Convergence. Multimedia. Web reporting.
These are the new buzzwords heard in newsrooms everywhere. Heard, but not always well understood. And what these words imply about change can seem overwhelming to the traditional broadcast journalist whose reporting focus and style had remained pretty much the same during the past decade. What has changed for us is the expectation that we will be able to cover more stories within the same deadline constraints. Now, in the multimedia news environment that has arrived in Tampa, Florida, these expectations are exacerbated as journalists are forced to master and put into practice time-consuming new skills. The real concern is that while we are busy expanding the quantity of our reporting, its quality might suffer.
Recently I reported on a federal murder trial that took me from Florida to Texas for the conclusion of a case I had followed for three years. What made this assignment different from any I’d done before was that in this era of “media convergence” I was expected to not only do my television reports, but also write for The Tampa Tribune and the paper’s Web site. I’d spent plenty of time gathering background reporting for this story, so I thought preparing for live shots, writing at least two television stories a day, a newspaper article and a daily online journal just might be possible, if I was ready to go without sleep! What kept me motivated was the knowledge that this kind of multimedia reporting had never been done before at our station, and I wanted to accept the challenge.
My coverage of the month-long murder trial ritual started each morning at six. That was when I wrote a daily Web journal describing my perspective on the courtroom drama from the day before. By 10 that morning I had done my first live shot for the station. The juggling act that came with meeting three deadlines during the same 24-hour period meant that I had to establish a pecking order early and stick to it. Broadcast obligations were always my top priority, so Channel 8’s deadlines came first and received my greatest attention. I focused first on my five and usually six o’clock live shots. My second priority was The Tampa Tribune. Calls to the newspaper editor began by mid-afternoon and usually by seven o’clock, just after I finished with the six p.m. news, I filed a story from my laptop computer. But it didn’t end there. I worked with an editor/mentor for at least another hour making the Tribune article work for the paper. Finally, around nine o’clock at night, I finished my day with a quick call to the Channel 8 evening producer to file a quick story for the 11 p.m. news. At this point I bordered on brain meltdown!
Trained as a broadcast journalist, the greatest challenge for me was writing for print. Several times a day hundreds of thousands of people watched my reports on TV but I felt real fear when I thought about writing for Tribune readers. Federal courthouses don’t allow cameras inside the courtroom so I could not rely on dramatic pictures to tell the story, which left me to do the descriptions.
I had to approach the story a little differently from the moment I took my seat in the courtroom. I wrote down every facial expression, described in detail who came in, who went out, what they wore, how the jurors reacted, how often the defendant scribbled notes to his attorneys, and when he smiled at his wife. The judge, who was prone to making jokes, became an element in my newspaper story. Details that often died under television time constraints, buried behind background information, came to life in print. And these usually hidden pieces of color did eventually cross over into television and improved my broadcast stories, making them stand out in the way that a well-written sentence pulls a reader in. Other print journalists covering the trial patiently answered my nearly student-like questions. For example, I would ask some of them how often they went into detail explaining the legal maneuvers of the day as opposed to just focusing on the people involved in the story. Each morning I went online to compare their lead with mine.
In time, I came to appreciate this opportunity to explore this new territory called convergence.
When people hear about this assignment, a lot of them want to know how I got paid for this extra work that I did. My answer: I didn’t. I didn’t receive separate compensation from the paper or from the online work. My supervisors did give me some extra time off. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that as this new effort at convergence evolves, management must also evolve. Sharing resources may mean pooling budgets. The same goes for reporters. They need to prepare to do more and expect to start doing so tomorrow. But they should also remember to hold those higher up to the same standards. If management intends to rally its news staff to a new level of service, then there has to be more motivation than just a pat on the back.
The only way to provide this type of product is with hands-on support from management. My assistant news director, Deb Halpern, was ready with feedback and guidance on a moment’s notice. Critical help came from Tampa Tribune Editor Martha Durrance, who gently walked me through the rules of a newspaper, occasionally making room for a little broadcast wisdom.
This experience made me a better journalist. My TV stories on the murder-for-hire trial didn’t receive Emmy award-winning attention. But solid, often entertaining information reached people across three forms of media, providing different stories on each. In time, as the different media become comfortable with one another, creativity won’t have to make way for comprehensive coverage. Right now, I believe that reporting on a story for broadcast, print and online means less time to approach a story from different angles and still meet staggered deadlines. Convergence might mean that the old rules governing television and newspaper reporting will need to be altered as journalists construct this new media. And editors, news directors, reporters and photojournalists—working together—can become parents of innovative forms of newsgathering and transmission.
Across the board, from top to bottom, multimedia convergence poses an inspiring challenge. The walls separating newsrooms of differing media have come crashing down, and we are left staring at one another with questions that we can only find the answers to by working together.
Jackie Barron is a reporter at Channel 8, WFLA-TV in Tampa, Florida. Her beat is Sarasota and Manatee counties with an emphasis on crime/courts and education. She worked at WWSB, the ABC affiliate in Sarasota, and prior to that at WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Maryland.