What’s in a name? When it comes to “convergence,” quite a bit.

Convergence (n.) is the act of bringing two things into contact. An informative discussion by Professor Rob Fuentes.

By Robert Muilenburg

The idea of media convergence and how it’s affected our work, teaching and research, has been discussed for many years now. It’s not a buzzword or trend, but a paradigm shift in information processing and delivery, with far-reaching and permanent results.

Ok, my students say when I discuss convergence like this. What do you want us to do?

Good question.

Like most journalism educators, no doubt, one of the things I hear the most from working reporters and editors at all sorts of publications and communication outfits, is that they want their students and interns to be “convergent journalists.” They want them to come out of our programs and classrooms understanding what it means to write, edit and otherwise communicate, in a convergent workflow.

Naturally, our students want to be able to do this, too. They want to acquire and hone real-world convergence skills at our newspapers and programs. Without this, they’re at a serious disadvantage, because most if not every newspaper, magazine, or blog that I’ve spoken to or otherwise been informed of, wants writers and reporters who can write and “do something else.”

How do we teach and mentor our students to understand and apply the lessons and practices of convergence, to work as “convergent journalists,” when the term and its application, refers to so many different things?

“Media convergence” can refer to the use of different delivery methods by the same information provider, to package and deliver news. This is probably the way we most typically understand it. Used like this, the term means delivering news in different ways, to different platforms. It’s multimedia—but this term by itself doesn’t really describe the underlying processes, techniques, and training needed, to be able to produce convergent copy.

“Media convergence” can also be used to describe the consolidation of the business side of the information industry. That sounds useful, too. But is it helpful to explain in detail that media convergence is when Rupert Murdoch enters into negotiations with the Bancroft family to buy the Wall Street Journal on the condition that he not destroy its reputation? Possibly. But it may not help our students write and shoot the story about the freak October blizzard that closed our campus.

What is it exactly, to use their words, that we want our students to do? What is “convergence,” for them?

Since we’re working and teaching journalists, it’s important to have an answer for our students that is both comprehensive and practical. The definition I start with is one that explains journalism as it is today, and pretty much always has been: Convergence (n.) is the act of bringing two things into contact (especially for communication).

Granted, this is a general definition. It doesn’t explain or address all the possible technologies and techniques that can be used to communicate information. Nor does it adequately capture the trend. What single word can anymore? What works about this definition is that it captures the whole purpose of what we do: we bring people into contact.

Of course, the real work of convergence, like the real work of journalism, comes in applying, training, using, and rethinking the many different ways we can communicate a story. But at its heart, the whole point of it is to communicate a story. This is what journalism is all about.

So, given the varieties of news and news traditions, not to mention the almost-exponential growth in information, the categories of information, and the methods of delivery, an important step in training and mentoring students in convergence is developing a “site specific” model of convergence. This approach is what we have always done as journalists: we apply the general lessons and training we honed in our own apprenticeships and careers, in ways that address local traditions, needs and practices.

Because there are so many ways “to do convergence,” the convergence question is equal parts, “What’s convergence?” and “How can we do it here?”

Some news organizations, for instance, like to do periodic video news updates throughout the day. What applications, software and hardware, do they use to do this? What kind of training and apprenticing do they provide? Do the video and writing teams sit by side? Or are they the same person? Are different teams on different parts of campus?

Others, to use another example, focus less on video and audio, and more on print, with some emphasis on Facebook and Twitter. Where does the news get out first, and how often? What applications do we use to get the word out? To how many social networks? Are there dedicated social media teams, or does each section and editor, do their own? Are the editors working outside the office? If so, where? How? On their own, on traveling teams?

Obviously, there are many ways to structure all of this, so it’s important to ask the right questions. The important things are to know what the readers need and want, to know what your available resources are, and to accurately gauge student interests and skills. All these must “converge” for convergence to work right.

My former AP Bureau Chief, Mike Hendricks, gave me some words to work by. “Write fast. Write right. Get the word out.” The convergent impulse, with information collapsing into different delivery streams, hasn’t changed this advice much, if at all. It sure has given us alot of new tools, though. There’s more information and more ways to deliver it, than ever before.

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