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Break News to the World

By Chris Bell and Charlotte Owen, from The BBC

The front page of UK newspaper, The Times on 14 November 1854 was a milestone in journalism.

To a shocked world, Times correspondent William Howard Russell detailed the horrific slaughter now known as the Charge of the Light Brigade — the disastrous incursion by the British light cavalry against Russian forces in the Crimean War.

Now credited as one of the first ever foreign news bulletins, it was not, however, an exercise in timeliness. Russell had submitted his report by letter, which was then carried from the Balaklava front on horseback. The actual battle had taken place almost three weeks previously, on 25 October 1854.

Contrast this with 1 February 2014 at 5.28am, when a 3.2-magnitude earthquake struck southern California. Within just eight minutes, at 5.36am, the Los Angeles Times had reported the news on its website, complete with a map showing the epicenter of the quake.

Although credited to one of the newspaper’s staff, the report was actually filed automatically by the website itself, when it received an electronic alert from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service. The final paragraph revealed: “…this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.”

For the Los Angeles Times, “Quakebot” — the name given to the algorithm that automatically reports earthquakes — is one of several programs the newspaper uses to speed up news reporting. Overnight the system also sifts through electronic reports from the LA Coroner’s Office and the LAPD’s nightly Homicide Report, then auto-generates the bare bones of a news article online.

“They all provide a baseline starting point,” says Ben Welsh, database producer at the Los Angeles Times. “Editors and reporters can then go in and add context.”

“The way we use it, it’s supplemental. It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would. The way I see it is it doesn’t eliminate anybody’s job as much as it makes everybody’s job more interesting.”

Pocket News

Elsewhere, smartphone technology is filling gaps traditional news organizations don’t have the manpower to cover. The iPhone app GameChanger, for example, allows users to record data on sports games which can then be shared online.

Some systems now even bypass news organizations entirely, ensuring information gets to citizens as quickly as possible. Since 2012, meteorologists at the US government’s National Weather Service (NWS) have automated severe weather alerts on social media.

They publish alerts like tornado warnings through their Facebook and Twitter feeds, allowing their tens of thousands of followers to receive this information almost immediately.

So-called “robot reporting” is one of the latest journalistic processes emerging in a digital world where the commodity of news has never been more highly valued.

News in the Clouds

On a broad scale, cloud technology is helping major television networks break news immediately from the scene into millions of peoples’ homes — as well as satisfying the viewer’s thirst to consume news and data on all platforms.

One example is Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television. Founded in 1996, the international multimedia group now provides television, weekly magazine publishing, new media, and broadcast services covering more than 150 countries worldwide. As such it broadcasts 500 news programs on a daily basis, as well as storing 3,000 hours of recorded programs and 336 hours of 1,400 non-news programs every week.

“Our aim is to report all major events within five minutes, distributing the data immediately,” says Liu Changle, CEO of Phoenix Television. “So we wanted a change — to leverage advanced technologies to connect the program production and office systems.”

As a result, in 2009 construction began on a CNY850 million (US$130M) international media center in Chaoyang Park, Beijing — with cloud computing at its center. Built by global ICT provider Huawei in 2012, the distributed cloud data center platform processes and stores all the data Phoenix Television requires for HD digital transmission and video editing across their media centers in Beijing, Hong Kong, and London. Six more regional data centers are due to be built and integrated in different cities in the next couple of years.

The system also allows reporters “in the field” to upload reports, collect and edit materials, produce and broadcast programs, and store data from anywhere there is a PC and an Internet connection.

“The way we create and our users consume our content are changing radically and we are deploying technology to address these changing needs,” says Wang Hongbo, deputy director of information and network management at Phoenix TV.

“The advent of cloud computing has brought new challenges and opportunities to the IT industry. Our transformation to meet the demands of the omnimedia age sees us building a resource-sharing platform that converges our corporate resources and serves our scattered institutions, faster and cheaper.”

Citizen Journalism

To make matters more challenging, the news sources themselves have never been more varied, or more difficult to corroborate — whether it’s the death of Osama bin Laden breaking first on microblogging site Twitter, or anti-government rebels uploading real-time footage of the Syrian conflict to YouTube.

As a consequence, the physical newsrooms themselves are being forced to change. With the increase of social media and “citizen journalism” — members of the public submitting video footage via their smartphones — as well as material being created by emerging technologies like Google Glass and even flying news drones, the newsroom has to aggregate information from many disparate sources.

But after that there is also the requirement to broadcast the news across different platforms on which people consume news. This includes new standards such as 3D televisions, but also the vast growth in mobile technology.

A 2014 survey of 6,000 smartphone owners in Australia, Germany, Sweden, India, Chinese Hong Kong, and the US found a 15% yearly increase in the amount of people who would prefer to use a phone to read the news, against a 17% decline for desktop computers.

All requirements, certainly, that William Howard Russell could barely have imagined when he first handed his handwritten report to a messenger on horseback in 1854.

Currently most cloud data center technologies rely on just one data center for resource sharing and efficiency enhancement, making resource scheduling and management efficiency challenging. Huawei has created the Distributed Cloud Data Center Solution to help customers improve IT service quality and use of their IT resources.

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