Walking the Convergence Talk

By: Steve Outing

We’ve been hearing about “media convergence” for a long while, but most working journalists don’t yet live it. The days of working in an environment where you produce content for multiple media platforms is for the pioneers — not the legion of newspaper, radio, television, and online journalists who stick to their native media.

But a growing minority of reporters not only understand what convergence means, they practice it on a daily basis — reporting and producing content for print, the Internet, radio, and/or television.

For this week’s column, I interviewed several journalists who live the life of convergence in their careers. For now, these people are unusual. In the future, perhaps the majority of journalists will live these kinds of cross-platform working lives. If you’re working in the news media, these stories may illustrate your future.

The print-TV guy

Mark Fagan knew he wanted to be a journalist as far back as high school. He worked internships and later got jobs at newspapers, and for the last decade he’s worked at the Journal-World, a 21,000-circulation paper in Lawrence, Kan. He’s now 34.

About three years ago, when Fagan was business editor for the paper — whose parent company owns a cable company with its own news operation, 6News — he was asked to do a twice-a-week “Business Report” for the TV news program. This involved doing a short segment for the newscast in which he’d take a different angle on a story that he also reported for the newspaper.

“Apparently, the folks around here liked what I was doing,” Fagan says, because since February of this year he’s been doing nearly all of his stories — he’s now a county reporter — both for print and TV. In fact, his official title is “converged reporter,” to reflect his position as serving both the newspaper and the cable news operation. Officially, he’s still paid by the newspaper.

The Journal-World and 6News work in a converged newsroom now. So instead of having a camera in the print newsroom, which was used for Fagan’s business spots, now he is more directly involved in the TV news operation. In fact, he commonly turns up on the 6News anchor desk, alongside the TV veterans.

What’s remarkable about this is that Fagan has never had any TV training. When his bosses decided to start working closely with the TV operation, he was pretty much tossed in front of a camera — and told that this was a new part of his job. He says that he doubts he would have chosen going into TV if it hadn’t been foisted upon him.

Was he nervous? “Yeah, the first time it was very scary, going onto TV live. I had butterflies; it was really nerve-wracking.” But after that first time, it didn’t seem so hard again, Fagan says, and now it’s routine. “It’s no big deal.” In fact, he likens the experience to once being assigned to take a bungee jump at a state fair — starting to shift some of his work time to TV was a big jump, but it got easier after the initial shock wore off.

Fagan’s typical day involves covering a story and planning coverage for print and TV. The idea for most coverage is to do it differently for TV than for the print edition, so that people who might read the paper and watch the newscast aren’t getting the same thing on two platforms. He’ll initially start with some phone interview work, during which he’s always thinking about how to turn it into a TV story. When he does in-person interviews, he’ll often use a small digital camera and tape much longer than would a TV reporter — because he has to make sure he has enough detail to fill out his newspaper story. At the end of the day, he might appear on the TV anchor desk to talk about his story for a few minutes — and of course he’s turned in his print version.

Occasionally, Fagan will do a story that’s only for the newspaper, or a story that’s solely meant for TV. But mostly, stories do double duty.

It’s worth noting that 6News no longer has a county TV reporter. Instead, they get half of Fagan. Arrangements like this often mean that a TV news operation can get coverage for beat areas it otherwise couldn’t afford, and even reduce the number of dedicated television reporters.

For the newspaper, it could be considered a bit of a loss — since Fagan often can’t cover smaller stories that he otherwise might get to if he were devoted full-time to the print newsroom. Fagan estimates that he works 40-45 hours a week — no worse than when he was business editor.

The Journal-World also has a Web site (run by award-winning new-media manager Rob Curley), but so far Fagan hasn’t done much converged journalism specifically for online — though occasionally he’s taken some still digital images for the site. That’s next on his list of goals for becoming a better converged journalist.

The radio-Web guy

Jeff Horwich is a 25-year-old reporter/producer for Minnesota Public Radio, based in its St. Cloud/Collegeville bureau. Unlike Fagan, Horwich took a cross-media tack to his education and training. During college, he did newspaper and television journalism work, and founded his own Web site, and after graduation worked at a newspaper in Tokyo.

