Convergence in the Classroom, Metamorphosis in the Newsroom

Newsrooms still have people who specialize – some in news skills and some in old. But they also have folks who have a wider variety of skills and duties. Journalism schools have to give students the opportunity to prepare for both kinds of roles.

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“Convergence” has always been my least favorite word to use to talk about newsrooms. Yesterday’s AEJMC conference presentation by John Russial and Arthur Santana reminded me why.

Oh, their presentation was very good. Russial’s research about newsroom technology and roles is always enlightening. But a blog post from Alfred Hermida (who, by the way, is the conference’s best tweeter @Hermida) picked up on the presentation’s use of the word “convergence” and made me realize how broad of a definition that word can have. Hermida’s headline was “AEJMC: Newsrooms slow to move toward convergence” and he goes on to report that “Russial concluded that job specialisation remained the dominant organizing principle, with editors prizing depth rather than breadth.”

On Twitter, the unfortunate headline has been in circulation. I say it’s unfortunate because I think it misrepresents Russial’s presentation in a way that the rest of the blog post does not. My impression was that Russial’s research found that convergence IS happening in newsrooms, but that it is happening at the organizational level rather than at the individual level. He didn’t address whether convergence was happening at the story level.

And if you had to read that last paragraph a few times, you know why I don’t like to use the word convergence.

That said, I think Russial is right about the level at which convergence is happening. His findings are supported by the paper that Ying Du and I presented at the same session and they are supported, too, by an earlier unpublished study I did of online journalists in North Carolina.

The North Carolina study found that, on average, online journalists say they have had nine different duties at least once in the last three months. More often than anything else, a respondent said he or she had five different duties. But it also found that not everyone is doing everything. There is specialization of “new media” skills.

And in the paper we presented yesterday, online journalists said that the concept most important to their job was “multitasking”. (Journalism instructors however, ranked multitasking as seventh out of 10 concept. Leading to the challenging question: How do you teach multitasking?)

I didn’t research this, but I suspect that photographers are also shooting video. Reporters are blogging. Designers are animating. Copyeditors are producing story packages in a CMS. It’s not convergence as much as it is metamorphosis. And we aren’t seeing caterpillars becoming ducks. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing caterpillars becoming butterflies.

There are some roles in the newsroom that AREN’T converging. In the North Carolina survey, journalists who write original stories for the Web, edit text for content, and work with databases tend to perform very few other tasks.

I don’t have enough data to support this, but I also suspect that role convergence is much more likely to take place at small news organizations while specialization (and diversity) of roles is more common at the largest news organizations. And because students tend to start at small organizations and later join large organizations, this distinction is important (if indeed true). Understanding it can help journalism educators better frame the choices they have when dealing with curriculum change.

So, what does that mean for journalism education and curriculum change? I think a few things:

  • Every journalism student should have a basic introduction to a broad variety of skills – writing/editing, reporting, photography/design, computer programming/algorithmic thinking and law/ethics.
  • Journalism students should become proficient in a particular set of concepts and skills that we some define as being similar.
  • “New media” skills should be incorporated into core classes. That means squeezing audio-video information gathering into reporting and design classes. It means that every class should talk about using social media for gathering and distributing news. If there is a specific class in “social media” or “animated graphics” or even “magazine design” or “sports writing” they should be advanced courses that students take after getting a basic introduction to them in earlier classes.
  • The purpose of incorporating new skills and concepts into core classes comes at a cost of spending less time on the traditional skills that are still so valuable. That’s why further specialization is so important.
  • Journalism students should also have a broad education that introduces them to economics, art, history, science, politics and all the rest. And students should also specialize in a subject area. (Again, I suspect that as newspaper staffs shrink that the place where we’ll find the most convergence in beat assignments. At the same time, the brand disloyalty of the online news audience is promoting beat specialization and the development of new niche topical expertise.)
  • The purpose of the broad-based core curriculum – and the reason for including “new media” skills and concepts into those course is to give journalism students the vocabulary and news judgment they need to collaborate with specialists.
  • Finally, as Russial pointed out in his presentation, the adoption of newsroom technology has tended to follow a pattern. First, technology leads to automation. Journalists whose careers are built around their expertise in quickly and accurately performing a rote task and not around thinking creatively and critically will lose their jobs. But then, technology leads to specialization. As new tools become available not everyone can be equally skilled at each one.

Dealing with the unresolved debate over convergence or specialization was one of the biggest challenges of writing my textbook. I dealt with it in a way that supports the solution I’ve begun to outline here: we need both. How’s that for convergence?

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1 thought on “Convergence in the Classroom, Metamorphosis in the Newsroom”

  1. I agree about the headline. To me it reflects the problem I’ve been trying to get at, that is, everything now seems to be based on an assumption that “convergence” (however a person defines it) is inevitable, if not already in place. I think both you and I have found
    that role convergence is not already “in place.” I don’t think wholesale
    role convergence will ever be in place. Some specialization remains valuable if we care about efficient, effective and high-quality storytelling. I know others disagree, but to me they’re often making a technological determinist argument when there are other things to consider–business models, consumer acceptance, abilities and interests. Everybody isn’t cut from the same cloth, and it’s not a bad thing.

    There clearly is role convergence in online staffing, and there’s some in reporting and some in photo. I think more will happen in copy editing. I’ve been teaching copy editors to do some HTML and Web design for 10 years–I think those are valuable complementary skills for
    copy editors. I think you’re right that role convergence is more likely at small organizations, but this is nothing new. Staffers have always worn multiple hats at small organizations. Even at a mid-size paper decades ago, I wrote, edited, designed, shot, developed and printed photos, even though my real job was copy editor and computer systems manager. What I’ve also seen, though, is that even at small papers, hiring editors seem to be much more interested in depth of skill than breadth.

    I’ve never opposed the idea of introducing students to a range of cross-platform skills. I’ve done it myself for the last 10 years in an upper division elective course. I don’t think it’s a god idea to focus heavily on cross-platform skills early if it comes at the expense of focus in a
    broad area, say print or video. I happen to think that a better way to develop a good understanding of different types of media work is to do it later, not earlier, in J students’ education–once students have a better grounding in whatever area(s) they’d like to spend most of their time and energy in. Some schools have created capstone-type courses that bring together electronic media and print students, who work in teams and learn from one another. To me, this mirrors what the general business community has found in forming
    effective teams–it’s about finding ways to blend people with complementary skills. It’s also one of the key points I took away from the multimedia storytelling workshop I attended at Berkeley several years ago–this is a good way to do good journalism. To me that’s what it’s
    about. I think students choose journalism because they want to do some good by doing something well.

    So, what I was trying to say is that photographers are definitely also shooting video (the ’09
    survey and a similar one in ’07 show this pretty clearly), but there isn’t a lot of video being done on staff at newspapers. Regardless, any student interested in photojournalism who isn’t also working with video is making a mistake, in my opinion. Reporters and others (editors, photographers, some copy editors and designers are blogging. The surveys show this as well. I
    think copy editors are being underutilized in online work–not that they’re underworked. Some papers are restructuring their staffs to get copy editors more involved in online.

    So THERE IS CONVERGENCE–but it’s not across-the-board role convergence.

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