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Home > Publications > Quill > The Great Divide


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Tuesday, August 1, 2006
The Great Divide

Is the industry really ready for high-tech students?

By Elizabeth Birge

Janet Kolodzy attended a convergence conference last fall at Brigham Young University where local editors described the kind of skills they wanted in new reporters.

Kolodzy, an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston, said that in addition to the usual Big Three — writing, reporting and critical thinking skills — the editors said they wanted multimedia skills.

“Well, I’ve got someone right here,” responded Kolodzy, and began ticking off all the things one of her graduates could do for the editors. “Are you going to hire him?”

No offer was forthcoming.

The exchange illustrates what Kolodzy believes is a key issue for academics as they prepare journalists for the future: getting the media to articulate what it wants — what it really wants — and then teaching those students what they need to know.

“I think (the media) want strong writing skills with flexibility,” she said, adding later, “they don’t want multimedia (skills) because they’re not hiring them.”

Flexibility.

Could it be the new buzz word that finally clarifies all the other buzz words? Is it the new term that will roll through conventions and into articles, through listservs and out of the mouths of professors and editors? Is flexibility about to take the place of terms such as convergence, cross-pollination and multimedia platform as editors strive to describe what they want in new hires?

What’s at stake is more than just a word. It could be the answer to the dual, hopefully related, questions of what academics should teach future journalists and what editors want to see in their new hires.

The answer has real consequences — potentially expensive consequences — that could affect curriculums, budgets, faculty hiring, textbook selection, software purchases, equipment choices, computer updates, department configurations to name only a few, and — oh yes, — students’ futures.

For every academic who presses the need for a convergence curriculum, there is another who challenges its value. Someone such as John Russial at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, for example.

“There are not that many jobs in the newspaper industry, magazines or broadcast that require people to be multiskilled,” said Russial, an associate professor who worked for 12 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was the Sunday copy chief. “It’s not that the skills aren’t useful, but I don’t think everyone coming out of journalism school needs to be able to work on every platform. I have concerns that if we do that, we will not turn out students who can work in one platform.”

Russial has taught a convergence class for 10 years, incorporating the use of audio, slide shows and Web design “because I think it’s fun, and it’s a good way to hedge your bet, but it’s a leap to go from there to restructuring your curriculum.”

There are schools that have done exactly that.

Kansas University’s White School of Journalism revamped its curriculum beginning in 1997 to emphasize a “converged, cross-platform and cross-disciplinary program,” one that requires all journalism and mass communication students to take multimedia reporting and multimedia editing.

The University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism adopted a converged curriculum in 2002 but then began to reorganize it only a year later when its faculty realized a little convergence can sometimes accomplish more than a lot of convergence, especially when it comes at the expense of basic skills, student preparation and program flexibility.

According to Larry Pryor, who spoke Feb. 14, 2005, at a session on “Convergence Journalism for College Educators” hosted by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., Those programs jumped in with both feet, as did some others, but schools with smaller journalism programs and budgets (and perhaps less stomach for a curriculum battle) have made do by adding a class here and there or by adjusting course syllabi. They don’t seem inclined to go much further without some clear statement from the industry as to what it really wants.

Editors interviewed for this article expressed a range of opinions about what they looked for in new hires; they all wanted strong writers, critical thinkers and people with passion, but the multimedia skills question elicits responses that fall along a continuum of “no thanks” to “no, but.”

“What we’re seeing are students who have ability to write for the Web, shoot video, write for newspaper … but sometimes it comes at a cost of strong writing ability,” said Tom Shine, assistant managing editor for business at the Wichita Eagle. “I would argue that strong writing ability — or copy editing as well — will trump just about everything. If they can shoot video it’s a plus. If they can’t write it doesn’t matter.”

In addition to not expecting new hires to have multimedia skills, some editors say they’re not fans of the idea of convergence. They would rather see better writing from their new hires than a wide range of abilities.

“You hardly get kids straight out of school who can do everything,” said David Bailey, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “There’s usually a lot of on-the-job training.”

Recent hires from journalism schools have had solid reporting skills, he said, but “their writing skills are woeful. They think they’re not writing if they don’t put an anecdotal lead on it.”

And convergence skills as a factor in hiring?

“We’re not big fans of convergence,” said Bailey. “You can’t do justice to news or broadcast if you have a reporter doing both.”

At the Lexington Herald-Leader, managing editor Tom Eblen believes that “students should be taught information skills and strong writing that will work on all these platforms. The more they know about each medium, the better off they are.”