He’s worked at MPR now for two years, and is one of several reporters who perform cross-platform work routinely. While radio journalism comes first, the MPR Web site is increasingly important and takes up a growing amount of reporters’ time.

When Horwich is on a story, he’s always keeping online presentation in mind. Like an increasing number of radio journalists, he takes a digital camera with him when out on assignment — taking photos for the Web. While he doesn’t claim to be an expert photographer, MPR has given reporters like Horwich training by professional photographers. Reporters are given mid-level digital cameras, and at the St. Cloud bureau they no longer have to fight over the sole camera. Because he’s not a pro photographer, Horwich says he takes lots of photos so there’s plenty to choose from — possible because of digital cameras’ storage capacities.

Horwich also works with a portable digital audio recorder, and in addition to using it for radio interviews, he also keeps watch for supplementary audio that can be published on the Web site.

Knowing that an assigned story also will have a Web version, Horwich says that he reports differently than if he were focused solely on radio. Radio reporters don’t need to know how to spell an interviewee’s name, but they have to get it right for the text Web report. Horwich also recognizes that his Web-site story will have more staying power than his radio report, and more scrutiny by the audience. While a radio report is fleeting, a Web story stays around for a long time. He points out that his sources are most likely to see his work on the Web — since the chances of them catching the radio version at the time it’s aired are considerably less. Thus, it’s more important in the Web version of a story to be more complete, and back up statements with facts and statistics — things that might be left out of a brief radio report.

Horwich typically writes his radio script first, using appropriate radio style. Once that’s done, it’s on to the Web article, which takes a rewrite of the radio text and the addition of details and data to flesh out the story. He also gets rid of radio-specific phrasing and rewrites sentences that would be too choppy for text publication.

MPR support staff in St. Paul — both online editors and broadcast editors who have been trained to do some Web production — are available to assist reporters in producing Web versions of their stories. However, Horwich is among the reporters who often prefers to do it himself. On a typical day, he’ll spend some time at the tail end of the reporting process creating his story’s Web page, selecting and positioning accompanying photos, audio, or on rare occasion video clips. That’s a reasonable task because MPR has created a template system — no HTML required — that allows reporters to quickly create story pages.

As you might expect, all this extra Web works takes time, so Horwich and other MPR cross-platform reporters get more time for each story than if they were reporting solely for radio. The price for MPR is that fewer stories can get covered by a reporter who is spending time tweaking his or her Web pages.

Horwich points out one substantial advantage of the MPR Web site to reporters like him: an archive of his work is readily available on the Web. That’s simply not the case with radio reports. And beyond that personal benefit, archived MPR journalism on the Web becomes a valuable research tool for the public.

Horwich estimates that he spends more hours on the job as a result of his cross-platform duties, but he’s excited by the work — and is allowed to take comp time for the extra hours when necessary. There’s also less down time during a typical day. If he’s waiting for interview call-backs, instead of kicking back for a spell he’ll do his Web work.

The Web-TV guy

Terry Neal, 35, is the chief political correspondent for washingtonpost.com, a position that affords him the opportunity to work in text, audio/radio, and video/TV. He calls this a “hybrid” job, in that he writes a regular news-analysis column on U.S. national politics; regularly files audio and video reports for the Web site; and regularly appears on MSNBC television to talk about his stories as part of The Washington Post‘s partnership with MSNBC.

Neal’s background is mostly in the print world. After graduating from college in 1989, he worked for various newspapers, ending up on the metro staff of the Post in 1994, and in 1997 moving to cover national politics. He spent 18 months traveling with the George W. Bush presidential campaign, then briefly left journalism to go into public relations — “a big mistake,” he says. He rejoined the Post via its Web site as chief political correspondent — the second person to hold that job — because he wanted to “do something different.”

