Teaching the future of journalism

Convergence? It’s dead. No, it’s alive. No, it lurches through the battlements like the Ghost of Hamlet, joined by other media visions: Community, Authenticity, Diversity, Objectivity, even (“most horrible”) Who Is A Journalist.

We struggle to capture these phantasms, to define them and straighten them up to do good things for us. Bloggers besieging the gates tell us to not even try. To define is to destroy, they say. Meanwhile, corporate media strategies tend to kill innovation and revert to established practices in deference to “limited resources,” tradition-grounded careers and returns on investment — not first and foremost to share knowledge and foster discourse through new media.

If the critics are right, if “convergence” is better left undefined and free to roam, where does that leave journalism educators — and all those who have a stake in seeing that journalism schools adopt “best practices”? How can we tell where the media industry is going and what should we be doing in response?

I reported on this topic for OJR a year ago, and it’s helpful to look at how much issues involving convergence in the classroom have changed in 12 months. In the past year, newsrooms have begun to treat convergence differently, to see it as a solar system of loosely connected functions, rather than a hard-wired fusion of media. As bloggers and independent niche online publishers attract fast-growing audiences, media executives feel pressed to invest in experimentation. They seem more aware that prizes go to the swift, the nimble and the daring.

As in the OJR article last year, the focus in this story comes from an annual three-day seminar held at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., titled “Convergence Journalism for College Educators.” Al Tompkins, the institute’s group leader for broadcast/online, and Howard Finberg, interactive learning director/news, led 24 educators in discussions from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1. I was on the visiting faculty, joined by Victoria Lim, who each day spans WFLA-TV/Tampa Tribune/tbo.com with her consumer coverage, and Rob Curley, the director of new media at the Naples Daily News and the creative maverick of convergence.

The educators, most of them experienced journalists, described the place of online journalism in their schools’ curricula, how they saw convergence as an impetus for change, how their schools were responding to the need for new courses, and what they felt their schools lacked. There was a wide variety of questions raised — about coursework and faculty staffing, technology and facilities, and the direction of the journalism profession in general. Participants also wanted to make sure students continued to learn the basics of grammar, newswriting and storytelling while experimenting with new technologies.

If the group had a common plea, it could be this statement: “I want to come back with an answer that works. I want to bring everyone out from the dark corners of the campus, a community effort that will involve everyone.”

These are big questions, but the good news from the seminar is that, since last year, the concerns have changed. In February 2005, questions were more tentative, the unknowns were more daunting and the proposed solutions were often unconvincing. A year ago, wary faculty members and cost-conscious top administrators were reported to be offering stiff resistance to both journalism curriculum changes and investment in new media facilities.

Several participants said their deans, provosts and college presidents were now pushing them to teach new media topics, were offering to build facilities and were willing to consider interdisciplinary approaches. Perhaps the heavy enrollments in journalism and communications on their campuses helped sway the decision makers. Whatever the motives, the choices in this seminar were more about “what,” “how” and “how soon,” rather than “whether” or “why.” And most of the good ideas this year came from the educators. Clearly, a lot had been learned. If this seminar is representative, we in academia are much further down the road toward solutions for out-of-date instruction.

Questions and concerns expressed at the seminar covered a lot of ground, but they fell into identifiable categories that raised issues with specific implications for how we teach journalism. Here are the main concerns, many of them new revelations about convergence, with discussion points that were raised, and at least guidance, if not answers, suggested as paths that educators could pursue:

1. Online video is not TV news.

Online video requires different tools than broadcast news and has a different purpose for the audience. Authentic images have become dominant in the online world, superseding both text and traditional TV news presentation. A new medium or “voice” is emerging, Howard Finberg said, one that we should recognize in our classrooms.

