Convergence journalism, as we teach it at Missouri, is more about new attitudes than new skills. Don’t get me wrong. We do our best to train students in audio, video, photo, graphics and Web production. We emphasize strong writing skills. We put them to work in all of our news operations—a daily newspaper, an NPR affiliate, a commercial TV station, plus various Web sites and mobile services. Students blog, make podcasts, create Flash animations, design interactive databases, and widgets—things they have to know to find good first jobs in today’s media environment.

Still, who among us in the profession or the academy can predict the exact hardware, software and distribution systems that freshmen entering j-school this fall will need to know by the time they graduate and hit the job market …we push ahead with various approaches to keep well-trained journalists revelant at a time when we believe they are needed more than 2011? Sure, we’re trying to develop reliable standards so they can more easily create compelling multimedia stories, organize our newsrooms so they can produce those stories consistently on deadline, and identify stable economic models so they can count on a rewarding career when they leave here. But the finish line is constantly moving.

The attitudes we need to instill in our students, however, seem clearer to me. They need to thrive on constant, rapid change. Students need to be open-minded about the best way to tell each story rather than seeing rich media as mere add-ons to word-driven narratives. They need to embrace teamwork. Very few lone wolf, backpack journalists can do it all with equal skill and panache. And they need to be humble in the face of overwhelming social changes made possible by digital media.

Humility is not something journalists model well. Professionalism, integrity, social responsibility—sure. Humility? Not so much. But a YouTube/Facebook/Blogger world demands we do better. Our dwindling, skeptical audience is increasingly capable of creating and sharing its own news, however they define the term. Traditional journalists can belittle these “amateurs” or embrace them in a new reporting system that makes us both better. But we can’t stop them. User-generated content, citizen journalism—whatever one wants to call it—is here to stay.

Teaching Convergence Journalism

There’s still a crucial place in society for professionally trained journalists. So here’s a glimpse at what’s been happening at the Missouri School of RELATED WEB LINK
Convergence Journalism at Missouri
Journalism since we created a formal convergence major in the fall of 2005. Sophomores and first-semester graduate students begin with a skills course, Convergence Fundamentals, in which they learn the basics of still photography, audio-video recording and editing, slide shows, and some simple Web design. During the final few weeks of the semester, students break into teams to produce in-depth, multimedia feature stories. We team-teach this course, as we do all of our required convergence courses. Convergence Reporting is next, and in this class students split their time between weekly deadline features reported in teams and individual rotations through our newspaper, radio and TV newsrooms where they work on short deadline stories. Then, in Convergence Editing, students learn more about personnel management and quality control as they again rotate through our newsrooms. They also spend four weeks acting as leaders of the teams working on features in the reporting class.

It is at this point, if it hasn’t happened already, that our students typically decide how to solve their “jack of all trades, master of none” challenge. We don’t want them to leave Missouri until each has a strong grounding in at least one journalistic specialty. So we require them to choose one of several, two-course concentrations designed by the faculty with a focus on newspaper and magazine writing, radio-TV reporting or producing, investigative reporting, photojournalism and design.

While completing their concentrations, students sign up for their final required course—Convergence Capstone. Again they work in teams, this time to research a practical problem or need, then create a journalistic product to address it. Students have designed everything from an interactive voter guide and a high school video-sharing service to a cross-platform advertising campaign for a local auto dealer and a Web 2.0 collaboration with a local documentary film festival.

Is our approach working? Two years is too soon to reach a conclusion. But our first graduating class in May landed some great internships, and they’re now finding well-paying jobs as online sports editors, magazine designers, newspaper video editors, TV newscast producers, and Teach For America RELATED WEB LINK
Read About the Reynolds Journalism Institute (PDF) »
volunteers from Billings, Montana to the Rio Grande Valley to Orlando, Florida. The convergence sequence has quickly become a popular major, and it can be difficult to get into. We’re limited by a relatively small faculty (three full-time teachers) and lab space we share with our radio-TV colleagues. Those bottlenecks should be cleared when the facilities of the new Reynolds Journalism Institute open at the Missouri School of Journalism with the fall 2008 semester. At that time, we’ll hire more instructors, equip a larger lab, and open a technology demonstration center from which we will take its best ideas into our so-called “Futures Lab” to gauge their practicality in a working newsroom.

Collaboration and Convergence

Let’s return to the value of humility and our desire to imbue students—and ourselves—with it. We know we don’t have all the answers to teaching and practicing convergence journalism, but we push ahead with various approaches to keep well-trained journalists relevant at a time when we believe they are needed more than ever. At the same time, we make students aware of the increasingly interactive quality of their endeavors by offering new learning opportunities, some of which are highlighted below:

  • RELATED WEB LINK My Missourian — mymissourian.comAsk the audience what they want. We explore how major convergence projects should be based on sound research before launch and carefully evaluated after.
  • Give the audience a voice. We’ve created a local Web site modeled on South Korea’s OhMyNews that pairs student editors with citizens who want to write stories or share pictures, sounds and video on topics they care about. [See related Web link above.]
  • Find industry partners in the technology sector. We’ve been working with digital media firms such as Apple and Adobe Systems to keep abreast of what technology is emerging and to learn how to exploit those changes, especially in mobile communications. We’re also starting to do regular visits with technology leaders, including some of our alumni, in Silicon Valley.
  • Give students a larger voice. Let them choose and design their own projects. For example, we’re about to launch a student competition to come up with the best desktop widgets to support the content and business sides of traditional media companies. Finalists will receive development money and programming support. The winning team will split a significant cash prize.
  • Find nonjournalists on campus who know what you don’t. In the competition (above), journalism students will team with students from computer science, education and business. Professors in those and other disciplines can also plug holes in traditional journalism curricula.
  • Look beyond the borders. Journalists and journalism educators in other countries are finding new and better ways to tell compelling stories with digital technologies. Our partners at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Journalism, for example, are focusing most of their convergence efforts on independent documentaries because of severe government limits on newspapers and television news. Our partners in China are studying how citizens with cell phones can sidestep media censorship to shine a light on important social problems. Broadband mobile companies in Japan and South Korea are showing us what will be possible with live video, GPS mapping, and gaming when third-generation cellular networks finally become available in most American communities.

The convergence faculty at Missouri makes significant changes to each required course every semester, and yet we still can’t keep up with all the new ideas and best practices. Our convergence major is just two years old, but most of the faculty already see it as only a temporary solution. If we’re still here in our present form five years from now, I’ll be surprised. In fact, we’ve already started a wholesale, schoolwide curriculum review designed to ensure that all students are exposed to convergence journalism skills. Now that’s a humbling experience for any turf-protecting department chair.

Mike McKean is the department chair of the convergence journalism faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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