The Lessons of Convergence: Journalist’s Perspective

In the latest issue (Aug 07) of what has been my favourite newsletter for years, The Convergence Newsletter,  the executive editor of the publication Augie Grant has an article about the lessons he learnt from the convergence research he’s been doing.  Grant and colleagues have been working on two forthcoming books, Principles of Convergent Journalism and Understanding Media Convergence. The books are a collection of important information about the theory and practice of convergent journalism. Here is what Grant had to say about the lessons learn’t during the research:

Lesson #1: Avoid “convergence.”
Almost every piece of research that we studied in preparing these books detailed a specific definition of the term, “convergence,” but few of these definitions were the same. As with other generic terms such as “love” and “broadband,” the word “convergence” is used to convey meaning specific to the user, but these individual definitions may not correspond to those in the minds of readers. The solution we used was simple: Whenever possible, we attempted to replace the generic term “convergence” with a more specific, descriptive term, such as “crossownership,” “collaboration,” “multiplatform journalism,” “multimedia journalism,” etc. So, you might ask, why use the term “convergence” in the title of both books? As nebulous as it is, “Convergence” is a useful term to represent the wide range of ideas and behaviors that are changing newsrooms and the practice of journalism. Administrators know that they need “convergence” in their programs (even if they can’t define it), and send faculty to the Newsplex convergence training and to the annual conferences so that they can bring “it” back to their campuses. The term therefore remains useful as a catch-all. Consider, for example, the wide range of research described above for USC’s “Convergence and Society” conference in October, with sessions ranging from popular culture and regulatory issues to theory and the practice of convergent journalism.

The term “convergence” is appropriate term to identify this global set of processes and concerns, but it should probably not be used to identify a specific process in journalism or variable in research. I shudder every time I see a research project that directly asks whether someone is practicing “convergence”—the answer is invariably “yes,” but it is also invariably uninformative.

I totally agree and have been saying this for a couple of years now. ‘Convergence’ and ‘cross-media’ and to a lesser degree ‘multi-platform’ are terms that are employed in a wildly ranging manner. I was horrified when I first saw the programme for ‘Cross-Media Week’ last year. But now, after touring around Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, I’m now aware of the misunderstanding. ‘Cross-Media’ is employed to describe just about any contemporary approach to entertainment. I think the organisers figured out the problem because they quickly renamed the event Picnic (which, I’m sure all my readers are aware of by now — the next one looks like a cracker!).

But back to the issue of polysemous terms. I often wonder why terms get out of control (as if they ever were). It seems that people employ the terms in a way other than how they are intended because they are not aware of another option (limits of awareness) and because of the need to be appealing (fear of not mattering to anyone). On the latter, the same problem has happened with ‘alternate reality games’ (ARGs). Many apply the term to a wide range of activities because they either don’t understand the unique characteristics of ARGs or if they employ it to ensure they gain attention from others. Everyone loves the flavour of the month. Who wants to know about a project that although it is well-designed is nevertheless a development of that which has already been? The fetish for the new. 

What do I do about the range of terms? I use different ones according to the audience I’m speaking to; spend alot of time trying to figure out what they mean when they use particular terms and try and educate people about the wider semantic d

Lesson #2: The Audience is Converged
Over the past seven years, the majority of research on convergent journalism processes and practices has focused on news production processes. But, over the past two years, the proportion of research devoted to the audience is increasing. Studies such as Ball State’s “Middletown Media Studies” have provided insight into patterns of consumer behavior across media. In my opinion, the most significant findings in these studies are the reports of simultaneous media use. One implication is that consumers aren’t as selective about which medium they choose as they are about content they choose to consume. One important impetus for multiplatform journalism and multimedia journalism is the fact that most consumers are significantly “converged” in their use of media, and journalists face the interesting challenge of playing catch-up with the public.

The increasing popularity of user-generated content is another dimension of the degree to which the audience may be considered to be “converged.” Increased attention to the role that a person’s media repertoire plays in how they glean information from the media is needed in both research and teaching.

Oh yeah, readers of this blog and perhaps more so people who attend my lectures are well aware of my rants about simultaneous media usage. Here are some posts where I’ve provided info on some of the research in the area: here, here and here. Research into SIMM helps content creators understand how people are using more than one media, when and which they are using for what; but it also signposts the future of cross/trans/multi-platform entertainment: where media will be employed in concert to create combined effects.

Lesson #3: Inertia is a Powerful Force – And Impediment
An examination of research on the wide range of processes described in the teaching and practice of convergent journalism indicates that changing behaviors, culture, and attitudes toward “other” media is a difficult process that is impeded by the inertia of existing systems. Faculty who have only taught (or have experience) in one medium (print or broadcast) are even more resistant to acquiring skills in “competing” media than journalists themselves. The irony is that the research also demonstrates that, once initial resistance is overcome, there is usually little problem integrating techniques specific to another medium within a reporter’s basic skill set of interviewing, writing, and editing.

Inertia is an impediment outside the newsroom as well. U.S. media are among the least converged in the world, for example, because U.S. media regulation maintains a substantial barrier between newspapers and television stations. Inertia is equally strong for the consumers discussed above, as any new medium or media outlet must overcome the inertia of habitual media consumption patterns in order to find a place in the consumer media repertoire. The lesson is that the inertia of existing practices is an important variable to consider whenever a change is contemplated at any level of convergence, through teaching, practice, regulation, and consumer behavior.

Well said! Inertia is a great way to describe the cognitive and workplace environments that function oblivious to the primal call of convergence. Indeed, I’ve found over the years that it really takes a few sessions with people before they ‘crossover’…have that epiphany moment when they suddenly understand it. But once they have that conversion moment the become proactive about learning more and creating for themselves. I like what Grant implies therefore: that interventionist activities are needed to ensure people and environments become integrationists.

Lesson #4: Start with a Strong Foundation
One characteristic that successful programs in converged journalism have in common is a focus on the basics:
Interviewing, writing, editing, verification, ethics, etc. Regardless of the type of convergence, these basic skills remain at the heart of the practice of journalism. The time and effort needed to teach medium-specific skills to a student studying multiplatform journalism is significant, but it much less important than the time, effort, and practice at these journalism basics.

Great! There is definitely a lack of these areas in the entertainment industry. Most industry events are big picture introductions with stats and menu-driven outlines of other people’s projects. What the industry is in dire need of is sharing of good integration design techniques. The problem is, many of the ones that really know their stuff don’t want to share  because that knowledge gives them a competitive edge. The other problem is there are many people who don’t think they need to understand the core mindsets that accompany integration design, they just want to mimic what is successful and hope for the best. I’m hoping my podcast will help provide some much needed discussion in the area of technique.

But I think I may of misinterpreted Grant’s point. I think he was saying that convergent journalism courses need to make sure they teach journalism as well as convergence. I see. But of course, journalism changes too in the convergent paradigm. Writing for convergence/cross-media/transmedia etc is a skill in itself…

These top-of-mind lessons are not comprehensive, but rather reflect ideas that are forefront in my thoughts after spending the past few years engulfed in the study of convergent journalism. My guess is that I’ll have a different list a year from now; one that will be influenced by new research and by the maturation of the set of phenomena we refer to when we use the term “convergence.”

I agree. This area has changed so much in the last two years in particular. It has reached a point of maturity in the sense that there is a pervasive awareness and ubiquitious practice. What people are finding though, is that it isn’t as easy and as wonderful as they thought it would be. With more and more people becoming versed in this area, I’m sure we’ll see some amazing projects emerge…mature ones. I’m very excited about the future of this area!

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