Is ‘convergence’ the next media disaster?

May 22, 2006

It would be too bad if the elders of the news business decided that the way to apply the marvels of the Internet to their operations was by a bold new push for reporting that’s hasty, fragmented and half-baked. It would be even worse if redirecting newsrooms to online news ended up by degrading the working conditions of journalists, and diverting energies away from the kind of richly detailed, thoughtful reporting that exemplifies the best in journalism.

Such are the dangers of the so-called converged newsroom. That’s the term for a state-of-the-art operation where journalists step nimbly from one distribution technology to another, writing or producing for newspaper deadlines, affiliated TV or radio stations and, above all, a web site. Few print reporters are eager to become helpmates to TV news, which they regard as entertainment programming, but it’s the insertion, deep within the country’s newsrooms, of the Internet’s round-the-clock publishing cycle that threatens the greatest harm to the quality of news and information we receive.

Supporters say convergence is essential for existing media – especially newspapers, which remain the core of the news industry – to prevail amid the steady migration of audience and providers to the Internet. And it’s true that a web-based news operation, available on demand, is the way to go. But the current forms of convergence seem likely to set news media back in their efforts to repair slipping public esteem and maintain – let alone upgrade – the quality of the news and information they provide.

Cross-training journalists in a full range of informational technologies has advantages. Unless you happen to care about quality photojournalism, you won’t see much harm in having a reporter record and upload video or photos via cellphone from the site of the train derailment directly to the web site so that the audience can feast on images of the wreckage a half-hour, even an hour, sooner.

But this isn’t just a matter of handling new toys. It’s a transformation of news operations in the direction of speed, with reporters on routine stories posting multiple versions throughout the day, and it’s born of the belief that reasserting dominance in new online media markets means being first.

Ironically, the same news media chiefs who fret constantly about credibility and the declining appetite for news are diving into this 24/7 news cycle.

Does that make sense? Doesn’t it ensure that things will be posted online before they would be considered ready for print publication, with a resulting rise in errors, half-truths and all the things the public supposedly loathes? True, correcting errors is easier, but how much confidence can anybody have in media that publish before they edit?

And doesn’t this whole transformation appeal mainly to the same committed news junkies who are widely assumed to be dwindling into extinction?

So why build a business model around providing third-rate journalism to a vanishing audience?

Recent coverage of convergence efforts in the American Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher magazine offers a disturbing portrait. At a time when newsroom morale is already terrible, convergence amounts to what traditional trade unionists call a speedup: workers being pushed to do more for the same pay.

Worse, reporters fear that convergence poses a threat to depth reporting, the thoughtful work that exemplifies the best of journalism. The news person who is expected to update a breaking story throughout the day is doing so at the expense of reporting that would develop and deepen the story so that it’s illuminating and satisfying to readers.

Speaking of readers, is anybody bothering to tell them precisely how these Internet news services are paid for?
How much are news organizations, which worry so much about trust, willing to disclose about the degree to which their online audience is being tracked, the stories they read noted, the ads which they click on recorded?

The converged newsroom opens up huge, perplexing questions. So far they’re being answered by the techies, the brand managers, the publishers, the marketers. When do we hear from the professional journalists? Where is their independent assessment of how these powerful new technologies can be used not to plant the flag in cyberspace, not to reclaim market share, but to provide great, meaningful journalism?

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