The “C” Word
I swear I will clobber the next slob who mentions that nasty c-word to me. It's disgusting, the way it rolls off our tongues. So don't say it when I am around.
Don't say "Convergence."
Here's why I have a problem with it: I hate anything that puts me in a tizzy. I hate it when I break out in goose pimples and my palms sweat and my throat goes all parched.
Convergence does that to me. Not the concept. But the paranoia it generates among ordinary scribes.
The geeks among us, of course, are having the time of their lives. Their eyes sparkle when they speak about the brave new world it will usher in.
We non-geeks, we too speak about it. In hushed tones. We fear it. And it's a frightful fear because it's the fear of the unknown.
Did I say it's the paranoia that gets to me? Scratch that. What really bugs me is how we get ready for the "new challenge."
Convergence = Multimedia = Print + Radio + TV + Internet =Technology, we reason, so let's learn some Technology double-quick. Let's learn how to handle video and audio, let's learn some Flash and Dreamweaver and XML. Let's go multimedia.
What we really need do is take a break.
If we do, we will realize convergence is no unknown. Never has been.
In the beginning, there was the print media. Along came radio. News began on radio.
We had convergence...
News, 'til radio made its debut, was primarily textual. Laid out in typefaces. Period.
Radio borrowed the concept of news from print. Built on it by adding audio and presented the outcome. But every audio clip has a textual base, a written script, rough scribbles, something.
Cut to television. By 1955, it was adding video to news. Later it brought in text, to build news bars and tickers.
By the mid-1990s, the World Wide Web had clicked. Initially there was only text. But soon the 'Net began adding, first, audio, then video, infographics, the works.
Convergence, aren't these all?
In all the scenarios, one medium uses the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of another to add a layer to its coverage. For quality. Thus, radio layers (though this one is an under-layer) news with the USP of print, television layers with those of print and radio, and Internet layers with those of print, radio and television.
Convergence, then, is layering.
I know. That sounds too simplistic. But convergence is many things to many people, and this is one sensible way of looking at it from a journalist's perspective.
So convergence has happened. Is happening. What does it require of us? The ability to work across platforms, as backpack journalists like Jane Stevens do, flitting among text, audio, and video?
Before we answer that, consider the future of today's news mediums. Over the next 20 years, Stevens, among others, tells us, "...the content of the newspaper and the television news shows are likely to be delivered principally over the Internet."
Such a complete technological convergence on to a single platform would spell the death of print, radio, and television. I am not sure that will ever happen; I am almost certain it will not in the next 20 years.
It's not easy to kill one medium. If it were, print would be long dead, as would radio.
And even if the 'Net becomes the only news medium tomorrow, would that throw print, radio, and television journalists out of jobs?
It will not.
It cannot because the 'Net would still need text, audio, and video inputs.
It cannot because there cannot be a complete convergence of multimedia skills, not to mention talent, into enough individuals. The enough-to-do-the-job-so-so kind of convergence, yes -- but not, never, the full convergence needed to make specialists redundant. And if we push it hard what we will get is second-rate journalism -– here's Martha Stone with the whys.
What can happen, and is happening, is what I will call partial convergence. You will see this happening not just on the 'Net. You will see print, TV, and radio all layering with the 'Net's USP, interactivity -- look at any Letters to the Editor page, note the number of e-mails; listen to any music program, note the live requests over e-mail, texts from mobiles, et al.
Such layering is here to stay. What it requires of non-backpackers is not they start lugging around mini audio and video studios, but that they understand the possibilities of other mediums, contribute across platform when called upon, and begin to layer their stories. It's like your university degree -- a major and a couple of minors. Let me quote journalism professor Rich Gordon:
No longer can journalists assume that just because they work in one medium (say, a print newspaper), they don't need to worry about how their story should be presented in another (on television or the Web) ... On the other hand, we are not necessarily moving into an era when a single journalist needs to do it all ... There will always be a need for specialists who do one thing particularly well.Which brings us to the all-important question: what should journalism schools teach? Web? Television? Radio? Print? All?
Or should the focus be journalism?
I like the way Poynter Institute writing coach Chip Scanlan answers that: "The most essential tools for a journalist aren't dependent on a computer chip, but a reporter's mind and heart. They are the very human qualities of curiosity, integrity, and empathy, coupled with the storyteller's tools -- scene, metaphor and imagery."
Poynter president emeritus Bob Haiman is of a similar view. In the converged world, he says, content will be the king. So the journalists who succeed then will be the same who succeed today.
Here's a final bit of info: guess which skill journalism bosses think newsmen need the most?
Not multimedia (though it came second), but plain old writing.
Think of that the next time you get backpack fever, the next time you get excited about convergence.
At the end of the day, convergence is only layering. What matters is not what technology you use to layer. What matters is good journalism.