Neal’s workday is a bit more “traditional” than Fagan’s or Horwich’s, in that cross-platform work is not an everyday occurrence. It’s not uncommon for Neal to produce a traditional text column for washingtonpost.com, and that’s the end of it. But on frequent occasions, he’ll also file supplementary audio to accompany a column — say an audio interview he’s recorded as part of the reporting process — or produce a video clip for the Web site.

A couple of times a week, MSNBC requests that Neal go on the air to discuss his column and/or some burning national political issue. Washingtonpost.com has a TV studio in its newsroom, and there’s another in the print newspaper’s newsroom. (Web site and newspaper operate from separate locations.) Neal says this isn’t much of a hardship, because he’s already done the reporting on the topic and is prepared to discuss it on-camera.

Neal has had no TV training, nor has the Post offered it to him. “They basically told me, ‘Just be yourself,'” he says. And while he thinks he wasn’t that good on TV initially, he asked people for advice and in time got better at it — “but you still wouldn’t mistake me for Tom Brokaw.”

Other than the TV-interview spots, Neal occasionally works in video to his Web political coverage. During the last election, he traveled to several southern states to write about hot races. A video technologist accompanied him, and the duo produced stand-alone video segments for washingtonpost.com. The Web site also has a large staff of editors/technologists, who serve to prevent Neal from having to get too technical and swerve away from the reporting aspect of his job — with the technology assistance, he really doesn’t have to be more than a political reporter. What’s different is that Neal now has to think about video, flagging good quotes and thinking about what might make a good video shot. “This is very different from what I’ve done before [in my career],” he says.

How much cross-platform work Neal performs is mostly up to him — though he makes beyond-text reporting a priority as much as he can while still emphasizing the writing over all else. “This is still The Washington Post. The priority will always be the writing,” he says.

In terms of appearing on television as part of his job, Neal says that his lack of TV training really hasn’t been a hindrance. And he thinks that TV news executives often like having print reporters on the air, because they don’t come across as typical polished TV people, and are perceived more as experts. “They like that you don’t dress like Brian Williams.”

The convergence veterans

I can’t write this column without noting that “convergence reporters” are not an entirely new phenomenon. Wire service reporters were practicing cross-platform journalism decades ago — albeit things have changed quite a bit over the years.

Peter M. Zollman, now a new-media consultant who runs Advanced Interactive Media, worked for United Press International in the 1970s. As was typical at UPI, he wrote stories for the newspaper wire, then rewrote a version for the broadcast wire — which required understanding the different needs of each medium.

Zollman was among the UPI reporters who also did audio reports for UPI Audio (later UPI Radio), doing voice reports and cutting tape (and carrying various tools for editing audio tape). For features, he took his own photographs. He did not, however, work in video — though he occasionally appeared on TV interview shows as part of his job.

Zollman says that experience made him a better reporter. “I had to learn how to think and write and present in different voices. It taught me to think a lot of different ways about the story I was covering,” he says.

Convergence also was commonly practiced during the Vietnam War, points out Tracy Wood, author of the new book, War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam (Random House). She explains:

“U.S. reporters who worked outside the jurisdiction of newspaper and wire service guilds for decades have taken photos as well as written stories. UPI foreign correspondents also carried tape recorders during the Vietnam War and many other assignments. They did daily audio feeds, wrote stories, and took photos. It wasn’t considered a big deal. You received a bit of extra pay — per photo or per audio feed — but not much. It just was part of the job. The professional photogs taught you how to take photos and critiqued your work as you developed your skills and the audio people taught you how to do radio feeds. Photographers also wrote stories and radio reporters took photographs.”

Convergence journalism may sound new, but it’s really not. Only the tools and media outlets have changed.

Other recent columns

Convergence For the Common Good In Rochester, Wednesday, Nov. 27
Have Newspapers Lost Help-Wanted Ads For Good?, Wednesday, Nov. 13
News Sites Need To Go On Diets, Wednesday, Oct. 30
Out With the Old Advertisers, In With the New, Wednesday, Oct. 9
Google News Could Change Online News Industry, Wednesday, Sept. 25
Don’t Hide Your Multimedia Content, Wednesday, Sept. 11
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