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July 10, 2006

Convergence in Journalism

My previous post about issues of convergence in journalism led to some contemplation of my journalism background that has brought me to the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT.

When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, graduating in Spring 2005, we had a special topics class which brought together a couple of students from all six tracks within the university's School of Journalism and Broadcasting to discuss and demonstrate projects and issues of convergence in journalism.

For those who know anything about journalism and particularly about the organization of J-Schools, it should come as no surprise that the suggestion of starting a class like this sent shock waves throughout the department. Some professors were trenchant, doing everything in their power to hold on to the sanctity of their individual discplines. Others made the claim that convergence shouldn't be happening in a separate course or a certificate program but rather should be incorporated throughout the curriculum--rather, that it already was.

Convergence as a principle was seen as the domain of the uberjournalist, an economic threat by the continuous conglomeration of the mass media to force fewer and fewer reporters to do more and more things by developing the ability to write a story for publication, post extra content online, do a radio broadcast about it, speak on television about it, carry a camera with them, etc...basically, it would eliminate the need for individual professions.

While the department was in turmoil at times trying to discuss this and ill feelings sometimes popped up, it was exactly the kind of discussion that journalism professors--and especially students need to be having--considering these are real issues. Convergence is just a buzzword, somewhat meaningless, as buzzwords tend to be, other than providing a lightning rod for discussion. But the issues that surrounded this word provoked important discussions and fears.

The fears were primarily among students finishing their training in a particular discipline, that their training would make them unqualified in a few years because they were specifically print journalists and hadn't honed their skills in other news delivery forms. Faculty fears ranged from having to work with other tracks which were viewed as inferior, being forced to dramatically alter content and, most of all, a fear that trying to create students who would be jacks-of-all-trades would make them masters of none.

And these are all legitimate fears about a very real market out there. I found the actual projects that we did to be much less valuable than just having this debate as a department, a debate I imagine still wages on at the bottom of the Hill back at WKU. But I think that previous discussions here about transmedia issues in journalism begin to get at the heart of what was trying to be expressed in our discussions about convergence--that the crux of the argument is that each medium should deliver what it is best at and that journalists in various mediums should work together--CONVERGE--to create a better news product. The truth is that, when journalists do this, it probably requires MORE people working, not fewer, to be done well.

The problem is simply that convergence, as a buzzword, is too broad. As the word is sometimes legitimately used to mean the jack-of-all-trades journalists that would look awfully good on a spreadsheet of human resources expenses, I understand why so many professors were intractable in their opposition to even discussing convergence as a department. On the other hand, as I've written about before, the best thing that could happen to academia is breaking a few of those barriers that artificially divide disciplines and people--and this extends to the journalism world as well.

Convergence culture, in the larger sense that we study, isn't about watering down content but rather expanding it. And, for journalism, convergence done well leads to a better informed public and a news world where each medium is used to its full potential. The trouble is that many things done in the name of convergence are, in reality, against the very principles of what we are calling convergence culture. And, until the society adopts a more sophisticated language to discuss these issues, debates like the one we had at WKU are going to continue.

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