For some time now, many U.S. newspapers and television stations have had some kind of online presence. At a minimum, those sites have reflected the content from the newspaper or broadcast; in many cases, reporters file separate stories specifically tailored to the Web.
Other papers, such as the Tampa Tribune and the Chicago Tribune, have larger operations and are associated with television stations. They also share their staffs; reporters appear on television to discuss stories, and television reporters write for the newspaper.
But within the walls of academia, this blending of media has not produced a revolution in curriculum changes. In fact, as colleges and universities work to prepare the next generation of journalists, what skills and knowledge they need to compete in the modern media age – and who is going to teach them these skills and share this knowledge – is a subject being debated more often than it’s being taught.
Should J-schools infuse students with a broader background that includes – to varying degrees – exposure to more than one medium? Should they focus on the basics and only the basics, reasoning that is the core of good journalism regardless of the platform? Should they wait and see what happens? Are they willing to risk their reputations, their competitive edge, based on what many in the industry think will be The Next Big Thing?
The answer to all of the above is yes – which is to say there is utterly no consensus on the subject.
It does not help that convergence is a bit of a squishy term. People interviewed for this article invariably referred to it as cross-media training, cross-platform training, working across platforms, teamwork, sharing and blending.
In addition, nobody is absolutely certain how much a curriculum needs to change in order to satisfy the current and future needs of the industry. Do students need to be super journalists who can operate a video camera, update Web pages using HTML and write for print and broadcast?
Preparing students for the future becomes a bit of a guessing game, as the answers are uncertain and, in some real ways, unknowable.
For example, how many news outlets are converged?
If you accept the most basic definition of convergence – a “coming together” of different media – then any newspaper or television station with an online site qualifies.
On the other hand, if you narrow the definition, as one think tank did, the number drops. The Media Center at the American Press Institute defines convergence this way:
“Partners working together to cover or develop news stories. The relationship can range from cooperating on breaking news to sharing budgets (run downs) to working on major investigations.”
On The Media Center’s Web page, the number of newspapers that meet this definition is 62 – not what you would call a real groundswell, and certainly nothing that’s sweeping through newsrooms. But it’s a beginning that researchers say is only going to grow.
“The trends in audience behavior and advertising and the proliferation of media channels will inevitably drive media companies to recognize the solution is cross-media companies rather than companies on a single delivery system,” said Andrew Nachison, director of The Media Center, a think tank focused on media convergence and the future of news.
The Media Center’s Web site includes a list of those newspapers state by state that have convergence relationships with other media, and it describes the extent of that involvement.
“The trends in newspaper readership are down. TV viewership is down,” said Nachison.
But beyond that, a recent study released by The Media Study indicates that people are not solitary consumers of media. They multitask.
“Three-quarters of U.S. television viewers read the newspaper while they watch TV, and two-thirds of them go online while they watch TV,” according to a study of simultaneous media consumption that can be found on the Web at www.mediacenter.org.
“To sustain a system of productivity,” said Nachison, media outlets will come to work across multimedia platforms.
Asked to look into the future of newsrooms, editors and some academics describe a scenario like this:
“All newsrooms, big and small, will move toward a 24/7 news environment on the Web,” said Ken Sands, managing editor of online and new media at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. “Once a day, a newspaper will spin out of that. And possibly a couple or three TV news broadcasts. Newspaper companies will compete with TV as much as they ‘converge’ with TV.
“Reporters will need to have the writing skills of a fast wire service reporter, plus the multimedia skills of a TV reporter. Of course, not everyone will do everything. Students should learn how to do all of these things, but should try to specialize in one or two things.”
That description confirms everything people such as James Gentry and Robert Papper believe.
Gentry, considered by many to be the pioneer in cross-media preparation for journalism students, developed a program with the faculty shortly after becoming dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in 1997.
In preparation for re-accreditation and in an effort to identify the school’s core values, the faculty began an assessment of the program and found some surprises.
