Media Convergence and the Implications for Audiences, Institutions, and Journalism Education

  The term "convergence" is often used to describe the synergies between technology, media, and information that are changing societies worldwide. The word is used in conjunction with journalism and media to help us understand how the Internet and broadband wireless devices have shifted control from the source to the receiver. This means that the power to decide what is seen, read, or heard is increasingly in the hands of the consumer.

  Today all serious news organizations have a Web presence and a "Web-first" strategy. Although live broadcasts are still preferred for major events, it is becoming more common for stories to first appear on the Web site, then repurposed for either broadcast or print. As audience media use changes, so also the economics are morphing into something different from past generations. Traditional media now compete with blogs and YouTube with mixed results (State of the media, 2007). The blogosphere, social networking sites, and citizen journalism sites also provide news and information on demand. But serious news organizations handicap themselves by insisting first that the information is accurate. So far this has been difficult to quantify for advertisers.

Convergent Audiences
  For many years "journalism" has been synonymous with newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. Academic programs positioned themselves to train students to work as reporters, editors, photographers, and presenters (in the U.S., called "anchors"). For generations, we considered these skills and practices as uniquely our own.

  But now, media education has become ubiquitous, and there seems no limit to how young a child can be to get on-air experience (Kohlenberg, 2003). Teenagers with little training routinely produce podcasts or video blogs in their bedrooms and upload them to YouTube, Facebook, or the latest, coolest social networking site. Their friends and acquaintances watch at home or on their broadband cellular telephones.

  In the 1990s, many scholars trumpeted "content is king!" yet few anticipated the coming of YouTube. Whether it掇 idle doodling, juvenile poetry or the serendipitous recording of a cat striking piano keys, all can be considered "content" and even "news" for hundreds of thousands of Web users.

  There are a number of issues that must be addressed for media to re-assert itself amid the shifts and changes in society. To frame the modern media landscape, it may be useful to consider the factors of Choice, Competition, Cooperation, and Collision.

a. Choice.
  Like it or not, almost anyone with a bit of training can now create attractive, informative, and entertaining content. Whether it's a film, a blog, a viral, parody, rant, commentary, or interview ?all can be produced and posted online. People now have alternatives to TV, radio, and newspaper. Content is not king, but rather a legislature. Media have several votes but can always be overruled.

b. Competition for Advertising and Audiences.
  If there's a stable audience of sufficient size, anyone can now get a slice of the advertising pie. The Drudge Report, Flickr, and Rocketboom are three case studies of ordinary non-media web sites that became Internet brands (Wilkinson, McClung, and Sherring, forthcoming). These sites arguably compete with traditional media because they attract advertising and audiences for particular types of news and/or content.

c. Cooperation.
  The work of those who create new forms of content (including news and information) can be harvested and/or licensed to mass media for their own use. For example, it is increasingly common for newspaper web sites to feature photo galleries where local amateur photographers can post their work and visitors can even purchase them.

d. Collisions with non-Media Fields.
  Competition comes not only from the audience, but also from what might be described as ”traditional non-media fields." Law firms create documentaries and multimedia presentations, government relations people provide expertly crafted news reports and information services, as do hospitals and medical firms (Wilkinson, forthcoming). These reports are professionally written and produced to look exactly like what we expect in a standard "news report." By creating content with entertainment and information value, using digital technologies and delivery systems, we have entered a period of social and economic Darwinism, a survival of the fittest.

The Multiskilled Journalist
  Therefore, convergence forces us to reconsider the most basic question of all: What is a journalist? Generally, educators might suggest that journalists are a particular kind of content creator. Journalists are experts in gathering and presenting information for the public good. They are experts in message creation strategies including the use of language, story structure, and organization. Journalists can see through puffery and jargon and able to weave statistics, personal observations, and the experiences of others to create dramatic and interesting accounts that can deeply impact others.

  Modern journalism education trains students to be expert storytellers across all platforms ?print, electronic, and Internet (Wilkinson, Grant, Fisher, 2008). Journalists should know the visual aesthetics of message design. For print, this includes use of color, framing, white space, fonts, spacing, and symbols. For video, taught principles include things like continuity, framing, lighting, editing, and pacing.

  Students trained in journalism and mass communication should also be excellent public speakers and comfortable in "the public eye". Specific skills include knowing how to dress, how to act, how to gesture, and how to speak in front of groups or a camera.

