While Bush Administration officials made frequent reference to a “coalition of the willing” during the recent war in Iraq, another coalition provided the news coverage of the conflict for millions of Americans. Print, broadcast and online news organizations formed that coalition. As a result, many journalists working for newspapers suddenly found themselves providing radio, television and online reports.
This coalition of print, broadcast and online journalists offers a peek at a growing movement toward convergence in the industry. Many news organizations, such as The New York Times and CNN, offer Web sites that include text with links to audio, still photography, animated graphics and video. Reporters for some leading media companies no longer consider their day “done” when their work appears in a newspaper or airs in a newscast. Instead, this growing number of multimedia journalists must prepare versions of their reports for other outlets – often ones they historically considered competitors.
As goes the industry, so go the universities. Traditional, media-specific journalism programs remain strong at universities across the nation. However, as media convergence slowly gained ground in the industry, many university journalism programs began to explore the concept of training multimedia reporters. Along with the exploration often came frustration, anxiety and controversy.
All those elements came into play when our mass communication faculty at Northwest Missouri State University began talking about changing curriculum to meet the needs of a changing industry. In a period of about a year, we came to an agreement on the need to offer students some form of multimedia training and a series of changes to accomplish that goal. Getting to that point took a lot of convincing, listening and compromising.
About 300 undergraduates major in mass communication at Northwest Missouri State University. Our eight full-time faculty members teach four sequences: broadcasting, which focuses on production and management; print journalism; advertising; and digital media design, which provides training in creating computer-based content for media. Our student media outlets include the Northwest Missourian newspaper, the Tower yearbook, Heartland View online magazine, KZLX-FM and KNWT-TV, both of which air student newscasts.
Our chair takes pride in the department’s tradition of reaching far-ranging decisions – such as changing the curriculum – through consensus. With the need for consensus as a starting point, we began working through the pros and cons of changing our curriculum to offer training in multimedia journalism.
Leading faculty proponents of a multimedia approach based their desire for changing the journalism curriculum on their perception of convergence in the industry. Some major media companies began demanding that their reporters cross the old barriers between print and broadcast and, at the same time, supply content for online news before the extensive crossing of traditional journalistic lines during Gulf War II. Newsrooms at the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, among others, rely on journalists who can provide print, broadcast and online versions of their reports. The Chicago Tribune recently produced a video touting its multimedia approach to news.
Director of Student Publications Laura Widmer – who recently conducted a series of interviews regarding media convergence with some industry leaders – strongly believes these initial moves toward convergence will spread through the industry in coming years. Widmer and some other instructors think the consolidation of media companies and the growth of the Internet as a source for news will bring print, broadcast and online news operations under one roof at many media companies. Widmer said creating a multimedia journalism curriculum would “definitely give our students a great niche and marketability in the field.” She added: “It also opens the door for a more natural convergence within student media.”
The basic multimedia concept received support from several faculty members. Assistant Professor Jody Strauch played an important role in developing the digital media major. She believes the traditional line between print and broadcast will fade as the Internet becomes a more important source of news. Strauch thinks multimedia training will allow students “to gather as many tools as they can to better prepare … for a career in the field, not just a job.” At the same time, she worries that if we teach all of the skills required for working in a variety of media, the students “won’t learn to use any of the tools very well.”
Concerns like that fueled resistance to curriculum revision among some faculty members. That resistance forced us to come to terms with some long-standing barriers that exist among journalism faculty members in many universities.
CONVERGENCE: NO! (OR AT LEAST NOT SO FAST)
Faculty member Matthew Bosisio distilled much of the concern about revising the journalism program. Bosisio, a newspaper veteran, said, “I sometimes feel we are being carried away by the wave of convergence. I’m not totally convinced that it is the way to go.”
Our review of trends in the industry and at other universities, along with the advice we received from our Professional Advisory Committee – a group of industry professionals we meet with once each year – told us many working journalists and academics agree with Bosisio. The message we received from reviewing professional and academic literature and from talking with people in the industry was that, even if media convergence is inevitable, university journalism programs must continue to emphasize traditional skills and values, including news judgment, information gathering (including interviewing), writing, accuracy and fairness. As faculty member Fred Lamer put it, “Curriculum should be sensitive to important theoretical and conceptual matters, not just the latest technical trend.”
At the same time, we learned that while industry leaders appreciate traditional journalistic skills and values, many of them also want employees equipped with the basic skills required for working in a multimedia newsroom. At the same time, the journalism faculty at many universities – some of which compete with Northwest for students – were exploring, and in some cases already adopting, changes in their course of study to account for convergence.
What should we do? With mixed messages pouring in from our contacts in the industry and debate over convergence and how to address it rampant in the academy, our faculty began trying to figure out how we would try to best prepare students to become 21st century journalists.
