USC J-School To Teach Convergence To All

By: Steve Outing

Beginning in the fall, incoming journalism students at the University of Southern California will march headlong into a future of media convergence. Those longing for a career in newspapers will be required as part of their academic training to appear on television and radio. Future TV news correspondents will have to write for newspapers. And everyone will learn to create content for the Internet.

Welcome, Class of 2006, to the new world of multi-platform journalism — like it or not.

The new approach at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication may be the new look in journalism education. It’s getting away from the specialization that has marked journalism schools for decades. Instead of producing graduates who are suited only to be print journalists or broadcast journalists or online journalists or PR professionals, the school intends to produce graduates capable of working cross-platform.

The key to accomplishing this is what’s called the “Core Curriculum,” which is part of the program that all undergraduate and graduate journalism students at USC must take. Here’s how it works:

For undergraduates, their first year is spent (as it’s always been) mostly taking courses outside of journalism. Journalism training begins in year two, and for three semesters students are required to take Core Curriculum classes. For incoming graduate students, the first two semesters are spent on Core Curriculum courses.

Core Curriculum classes don’t take up all of a student’s time — only six credit hours per semester, leaving plenty of remaining credit hours for other classes (presumably in the student’s interest area). But during those Core class hours, students will be required to report, write, and produce for the three primary media formats: print, broadcast, and online.

Sophomore students will get reporting assignments as part of their Core classes, and will be required to report the story for each of the platform disciplines, says Larry Pryor, an Annenberg journalism professor, director of the school’s online journalism program, and an instructor in the Core Curriculum. On a Monday, they’ll receive an assignment and have to write a newspaper story about it. On that Wednesday, they’ll produce a broadcast segment on the same topic. And on Friday, they’ll develop a new-media presentation.

At the end of the Core class semesters, students are then free to choose courses that fit their areaa of interest — and that well may be with the aim of becoming a TV reporter, print investigative reporter, etc. But every student who comes out of the Annenberg journalism program presumably will have the core skills to operate in a work environment that requires doing cross-platform tasks, says Pryor.

Playing catch-up

“Philosophically, (this new program) recognizes not just that the industry has moved, but that our readers and viewers and users all have moved,” says Michael Parks, the former Los Angeles Times editor who is now director of the Annenberg school. He means that the media industry is grappling with changing news consumer habits. They’re increasingly getting their news from the Internet, or combining “old” media with the Internet. Meanwhile, media companies haven’t entirely kept up with the change in consumer behavior.

To many, the term “convergence” conjures up an image of the lone-wolf reporter lugging around notebook and pen, mobile phone, laptop computer, digital camera, audio recorder, and video camera. But while a small minority of new-age journalists might have to work that way, the reality for most others is different, says Parks. What his students need to be prepared for are news operations that require employees to possess multiple skills to function effectively.

The newspaper investigative or enterprise reporter might be asked to appear on the paper’s affiliated TV program to succinctly explain the complex package that’s been printed that morning. The paper’s Web site might ask the print or TV reporter to help develop Web components of the story — possibly interactive graphics or audio clips to accompany text brought over from print. The radio correspondent might have to provide content for a Web package.

In such scenarios, Parks says, the journalist who can perform tasks on multiple platforms is the journalist who gets the job — or keeps it. Even if the print journalist doesn’t have the latest skills required to produce an effective online package, an understanding of how digital tools work will at least help the print journalist work better with a multimedia team.

Can they do it all?

Can students really be expected to excel at performing tasks for three very different media? Isn’t this asking too much of a single human being?

That’s not the point. It will be the rare individual who performs the tasks of a top-notch newspaper reporter and also is a top TV correspondent. Rather, the program aims to impart enough multiple-platform knowledge so that the journalist can be comfortable when asked to do something out of the ordinary — like the print or online reporter being asked to supply a video clip for a Web presentation.

Pryor says his school is designed to be the place where it’s safe to make mistakes — rather than having journalism graduates tossed into uncomfortable situations on the job and make embarrassing mistakes before a live audience. The school plans to track students’ progress across the three platforms — and those who exhibit weaknesses in any one will be steered toward tutoring.

The Core Curriculum program also will have mid-term exams, which will be graded by faculty on a blind basis — to better gauge how students are performing in the various journalism disciplines.

Another interesting aspect of the Annenberg Core Curriculum is that it is being taught primarily by adjunct faculty — media professionals (most from Southern California) rather than existing academic faculty. Parks says this is by design, not because academic faculty don’t buy into the convergence-education concept. (He says they do, enthusiastically.) “Students are being taught by people from the Los Angeles Times, from KNBC 4. … These are highly skilled professionals who teach because they love the profession,” he says, and who in some cases possess Pulitzer and Peabody prizes.

Just a bit behind the times

Why do this now? The reasons are obvious. Convergence in the newsroom is already here (though certainly not at every media company), and the industry needs more journalism graduates who have multi-platform skills. Unfortunately, the Annenberg program starts a bit late into the game. Parks says, “In some ways, I wish we’d done this 6 to 8 years ago.” But anticipating such industry needs at the earliest stages isn’t easy, and educational bureaucracies typically can’t move that fast.

The first graduates of the multi-platform training program at USC won’t emerge till 2004 (the first master’s class) and 2006 (the first undergraduate class).

Other American universities aren’t yet a lot of help. There are programs with converged-media courses, but only the University of Kansas journalism program, led by dean James Gentry, has a similar program that takes multi-platform education very seriously. Kansas was first, and USC’s program builds on the work done by Gentry and his faculty. But the Annenberg program — with its stiff requirements for all students to be multi-platform trained — is seen as taking the concept the furthest so far.

Will this spread to other university journalism programs? Parks isn’t convinced that every school needs to adopt this model. Indeed, it’s unlikely that lots of schools could do so. The cost is great, he says — for hiring additional instructors, paying for lots of high-tech and state-of-the-art equipment, PCs, broadband connections, and maintaining it all.

The cost is so great that Pryor hopes corporate media will contribute to the Annenberg program to keep it going at the high level of technology required. He also urges media companies to support their local schools — those where they tend to get most of their new employees — and encourage them to adopt multi-platform training.

When USC and other journalism schools do start sending off convergence-trained graduates, they’ll begin to meet the needs of people like Rob Curley, who heads up an award-winning Web operation at The Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas. His Web site is a marvel of multiple media — featuring text, photos, interactive graphics, applications, audio, and video. New staff members are trained in a corporate “boot camp” that teaches them how to work in a multi-platform environment.

Curley bemoaned before an audience at USC two weeks ago (at Annenberg’s annual Online Journalism conference) that journalism schools weren’t producing graduates with the skills he needs — so his company, Morris Communications, has to do the training itself.

In time, programs like those at USC and Kansas should take away some of that burden.

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