Monday, April 20, 2009

Converge: In Media and the Academy

So much is being written about convergence in media that the word convergence is becoming a buzz term and losing its meaning. In the past few weeks articles about media convergence have been seen in a variety of scholarly academic journals, trade publications, and even popular mass media.

Students in mass communication programs are starting to notice and care about the fast-changing nature of the media in which they hope to find employment in the near future.

Faculty must envision, create and deliver a curriculum with value and meaning to our students. We must recognize changing trends and react. Classes should change and evolve at least at the same rate as the media to which we will deliver our graduates.

There is even the argument that university programs should evolve faster than the media so classes are ahead of the curve and prepare students for the jobs that will be available a few years in the future.

This is a problem for higher education. While not as bureaucratic and slow to action as some governments, academe has traditionally been slow to change. Partly this may be because rapid change has not been needed. In mass communication, in spite of changes in technology and speed of creation, production and distribution, the basic concepts have remained mostly unchanged for decades.

Until just recently, Newspapers hadn't changed dramatically in more than 50 years. Radio formats are essentially the same as they were in the 1960s and 70s. Television has evolved somewhat since its golden age in the 1950s, but now seems to be back-tracking to low-cost, high profit formats. One major change is there are now many channels for smaller niche markets, but they deliver similar content: weather, sports, financial news, soap operas, game shows, cartoons, etc.

Since the introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web, early adopters in the media sought ways to capitalize and expand on the capabilities of new and developing information delivery systems.

In recent years, media outlets large and small have begun to experiment with combining technologies-- not just for whiz-bang affect-- but to more effectively deliver content to their audiences. Newspapers, formerly relegated to two-dimensions, ink on paper, now have web sites with natural sound audio, video and animation. Radio stations, formerly limited to through the air audio, also have web sites on which they post text, photographs and video. Television stations also have web sites where they combine text, audio and video to inform their audience while promoting their programs.

In each case, the media seek ways to increase their reach to maintain and grow their audience, always with an eye to maximizing profits through additional ad revenue.

The mass communication program here at Winona State University has a photojournalism program. Until recently, the curriculum was almost completely based on two-dimensional photographs. Recent graduates have found they need additional training in video and audio news gathering, as well as in developing web content and using content management software to upload work to their employer's web sites. The program is changing, now focusing on "visual journalism" and bringing more digital and web technology into classes and student projects.

Similarly, journalism students must know how to operate a camera to make themselves more valuable to potential employers. In tough economic times, many media are sending so-called One Man Band journalists on assignments, expecting them to return with text, audio, video and still images. The OMB journalist must edit work in all areas and post to the web with speed.

To be sure, some media will still have room for specialists who focus on excellent writing, compelling images, or dynamic video story-telling. More and more, as the media adopt convergence, mass communication professionals must be competent and proficient in more than one area.

To adequately serve students, university mass communication programs must change and adapt rapidly. Convergence in the academy is also appropriate: bringing the journalism, photojournalism, broadcasting, and information technology (web design and management) elements together.

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