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.”