  Finally, media professionals should be expert at asking questions that do not insult or anger people. They should be personable and intuitive, knowing principles of psychology and interpersonal communication to be able to interpret nonverbal communication (such as when a person is unwilling or unable to speak about a matter). And they should be knowledgeable about laws and ethics regarding libel, privacy, access, and other relevant areas of press freedom.

Implications for the Future
  Media practitioners must anticipate that audiences now inevitably search for content that is fresh, new, and exciting. Companies that choose to ignore this trend may be bypassed for not taking advantage of the new "worldwide marketplace of ideas". Each site that successfully transitions from amateur to commercial status competes for audiences and types of revenue. Media companies must establish protocols for using and being used by independent content creators who constitute part of the converged audience.

  For the content creators who are under their employ, this means greater freedom and less control. Encouraging employees to launch their own Web businesses could result in rewards based on the goodwill generated. In other words, media companies can choose to compete or co-opt with these new types of content creators, but cooperating offers the best likelihood of mutual success.

  A number of ethical considerations must be addressed. Contractual and licensing issues will continue to be significant because content that is now freely given may take on value at a later stage. Since anything appearing on the Internet constitutes publication, reprinting or re-broadcasting this content brings the potential for royalty claims and copyright infringement. As individuals create content for media organizations as well as themselves and their own private Web sites, this issue will become more significant.

Future of Journalism and Media?
  For journalism and mass communication to regain stability as a profession, craft, or vocation, some setting of standards may be needed. It is vital that citizen journalism, the blogosphere, and traditional media and journalism programs come together to sort this issue out. But there is widespread disagreement and battle lines have already been drawn. Calls for standards by the industry are typically seen as mere attempts at control. A December, 2007 op-ed piece in the New York Times by several Deans of noted Journalism programs expressed concerns "opinion journalism" and the need for standards in the new media environment. But responses by bloggers likened the call to that of the control tactics used by religious cults (Borriss, 2007).

  Therefore, journalism scholars and practitioners might try re-inventing themselves in the broadest terms professionally, and aggressively move into all the areas mentioned above. It would be helpful for us to distinguish between journalism process (unique) and multimedia skills (common), even as the two have become intertwined in daily practice. Over time it is hoped that protocols, practices, and standards will emerge, and the compelling information we create is effective and popular. After all, journalists should be best able to consistently tailor content for each platform. In this manner journalists can remain relevant, viable, and important in the age of media convergence.

  Both individually and as a group, journalists must determine how to succeed when their primary product -the "news story" - competes with similar-looking messages from other fields. Journalists may increasingly experiment with new forms of storytelling (as they are), injecting principles of entertainment to boost the informational aspects. Until the economics of journalism stabilize, the value of a multiskilled journalist may remain in flux.

  It is past time for journalism and media educators to expand our scope beyond feeding entry-level workers to newspapers and broadcast companies. Those of us who teach the skills of content creation can take comfort in what is happening at the macro-level. We have helped to impart reporting and multimedia skills to untold numbers of young people who in turn are transforming every sector of every society around the world. As we have so often said to our students, our ultimate goal is to bring free and open debate to society. Through convergent journalism skills and media technology, that goal may now be realized globally.

■ Jeffrey S. Wilkinson
Associate Dean, Division of Humanities & Social Sciences
Professor & Coordinator, International Journalism,
BNU-HKBU United International College, Zhuhai, China

Boriss, S. (2007, December 23). New group forms: “J-School Deans Against a Free Press.” The Future of News: A vision of the future + commentary on developments.
Retrieved December 28, 2007 from

Kohlenberg, L. (2003, Winter). Practicing Journalism in Elementary Classrooms: ‘Could eight-, nine- and 10-year-olds, who had trouble sitting still for more than 10 minutes at a time, develop the skills to become reports?’ Nieman Reports.
Retrieved February 2, 2008, from

The State of the News Media: An Annual report on American Journalism. (2007).
Retrieved December 17, 2007 from

Wilkinson, J.S., Grant, A.E., and Fisher, D.J. (2008). Principles of Convergent Journalism.
Oxford University Press.

Wilkinson, J.S., McClung, S.R., and Sherring, V.A. (Forthcoming). The converged audience: Receiver-senders and content creators. In A.Grant and J.Wilkinson (eds) Understanding media convergence: The state of the field.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilkinson, J.S. (Forthcoming). Converging Communication, Colliding Cultures: Shifting
Boundaries and the Meaning of “Our Field.” In A.Grant and J.Wilkinson (eds) Understanding media convergence: The state of the field.
New York: Oxford University Press.
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