Conflict Within Convergence
Daniel P. Kelly
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
December 6, 2007
Convergence is the force that is combining older forms of media – newspapers, television, and radio – into a singular form that could possibly reside on the Internet. This is an undeniable trend in the media industry with an ever-increasing number of media outlets working together to reap the perceived benefits of convergence, one of which is bringing information to the masses in whatever format they choose.
In all honesty, convergence is a beautiful theoretical trend. Media would become the Northwest Passage of information and entertainment by providing placid waters to every media destination.
Much like the fabled Passage, an idealized form of convergence may fall into the annals of human mythology. Converged media will likely resemble the typical exploratory voyage that leaves its passengers – the public – starved and filled with mutinous rage. A rouge wave of depleted information will leave even hardened seafarers with salt-stung eyes.
How can convergence have such noble possibilities yet become damaging to the flow of information?
Essentially, the public has been adventurous in adopting more forms of media – like the Internet – and using these forms as vessels to sail beyond the familiar territory of traditional information intake. As this has occurred the older forms of media have found their mainland domains depressingly uninhabited. And so, television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet have begun to band together for a necessary venture. The initial relationships are a bit strained, as once dueling forces must work together to liberate the public of its valuable treasure: attention.
Initial caution should be heeded through a tale of one brave (or foolish) lad who built his own raft out of HTML branches and CSS vines to test the invitingly dangerous waters of convergence.
It's an ironic twist how my own website dedicated to UNC-Pembroke football, Pembroke Pigskin ( www.pembrokepigskin.com ) has become the greatest lesson in convergence than I could have possibly imagined. I spent a ludicrous amount of time early in the semester putting its component parts together – HTML files, photos, insightful articles – and acquiring the necessary web space needed to get online. Once I was able to accomplish that – about 4 a.m. on some Tuesday – there was jubilation and relief. I had my own website and, more importantly, my own journalistic voice for the first time in college. It was a bit too much relief in retrospect.
I didn't quite understand the workload that would be required since I wore every single "hat" my website had to offer. I was constantly coding, writing, editing, and resizing photos along with every other responsibility of a college student. One Saturday night I spent the entire night working – surely an anomaly – putting up a very brief story and pictures about the homecoming game the team had won along with the previous week's road game. It was probably the least entertaining Saturday night in recent undergraduate memory. That event is slowly fading into distant memory and the last time I updated the site. I've reported on many other football games, but I haven't uploaded anything due to my exhaustion after that single event. In the journalistic world, this is an offensive practice. Perhaps some people would classify my "mental exhaustion" as "laziness," but I would obviously disagree. My meticulous nature demands perfection from every aspect of the site, from its layout to the actual content, but I simply don't have the time to pour into it like earlier in the semester. This experience could have thrown any positive outlook I had for convergence into serious doubt. Fortunately, I still believe strongly in the idea of convergence, but it is impossible to achieve through Herculean efforts of individuals. Luckily, I don't have to make a living off of my website like a baggy-eyed, caffeinated journalist would for an expansive media giant.
Imagine these media giants as fearsome, gargantuan sea monsters that continually lurk in the watery depths looking to snack on any passing ship to fulfill their insatiable appetite. Any traveler should fear their shadows just beneath the glassy surface and the threat they pose to a beneficial form of convergence.
The concentration of media ownership is a particularly worrisome aspect of convergence, as it limits the number of perspectives available to the public. As recently as October 18, 2007, the Federal Communications Commission was hoping to loosen the current media ownership laws that prohibit owning a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same city (Labaton).
Numerous ownership groups are certainly licking their collective lips for the possible repeal that would allow them to feast on any wayward media outlet of their choosing. Currently, some newspapers and broadcasting operations work together but under different ownership, thus evading the law entirely. This is a particularly dark side of convergence for the public due to the reduction of competition. Eventually, 50-80 companies will control the global information network, while the United States will be dominated by five to eight (Quinn 125). News organizations were previously able to achieve a high quality of reporting due to the competitive nature of traditional media. They each have honed their strengths over the perpetual battle for public attention. Television has brevity and visual appeal while newspapers have in-depth stories and unparalleled accuracy. In the case of converged media, these two forms work side by side – either as cooperative partners or under the same ownership – and are likely required to share the same information on a news story. The result is an unfulfilling slab of monotony. Despite any journalist's best intentions, there is a certain amount of personal interpretation and influence that goes into any given story. In a converged media operation the same reporter's information would be used online, in the television and radio broadcast, and retooled for the next day's newspaper. While working as a reporter in Chicago, Joe Kaplan has suffered through this still-awkward phase of convergence while covering a story:
A small device was inserted into my ear and an equally small device was clipped onto my tie. I then answered questions from a broadcast journalist miles away while I looked into the camera that was pointed to my face. I eagerly told my interviewer what I was working on and what would be in the newspaper the next day. Thus, I scooped myself... (Kaplan 516)
Kaplan's anecdote is exactly what's wrong with using convergence as a cost-cutting practice. It is certainly an extremely efficient method of news gathering, but is the public at a disservice? Absolutely, since it is impossible for a single reporter to cover the whole of any event in a single story or a series of articles. Multiple reporters looking at the same event in a unique, though still objective fashion, would better serve the public.