“Over half of our graduates were doing totally different things five years after school,” Gentry said. Moreover, the students found the current curriculum rigid.
“The kids called it an elevator,” said Gentry. “They’d get in, and the doors would close, and they’d never take” another course outside their area until they graduated.
In essence, they rode the tracks of their programs until graduation. No convergence, no cross-training, no blending. Nothing.
Gentry and his faculty didn’t find this particularly student-centered, an area they’d identified as one of their core values. And so began the process of change.
“The faculty had to stop being focused on their research or consulting and had to think about what was best for students,” he said.
In 2000, students were exposed to a broader array of experiences and the faculty – mostly print – underwent some training to learn how to shoot and edit video.
“We want (students) to function in these areas,” said Gentry. “There are going to be jobs out there that aren’t a glimmer in anyone’s eye.”
Two years ago, Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., adopted a convergence curriculum as well. Their belief was that, regardless of exactly what a newsroom looked like in five or 10 years, they wanted their students to be familiar with more than one medium.
“I’ve always believed we need to have broader skills and understanding than just the ones we think we’ll need in the first job we have,” said Papper, a telecommunications professor. “We need to train (students) and to have them aware of more than one area. They don’t know how they’re going to need to move” in the coming years.
The students still specialize, said Papper, but they also leave knowing how to comfortably step into another world.
“We’re not preparing converged journalists for some converged jobs. There are only three out there,” he said, noting facetiously the absence of widespread multimedia newsrooms. “These jobs don’t exist, but that’s not the point.”
The point, he said, is that students – 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds – think they know exactly what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives.
“I don’t know if their crystal ball is any better than ours,” he said. The only thing he’s sure of, he added, is that in five to 10 years newsrooms are going to look different than they do now.
BREAKING FROM TRADITION
The traditional way of teaching journalism has been to split everyone into specific print or broadcast tracks. Save for the few shared core requirements of the departments, print and broadcast students met in shared classrooms as often as their professional counterparts met in shared newsrooms.
With the widespread media adoption of Web sites in the 1990s, “traditional” journalism jobs began to morph a bit. Students who graduated with multimedia skills were seen in some ways as more valuable players.
But knowing that hasn’t produced a sweeping metamorphosis in most journalism programs. In a 2002 national survey of media writing teachers in journalism and mass communications programs, two professors at Ball State found almost 50 percent of accredited and nonaccredited schools offered a converged writing class.
In addition, almost 40 percent of accredited-school faculty said they planned to offer a converged writing class, and 50 percent of faculty at nonaccredited programs said the same thing.
“We found writing teachers are in a transition from old-style to converged style,” said Mark N. Popovich, a professor of journalism at Ball State who conducted the study with Mark Massé, an associate professor of journalism.
“There’s a lot of indecisiveness about what they’re doing and what their philosophy is. We found people were just stuck in the middle.”
Indeed, Nachison of The Media Center finds that it is a subject he can’t escape when he has contact with journalism schools.
“Every school I run into has it on their agenda to one degree or another. At the very least, anecdotal experience is that they’re all looking at it,” he said. “I think some are just scratching their heads about it, while some have embraced convergence as a core principle.”
Count B. William Silcock among the head scratchers.
“It makes for wonderful, long faculty meetings and long hallway conversations,” said Silcock, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
In fact, those discussions with a colleague in print journalism have led to a productive research agenda; several papers have been written when educators who find their areas have much in common. But so far, it hasn’t led to a converged curriculum.
“We had people come in and tell us the only way to do it is to blow up the curriculum,” said Silcock. “Everybody is scared to admit maybe we’re wrong, and others don’t want to admit they’re being drawn (to convergence) by” an industry model.
But there are other reasons to pause before taking the step toward a converged curriculum, said Silcock. Some of it is simply competitive. Journalism schools want to be known as “the” school to go to for a student who wants to be a print, broadcast or photo journalist, and they’re not inclined to tinker with a curriculum that might change anyone’s perception.
