Students deliver news with help of IT at award-winning 'Centre County Report'

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Silence spreads through the busy newsroom as Rachel White, executive producer, begins the 10-second countdown to the week’s one and only trial run of the "Centre County Report" — Penn State’s award-winning local newscast. The reporters and technical crew quiet themselves as the seconds on the clock tick away, but the pause is fleeting. On stage, the show’s anchors, Kacie Lazor and Kiyana Banks, take deep breaths, look to the camera, smile and kick off the rehearsal. Reading from a teleprompter, Lazor delivers the first story of the day with ease, even as the producer whispers directives in her earpiece.

Behind the scenes, students in the control room are communicating well above a whisper.

The crew has little more than an hour before the start of the live newscast and almost too much to cover. The story docket is packed, and so is the control room; chairs hold the technical director, audio specialist, teleprompter operator and other crewmembers. Meanwhile, reporters spread out at computers in the newsroom are making final edits to their scripts and promoting media packages on Facebook and Twitter.

In less than an hour, the students will broadcast live on Penn State’s campus channel, and the pre-recorded show will air in a primetime slot on WPSU in 29 counties, potentially reaching more than half a million households.

In a time of declining news viewership across the country — major networks and their affiliates lost nearly 6 percent of their TV viewers in 2012 according to the latest State of the News Media report — the "Centre County Report" (CCR) uses a variety of information technologies to keep people tuning in week after week. “As the IT used to consume and produce news transforms yearly, news professionals are forced to keep pace with the rapid rate of innovation,” said Steve Kraycik, director of student television and online operations in the College of Communications.

“We have better equipment here than in half the television stations I’ve worked during my 27-year career in news,” he added.

Penn State is training future news professionals before they even graduate, with such industry tools as robotic cameras operated by joysticks and equipment that uses cellular signals to instantly transmit live footage back to the "CCR" studio.

And it’s paying off.

For two years in a row, "CCR" has won the Best of Festival award in the student newscast category at the Broadcast Education Association Festival of Media Arts, a nationwide competition that recognizes student-produced media.

“'Centre County Report' is literally the gateway to our students’ first jobs in TV. We try to operate it as not just a campus newscast, but as a newscast for all of Centre County — we treat it like a real job in TV news. We’re uniquely positioned to prepare our students for what they’re really going to need to know in the real world."
​           -- Steve Kraycik, director of student television and online operations

“'Centre County Report' is literally the gateway to our students’ first jobs in TV. We try to operate it as not just a campus newscast, but as a newscast for all of Centre County — we treat it like a real job in TV news,” Kraycik said. “We’re uniquely positioned to prepare our students for what they’re really going to need to know in the real world.” 

Kacie Lazor is one those students. A broadcast journalism student at Penn State, Lazor has wanted to be a reporter since she was a little girl growing up in Indiana, Pa. While her friends chose pop culture icons and athletes as role models, Lazor found her heroes on the evening news.

And nearly 10 years later she’s learning how to do the job herself — reporting, anchoring and directing — in three-week rotations at "CCR." Like every student involved with the show, Lazor has the opportunity to work each job in the newsroom and develop multiple skills to use behind and in front of the camera.

“I have a lot of experience behind the camera, and I think that makes me versatile, but I like going out and listening to peoples’ stories and putting segments together for families across the state,” Lazor said before the show. “I grew up watching Pittsburgh journalists Sally Wiggin and Marcie Cipriani on TV. I used to pretend I was doing the news report along with them, and now I get to be the one in front of the camera.”

The students’ professionalism and dedication is the heart of the newscast, but the show wouldn’t be possible — or as fun to produce — without the technology.

Bill Gardner, a "CCR" alumnus who is now employed by Penn State as the show’s multimedia specialist, helped build the CCR studio in 2010 to prepare students for the digitization of modern news studios. The newsroom features a classroom with 20 computers for editing, a secondary editing room, sound booth, control room and stage.

But tools like the XSAN server, robotic cameras and portable live camera units are what set Penn State apart from other college newscasts and even some professional studios, Gardner explained.

“When our students get into the industry, there’s going to be a lot of automation. The eight technical positions we have at CCR will be performed by only two people in a real control room,” he added. “We want these guys to experience the technology now so they don’t run into bumps when the stakes are higher.”

The SAN, as the crew refers to the XSAN, is a massive server with 43 terabytes of fiber optic storage for archived video interviews, photos, audio clips and more. Every computer in the studio connects with the SAN and has instantaneous access to everything on it. In a breaking news situation, live video shot on location can be brought back to the studio, edited in the newsroom, exported to the SAN and immediately made available in the control room for placement in the story lineup.

“Newsrooms in the field don’t even have equipment or workflows like this,” Gardner said. “Just five years ago, Penn State students would have had to shoot on tape, ingest it into the computer in real time and physically carry a hard drive to the control room, and now there’s no wait time.”

As the students wrap up the morning rehearsal, breaking news of a fire in State College comes to the attention of a producer via Twitter. In less than five minutes, two reporters are sent to the scene to investigate and collect footage.

Shooting live video became a lot easier for the crew last year when "CCR" invested in a set of Teradek portable live units — camera equipment that stations around the country are now starting to use — to feature communities like Bellefonte, Altoona and Hershey. The technology makes it possible for the team to “go live” anywhere they can get a Verizon cell phone signal and instantly transmit high-definition video back to the control room for editing in the studio.

“'CCR' mimics our first job in local news, and we’re competing with other local markets, not other college stations,” said Erin Ryan, a film student and the show’s lab technician. “Since our show encompasses all of Centre County, not just Penn State, we have to appeal to a wide audience to stay in the game.” 

As the fire continues to burn at a downtown motel, the episode’s producer decides to feature it in the top block of the show, knocking the mystery of Flight 370 off the roster. With only seconds to spare, co-anchor Lazor sneaks a momentary peek at the new script as the camera pans her way, the lights fade and the director counts them down.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu.

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Last Updated April 17, 2014