AGREEMENT AND ROADBLOCKS
We reached an early agreement that allowed us to quickly move forward. Northwest’s mass communication department demands that students focus on writing. We believe solid writing lies at the core of all successful communication in news, public relations and advertising. Our initial meetings bogged down in debates over how much “print” writing to teach versus how much “broadcast” writing. Several faculty members worried about “watering down” the successful print journalism program.
That initial controversy faded when we adopted the approach of focusing on the common elements and techniques of writing for various media. Research and experience show the best writing is well organized and focuses on clarity, conciseness and balance. We decided we would emphasize those elements, along with subject-verb sentence structure, grammar and style in all of our classes. We do address the differences among writing for print, broadcast and online but constantly reinforce the traits these forms share.
At that point we felt ready to address which classes to include in a multimedia approach to journalism. As it turned out, we needed to answer some important questions before we tried to revamp the curriculum.
HOW MUCH CONVERGENCE?
As we noted earlier, some faculty members see strong reasons for providing students with multimedia journalism training. Others think newsroom convergence may eventually go the way of the Edsel, while some fear we will undermine our well-established journalism program by “diluting” it with a new emphasis on broadcast and online news. We needed to address these concerns.
First, will convergence become commonplace in newsrooms? Coupled with the evidence noted earlier of some news organizations moving to converged newsrooms and the multimedia reporting witnessed during Gulf War II, we agreed that, yes, convergence will play some role in the careers of most future journalists. But to what extent?
The answer to that question goes to the heart of the controversy over changing the curriculum. For, after all our research, after all our talks with industry professionals, we came to the conclusion that we don’t know how much media convergence will change the journalism landscape.
This admission fueled both sides in our debate. Those who support the move toward multimedia reporting see the industry on the cusp of huge changes. Those who oppose the idea of altering the curriculum – or who at least want a “go slowly” approach – see the uncertainty as evidence that we may fall into the trap of chasing the “trendy” at the expense of truly preparing our students.
At this point, the campaign to bring a multimedia approach to the curriculum bogged down. The problems included the small size of our faculty, which limits the number of courses we may offer, and the fear expressed by some instructors that adding a multimedia component to existing classes – especially the introductory courses – would dilute their effectiveness.
The positions taken by faculty members hardened, and we spent two months casting about, looking for a way to break the deadlock. At that point, one team of instructors proposed an approach that – while it would allow us to give our students a multimedia journalism foundation – would leave the integrity of the journalism program intact. This approach will move one class from its current sequence and will revamp two existing classes, allowing introductory classes to remain intact instead of “blowing them up” and reshaping them as multimedia reporting courses.
In the proposed journalism sequence, all students will continue to take the current introductory media writing course called “Professional Media Writing.” As noted earlier, this class already focuses on the common elements of good writing for a variety of media. The students next take “Reporting I,” a course that – while it will retain its historically print-oriented focus – will introduce the students to information-gathering skills required of journalists in all media. Following completion of “Reporting I,” students will take “Visual Journalism.” This class currently teaches students the basics of news still photography but will add an introduction to basic news videography and video editing.
The major changes will take place in two classes. Following “Visual Journalism,” students will take “Broadcast Journalism.” We moved this class from the broadcasting sequence, where it was the sole journalism course in a production- and management-oriented sequence. The class will change from its current broad overview of reporting for radio and television to an introductory class where all journalism students will learn the foundations of reporting for radio and television.
After completing “Broadcast Journalism,” the students will take “Reporting II.” This class will shed its emphasis on print journalism and become a multimedia course with elements of print, broadcast and online reporting. Initially, two instructors – one with a print background, the other a former TV reporter – will team teach the course, which will focus on information gathering and producing longer stories.
The sequence will continue to require students take classes in editing, editorial writing and computer media design, along with offering a number of practica that will give them additional experience at Northwest’s various student media outlets. We think this combination of traditional skills and multimedia experience will better prepare our students for the changing industry of the 21st century.
The faculty still must work out details for implementing the new curriculum. Some instructors remain skeptical of the influence convergence will play in the industry. Others, such as instructor Jacquie Lamer, support multimedia training but remain cautious. As Lamer noted, “I think there are many steps ahead of us. … If we take this slowly we can incorporate convergence into the classroom as it evolves naturally in the marketplace.” In the end, we reached a consensus that allowed faculty members such as Lamer to sign on to the revised course of study, a process that took research, discussion, patience and compromise.
Dr. Jerry Donnelly is an associate professor and chair of the department of mass communication at Northwest Missouri State University. Dr. Doug Sudhoff is an assistant professor of mass communication at Northwest Missouri State.