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A Multimedia Manifesto

A visit with Mike McKean, Chair, Convergence Journalism

By Sean Powers
Published: - Topics: convergence journalism journalism multimedia technology television

The segmented boundaries between radio, television, and newspaper that have long been associated with journalism are beginning to blur. The Edward R. Murrows of today are giving “more” by converging yesterday’s journalism with tomorrow’s technology. At the MU School of Journalism, more and more students are taking the opportunity to become more than just print journalists or broadcast reporters; they are classified as a new breed known as “convergence journalists.”

Mike McKean, a 21-year veteran at the MU School of Journalism, chairs the recently created Convergence Journalism sequence. With his background in radio and the web, along with his convergence colleagues’ backgrounds in print, photo, and television, their collective experiences and innovative visions with technology provide an interesting framework for the new program. “We started our program after a lot of investigation into the best ways to teach digital media skills to our students,” McKean recounts. “We looked at what some other programs tried and failed to do, looked at some of the strengths of the MU Journalism School, and created this program.” That was just two-and-a-half years ago, and the sequence’s enrollment has doubled since then. In fact, the growing popularity of convergence has forced faculty to turn down many qualified students who apply for the sequence. “I think students coming to us now don’t want to be shackled by one way of telling stories,” McKean explains. “In a sense, convergence journalism is this boutique sequence, a relatively small one at the moment, but all journalism students are going to have to be trained to compellingly tell a story across whatever medium is available to them.”

McKean says the convergence sequence is trying to accommodate the growing interest by hiring more staff, and eventually moving into the new Reynolds Journalism Institute next academic year. Still, he realizes that expanding the sequence will never completely satisfy the demand: “I hope by the time the new institute opens up we will have a rapidly expanding curriculum that allows many more students—whether they are in convergence or in the traditional broadcast, print, and photojournalism sequences—to be able to do more convergence work.”

The first convergence course, called Fundamentals of Radio, TV, and Journalism, offers a little bit of knowledge about video production, audio production, photography, and web production. The syllabus provides a glimpse of what the rest of the sequence will be like and gives students a chance to decide if convergence is right for them. The next course covers convergence reporting, where each week students are required to complete stories, either individually or in teams, for KOMU-TV, KBIA-FM, and the Columbia Missourian. McKean sees teamwork as the foundation of the program. “Nobody can do everything equally well, and nobody can go out on any given story, do everything, and come back with a really compelling story,” he says. “They should be able to do it as a group and understand the best ways to reach an audience using all the different tools at their disposal.”

After students finish the reporting class, they learn to become editors and mentors for the reporting students by helping them edit copy, audio, video, and web content. “They’re the first line of defense in terms of helping to develop story ideas, helping the reporting teams overcome any hurdles they are having with developing the concept for their story,” explains McKean.

The final class in the convergence sequence is the capstone. In groups, students are asked to develop a new product or service for one of the local media or to engage in a major storytelling project—such as the design for an election guide or a blog for the True/False Film Festival. “They not only produce long-form journalism for multiple media,” McKean notes, “but they research the effect of the projects on the audience.”

The skills of convergence journalism prepare students to think as reporters, producers, and editors, but also enable them to explore cross-boundary storytelling. For example, a convergence student working at a television station may accompany a reporter to produce a web-only slideshow with still images that provide another dimension for a story. “We are finding that with convergence, with all these different tools that are available to different newsrooms, you have to analyze each individual story and determine which media pieces tell that story most compellingly,” explains McKean.

The web-only content is not only innovative in technique, but is understood as a new way for the audience to connect with the story. “The audience, which was seen as passive in the past, is now much more active,” McKean reports. “Successful journalists—whether they go through our convergence program or not—need to realize that they have to interact much more closely with the audience and not just assume that they are passive receptacles for the content we create.”

Even though convergence focuses closely on technology, convergence students are not expected to become super-geeks, explains McKean: “I think by a sort of natural selection, a lot of our students do have better than average technical skills, but almost any student coming to a university these days has some digital media exposure from high school or even earlier. We really expect them to have a mind-set in working across whatever medium it takes to tell the story as effectively as they can.”

The convergence sequence has garnered a lot of national support, and McKean now is branching outside the United States to help other universities develop their own convergence curricula. In recent years, he has traveled to universities in China (Shantou) and Russia (Moscow State), countries where the political environment creates barriers to the free flow of information. “We’ve helped them establish a convergence lab, and they are teaching their students some of the practices that we are teaching here,” he says. Here in the U.S., other barriers prevent citizen journalists from being part of the news process: “The technical skills are there. The political system is such that there are no impediments. So, it is more of a business practice, journalism mind-set, or professional mentality that has held back citizen journalism.”

To pave the way for citizen journalists, Clyde Bentley and several print, broadcast, and convergence students created MyMissourian, an online forum for members of the community to report the news. “Citizens are the main creators of this information and we think that is a great model for other journalists to follow,” McKean comments.

The first groups of students who have graduated from the School of Journalism in the last year have found jobs all across the media map. Graduates of the convergence sequence are working in large and small markets as writers, television newscast producers, web managers, and sports editors. McKean believes that as media look online for their survival, there will continue to be a hunger for journalists with a web-first mentality.