Monday, August 08, 2005

Hemingway didn't need multimedia skills

But Reid Ashe, Media General's chief operating officer, says the rest of us do.

Here's his take on the journalists who work for MG and what he expects from them these days:
Reid Ashe ... explained that Media General employees work for a media company and are merely moving from one medium to another when they work in multimedia. ...
"If you can write like Hemingway, you don't need multimedia skills," he said. But if employees aren't writing like Hemingway, multimedia skills can help them advance in the company.
The quote comes from a report on a Southern Newspaper Publishers Association roundtable discussion on convergence. Though it doesn't break a lot of new ground, it's worth reading (PDF) becasue it covers the broad range of issues facing newspapers that try to partner with TV stations or do their own multimedia thing.

Following up on Ashe's quote, the report notes: "Competition in the new structure isn't just with newspapers anymore. Newspapers are competing with television and radio for employees."

Among other points:
  • There's some discussion of training newspaper reporters, who "tend not to be overly concerned about their appearance or voice quality."
  • For multimedia to succeed, someone has to be in charge of managing such efforts -- and the editor is not necessarily the best person.
  • "Managers can't assume that their reporters understand the partners' operations."
  • Basic conflicts between what TV and newspapers will run and at what point they will run it.
There also is this observation: Where "convergence" at one time meant the coming together of newspaper, television, online, radio or anything else to extend reach and brand, the term doesn't seem quite right today. Yes, media organizations are creating partnerships but very few really "converge" or come totally together. So perhaps a better term for what's happening today should be "cross platform" partnerships. Or "multimedia."

OK, the last two sentences are a bit of a duh conclusion for anyone who follows the industry (in the SNPA report, for instance, David Underhill of Chicago's CLTV warns against "exclusive relationships"). But that paragraph does cut through much of the early clutter and hype and tells the situation as it is -- in most cases, a still-cautious embracing of some of the concepts and potential, but far from a full hug. The recent memos, however, from the New York Times and Knight Ridder suggest that's changing. One thing emerges from the SNPA report, however: too much multimedia is still too "project" oriented. That mindset change sought at K-R and the Times won't really happen until it becomes part of the daily routine.

Broadcasting & Cable, which looks at the issue from the broadcast perspective based on data from a Ball State survey, uses the term "cross-pollination."

"Across the country, TV stations and newspapers ae giving renewed attention to the web," B&C writes. For newspapers, it's getting access to TV's younger audience. For TV, it's getting access to reporting resources that dwarf all but the largest local news operations.

Both reports quote managers from Oklahoma City, where The Oklahoman and KWTV jointly feed the site. Interestingly, a recent academic study concluded: This arrangement is not fulfilling its promise to "to provide more in-depth news and information to their readers and viewers to better serve them." Coordination appeared sporadic, and few in-depth stories appeared. Also, the partners are not setting the agenda for other media. (abstract only Look for "Total Coverage?").

All this convergence stuff leaves Michael Bugeja, director of Iowa State's journalism school, unimpressed. In a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary "How Do We Afflict the Comfortable When They Own Us?" he muses on the relationship between media companies and journalism schools -- and wonders whether convergence is more hokum than substance. Specifically, Bugeja suspects it's eroding the idea of getting reporters out of the office to see what's really going on in the world:
  • Downsizing reporting staffs is dangerous in a republic founded on the principle that truth, not profit, should rise to the top.
  • Disseminating opinion is cheaper than gathering fact because the former can be aligned to a target market. In other words, if Fox News slants to the right, all the better for CBS News to slant to a different market on the left.
  • Too many journalists are doing their work perched in front of computers instead of sources. ...
Journalism educators should be criticizing these practices, but many are in cahoots, changing curricula so graduates can operate effectively in the corporate world. The buzzword is "convergence," which in cynical moments I think is the automation of reporters, and in more reflective ones I'd define as combining one or more old media with the Internet.
The new editor of Insights, published by the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, has been seeking manuscripts and ideas about convergence. "How do you successfully teach students about it and assure they have practical experiences with it," he asks, "especially if the department or school does not have the facilities? What does an effective convergence curriculum look like? ... How, if at all, can this be done within accreditation guidelines?"
These are valid questions, but they also imply that the issue has been settled and that convergence should be taught. Should it? Some of my Greenlee School colleagues and I are still wondering whether our core responsibility is to train students to cover cyberspace as vigorously as physical place. That requires more instruction in depth reporting for pieces on, say, cybercrime or child pornography, and less in software and equipment training -- i.e., filing a report for newspapers, taping it for broadcast, and reformatting both for the Web. In sum, we want our reporters to cover beats by burning shoe leather rather than DVD's.
(In a way, The SNPA report plays into Bugeja's analysis, noting that newspapers and TV stations are "exploring 'promotional' and 'sponsorship' dollars as other sources of revenue. Reid Ashe said Media General has sold several multi-media ad campaigns to state agencies. The campaigns have covered public health, highway safety and alcohol and drug abuse." Of course, if you're covering those state agencies, this might pose some potential conflicts.)

Bugeja's analysis, raising timely, solid questions as it does, is flawed in one respect: It relies on his assumption of the media world as one of ever-merging behemoths. It's equivalent to being fixated on the brontosaurus but missing the small, new life forms climbing from the muck. The slow but steady growth of many smaller media companies, citizen-journalism efforts and even growing content emphasis at companies like cable giant Comcast might lead to the days when an aspiring journalist need not go to work for a chain to make a decent living.

Bugeja is right when he says we cannot let multimedia substitute for basic shoeleather reporting, but neither can our students and current journalists afford to ignore the industry's move toward requring cross-media skills.


At 8/20/05, 2:08 AM, Blogger Doug said...


Thanks so much for the note. I did not see where this got in as a comment, so I will post it as one.

Indeed, what you say is entirely true, which is why wire-service reporting, for all its shortcomings, may be some of the best preparation in the evolving media world. And I take it even further. Every good writer already is working in multimedia -- that writer wants to create a film in a person's mind, complete with sounds, smell and feel. That's multimedia. What we have to do is convince writers to have more faith in their talent and less fixation on their media.

Michael Bugeja wrote:


Good analysis of my commentary in The Chronicle Review, "How do we afflict the comfortable when they own us?" However, I do want to address your comment on cross-platform skills. Let's not mystify the convergence process. You as a wire service editor must realize that folks like Mel Mencher, one of my United Press heroes, were doing convergence decades ago on typewriters without blog-like software or on Gemini computers (remember those?), writing for newspapers, revising for broadcast, reformating for radio briefs, calling in audio and later doing video for the regional or New York hubs. Convergence has been around a long, long time in the wire services. We left our bureaus, covered stories, came back, did the weather, the markets, the news briefs, and all of the above reporting and reformating. My gripe is, we're teaching students to do all of the above, except the leaving and the returning to the bureau (or home office). That said, thanks for a serious analysis of my piece. I appreciate and applaud your blog because it reminds everyone, including me, that community is important in a digital age. 73s. Michael

Michael Bugeja, director
Greenlee School of Journalism and ommunication
Hamilton Hall 101A
Iowa State University of Science and Technology
Ames, Iowa 50011


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