Some of it is just logistics. If a print program, for example, wants to add a convergence component to the curriculum, what do they remove? Do they sacrifice the in-depth specialized reporting class? Do they add credits to the program? Will this delay graduation dates?
“That’s the thing. The pressure and competition in the industry is felt in academia just as much,” he said. “We’re caught.
“You need people who are willing to say, ‘I don’t know a thing about how your area works, and you don’t know a thing about mine, but let’s get together and try to figure it out,’ “ he said. “That takes guts.”
And then there are those who jumped into convergence and are now trying to step back.
“I think at first people had this idea of a super journalist,” said Dale Cressmen, an assistant professor of broadcast at Brigham Young University. “That’s an idea we’re backing away from.”
BYU started out with convergence by putting broadcast and print students in the same newsroom and required the class to do all assignments for every media.
“It was just insane trying to put everyone through it. You can’t teach everything; some areas get watered down,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure it out.”
He believes the department simply overreacted to “this new thing, thinking it is going to do away with how we’ve done things before.”
They’ve decided the place to cover convergence is in the capstone class that students take in their senior year.
BEYOND THE BUZZWORD
According to those who work in multimedia news outlets, the “super journalist model” doesn’t describe convergence; it describes chaos.
Media outlets still need specialists – reporters who write, photographers who take pictures and television reporters who do stand-ups. But they also need reporters who can think like graphic artists, television reporters who can write a brief and photographers who can shoot video and interview people at a breaking news story.
And while those journalism programs that have embraced the idea of multimedia preparation can’t agree on exactly what to call it – a bigger problem than you’d think if only because it confuses people in both the industry and academia – they do agree on what the goals of such programs should be: to prepare students so they can keep a comfortable foot in several media worlds.
What’s interesting is that those in the industry who say convergence skills aren’t important really do want students who can do more than one thing. In a survey of photo editors throughout the state, Jack Zibluk, an associate professor and photojournalism coordinator at Arkansas State University, found that convergence was “not a big deal for them.”
“The important thing is good, old-fashioned journalism,” said Zibluk. “On my list of the 16 most important skills a photographer needed, convergence skills was number 10.”
The top three most-desired skills were how to use a digital camera, a basic camera and knowledge of law and ethics. Knowledge of Photoshop, people skills, reporting skills and basic writing skills also topped the list.
“Small and mid-sized papers were more concerned with basic journalism skills and less concerned with Internet or TV skills,” said Zibluk.
But in his survey, Zibluk left space for the photo editors to provide advice about what they thought needed to be emphasized in photojournalism programs. And though “convergence” was a skill less valued, in their comments the photo editors begged for students who’ve been exposed to areas other than photography.
The term “convergence” seemed to signal only technology to the survey respondents, but the basic goals behind the philosophy – training in other areas – were strongly supported in their comments:
“Please, please, please teach basic writing, reporting, law and ethics. They can only increase students’ skill, knowledge and employability.
“Interviewing is a very important skill for photojournalists, as there is rarely a writer available for spot news stories.”
“Reporting and writing skills are a must for photojournalists. Those who can write as well as photograph have a better chance in the job market. Editors are always concerned about the bottom line, and it saves the paper money on some occasions when one person can be sent to cover a story instead of two. Being able to write solid cutlines, and the occasional story when necessary, is a must.”
Beverly Dominick, the news recruiting and training manager at the Tampa Tribune, wholeheartedly endorses those comments.
The Tribune, the icon of media convergence, operates in a shared space with the television station WFLA and on a shared Web site. Most reporters at the Tribune write for the Web site and occasionally do stand-ups for the station. Some WFLA reporters have weekly columns in the newspaper. Photographers shoot video and still photos. And at budget meetings, which are attended by representatives from the paper and the television station, they discuss how stories should be told. Is this a television story? Is this a print story? Is it both?
Those realities dictate what kind of staffers the paper looks for.
