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Future of Convergence not Much Clearer Despite FCC Ruling

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Ruling gave companies greenlight for cross-ownership, but experts don't expect a rush to newsroom changes

The Federal Communications Commission's June 2 decision to allow cross-ownership in major American cities opened the door to media convergence in ways that until last week?s shift in ownership rules were impossible.

Now media companies in all but the smallest markets can own newspapers and TV stations in the same city, which means more companies will be able to practice "convergence journalism" -- industry lingo for putting together teams of newspaper, television, Internet and radio journalists to create multimedia news coverage.

But does increased consolidation mean convergence will take off in America's newsrooms? Is convergence the wave of the future or just journalism's flavor of the week?

The waters, experts say, are murky.

Convergence has been practiced for years in a number of newsrooms across the country, including the Tampa Tribune and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The FCC?s decision -- based in part on arguments by media owners that convergence will improve the quality of journalism -- has some media watchers predicting that consolidation will spur the adoption of convergence in newsrooms nationwide.

Anticipating this change, a number of journalism schools across the country have spent the past year rewriting curricula to include convergence -- even though academics acknowledge that it is still unclear whether media giants will pursue convergence aggressively.

"I?m not so sure that it (convergence) is inevitable," said Robert Haiman, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C.  and president emeritus at the Poynter Institute. "It reminds me of the last 'next great thing' in journalism, which was public or civic journalism. That has peaked, and while it isn?t gone yet, it is on its way."

"Newsrooms are pretty independent places. Generally everybody knows the rules, and the fact that partnerships with other media are lurking shouldn?t affect how we write or edit." -- Mike Young, Los Angeles Times

Gregory Favre, a distinguished fellow with the Poynter Institute, said convergence is less about journalism than it is about an economic model.

"It is not yet proven whether ... it really makes sense yet," he said. "It is too early in the game. It may well be an economic boon to all platforms. But we haven?t seen that yet."

He and other media observers predict that there will be a slow build to convergence, including much more testing of the model before it becomes gospel within the news industry.

There are more than 40 cities where companies were previously permitted to own both newspapers and broadcast outlets -- they were grandfathered when the FCC banned cross-ownership in 1975.

Howard Finberg, who is on the interactive learning faculty at Poynter, said it is difficult to get a good measure of how many organizations are practicing convergence now, or the rate at which it is likely to increase. He is compiling what he calls the Convergence Catalog to help answer those questions.

Both advocates and critics say predicting whether convergence will sweep the nation?s newsrooms is as tough as defining its impact on the quality of journalism.

Strong advocacy by Singleton

There is no more vocal cheerleader for convergence than William Dean Singleton -- vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews Group Inc., and past chairman of the board of the Newspaper Association of America. He has spoken and written frequently about the issue over the past year, becoming a go-to guy for comment from the perspective of media owners.

Singleton, like many who advocated for cross-media ownership, said people who criticize the FCC?s decision are being timid about embracing the future.

"This rule change is a win-win for everybody," he said in an interview following the June 2 decision. "Those who opposed the change were doing nothing more than playing Chicken Little.

"If a newspaper can take their vast newsgathering resources and put them behind a radio or television station, that radio or TV station they put it behind will have far more information than they could gather on their own," he said.

"While I wish everybody read the newspaper, not everyone does. Those that don?t tend to watch television and listen to radio. If we can put more information in the hands of people who watch TV or listen to radio, then we have done a public service for the whole community." --William Dean Singleton, owner, MediaNews Group

"While I wish everybody read the newspaper, not everyone does. Those that don?t tend to watch television and listen to radio. If we can put more information in the hands of people who watch TV or listen to radio, then we have done a public service for the whole community."

Charles M. Firestone, who studies the impact of communication and information technologies on society for the Aspen Institute in Washington D.C., isn?t sold on Singleton?s arguments for consolidation and convergence. He is well acquainted with them, however.

As a lawyer for the FCC, Firestone argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 that the agency?s ban on cross-media ownership of newspapers and television in 1975 should be upheld.

"There are two camps in this one," he explained. "Those who say the market has gotten so fractionalized that to pull together means ... that you then have the weight to report bigger and better stories, particularly in smaller markets."

The other camp, he said, fears corporations are more interested in market share than good journalism, and will look for ways to make news more like entertainment.

