His abilities have gained us unique access, and the ability to get the only video of the site where a mountain was “demolished” by the North Koreans.
His patience in persuading the North Koreans to allow greater access is in stark contrast to the breakneck speed of decision making on most other issues in international news coverage.