Friday, August 11, 2006

Drop the idea of "convergence"?

David Hazinski, who heads the University of Georgia's Newsource 15 program and is part of Intelligent Media Consultants, writes a thoughtful -- yet in some ways troubling -- piece in this month's Convergence Newsletter.

In "Emerge, Don't Converge," Hazinski argues that "convergence" has really been a misplaced concept, at least as it has been applied up till now -- "putting together print, broadcast and Web operations into one newsgathering engine." Of course, that is not the only meaning of convergence; Rich Gordon, in a widely cited 2002 article (PDF), outlined several levels of convergence, among them technological, ownership and "information-gathering," which is what Hazinski focuses on.

At the risk of simplifying too much, Hazinski's basic arguments are that:
  • It is not about putting print, broadcast and the Web together in a newsroom. It really is all about the massive shift to primarily Web-based consumption of news, "a migration to a different kind of journalism, one that addresses smaller more discreet (sic) rather than mass audiences. Convergence doesn't address that trend."
  • Multitasking, or the "one-man band" approach has its limits.
  • "It is a 'bean counter' issue, not a journalistic one" that "may actually reduce quality and drive the audience further away."
  • "There is no real advantage to convergence, but there are some areas that can be leveraged" such as human relations and business functions, sales, graphics and some things like archives.
  • The newsroom cultural challenges, especially among print types, make it too challenging.
  • The only way to really do this right is to start from scratch with fresh staffs and fresh organizations.
Hazinski has some other excellent points, and I encourage you to read the entire article. But I am troubled by some of it.

First, can we agree that the "one-man band" approach is largely discredited as a viable theory of how this should be done? Even Gordon wrote four years ago, "I am still not convinced that we are moving into an era where a single journalist needs to do it all." Hazinski makes the mistake of assuming this as his model, both operational and educational. But the model more widely accepted now is of a reporter who may specialize in one or two media types but is aware of the wide range of possibilities and the assets that may need to be gathered so that others in the newsroom can fulfill those possibilities. It does not necessarily mean creating the database, but knowing how to ask for a document in the proper form so that someone else can create it, for instance, or knowing to get a digital copy that can be easily posted on the Web.

Second, since his expertise is broadcast, he approaches this from a broadcast superiority model. ( ..."broadcasters really get little out of a marriage with print. Broadcast folks don't end up working in print very much, so it is basically a one-way street, not a partnership.") Later, he reinforces this by framing it as a failure on the newspaper side, relating a meeting with the Orange County Register about involvement in the now-defunct Orange County Newschannel:
My most memorable moment came when a reporter stood up in a meeting and said, "We not only don't want to do this, we want to NOT do this. We will make you fail!" ... Newspaper colleagues tell me it hasn't gone away.
So Hazinski sets up a rhetorical frame in which even the suggestion of "convergence" is bound to fail because a) broadcasters get no benefit, b) newspaper people don't want it and c) the definition he uses is a somewhat extreme version of convergence.

I would suggest some leavening:
  • In the short term, "print" operations do get more of the potential benefit from having video to liven up and bring more emotional immediacy to their offerings. Broadcast, on the other hand, suffers from excessive shallowness and linearity, and I would suggest that is one reason its audience is also, as Hazinski notes, melting away to the Web. Longer term, broadcast has the potential of benefiting from the wider reach and more established credibility of the print operation. It can be mutually beneficial, but not when viewed only from a short-term perspective.
  • The cultural issues are real -- and both in print and broadcast. But I think we will find them steadily lessening. Recent research by Filak and Miller (presented last week at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications) suggests college students exposed to working in converged operations "are capable of finding value in this approach to journalism but have not been blinded to some of its negative ramifications." Singer, in a 2004 study found similar respect among news workers in converged operations. In other words, reality is setting in. It is helped along by the steady drumbeat of layoff and buyout announcements, such as those this week in Cleveland and Dallas. Look shortly for some of the same announcements in broadcast (hint, ESPN's taking over ABC sports is a harbinger).
  • We will continue to see the misguided "one-man band" approach for a while as publishers and station general managers scramble to make margins. But judging convergence long-term by this very short-sighted model is a mistake. (And just noting, many small-market stations have used one-man bands for years and the empire still stands.) Long term we are more likely to see emergence of journalists who can do more of it and do it better, if nothing else because the technology is enabling them to. But I think reality is setting in even now among managers who realize it is silly to expect everyone to do everything.
  • If this is a "bean-counter" issue driving audiences away, then someone forgot to tell the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World or Bluffton Today in South Carolina, which reports 80 percent penetration with its Web and print product.
I am most troubled, however, by Hazinski's suggestion that it is just too difficult to pull this off in existing news organizations and it must be started from scratch, "a 'foundation up' approach, not a realignment." I agree with him that too much emphasis has been put on "maintaining existing news organizations as they already operate while getting more out of staffs and migrating its work to other media." (Emphasis mine.) Tim Porter at First Draft has written extensively about the need to "Explode the newsroom."

Hazinski draws on his work as a consultant building new TV/Web operations overseas. Several were created by major print houses, but not converged with the print operation. He notes that his consultancy now recommends that clients "work with us to train new staffs built from new hires and not bring in particularly broadcast veterans (except for top managers)." The subtext I read there -- or perhaps I fear all those veteran managers, print and broadcast, already are reading -- is that veteran journalists need not apply.

Ultimately, that is the undertone that troubles me most about Hazinski's approach. It is the subtext we are seeing in all these layoff announcements, and yet, as noted by several Web editors at a 2004 University of Florida symposium on converged journalism ("How Broadcast, Online and Print Journalists Work Together" is the video stream - go in to about 27 minutes), it's actually the 53-year-old veteran of a PM newspaper who understands how to file quickly to the Web. It is the 20- and 30-year-olds who are resistant.

Hazinski's approach, I fear, just gives more ill-advised backup for the short-sighted managers seeking to purge their newsrooms of "veterans." And one might well ask, if as is often reported the managers of news organizations too often are the ones resistant to change, why he feels the need to bring in broadcast "veterans" as managers.

Hazinski's piece is worth reading. It is worth thinking about. He makes many good arguments, most especially that this is not just about migrating print and broadcast to the Web, but about "a different kind of journalism." But ultimately, his framing leaves it flawed and unable to see beyond a broadcast-centric view that argues against a strawman concept of convergence and is too short-sighted.

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