Haiman has his own doubts about convergence journalism: He and other critics say the Internet -? and the ability to create multimedia, interactive news packages online ?- can be great for journalism, but the pressure on newspaper reporters to do it all may compromise the quality of their work.

Focus on journalism quality

In addition to his role with the Poynter Institute, the prominent journalism think tank on Florida's west coast, Haiman is a former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

As such, he has had a unique vantage point from which to view the debate over convergence. Florida?s west coast has become a virtual mecca for experiments in  convergence. The Tampa Tribune, owned by Media General Inc., and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, owned by The New York Times, already have been fully emerged in convergence.

While he was editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Haiman kept close watch on how the Tampa Tribune used its multi-media platform. "The result so far, in my judgment, is (convergence) slightly improves journalism on the radio station, in the TV station and online," he said.

But not, he said, at newspapers -- where reporters are hard-pressed to report in all four mediums.

"The only real class act in journalism is at the newspaper," Haiman said. "The TV station usually has far fewer reporters. The radio station is lucky to have two full-time journalists, and some are lucky to have one. And online organizations, unless it is a rare exception, are usually composed of wonderfully bright and eager people -- who don?t know a damn thing about journalism."

"Will the kind of convergence we are talking about now, journalistic convergence, be good for media companies? Absolutely. Or for their bottom line? Absolutely. Will it be good for journalism? Absolutely not."

The Tampa Tribune's experience with convergence has been widely watched -- and reported upon -- in the news. Editors there have repeatedly sung the praises of convergence, in their newspaper, television and on the Web.

"For us it's made better journalism," WFLA news director Forrest Carr told OJR in an interview last year.

"We can put a story out, have it on TBO.com, the Tampa Tribune and TV, thereby creating a voice that just wasn't there before for our journalism, so that our stories have more reach, more power, and greater effect," said Carr.

"It's changed the dynamic of the newsroom,"  Donna Reed, the Tribune's managing editor, commented in the same story. "Deadlines are constant. We have a new way of thinking, visually, because TV and online are so visually dependent, and newspapers are not. So, I think it's made us a better paper visually; it's made us smarter in being timely and succinct."

A case for better journalism

At the nearby Sarasota Herald-Tribune, and its fully converged affiliate SNN-Channel 6, a 24-hour cable news station, Lou Ferrara works as general manager for electronic media. A former police reporter who was attracted early on to the power of combined media platforms, Ferrara sees the debate from both sides.

He agrees that more is now being required of reporters, but says that -- based on what he has seen since convergence between the newspaper and TV station was launched eight years ago -- the quality of journalism ultimately is improved.

Ferrara said convergence provides reporters more points of entry to a story, the technology to do more in-depth reporting, and in a more timely way. 

"It was a pretty rough start at the beginning," Ferrara said. "It is like anything in a newsroom. You introduce some element of change, and writers can go haywire. A handful will embrace change and for the rest it is difficult, especially change of a large magnitude like this."

Many reporters say they don?t have time to write for other platforms, Ferrara said, but reporters "always bitch about having enough time. Good reporters will never have enough time."

Reporters in converged newsrooms across the country say there?s not enough time in the day to report for all mediums, but convergence advocates say that all reporters are not asked every day to contribute to other media -- more typically just a handful of reporters each day are asked to do something extra for TV or the Web. They argue that the increase in workload is not substantial.

And while there are many convergence grumblers, there are also plenty of journalists who enjoy the increased exposure TV and the Internet give their stories -- and who say it?s not a big deal to fit in working with their TV and Internet counterparts.

"The reality is that most people get their news from TV and radio, and with online, you are adding millions to that audience. We needed to adapt to that," Ferrara said.

"This all gets lost in the convergence talk and the deregulation talk, but in fact, the market has changed and news consumership has changed over the years."

Regardless of how technology changes the reporting and delivery of news, Ferrara said, it does not change the fundamentals of how news is gathered -- being on the scene, building sources, being able to respond quickly as news develops.

Convergence "does not lessen journalism in any way, shape or form," he said. "It should improve it."

Mike Young is editor of the extended news desk at the Los Angeles Times, which he describes as a desk of rewriters and editors that functions as a bridge between the newspaper and the Web site. In an e-mail exchange, he said he doesn?t think"convergence has, or will have, much impact" on "basic journalistic quality."