  • Broadcast TV news works well on websites and blogs as short segments, cut to illustrate a point or highlight a conflict or outrageous behavior, or to cover a fast-breaking event. On a routine basis, full streaming of news casts, the video equivalent of print shovelware, may be a tough sell.
  • The user chooses online video elements to verify or amplify an event described or showcased by text, often “real” or “raw” images taken by eyewitnesses with video recorders or cell phones. Sources for “reality video” can be Web cams, surveillance cameras, police video, official websites (NASA’s or the Pentagon’s) or global niche sites, such as Islamic online news outlets. Images can range from photos posted on a blog by a U.S. Marine in Iraq to a video taken by insurgents who are shooting at Marines. Propaganda and ideological visuals have value when identified and used in a neutral context (e.g. the many videos available on the horrific power of roadside bombs).
  • The work of online photojournalists has a “raw,” over-the-shoulder viewpoint that may seem chaotic but can help to place the viewer into the scene. As Al Tompkins put it, this natural technique allows the user “to experience information and they will remember what they feel longer than what they know.”
  • This approach stresses accuracy and authenticity over traditional production values. It creates a sense of presence and participation in the scene.
  • The online editor or photojournalist can create multimedia collages, presentations that put control over non-linear narratives and visual perspectives in the hands of the user.

The Message: Because online video is different, a convergence curriculum that stresses conventional broadcast production, the use of high-end equipment, news teams and text-heavy websites may not be doing students any favors. Not that print and broadcast writing and reporting should be scrap-heaped. More emphasis on “the basics” is badly needed, employers tell us. But all students should be at least exposed to new methods of video and audio storytelling. They may never know when they will need this experience.

2. New tools, new possibilities

The online journalist is now free to make use of the medium’s full digital potential, now that broadband capacity has kicked in and content can be aimed at high-speed users. This includes Flash animation, panoramic video and 3-D imagery.

  • News Websites have experimented with “gaming the news” and developing interactive discourse on policy issues with some success. The Washington Post’s “Debate Referee” and MSNBC’s airport baggage search game would be examples. Other news sites have designed interactive tax legislation calculators, “Sims”-like planning options for major public projects and imaginative uses of databases and search functions keyed to news topics.
  • Software makes public policy exercises, “what if” scenarios, more possible for journalists and more compelling for the audience. It is a promising — and growing — area of new media that is being exploited by forward-looking news organizations.
  • Data can now be presented through graphic organizers and concept maps. These are new ways to see relationships that could only be enabled by high-speed connections.

The Message: All students need to understand the importance of immersive environments, “serious” interactive news games and the power of relational databases. Those who plan to go into online operations will have to know Flash, Photoshop and video editing tools as a second digital language.

3. Trust the audience

Multimedia storytelling requires the journalist to have a mindset that rejects the authoritarian, hierarchical and simplistic attitudes towards audiences that infect the lamest newsrooms. It calls for a high level of trust that the public is smart and can make reasoned choices about what is important. Successful bloggers and niche websites aim high and assume much in the way of intelligence. In Dan Gillmor’s immortal words: “My readers know more than I do.”

  • The role of the journalist as verifier includes being a guide and advisor to the user. Engineers have a term for this: domain expert. For example, multimedia presentations allow journalists to advise the user that a “raw visual” included in a package of choices is violent and comes from a terrorist website, but that it also carries a truth or perspective that users might not get through mass media. Or, to use another example, a text block might declare the intent of a graphic: “This Flash graphic depicts the number and location of deaths of U.S. military in Iraq; it is not meant as a statement for or against the war; it is neutral information.”
  • Digital software allows news to be faked with ease.

The Message: Classroom discussions of ethics and threats to credibility may be more necessary than ever, now that viewers have so much control — and so many choices. Instructors have to stay on top of fresh case examples and be able to detect fraud and sleaze. Students need to learn what to look for and how to inform audiences to stay on guard.

4. Audio directions

Online audio has singular properties, distinct from radio news, that are taking journalism in new directions, podcasting being the most recent example.