And at The Oregonian, the answer is a definitive “no, but” when it comes to hiring reporters with multimedia skills, as in, “No, but I anticipate that will change,” said George Rede, the paper’s recruiter. “It will become a more important factor in coming years.”

Rede said the reason his paper didn’t emphasize multimedia skills in the past is that it wasn’t in position to put those skills to use. That is now in the process of changing as The Oregonian makes more of a push for a unique online product, rather than a posting of what appeared in the ink and paper edition each morning.

Rede isn’t the only one who thinks convergence is more of a trend of the future than the present. Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the problem for journalism educators who started moving toward convergence in the past five years is they got too far ahead of the thinking in most newsrooms.

Five years ago, newspapers were still making a lot of money, broadband wasn’t as widespread and the language of online hadn’t made its way into the public vernacular, Tompkins said. Those filling newsroom positions just weren’t interested in those with multimedia skills because they didn’t need to be interested.

“What’s happened in the last 12 months is that newspapers are in a panic,” he said. “They’re in a panic to get more online content up, they need people who can think creatively about how to use this new tool. The bosses themselves do not have the skills to produce for online so they need smart informed hires.”

Newspaper editors now realize that their online operations can no longer be an after-thought, not if they want to protect their paper’s profits and their own newsroom budgets. Broadband is widespread. Podcasting, wireless delivery, video streaming, multimedia storytelling, RSS feeding and blogging, terms that weren’t even known five years ago, now play a central role to papers’ online strategies.

And that’s part of the reason that convergence took some time to catch on in newsrooms said Tompkins. It’s still associated with the discredited idea of newspaper reporters writing for television and television reporters writing for newspapers.

“That never really happened, and it’s not going to happen. What’s happening is they (both print and broadcast journalists) are writing for the Web, not each other,” said Tompkins. “Convergence doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.”

Indeed, those papers that are still repurposing their stories know they can — and need to — do more.

Today in Wichita, reporters who return from covering a meeting are asked to write a few paragraphs for the Web site, said Shine.

But a few years ago, he said, the discussion would have gone like this: “ ‘If we put it online, everyone is going to know it’, rather than, ‘If I put it online, everyone would know I should come to the site more often.’ ”

This is not something Shine has to explain to new journalists.

“The younger reporters understand it already. They’ve been getting their news from (the Web) a long time,” he said. “What we’re trying to do now is enhance the Web by having reporters capture video and audio.”

Still, when it comes to hiring, it’s all about the basics, he said.

“The question is can you write and report, and if you can’t do that, it becomes a problem.”

Indeed, none of this is about getting a job, according to August Grant, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who helps coordinate programs at Newsplex, a prototype multiple-media micro-newsroom used for demonstration, research and training.

“There are plenty of jobs for those who want to do just traditional print, and plenty of jobs for those who want to do traditional broadcast. Not everyone is going to be convergent,” he said. “It’s not a question of jobs. Those who have convergent media skills will be able to go further faster.”

It’s that kind of edge David Swartzlander wants his students to graduate with and why his department is discussing changing its curriculum.

“I think we have to embrace all this technology to get the news out,” said Swartzlander, an assistant professor of journalism at Doane College in Nebraska. “While I’m a print person, I’m really a news person. I think it can only help them to be cross-trained. The more they learn, the more they can do, and the more valuable they’ll be in the market place.”

At Doane, a college of about 1,000 with a major in mass communication, Swartzlander said they have a student newspaper, television station, radio station and yearbook, but all operate independently of each other. There is no coming together to discuss what is the best way to tell this story. That’s something he’d like to change and something he’d like help with. But when he posted a note on the College Media Advisors listserv asking for advice on the subject, he got one reply.

Ralph Braseth could give him an earful.

His department at the University of Mississippi doesn’t offer any courses in online media. But the yearbook, television station and newspaper reporters all work out of a single newsroom with no partitions, and all stories are assigned from a universal news desk. He is an assistant professor and director of student media.

Braseth offers multimedia workshops to students; the rest they pick up by looking over each other’s shoulders, he said.

“You can call it ‘new’ media, convergence, multimedia; call it what you will,” he wrote recently on the CMA listserv. “It’s not going away, and I believe if I don’t help prepare my students for what they are going to face out there, I would be negligent in my mission.”


Elizabeth Birge is an assistant professor at William Paterson University. She can be reached at BirgeE@wpunj.edu.

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