"Newsrooms are pretty independent places," he said. "Generally, everybody knows the rules and the fact that partnerships with other media are lurking shouldn?t affect how we write or edit.

"Convergence does have benefits for expanding good journalism," he said. "Newspaper reporters telling the story on TV, foreign correspondents dictating from the war zone, that helps us get our stories to an audience that might not read the paper."

Exploring the possibilities

In Muncie, Indiana -- known as Middletown USA for a sociologist?s well-publicized study about the lives of people there in 1929 -- Larry Dailey is exploring the possibilities of convergence.

Dailey, a former multimedia producer with MSNBC, is now an assistant professor of journalism at Ball State University and works with students in a digital newsroom created to focus on convergence, which was funded with a $20-million grant from the Eli Lilly Foundation.
He said his students? experience mirrors what is happening in the media industry.

"We are just getting going on a lot of things, and we still face the cultural differences between television, newspaper and Web presentations," he said. "We are trying to figure out how to make them work together, which is part of the challenge that is going to be faced by the industry."

In using online journalism to bring together production from the journalism department?s new television station and its student newspaper, Dailey said the first challenge has been "to begin speaking the same language."

"The very strengths that various media bring to the table are what causes mistrust," he says. "Newspaper reporters tend to be very precise and accurate, and television brings a level of excitement, but maybe without being as excruciatingly precise. And then, of course, the Web people are the propeller heads."
 
Dailey said he sees the Internet as the hub around which convergence will revolve because it can combine the features of television, print and radio in the same place.

"If I knew for sure what the role of online (journalism) is going to be, I wouldn?t be here," he quipped. "But I know it is going to be different than the role it is playing now. Right now, both TV and print organizations are using their online partner to basically regurgitate what they are presenting in their prime medium, and as a source to archived information.

"But to me, the most powerful tool from the users standpoint is the keyboard and the mouse. Interactivity is what is important here. I think it will be a value added by going to the Web. It will become a way to get information that you can?t get from a dead tree thrown on your lawn, or the TV at night."
 
Dailey said that as online journalism explores new ways to reach readers, it will eventually live up to the title of "new media."

"We keep calling things new media, but it isn?t now," he said. "We are doing old media on a new screen. We will eventually start engaging the audience in interactivity, and if people are careful, there will be ways to preserve the ethics and storytelling value that traditional media bring us now."

Dailey said that he and his students are using  their new digital newsroom to explore "non-linear and overarching journalism."

"We want to take a place like Muncie and do documentary stories on the people who live here," he said. "And then, hook them together in a way that (readers or viewers) can go from person to person and come out with a sense of what it is like to live here."
 
 "We haven?t gotten it right yet, but to do it right, we have to have convergence,? he said. "It requires something where you have to hear the audio and see the moving image. And it sometimes requires accurate and painstakingly written words to get the story down.

"If you can harness these different moments of storytelling, and it makes sense from an audience standpoint, you have come to a place where convergence makes sense," he said.

Dailey?s project is similar to one that Bob Haiman recalls being produced by the St. Petersburg Times, which focused on one of the city?s ethnic neighborhoods, centered on 22nd Street,  known as The Deuces.

Haiman said the interactive online version of that in-depth series gave a rich textured feel to the stories, allowing readers to experience music from clubs in the neighborhood, and to see video of the people that the stories were talking about. 
 
That kind of journalism is what excites those who believe convergence -- and online news -- can transform journalism in ways that are good for readers and journalists alike.

But these stories take a long time -- and a lot of money -- to produce, and so are still only rarely done at most media outlets.

 "To the extent that one little piece of convergence allows the extension of the content of newspaper to the electronic world, I have no problem with that at all," Haiman said. "I think that is good. But that, so far, is a pretty rare use."

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Related Links
Civic Journalism
Convergence at the Tampa Tribune
Dean Singleton on convergence
FCC's June 2 decision
Federal Communications Commission
MediaNews Group
Newspaper Association of America
OJR story on Tampa convergence
The Aspen Institute
The Denver Post
The Freedom Forum
The Poynter Institute
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
convergence
convergence
convergence
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Mike Young, Los
Angeles Times

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Bob Haiman
Photo by Matthew
Isepp

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Gregory Favre
Photo courtesy the Poynter Institute

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William Dean
Singleton, owner, MediaNews Group

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