Convergence concerns in local television: conflicting views from the newsroom.

Author:Smith, Laura K.
Position:Survey
 
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Just 10 years ago, the primary duties of reporters and producers at local television news affiliates were to fill the newscasts with live shots, packages, good writing, and plenty of video. But in today's world of media convergence, TV news staffers are doing much more than "just TV." They are producing news content for multiple media outlets. In many cases, the companies they work for provide news to or own more than one television station in a media market (so-called Limited Marketing Agreements [LMAs] or Duopolies). Stations across the country also are increasingly partnering with radio stations and newspapers to cross-promote their product and share news content (Lowrey, 2005). And, according to a recent study by RTNDA, virtually all television stations are now providing news content for Web sites (Papper, 2005).

There are conflicting views about what it means to practice convergence. Experts, such as Andrew Nachison of the American Press Institute's Media Center, define convergence as "the strategic, operational, product and cultural union of print, audio, video and interactive digital informational services and organizations" (Lawson Borders, 2003, p. 92). Much to the chagrin of critics, however, many media operations tout their convergence activities when they are simply practicing cooperation (Gabettas, n.d.). According to AI Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, few media companies are truly converged in the sense that they actually share news content (Tompkins, 2001).

In recent years, scholars have examined various concepts of convergence from both print and broadcast perspectives. Most of the research, however, focuses the opinions of media managers--surveying news directors, general managers, and newspaper editors (Dailey, Demo, & Spillman, 2005; Duhe, Mortimer, & Chow, 2004; Kraeplin & Criado, 2005; Tanner & Duhe, 2005) or the workplace realities of print journalists (Kraeplin & Criado, 2005, 2006). To date, no published empirical studies have examined how convergence affects local television news workers whose job it is to write, report, and produce news content on a daily basis.

To fill that void, this study's authors surveyed reporters and producers across the country about convergent news practices in their newsrooms. Researchers chose to study staffers in small and medium TV markets because research shows news workers in these markets are more likely than those in larger markets to contribute to Web-based and other convergent activities (Papper, 2005). According to Papper, 20% of news staffers in larger markets are required to provide content for their station's Web site--this percentage more than doubles for staffers in smaller markets.

This study gives communications scholars a glimpse of convergence practices inside TV stations at a time when news staffs are shrinking and demands on news workers are increasing. The survey explored the specific activities news workers are tasked with as well as the perceived impact of convergence on their jobs and, ultimately, on the content they produce. The perceptions of these news workers were then compared to those of news managers (surveyed in previous research). Findings show significant differences in what these two groups think.

The research demonstrates that how well convergence works depends on whom you ask. Conflicting views from the newsroom are discussed in terms of the challenges that multimedia content production poses in the modern age of ownership consolidation and convergence. With TV news viewership in steady decline, and only 33% of Americans stating they believe local TV news is reliable and accurate (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2006), it is critical that news workers and managers grapple with these complicated issues and determine how best to provide quality news content (and enhance journalistic performance) in today's evolving media environment.

Literature Review

Because there are differing opinions about what convergence means, it can be difficult to determine to what extent it is being practiced in television newsrooms across America today. According to two recent studies, between 80 and 90% of local TV stations practice some form of convergence (Duhe et al., 2004; Tanner & Duhe, 2005). Another finds more than 96% of local TV stations produce news content for the Web (Papper, 2005), a singular practice that many news managers define as convergence.

Defining Convergence

Does producing content for the Internet equal convergence? Some academicians and media professionals say yes, taking a broad view. The American Press Institute, for example, defines a convergent news relationship as a "partnership" or "collaboration" between print, broadcast, and online news outlets (U.S. Convergence Tracker, 2006). Pavlik and McIntosh's (2004) perspective is broader still, describing convergence in the digital environment as the melding of the media, computing, and telecommunications. An earlier, and more narrow, definition states that convergence occurs only when print, online, and broadcast media merge into a single news operation (Giner, 2001; Zollman, 2001).

In recent years, many scholars have studied convergence to better understand and explicate the phenomenon. Much of this research relies on the opinions and perspectives of news managers. Duhe et al. (2004), for example, surveyed news directors and general managers from 170 local television stations in the United States. They found the majority of respondents believe convergence means sharing content within their own organization (such as Web sites), sharing content with other organizations, sharing staff, and promoting other media. They were less likely to define convergence in terms of integrated newsrooms or cross-integrated editorial systems. Generally, the authors discovered that television news managers defined convergence in terms that mirrored the way their station already practiced it (p. 81).

This same survey gauged the opinions of news managers about the skills required for news workers to succeed in a converged media environment. To be hired today (and be successful in the future), news directors agreed that reporters needed, first and foremost, the ability to write broadcast copy and use computers--including the Internet, e-mail, and word processing programs. After that, and in order of importance, they needed the ability to: (1) Adapt news copy for use by multiple media; (2) Shoot and edit video; (3) Work in an integrated media technology environment; (4) Adapt visual news content for multiple media; (5) Write for print; (6) Shoot still photographs; (7) Design graphics; and finally, (8) Design Web sites (pp. 96-97). Although news managers indicated they need employees capable of doing this kind of work, 67% of respondents said their stations provided no training support to help employees develop the required skills (p. 97).

In light of such findings, it is not surprising, perhaps, that other researchers have turned their scholarly attentions to journalism education. In trade-related fields such as journalism, teachers and institutions of higher learning commonly assess industry standards in order to make curricular changes and train students to meet the demands of employers (Hansen, 2005). In today's multimedia world, studying how best to teach convergence journalism is no exception.

Examining curricular concerns in the age of convergence has gained considerable cachet in the academy. As is the case with industry research, many studies published in recent years employ survey design (Kraeplin & Criado, 2005; Lowrey, Daniels, & Becker, 2005; Pavlik, Morgan, & Henderson, 2001; Tanner & Duhe, 2005). Typical of such research is a 2005 study by Kraeplin and Criado. The authors surveyed newspaper managers, television managers, and journalism teachers to find out what they thought about convergence training at the collegiate level. The researchers found that industry executives and educators share many similar views about which specific skills should be taught--from basic writing and reporting skills, to knowledge of media law and ethics, to Internet researching skills.

News Routines and Today's Journalists

Despite all this research into convergence practices, skill sets, and the future of journalism education, very few researchers have studied today's working journalists--to assess the ways in which convergence is having an impact on the jobs they do or to ask their opinions about this multimedia trend. Some media experts believe, with the proper training, news workers will adjust to their new duties with little difficulty (Tompkins, 2001). Others are concerned that convergence simply puts too many additional pressures on already overworked journalists. Stone, for example, thinks that "while some multimedia journalists can handle a variety of tasks efficiently and professionally, most will only deliver mediocre journalism" (2002, p. 3). At present, little scientific evidence exists to support either view.

Researchers stand to gain substantial insights about convergence (and other critical issues and concerns in journalism) by examining news workers' daily routines. In fact, there exists a significant body of research to demonstrate the many ways in which daily practices in America's newsrooms have an impact on news content. Through such studies it has been learned, for example, how news content is affected by entrenched social structures (Tuchman, 1978), daily deadlines (Shook, Lattimore, & Redmond, 1996), and resource allocation (Gant & Dimmick, 2000; McManus, 1990, 1994). To better understand workers' decisions, perceptions, and their role in the newsroom, Shoemaker and Reese (1996) urged researchers to examine the routines that go with news jobs.

To date, several scholars have examined convergence in relation to news routines and practices. Commonly, however, their studies have focused on individual cases in trend-setting multimedia operations (Huang...

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