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An introduction to convergence media

A presentation for students of COMM 112

By Ross Collins, associate professor of communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo

Alhambra, Spain.

Mindy McAdams: There is no shelf. (There is no page one.) Think about it.

A lot of people are talking about convergence media nowadays. Instructors say they have to teach convergence media to the next generation. Critics say convergence media will mean the end of traditional newspapers, for sure, and probably television news as we know it.

We are expecting a lot to come from convergence media.

But what is convergence media, exactly?

Is that convergence?

Well, maybe, but not exactly. First, we have to recognize that convergence in the media business can happen in a lot of ways. For example:

Ownership convergence.

This means one company owns television, print, and on-line platforms. People who prepare content for these share their stuff, so that you can have fewer people working, costing the company less money to produce its news operation.

But convergence in the sense of sharing what you've collected for news does not necessarily have to occur within companies owned by one corporation.

Tactical convergence.

In this case, media operations such as, say, a newspaper and a television station set up a partnership to cover news, even though they still are owned by different companies.

But within one company convergence might also exist, called

Structural convergence.

You set up a newsroom that is not focused on a particular product, such as a newspaper. Instead you have teams of content preparers repackage the product for different platforms. For example, material might be packaged for the web, but then rewritten for television, either as a partner, or video on the web. Television material might be remade for a newspaper. Newspaper reporters might have conversations with television anchors from the site of a news event. This means that a journalist does not work for a particular platform, per se--such as television or newspaper.

But if you have journalists working for several platforms, you will obviously consider the expectation that they can prepare media content in several formats, called

Information gathering convergence.

In this case, reporters are expected to have several kinds of skills. They can write, take pictures, record audio or video, prepare material for broadcast, print or web.

Reporters who can successfully report for all forms of media are sometimes housed under the umbrella of "backpack journalism." Is this possible? Can good writers also be good photographers? Many media operations have found that this kind of skilled person is not very common. Journalism operations that have tried to use an individual to do several things often find the quality level is not very high.

Storytelling convergence.

Journalists are trained to tell stories. How they tell that story, that is, how news is manufactured from the millions of events going on in the world, is fairly well established based on news values. But convergence journalism opportunities have led some journalists to look at new ways to tell stories. It's more than simply throwing some video clips along with a story put up on the web. Because one of the great strengths of the web is that it offers a way to present information in a non-linear manner.

In the real world, we learn in a non-linear way. Walk along the street and you pull sights, sounds, smells, and feelings everywhere from your environment.

But in the abstract world of mediated communication, we traditionally have gained knowledge in a linear way. That is, from beginning to end, like a book. Newscasts also present information in a linear way. We don't have the opportunity to learn more about topics we are particularly curious about, by choosing our own route. The writer sets the route for us.

The web frees us from this route. We can learn in a non-linear way through links. We choose links in text as we wish to take our knowledge acquisition in the way we want it to go, not necessarily in a straight line.

Part of the power of convergence media lies in its non-linear options for information presentation. Part of the power lies in its ability to converge all the newsgathering formats into one--video, audio, words, pictures, links. Part of the power is its instant access--as long as you have a computer, of course. And part of its power is that, at least for now, access is generally free.

What is the future of  journalism, given these trends?

I suspect a newsroom of the future will not be geared to any particular platform. That is, you won't have a newspaper office, or television newsroom as such, or even a web newsroom. Content preparation will be repackaged for a variety of media.

I also suspect that you'll never see many super-reporters, backpack journalists who can do it all, in any medium. Probably reporters will be asked to take some quick photos or videotape for breaking news stories, but more substantial news stories will be prepared by teams.

I think we'll see some disintegration of traditional news values, particularly that of objectivity. Already we see far more interpretation in news than we did a few decades ago--the straight objective news story without interpretation isn't really very often seen anymore. And we'll see a lot more opinions in the news media. It seems to me people are much more interested in blogs, that is, people's opinions, than they used to be, and so that will become a big part of news media. And we'll see contributions made by all kinds of people, not only those trained as professional journalists. To assess the credibility of these contributors, of course, will be up to readers and viewers.

There's nothing new in this. Opinions were not only a big part of news media in the old days, they were the news media. The idea of objective news is a phenomenon of the last century. And sometimes what we consider progress actually moves in big loops, as we reinvent ideas of previous generations.

Those who believe news should be facts and only facts will disdain these changes, but facts will still be available. The more austere version of news will still be there--in newspapers.

Will newspapers die out?

Right now circulations are falling at about 5 percent a year, so it's looking that way. But I think they will stabilize. Newspapers will return to what they were a hundred and fifty years ago--serious, word-oriented presentations for an elite of educated people willing to pay for news packaged in this way. Frankly, if newspapers were going to become extinct, they would already have done so. Technology can be ruthless. Film-based photography was around nearly 175 years. Today it's becoming extinct, and that happened in half the time the web has been around. Newspapers are still ubiquitous.

The web is now a good 13 years old. Newspapers have been on line for many years. But the fact is, dead tree-based media still provide a few benefits not available anywhere else. They are:

What is convergence journalism? A few web-based examples (courtesy of Deneen Gilmour):

A People Torn: Liberians in Minnesota by the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Crisis in Darfur by

Slim Talks Turkey by USA Today

Final Salute by The Rocky Mountain News (Denver)

Vietnam 25 years After the War by The New York Times

Dying Tongues by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead/

Blackhawk Down by The Philadelphia Inquirer
Regarded as first convergence project at a U.S. newspaper --1997. We've come a long way.