“We’re looking for folks with an interest in convergence and hopefully exposure in more than one area, but that doesn’t necessarily disqualify them if they don’t,” said Dominick.
When people think of media convergence, they often think that journalists have to do everything – they have to write, shoot video and photos and appear on camera. But again, that term that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality.
“If you had everyone doing everything, it would be chaos,” said Dominick. “We do have some people who want to stay true to their craft. Not every position is converged.”
If she were giving advice to journalism students, it would be simple and wouldn’t require their programs to adopt a new curriculum or even necessarily spend much money – they’d simply need to be a little flexible in their tracks.
“I think (students) have a leg up on our generation. They’re so much more visually oriented, they’re already online, they already use computers,” she said. “I think what we’re saying is add journalism to that.”
Her advice for journalism students today: “I would take a broadcast writing class if I were a print student and vice versa for broadcast students.”
For the past two years, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., has offered a convergence workshop for college educators. At the workshops, educators discuss what ground “convergence” covers and how it might fit in their programs. But Poynter does not take a position on how to define the word or if it’s the right avenue to pursue.
“It’s not for Poynter to say what convergence is or how it should be played out. It can mean different things to different people,” said Howard Finberg, part of the interactive learning faculty who teaches in these workshops.
He has a clear idea on what it should look like, though.
“I want students to be media aware, but I don’t expect fluency in every form of media,” he said. “I want them to understand at the very least the various aspects of media and how they are used to inform and how they need to gather information and package and present information.”
Charles Bierbaur did this very thing years ago as a correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court for CNN. Only then they didn’t call it convergence; it was more like coincidence.
“I’d finish up my report and then there’d be a voice in my ear reminding me, ‘Don’t forget to do a radio bit, and then interactive wants to talk to you,’ “ he said.
Bierbaur, the dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, believes this is how you should start out a story.
“With convergence, you start out with the premise that the story will be covered different ways by different media,” he said. “Is this a four-media story or is it only a TV story? It’s simply opening your mind to the notion that you’re covering the news, knowing you will not get the message all the same way.”
A year ago, USC opened its $2.5 million Newsplex, which its Web site describes as “a prototype advanced micronewsroom for demonstration, training and research in next-generation news-handling tools and techniques.”
The facility was developed by the Ifra Centre for Advanced News Operations, and it is operated in cooperation with the College of Journalism and Mass Communication. It is used to teach students and train educators and professionals.
“It’s still an age of specialization and division,” said Bierbaur. “Convergence lets students know what’s going on in the world.”
To do that, however, it’s not necessary to have a $2.5 million structure a mile from campus to get the point across to students.
“You don’t need a Newsplex to do convergence,” said Bierbaur. “You can do it in a class with no technology” by simply asking the right questions and giving the right assignments.
As it turns out, you also don’t need to be a large university.
Ashbury College in Wilmore, Ky., has plans drawn for a new building that will include a converged newsroom. The college embraced the idea for several reasons.
“We think future newsrooms will have converged features,” said Michael A. Longinow, the journalism program coordinator. “Our graduates tell us that often within the first week of a new job, they’re asked, ‘Can you shoot some video so we can add it to the Web?’ “
Like everyone else, professors are products of their upbringing. Many worked in their respective fields when computers were edging out electric typewriters and a 24-hour news cycle wasn’t but a thing to talk about and laugh over.
Often they teach what they were taught – and as they were taught. But to teach as if nothing in the world of journalism has changed – well, that concerns more than a few in academia.
“Too many of our programs emphasize medium-specific craft-training over education for leadership in the Information Ages,” wrote Hampden H. Smith III in an e-mail. Smith is the head of the department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
“Too many of our faculty teach what they did in the newsroom 20 or more years ago as though Gutenberg were still working in the composing room. Our (students) deserve a better education than that.”
Elizabeth Birge is an assistant professor of journalism at William Paterson University in New Jersey. She can be reached at BirgeE@wpunj.edu.