  • News sites, such as Rob Curley’s operation in Naples, are enthusiastically adapting podcasting, cell phones and personal digital assistants to perform both news collection and distribution by means of video and audio. As he puts it, “We try a lot of new stuff. Just in case it does work, we don’t want to suck at it.” This is understatement. As he showed us, new forms of mobile audio and video do work, and his staff of online editors is very good at it.
  • Spontaneous, user-generated audio has similar values to “raw” video by being timely, compact, relevant and authentic.

The Message: MP3 technology is ripping through all of media. We have to cope with that in the classroom, especially with this generation of students who seem to be born with little white objects in their hands and wires in their ears. But the suite of software and new technology that instructors are expected to be good at keeps expanding. Schools have an obligation to give faculty members time to learn it, or give them the option of bringing in guest instructors, coaches, team teachers — whatever works.

5. The basics still matter

Digital tools have limits. Text is still the preferred medium of knowledge transfer for many topics and genres and remains an essential part of the multimedia news package. “Shell packages” of mixed content and collage formats require organization, navigation design, clear presentation and distribution, and appropriate platforms.

  • Students, once reluctant to deal with sophisticated technology, now take to it much more easily — too easily, several educators at the seminar noted. As one put it: “We tell them they still have to care about telling a story, but they think technology will take care of it.”

The Message: Let’s not surrender too much territory. The basics, including grammar and story construction, still count and employers still put job applicants through traditional skills tests as a condition of hire. Convergence now means that photographers are getting writing tests, print writers are asked to show they can write a radio or podcast script and online applicants have to prove their creativity with images and their grasp of design. All are quizzed about their work ethic and self-motivation. In today’s competitive job environment, the journalism applicant with both a depth and a breadth of skills and a willingness to work at engaging the audience has the edge.

6. The 24-hour news cycle requires greater creativity and depth

The Internet puts a greater responsibility on news organizations to operate 24/7 and to expand the criteria of story coverage to topics not dealt with in newspapers and on TV. 24/7 does not have to correlate with vapid news.

  • This approach might be seen as inviting the reader into the newsroom. As Rob Curley describes it: “We give our readers access to the people we have access to,” which includes the timely data that many sources now control. Precinct results in local elections, he said, can be e-mailed to subscribers over night or sent by SMS to cell phones. High school sports scores can be updated by SMS every quarter or half or with the final result, whatever the user prefers.
  • A timely and perhaps controversial video clip can be put on a message board, creating an instant discussion with sharp focus.
  • New topics — or versions of standard ones — can attract a substantial niche audience. Curley said he makes a point of including video of high school marching bands in coverage of sports events. “Our traffic shot up. They never got covered on local TV,” he said. Usage climbed again when his site focused on local entries in the statewide band contest.
  • Many topics lend themselves to creative use of database software. Curley covered a drought by taking a feed from a county computer that monitored well levels. A program turned the data into graphics that operated in real time.
  • Having all news organization employees equipped with video phones gives a 24/7 extension to the newsroom. “We use cell phones a lot,” Curley said. Image quality might suffer but the loss is more than made up by speed and relevance to the audience.
  • Curley constantly experiments with new services on cell phones — wake-up calls, up-to-the-minute alerts on traffic, weather and tides.
  • Curley’s staff sent out questionnaires to every restaurant in the area, 22 questions that allowed creation of a database. “You (the user) can ask questions like, ‘show me the restaurants that are serving sushi right now,'” he said. The database also compiles reports, reviews and comments submitted by the audience. (“A good restaurant, but if your waitress’s name is Brenda, move to another table.”) Curley said restaurant managers often called in with responses, updates and offers to correct flaws.
  • The same approach can be taken when covering city hall, matching up elected officials with searchable databases containing their votes and campaign contributors — or citizen reviews of council actions and imaginative news games. (While in Lawrence, Kan., Curley turned council elections into a form of “Survivor,” a gambit that won him national notice.)
  • Curley believes that local sports coverage can be done in a professional manner right down to T-ball and Little League, including video coverage of games. “It’s awesome when you hear an 8-year-old talking about how he’s ‘seeing the ball better this season.'”

