Convergence. Multimedia reporting. Cross-platform journalism. For the past several years, practitioners and educators have been struggling with what those words mean to the newsroom and to the classroom.
At one end of the spectrum are the cross-owned, tri-platform convergence leaders such as Media General’s News Center in Tampa and the Tribune’s Chicago properties. In the academic world, schools such as the University of Kansas and USC-Annenberg are fully committed to taking the multimedia approach to journalism education. But many more newsrooms find themselves struggling with questions such as, “How much time can we devote to creating Web content without weakening stories for the paper?” In the classroom, teachers are asking, “If we try to cram broadcast, online and print skills into every student, will any of them have the depth they need to get a job?”
Now, after 10 years of struggling with those questions, at least one journalism program has just said no to convergence.
Brigham Young University was one of the first schools in the country to begin teaching multimedia journalism. In 1995, the faculty there began talking about the best way to create “Super Reporters,” reporters who would be able to move easily among print, broadcast and online media. They began by moving their print and broadcast labs into the same space, building a newsroom to house both the daily newspaper and the nightly news program.
But in 1999, when the current dean, Dr. Stephen Adams, came on board, he says the curriculum was lagging behind when it came to convergence.
“Classes themselves were separate,” said Adams. “We had more of a cross-training model.”
With that model, Adams said, the school hoped to create these super reporters by simply exposing print to broadcast in the lab setting and vice versa. At that time, BYU did have one converged journalism class, an introductory course called “Writing for Mass Audiences.”
These first convergence efforts did lead to some success. In 1999, BYU started a three-year tradition of winning the Editor & Publisher award for the best online campus news site. Despite that, Adams said the faculty was not happy with what was happening to the curriculum.
“Students knew a whole lot about a whole lot of things, but didn’t know very much in depth.” Adams said.
The “Writing for Mass Audiences” course never allowed the students to achieve mastery in any one area of writing before moving on to the next level of coursework, he added. Faculty in the upper-level courses felt the students were not well prepared.
By 2001, Adams said, the school started to realize that the convergence experiment wasn’t working. The faculty turned “Writing for Mass Audiences” back into a basic news writing course (with an emphasis on print). They created classes in online journalism and multimedia reporting, which students took at the capstone level — near the end of their academic careers. In those courses, student teams worked together to produce multimedia projects.
But in 2004, Adams said, BYU started to back off on the model entirely, primarily for two reasons. First, both the broadcast and the print faculty felt they had evidence that students were still not getting the depth they needed within the individual journalism disciplines.
“Convergence took away necessary depth in core writing skills,” said Adams.
The second big obstacle is the amount of faculty resources convergence requires. According to Adams, not many faculty are able to do print, broadcast and online.” It requires team teaching efforts, and then we had to backfill the teaching of other courses with part-time people,” he said.
Today, Adams said the school still does not have a sense that its convergence efforts were making much of an impact. He said students have not been getting convergence jobs; they’re getting jobs in traditional journalism venues. In the end, BYU decided to walk away from the multimedia approach.
“In the 2006-2007 course catalog, there are no more converged elements,” said Adams.
So, what’s the take-away? Are journalism schools currently on a mission to provide cross-platform training making a mistake? Is a back-to-basics movement the next wave in curricular overhauls?
What it likely reflects is good old common sense. Just like every newsroom, every journalism program must decide what it does best with the resources it has available. Some schools will become convergence powerhouses, turning out the “new” journalists of the future who are ready to work on any platform at any time. However, there are still plenty of jobs out there for print, TV and online specialists and plenty of need for schools to provide depth and expertise in a single media platform.
Thanks, BYU for a great reminder.
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 chairwoman of SPJ’s Professional Development Committee. She also has conducted several convergence training workshops for Media General Inc.