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.”
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
Recently in the United States the majority of citizens have come to reside at the extremes of either the political right or the left. “Most people either love George Bush or hate George Bush,” Professor Wayne Wanta explains, with few people falling in the middle. Wanta carefully recounts his recent research concerning such polarization of attitudes, especially in terms of how the media contribute to this phenomenon. Initially he suspected that the internet (now about ten years old) was the primary factor affecting this polarization, that perhaps people were going online to get information that reinforces their already existing beliefs, resulting in those beliefs becoming more extreme.
For many newsrooms, convergence is still a new idea being tinkered with on a daily basis. “They are increasingly realizing the need to have reporters with a convergence mindset. That is just a practical survival instinct,” McKean says. “But it is still difficult to try to do all of those things, and do them well, in an environment."
McKean says a journalist who can tell a story in multiple media bridges the gap between the audience and the reporter. “They have to interact much more closely with the audience and not just assume that they are passive receptacles for the content that we create,” McKean explains. “There are multiple correct ways to tell the story depending on the story itself and the content that is available to tell it.”
McKean says because of the current technological age, many young journalists have grown up with multimedia platforms (such as facebook, cell phones, and blogs), and there is an unconstrained desire to implement many of those media with the news. “I think students that are coming to us now do not want to be shackled by one way of telling stories, ” McKean says.
McKean talks about his background in journalism and what inevitably brought him to become chair of the newly created convergence sequence at the Missouri School of Journalism.
McKean describes the process of starting the convergence sequence, and what needs to be done to expand the program.
McKean explains how the new journalism sequence was created in 2005. He says convergence teaches the “best ways to teach digital media skills to our students.” After looking at the strengths and failures of other journalism sequences (for example, magazine, photojournalism, news editorial, and broadcast), McKean and his colleagues were able to construct a curriculum that would introduce all sorts of media skills and apply those to reporting, editing, and producing.
In recent years, McKean has helped universities in other countries start their own journalism sequences. He says the experience has opened his eyes up to the barriers to journalism in other countries and what other institutions must do to clearly report news and information.
McKean explains the concept of the backpack journalist, an all-in-one journalist who can do anything without the help of others. “The backpack journalist idea is one notion of how convergence works;” however, he proclaims, “nobody can do everything equally well, and nobody can go out on any given story and do everything and come back with a really compelling story.” A major part of the convergence sequence is to prepare students to be able to work in many different mediums of storytelling, but also to understand the importance of teamwork.
Unlike students in other sequences at the Missouri School of Journalism, convergence students work for media outlets across the country, including CurrentTV, MSNBC, and ESPN.
The convergence sequence is broken down into classes, each introducing essential skills for a convergence journalist. The classes range from a basic fundamentals course introducing convergence to reporting, editing, and a capstone.
Asked to recommend films from this era “where you have journalists exhibiting all the characteristics of gangsters,” the first two films West mentions are The Picture Snatcher (1933) and Blessed Event (1932), which were produced just as the gangster film genre seemed to be disappearing from the Hollywood screen, owing to the Production Code’s restrictions. But Hollywood—in its need to continue profiting from the gangster’s popularity—found ways to “get around the censors,” explains West. “All of the gangster’s characteristics (his penchant for violence, his street smarts, his flashy style, his witty repartee) are put into the figure of the newspaper reporter,” who rarely works for a legitimate newspaper, West adds, but for a tabloid newspaper—“So, they get to have it both ways!” In the area of noir documentaries, where filmmakers experimented by combining film noir style with a documentary style, West recommends Naked City (1948).
West is currently finishing a book, From Celluloid to Tabloid, in collaboration with Penelope Pelizzon (University of Connecticut), on Hollywood crime films and tabloid journalism from the 1920s through the 1940s. Unlike the tabloids of today, which West decries as “pretty trashy scandal magazines and newspapers…often designed to expose and ruin people’s careers,” the tabloids of the earlier era contain much more liveliness and inventiveness. “Although the cliché is that the tabloids have always been pitched to the uneducated, these early ones from the 1920s are surprisingly literary, replete with metaphorical word play, allusions, wit, and irony.” Tabloid writers often went on to become celebrated novelists and screenwriters for Hollywood. Beyond their literary value, these tabloids also teach us about urban culture and modernity, especially about New York in the 1920s and 1930s. West and Pelizzon refer to these tabloids as “adaptation-ready sites,” because they know how to spin information so quickly from one source.
Thorson highlights a few examples of how the model is being used for newspaper, television, and radio organizations. Working with two newspapers in the South, they are designing a series of phone and Internet surveys to test the wants and needs of audience members in terms of four variables. The results will help them adapt to the changing environment. They have also been working with Minnesota Public Radio to apply the media choice model to a radio medium. In this situation they are figuring out how to make the public radio station “a forum for community discussion about significant issues.” Working with WHO-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, Thorson and Duffy are trying to find a way to drive traffic from broadcast television shows to the station’s website.