The segmented boundaries between radio, television, and newspaper that have long been associated with journalism are beginning to blur. The Edward R. Murrows of today are giving “more” by converging yesterday’s journalism with tomorrow’s technology. At the MU School of Journalism, more and more students are taking the opportunity to become more than just print journalists or broadcast reporters; they are classified as a new breed known as “convergence journalists.”
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
Recently in the United States the majority of citizens have come to reside at the extremes of either the political right or the left. “Most people either love George Bush or hate George Bush,” Professor Wayne Wanta explains, with few people falling in the middle. Wanta carefully recounts his recent research concerning such polarization of attitudes, especially in terms of how the media contribute to this phenomenon. Initially he suspected that the internet (now about ten years old) was the primary factor affecting this polarization, that perhaps people were going online to get information that reinforces their already existing beliefs, resulting in those beliefs becoming more extreme.
For many newsrooms, convergence is still a new idea being tinkered with on a daily basis. “They are increasingly realizing the need to have reporters with a convergence mindset. That is just a practical survival instinct,” McKean says. “But it is still difficult to try to do all of those things, and do them well, in an environment."
McKean says a journalist who can tell a story in multiple media bridges the gap between the audience and the reporter. “They have to interact much more closely with the audience and not just assume that they are passive receptacles for the content that we create,” McKean explains. “There are multiple correct ways to tell the story depending on the story itself and the content that is available to tell it.”
McKean talks about his background in journalism and what inevitably brought him to become chair of the newly created convergence sequence at the Missouri School of Journalism.
McKean describes the process of starting the convergence sequence, and what needs to be done to expand the program.
McKean explains how the new journalism sequence was created in 2005. He says convergence teaches the “best ways to teach digital media skills to our students.” After looking at the strengths and failures of other journalism sequences (for example, magazine, photojournalism, news editorial, and broadcast), McKean and his colleagues were able to construct a curriculum that would introduce all sorts of media skills and apply those to reporting, editing, and producing.
The convergence sequence is broken down into classes, each introducing essential skills for a convergence journalist. The classes range from a basic fundamentals course introducing convergence to reporting, editing, and a capstone.
McKean says because of the current technological age, many young journalists have grown up with multimedia platforms (such as facebook, cell phones, and blogs), and there is an unconstrained desire to implement many of those media with the news. “I think students that are coming to us now do not want to be shackled by one way of telling stories, ” McKean says.
Unlike students in other sequences at the Missouri School of Journalism, convergence students work for media outlets across the country, including CurrentTV, MSNBC, and ESPN.
In recent years, McKean has helped universities in other countries start their own journalism sequences. He says the experience has opened his eyes up to the barriers to journalism in other countries and what other institutions must do to clearly report news and information.
McKean explains the concept of the backpack journalist, an all-in-one journalist who can do anything without the help of others. “The backpack journalist idea is one notion of how convergence works;” however, he proclaims, “nobody can do everything equally well, and nobody can go out on any given story and do everything and come back with a really compelling story.” A major part of the convergence sequence is to prepare students to be able to work in many different mediums of storytelling, but also to understand the importance of teamwork.
With her continual interest in adaptation study, West has already visualized her next research project, which will reflect on what it means to adapt a novel to the screen, specifically in the case of Masterpiece Theatre_. “_Masterpiece Theatre fascinates me because it’s an example of what’s called ‘good television.’” Released in the 1970s, it was “designed to appeal to more intellectual, educated viewers. It was designed for our parents,” reports West, and for years it thrived on that identity. “But if you watch Masterpiece Theatre now, it’s totally different…. It’s clearly geared to a much younger audience. Instead of writing faithful adaptation, they radically re-write the plots, interject back-stories, introduce new characters, and use some of Hollywood’s hottest actors to play the roles. They are tailoring these films toward a twenty-first century audience—a younger one, a sexier one, one that is impatient with the idea of fidelity, one that wants a more experimental adaptation.” West plans to look at Masterpiece Theatre’s last ten years so see what those experiments might reveal. “If nothing else,” she jokes, “it will allow me to watch a lot of old Masterpiece Theatre episodes with my mother, who is a huge fan!”