Two and a half years ago, Chris Collette walked into his first semester of broadcast writing at Virginia Commonwealth University with a chip on his shoulder and absolutely no interest in television news.
He went on to ace the class, produce the school’s monthly public affairs show for the local PBS station and to take on the role of Web master for the broadcast. He’s now a Web producer for the NBC affiliate in Richmond.
How did that happen? Convergence took him from frustrated film student to online journalist.
Chris is just one example of why preparing students for a multimedia world makes sense for journalism programs.
Consider these predictions: According to The State of the News Media 2004 report, online, ethnic and alternative media are the only three media sectors seeing general audience growth.
Television consultant Terry Heaton, who runs Donata Communications, predicts that 2005 will bring even more newspaper forays into the world of broadcast. He expects to see more newspapers producing online video newscasts this year.
Howard Finburg is on the faculty at the Poynter Institute. He says one of the biggest challenges faced by media organizations in the future will be the separation of content from container — a phrase he says he doesn’t take credit for coining, but one that seems to describe a shift in the media landscape. That shift will force media companies to go beyond repurposing to figure out how to do compelling journalism on multiple platforms.
The concern for practitioners and educators alike always has been that it’s difficult to master the skills needed to perform well in one medium, let alone multiple media — and that remains an issue.
People such as Rich Gordon, chairman of the new media program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, believes that we may need to once again rethink the curriculum at journalism schools — especially the broadcast curriculum.
He agrees with Heaton that a very interesting phenomenon is happening in the broadcast world.
At a time when opportunities for the traditional TV reporter are shrinking, the need for people who can report, shoot, write and edit their own video stories is growing.
“If your school has been focused on turning out reporters who plan to stand in front of a camera, the reporting skills are valuable, but the new paradigm requires students to put together the entire story. They need production skills.”
At the same time, Gordon says he’s fairly convinced that a school that blows up its curriculum to cross-train every journalism student is not on the right path. Instead, he advocates an Internet-centric approach to thinking across media. Not because he thinks all journalism students will work on Web sites, but because the Web happens to be the only medium where we can put any and every kind of journalism content.
“I would argue Web centric means that I start from the premise that my publishing platform is the Web. That gives me a way to connect students to multiple forms of traditional storytelling,” said Gordon.
Four years ago, the journalism school at the University of Kansas introduced its new convergence curriculum. Today, the head of the news and information track, Rick Musser, echoes much of what Gordon is saying.
“Where we’re moving in terms of multimedia — we don’t use the word convergence anymore — our cross-platform journalism is on the Web. We’re migrating from having students turn in hard copies of their stories to using blogger software to create multimedia portfolios.”
The school’s multimedia reporting class serves to prepare students for TV news, newspapers, magazines and online journalism. No matter what medium they specialize in, students will take this course. Musser said,
“In the world I’m training these people for, the question will not be is it TV or is it print; it will be how can we best tell this story?”
At Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., the School of Mass Communications now requires all journalism students — whether they are interested in print, broadcast or online — to take the following classes:
• Introductory print reporting
• Introductory broadcast reporting (which includes a Web writing module)
• Radio production (a five-week course emphasizing audio gathering and editing skills)
• TV production (a five-week course emphasizing video gathering and editing skills)
Students then go on to specialize in print or broadcast journalism by taking a series of advanced skills or theory classes. This semester, for the first time, the school is offering a five-week online journalism lab, which will teach students the fundamentals of reporting and writing for the Web.
If it’s successful, that may become a required course as well.
VCU’s goal is to get all of its journalism students thinking about the way stories are told differently on each media platform and to provide some basic audio, video and online production skills to facilitate more understanding of the strengths of each medium.
Students at both KU and VCU are now graduating with resumes that include work in print, broadcast and online — they have more options for employment and a greater understanding of how to inform an already converged news audience.
Convergence for professionals
There are also training options for practicing journalists. For example, the SPJ/Bloomberg Journalism Training Program is offering a convergence module that helps journalists define convergence and to understand what it takes to produce a multimedia story.
Finburg says the Poynter Institute is now talking seriously about creating a program that would spend time teaching practicing journalists what media is, how media is marketed and how media is consumed — from both a business and sociological framework. It would be a kind of survey course of the real world when it comes to media.
“I think we should be training people to have respect for and understand other (media) platforms. You need media literacy; you don’t have to have fluency,” Finburg said.
No matter what, Gordon says, journalists need to be keeping tabs on what’s happening in our profession.
“I think in the next 10 years the changes will be as radical as the first 10 of the Internet, and I think it will play out in several different respects,” he said. “We originally created this bottomless maw of space that needed to be filled with content. That content was originally filled with text. Now, imagine if that happens with video. As it becomes more possible for people to consume video on demand, we will create another bottomless maw that needs to be filled.”
Musser believes that there will be less of a distinction between media as we migrate into one digital medium. But those journalists prepared to work with text, sound and video will be able to move more comfortably in a multimedia future.
Deb Halpern Wenger is a 17-year broadcast news veteran who is now the associate professor for Media Convergence and New Media at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. She is co-author of the convergence module for the SPJ/Bloomberg Journalism Training Program and current chairperson of SPJ’s Professional Development Committee. She has also conducted several convergence training workshops for Media General, Inc.