Of course, multiple independent reporters aren't a particularly good business practice as the competition clearly favors the consumer product over a business owner's profit. From a purely ethical standpoint, it would be wise to not completely saturate a market with just a single source to avoid overwhelming the public in a deluge of similar news. Then again, large businesses and ethics have a slightly greater affinity for one another than oil and water.
Luckily for business owners, they have reporters they believe are eager to take on numerous unfamiliar roles. This is a cost-cutting method of these media conglomerates, to simply reduce the number of staff and have a reporter complete multiple phases of a news story. That means a reporter would have to be extensively trained in writing, broadcasting, HTML, photography, and video to cover a story effectively. And even if this ideal reporter had above average abilities in these areas, there isn't enough time to do them justice given the deadline pressure he/she is facing. The only (nearly) viable option would be to surgically graft all the necessary net-enabled gadgets of converged reporting onto reporters along with nutritious, intravenous fluids to fuel them throughout their work.
This "versatile" journalist is a complete switch from the practice of division of labor that sought to have workers specialize in certain areas. Instead, this localization of labor hopes to create a media monstrosity out of a mere person. A single reporter is simply unable to do the quality of work that is needed for any single form of media. If cost cutting weren't the motivating factor, then the proper training could be administered and a suitable number of supporting staff could make this utility-knife journalist a remote possibility.
A business-focused view of convergence is exactly the wrong way to approach an innovative idea. If anything, convergence takes more work than a single form of media to work effectively. This isn't meant to diminish the business aspect of media, just to place its boundaries into greater focus. The Tampa Tribune is one converged news organization that Kaplan sharply criticizes. In his view, "the Tampa Tribune is, at best mediocre...though both news organizations [a TV station and a newspaper] shared their news budgets with each other throughout the day, it didn't seem to have much impact on the final news product (Kaplan 518)."
Basically, Kaplan sees that this collaboration between television and newspapers didn't improve the news story since both parts shared the same information. Despite this, the company is reportedly thriving financially but they do little with that profit to improve their news gathering abilities. Once the content of the editorial side is being affected by business decisions, there's a serious problem within that organization. Good content is what engages the viewer in the first place, not a given media outlet being an omnipresent force in their everyday lives. If media consumers believe that their content is shallow or (even worse) inaccurate, they will move on to a media provider that understands the specific strains of convergence and addresses them accordingly. This involves more work and an expanded budget, not drastic cost cutting. The media providers that succeed in convergence's lofty goals are going to reach the widest audience with the best content and convincingly outdo whatever competition they face.
The essential lesson to remember is that only hard work and clasping tight to solid, ethical ropes are the only defense against convergence's storm-stricken seas. It is a journey filled with whirlpools, serpentine monsters, and cruel temptation, but braving those perils leads to the dawn of a new information age.
Labaton, Stephen. "Plan Would Ease Limits on Media Owners."nytimes.com 18 Oct. 2007. 16 November 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/business/media/18broadcast.html
Quinn, Stephen. "Better journalism or better profits?: A key convergence issue in an age of concentrated ownership." Pacific Journalism Review 10.2 (Sep. 2004): 111-129. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 5 November 2007. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.uncclc.coast.uncwil.edu:80/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=14844524&site=ehost-live
Thelen, Gil, Joel Kaplan,and Dan Bradley. "Debate." Journalism Studies 4.4 (Nov. 2003): 513. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. 5 November 2007. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.uncclc.coast.uncwil.edu:80/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=11157624&site=ehost-live
Article © 2007 Daniel P. Kelly – Page © 2008 Dr. Anthony Curtis, Mass Communication Dept., University of North Carolina at Pembroke e-mail home page