The Message: Beat coverage is still important — and the traditional beats can’t be ignored. But it doesn’t take much extra time or effort to expand beats into new territory, especially going into more depth. Staying with shallow definitions of news and always going back to the same sources no longer works, especially with 24/7 news on multiple platforms. Timeliness and local topics still come first in news.


One more word about what we have done at the Annenberg School of Journalism to cope with new visions of convergence. We stress the basics of writing and reporting and production in print and broadcast over three semesters of a Core Curriculum for incoming students and graduate students. We have postponed dealing with online and multimedia journalism until a required survey course for all undergraduate journalism students in the third year. We are now creating upper-level and capstone courses with an emphasis on graphics and technology for those who want to be online journalists.

No one answer fits. All schools are finding a distinct path. But when it comes to teaching convergence, it’s no longer “if” but “how.”

About Larry Pryor

I am an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism and am a former editor of OJR. I left online journalism to work full-time at teaching environmental journalism. I had been an environment writer at the Los Angeles Times before getting into new media.
I'm attempting to combine my work in visual journalism with environmental coverage. Digital models can help us connect data points into more understandable patterns. Mash-ups are great tools.


  1. Nice article and overview but I think you’re still scratching the surface. I’ll be curious to see what you have to say a year from now.

    This medium is about intuition. I didn’t see you address that yet.


  2. Larry Pryor says:


    I’ll admit to still being at the surface in understanding this medium. But give us a hint: What path do we take to find intuition? Is it about the gut feeling we have when we connect with an audience? The instinct that tells us what’s phony or not on a blog? The look and feel of a good site? It’s an intriguing point you make. More signposts would be welcome. Larry Pryor

  3. Larry, thanks for this overview – a real service to all of us. However… what I miss from this and many other analyses of convergence journalism is a (critical) assessment of the role of ‘work’ in all of this. The little research out there suggests converging news operations have quite fundamental implications for one’s professional identity (esp. among those left out of the loop), the nature of work (‘technologization’ comes to mind), and careers (where the vast majority of new media reporters and editors – like Curley – constantly switch employers, jobs, are employed through parttime so-called ‘flexible’ contracts, and so on)… Beyond news values and respect for the audience there lies the World of Work – something we educate students for but mostly fail to tell them about.

    I’d appreciate a take on this from you and OJR readers. But perhaps I am overstating the importance of things like job security, technostress, portfolio worklives, professional identity?

  4. Throwing in my $.02…. I think that journalism today, given the upheaval of multimedia and reader-contributed reporting, really does belong to those reporters and editors with an entrepreneurial spirit. Some, like Rafat Ali, are working for themselves, starting their own companies. Others, like Curley, work within large corporations.

    In the case of many of those who choose to work for others, they jump from place to place because employers crave these people and keep bidding up the price for them. Add in a desire to keep working things fresh, and it is not surprise that many leave. (The nature of big media corporations seems to be to assume that once they’ve got you, you won’t leave voluntarily so they don’t need to entice you to stick around.)

    So, getting to your point…. I don’t know that the people driving change in journalism care about job security. When the music stops, they’ll always have a chair, whether they own it or not. For everyone else, well, not to sound too harsh, but it seems to me that the smart thing to do is to become one of those innovators, rather than sitting around worrying about how those innovators’ work will affect you.

    In my opinion, much of what innovators are working on is misguided and will fail. (As is always the case with innovation.) The trick is, of course, to know which innovations will succeed. No one’s got the market on that cornered, so there’s room for more journalists to try.

  5. Convergence is very dangerous without knowledge of media law. IMHO, Rob Curley’s Naples restaurant database clearly libeled the waitress. And, raw video is a recipe for invasion of privacy. All of this could result in very costly lawsuits. Having read a few of these blogs, I see a whole lot of potential victims – and some of the authors of these blogs, whether private persons or media people, are practically begging to be taken to court. All of this is especially perilous at the university level, where legal oversight is lacking. If Poynter people did not warn educators by presenting someone who reiterated the law of libel and invasion of privacy, and, perhaps, explained copyright law, then they didn’t do a complete job.

