Future newsrooms will require specialists who can learn to adapt.
Media convergence. What a misunderstood and abused phrase that has become!
To its critics, convergence signifies the corporate homogenization and profit obsession that’s gripping publicly held news companies. For its proponents, convergence is the appropriate business and journalistic response to our customers’ increasingly agnostic media usage.
Consider how citizens get information throughout the day: They wake up to a clock radio, scan a paper, listen to a morning TV show as they dress for work, tune to news radio in their cars, go online when they reach the workplace, listen to more radio on the way home, watch evening news, finish the paper, read a magazine.
The implication for news organizations is inescapable. To dominate its marketplace, a company must supply news and information whenever, however and wherever customers desire. Current options include print, online, broadcast, wireless and cable. Other technologies are coming.
That’s the logic for Media General’s decision to build The News Center in Tampa, a 40,000 square foot structure that houses the news organizations of The Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV News Channel 8 and Tampa Bay Online (TBO.com). All are owned by Media General, and the paper and TV station were both owned before 1975.
That’s a key date. Companies that owned a newspaper and a TV station in the same city before 1975 are allowed by the Federal Communications Commission to retain both today. Post 1975, a newspaper is not permitted to buy a broadcast TV station in its market. Oddly enough – and a point of attack for critics of the FCC’s crossownership restrictions – a TV station can legally buy a newspaper in its market.
The FCC is reviewing its crossownership rules, and a decision is expected by 2003. If, as is widely predicted, the commission relaxes its restrictions on common ownership of broadcast and print, analysts expect a stampede of trading among media companies. (Tax laws encourage trading rather than outright sales to minimize or eliminate capital gains liabilities.)
Many large media companies have some version of a war room with a map identifying who owns what in which market. The game is to identify which competitor is willing to swap properties so each can come out with a broadcast-print pair in a city. (A major goal of the Tribune Company’s acquisition of Times Mirror was to create such pairs in New York City, Hartford and Los Angeles.) Advantages that flow from those arrangements are greater reach, brand extension, cross-media ad sales, cross-platform promotion and some news gathering efficiencies (research, cooperative reporting, and shared photojournalism are a few examples).
The News Center in Tampa is viewed as one model of what the newsroom of the future might look like. Print, broadcast and online occupy separate parts of the building and retain editorial independence. But the three platforms cooperate fully in news gathering and share information freely. Each is strengthened by contributions from its partners. Tribune reporters appear on TV. WFLA journalists write for the paper and online producers contribute to all platforms.
If more converged newsrooms are on the horizon, what are the implications for journalism education? Based on our two years of experience together in Tampa, I’ll offer three broad suggestions.
1. The fully formed, all-purpose, multiplatform, gadget-laden journalism grad is NOT what we’re looking to hire. You will crush ordinary mortals and get mediocrity if you ask a single person to wear all media hats. Journalism schools must continue to produce graduates who are competent in one craft area: reporting, design, producing, directing, editing. As my colleague Forrest Carr, news director at WFLA put it, “Rather than the superman model or the superwoman model, where somebody has to be able to do it all and do it well, the model that actually seems to make the most sense is to retain the specialties but cooperate in our newsgathering efforts.”
2. Journalism schools must introduce students to the professional and business cases for multimedia journalism. Students should understand how information use is changing – and will continue to change – and how journalism must evolve to keep pace with our customers. This understanding is vital because cultural resistance is the biggest hurdle for converging newsrooms. For multimedia work to take deep root, journalists from once-competing newsrooms must learn to cooperate and collaborate – a tall order in our highly individualistic professional mystique.
3. Journalism schools must produce graduates who are willing and able to acquire new skills in the workplace. A thorough grounding in the differences in writing for print, online and broadcast would be a good start in school. After graduation, the journalists need to be eager learners about the craft skills of their partner platforms. An example would be a print photographer who is able to learn how to shoot and produce TV packages. Another would be a TV reporter who is willing to learn to write a long print narrative or column. (We have examples of both in the News Center.)
My suggestions would not radically change journalism education. They reinforce the importance of producing graduates with a solid work ethic, craft competence and high standards and aspirations. They would require up-to-date technology tools for students to learn with and practice on. They would require a faculty that’s willing to do its own internal convergence by cooperating fully among discipline silos.
Models already exist. Brigham Young and Kansas have made successful transitions to programs rooted in multiple media training. Others, including Virginia Commonwealth, Florida A&M, South Florida and Southern California are embarking on similar roads.
The risk of incorporating multimedia training into a standard curriculum seems small. The benefit for students entering a rapidly evolving marketplace could be large.
Gil Thelen is executive editor and senior vice president of The Tampa Tribune.