The ways in which people acquire news and information have changed far more than most newsrooms. It is a simple truth that explains why news organizations are struggling to match their journalistic values, traditions and strengths with the changing and sometimes fickle tastes of news consumers.
Statistics on news consumption tell the story. Newspaper circulation in the United States is falling at a rate of roughly five percent per year, and viewership of television news is also in decline, while new media outlets and fresh formats for telling the news are growing explosively. Internet penetration in the United States approaches 80 percent, and high-speed broadband accessibility is becoming commonplace.
Who could have imagined that a home video on a Web site that did not exist two years ago could attract more viewers than the most watched programs on network television? Yet the most popular videos posted on YouTube.com do just that. I wonder how many editors, the ones tasked with attracting younger readers and viewers, have ever spent time on the YouTube site? How many have even heard of it? My hunch is not many, for there truly exists a widening disconnect between traditional news organizations and those who consume news and information.
Training in New Techniques
We observe this struggle for relevance—perhaps even survival—from the vantage point of the Ifra Newsplex at the University of South Carolina. Journalists arrive here from countries throughout the world to study and train on next generation techniques for handling the news. It really does not matter what language is being spoken or whether we are working with broadcasters or print journalists. The conversations and concerns are remarkably similar.
The Newsplex philosophy, boiled down to a sentence, is that news organizations will be best served if they focus on stories—not delivery platforms. The focus on production once made sense, but in today’s interwoven media environment, in which consumers track stories throughout the day from a lot of sources, news organizations need to meet these consumers in places and formats that are meaningful and relevant to them.
It sounds so simple. Just focus on stories, which is after all the reason most of us went into journalism. But this reality is far from simple for most news organizations, which are confused about how to respond to the changing patterns of news consumption, especially at a time when budgets are constrained. There are so many questions—and so many priorities that seem to conflict:
- Do I file first for our Web site, or do I hold my story for the next day’s newspaper or evening newscast?
- If the story does go to the Web first, will news consumers pick up the paper the next day or watch my newscast that night?
- When my editor asks me to produce rich, deep content for use on new media platforms, will I do this on top of my usual workload or instead of some of what I already do?
These are, indeed, difficult questions, but answers are starting to become clear. Much has changed in our understanding since Newsplex opened here four years ago. (A parallel facility, Newsplex Europe, opened in September 2005 at Ifra headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany.) Drawing upon our experience with some of the leading media houses in the world, what follows are 10 common concerns, perceptions and myths about convergence, as well as some perspective we’ve gained in addressing them:
Convergence is just a nice way of saying the organization wants to cut costs. The truth is convergence costs money because usually it requires additional staff and more technology. Efficiencies are associated with convergence, but organizations that approach convergence as a way of saving money invariably are disappointed. Convergence needs to be undertaken as a growth strategy, not a cost-cutting measure.
News organizations are full of creative people with great ideas who will figure this out. Sorry, a successful convergence strategy requires a strong vision and commitment from the top. Providing news and information seven days a week, 24 hours each day, across delivery platforms requires a different kind of newsroom structure. Yet it is not in our nature to give up power willingly, no matter how beneficial the change might be. That’s why someone at the highest level of the organization must declare that convergence is important, set priorities, and then provide the resources to make necessary steps happen. However, top-level commitment alone is not enough; grass-roots engagement must be part of this strategy. Creative people with good ideas will play important roles, but their success will be stunted if they are working in silos or duplicating each other’s efforts. That is why fundamental, structural change is so important.
Convergence requires technology, which is difficult and expensive. Not so. In Newsplex, we usually work with cheap and sometimes even free software programs. We select them because they are easy to learn. Excellent programs like Dreamweaver, Flash or Final Cut Pro can be purchased, but the learning curve can be pretty steep for journalists who would prefer to be at their beloved Royal typewriter. If resources exist to acquire the higher-cost software—and train staff to use it—then do so, but if resources are tight, lots of good alternatives exist.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Au contraire! Even reporters who covet their typewriter are capable of generating content to be used in new formats and for different media. Some of our best students are traditional print journalists with little or no multimedia experience. From what we’ve discovered, most newsrooms already have on staff journalists who would enjoy the opportunity to do cross-media work.
Every reporter should be a backpack journalist. The premise certainly is alluring, but in our hearts we all know that not everyone is going to be successful working across formats in different media. Those organizations like the BBC that have tried to go this route have been displeased with the results. The reporter who has the governor’s private phone number and can get a return call in the middle of the night remains just as valuable, regardless of whether he or she is podcasting or doing slide shows. However, if no one on your staff is working across a range of media, an opportunity is being missed. Plus news organizations are stronger when everyone on staff has at least an appreciation for the strengths of different media and formats, even if they don’t work in them.
Print reporters do not have sufficient skills to do TV work. It is true that most print reporters are less than successful when someone thrusts a microphone in front of them and tells them to report for television. But that doesn’t mean print journalists are doomed in a broadcast environment. In Newsplex, we have developed a format that helps print reporters be successful by emphasizing their strengths (knowledge of the story) and de-emphasizing their weaknesses (typically, their on camera performance).
Audio and video are easy. This statement is half true. Audio is relatively easy. It usually takes just a few minutes to transform an inexperienced print journalist into a podcaster. Certainly it takes much longer to do more complicated mixes, but most print journalists pick up the techniques fairly quickly. However, video is much more difficult to learn. Some newspapers are hiring a core group of television or video professionals to produce this content. As broadband access becomes more pervasive, multimedia content, including video, becomes more important. What is exciting to see is that some newspapers are reaching out beyond the traditional one minute and 30 second TV clip to create new story formats that work well on the Internet. I often tell our university students that some of the best TV jobs in the future will be on newspapers.
Posting community-generated content will draw an audience. In 2006, user-generated content has been one of those "flavor of the month" trends. Newspaper editors believe they are connecting with their readers by creating Web sites where they can post pictures and comments. The idea of inviting citizens into the editorial process is a good one, but then dumping their content into a Web site ghetto does not work. The most successful examples of news organizations using community content include professional editing and usually involve the integration of that material with work done by professionals. OhMyNews in Seoul, with more than 40,000 citizen journalists and generally regarded as the world’s most successful community journalism initiative, has a professional staff of 70.
We make most of our money in old media, so a significant commitment to new media just doesn’t yet make sense. It is a given in the world of advertising that money follows eyeballs. As those eyeballs increasingly shift to new media and formats so, too, will revenues. For most U.S. news organizations, the percentage of revenue coming from new media is still relatively small, but trends are clear. In Norway, the news organization VG reports it now makes more money from new media than its traditional newspaper.
Our newsroom staff is already stretched too thin, how can we possibly be asked to do more? No question gets asked more by those in newsrooms dealing with convergence issues than this one. Certainly, there is a lot of truth in it, especially in an era of limited resources. But is the work that stretches everyone so thin relevant to your readers and viewers? This is an obvious second question that typically receives far too little attention in newsroom debates. A good convergence strategy requires setting priorities; for managers who want it all, remember that if everything is a priority, then nothing is.
Obviously, much more can and will be said about the evolution of news delivery and consumption. Perhaps the single most important thing journalists troubled by these changing times can do is to look out the window or even in a mirror to see how they themselves use media to acquire news and information.
Randy Covington is director of the Ifra Newsplex at the University of South Carolina (USC) and an assistant professor in the USC School of Journalism & Mass Communications. He worked for 27 years in television news, serving in management positions at television stations in Houston, Louisville, Boston, Philadelphia and Columbia, South Carolina.