  6. I recently got out of j-school, and one of the things that bothered me about it was that many teachers would talk about convergence without teaching it in an effective way. Some teachers will try to jam broadcast projects into writing classes, but a lot of print students don’t want to learn how to do broadcast, and they don’t necessarily need to. They should, however, learn to work with broadcast journalists, not to mention people they’re going to have to work with in any newsrooms–photographers, copy editors, designers, webmasters etc.

    I always thought students would learn more if they collaborated across class boundaries. Wouldn’t it be useful for reporting, design and photography students to collaborate on projects, instead of doing separate projects in a weird vacuum? I think it’s possible to teach students about all aspects of journalism without diluting the focus on specialties.

  7. As someone who spent most of my research time observing how convergence journalism gets taught in different countries, I’d have to agree with the ‘theory’ that it is best taught as an ‘intercultural communication’ type course – that is, students from different disciplines collaborating and sharing knowledge, learning how to work together – rather than having separate projects that somehow, ideal-typically, should blend together (technologically).

    The practice of things is that this does not mesh very well with existing power structures and turf wars within schools and departments (and thus is not so different from the realities in the multimedia news organization I dare to say), nor does it work within the larger university bureaucracy (assigning credit hours, evaluation and grading templates, and generally speaking an all-powerful sitting print faculty that basically still thinks broadcast journalism is just ‘sensationalism’ and the internet is only good for repurposing what they have done all along…). Of course I know this observation is a caricature, but after 3 years of research in the US and elsewhere, it was the conclusion I came away with in 2004; perhaps things have changed.

    To that I’d like to add something: how about the consequences for journalists to have to work together and establish trust-based relationships on a project basis with colleagues that not only just arrived, but are also likely (just as you are) to be leaving soon? I’m talking about the majority of part-time, flexible, temporary and especially contingent contracts in the news industry today.

    That MUST have some effect on the way new(s) media work gets done, no?

  8. Michael Grider says:

    I’m a student in journalism at the University of Tennessee. Convergence seems to be the buzzword around the College of Communication. When I entered the journalism curriculum at UT, journalism students studied print, and broadcast students studied broadcasting. In 2004 we began a new curriculum. This curriculum is called Journalism and Electronic Media, and it is UT’s response to the question of how to teach convergence. Broadcast and Journalism have been combined, but the option to focus on one or the other remains. Students can major with an emphasis on news writing for print or broadcast, an emphasis on magazine writing, media production, sales and buying (that may actually fall under marketing, but I don’t think so.) and sports journalism. This way, students get specific training, but are immersed in all media. I produce an afternoon radio news cast Monday through Friday, but I also write for the school paper, and I have produced TV news stories, all at UT. I wouldn’t have been able to do that as easily under a strictly print or broadcast curriculum. There are classes in web journalism as well, but I think the university could do a better job teaching this aspect of convergence.

    I like this approach. It’s not an all-or-nothing concept that can intimidate students. It’s important to focus on one medium or another. Newspapers need people that focus on print, but that are familiar with broadcast and online journalism, as these elements become more prominent across media. Sidebars are increasingly pointing people to an outlet’s Web site for video or audio or for niche coverage. The major outlets seem to do this better than local outlets, however. I’m sure it’s a function of budgetary constraints and available talent.

    Convergence is exciting, and it will be interesting to see where we end up. I find that I check news Web sites hourly during my day, but I still pick up a newspaper in the morning, and watch the evening news broadcasts. I use various media for specific reasons. I get breaking news from the internet, as I spend a lot of time in front of a computer. Then I turn to the TV broadcasts for real time coverage of something that may be developing, and that is of sufficient interest to me. I read the papers in the morning because of the depth of coverage available to print media. Eventually, I think, online content will overtake (not completely) both traditional print and broadcast outlets. Before we get to that point, though, there will be a lot of trial and error.

    One thing