“To fall into habit is to begin to cease to be.” — Miguel de Unamuno
Journalism is far from a static institution. Despite an outwardly dogmatic adherence to conservative professional principles, American journalism has steadily and persistently evolved from the partisan activism of the country’s early newspapers to the hyperbole of the popular press to the direct and sober prose of the mid-20th-century. As the 21st century unfolds it continues through a chaotic evolution into a networked information economy that changes how news is produced, delivered and used. The nature of communication has changed and that has altered the relationship between journalists and their publics. Journalism has attempted to react to the changing information economy through convergence, which so far has only moved old forms onto new platforms. Convergence journalism has proven an inadequate reaction to changes in the way we communicate and interact.
One-to-Many and Many-to-Many Models
The 20th century is notable in the history of journalism (and information as a whole) for what legal scholar Yochai Benkler described as the “industrial information economy.” “During this period,” he says, “the platform of the public sphere was dominated by mass media — print, radio and television.” The rise of a mass media in the United States started a century earlier with the advent of high-capacity presses and daily newspapers, but achieved its apogee in the 20th century when radio and television joined print as major distributors of both news and entertainment. A principal cause for this, he notes, is the dramatic rise in cost of entry to the information marketplace. The resulting concentration of ownership of media outlets led inevitably to a vertical communication flow, from one publisher or broadcaster to many relatively passive consumers of news and culture. It is also what legal scholar Lawrence Lessig describes as “read-only” culture as there is limited, if any, feedback from that audience. He argues with merit that this read-only culture was a phenomenon of the 20th century only, and that anomaly has ended with a read-write culture ascendant with the digital age.
Benkler points out many disadvantages to this system as it relates to U.S. news media. He notes that since the information is filtered through a small number of people before it reaches an audience several magnitudes larger, information is inevitably lost. “In large, complex, modern societies, no one knows everything,” he says. Reducing the number of contributors to the pool of information inevitably limits the quality and completeness of the information in a society. Feedback to the publisher and therefore fellow readers is inherently limited, and the mass size of audiences homogenizes the news and limits outlier opinions in the public discourse. The concentration of media into relatively few hands also bestows an imbalance of power into the hands of a few, which potentially alters public discourse in their favor.
However, Benkler also describes many of the advantages journalists themselves cite in how well the mediascape of the 20th century could work. At its best, the economic model under which legacy media largely still work provided an independence from the largesse of government or a small set of benefactors. Thanks to this commercial advertising-based model, Benkler notes, a public sphere outside the government was possible. Large, professional newsrooms, he adds, provide mass media with the manpower and resources to perform the watchdog function in a complex society. Lastly, he says, “their near-universal visibility and independence enable them to identify important issues percolating in society.” They accredit information about issues, speed them onto the public agenda and raise their salience to the point of collective action.
But many media scholars argue that these same features have already appeared within the informal structures of networked communication and have even performed the job better than the mass-media, one-to-many model in many cases; the networked public sphere is at least as immune to government intervention due to the dispersed nature of information sources; contributors to information gathering are unlimited in the networked environment; and issues salient to the public will inevitably rise to the fore. The outlook for legacy journalism’s one-to-many model has never been so bleak, but pertinent to building a transmedia journalism is not whether this model is better than the many-to-many at certain roles or tasks.
At this writing both models exist and may exist side-by-side into the foreseeable future. The success of transmedia entertainment franchises already shows that both models have advantages in the delivery of the story. Within the news media the large staff of an entity like the New York Times provided for efficient and polished coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. Cooperative teamwork by seasoned reporters, photographers and their editors resulted in a probing look at the cause and effect of that event. Though that work could arguably be done through the networked public sphere and citizen reporters, the unity provided by the organizational structure of the Times made for a very cohesive body of work that led to a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. For better or for worse the one-to-many form of journalism delivery exists and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It can be a valuable tool in transmedia journalism. Likewise, the nature of the networked public and its many-to-many model of news production and interaction is an asset. For example, several of the principles Henry Jenkins identifies in transmedia storytelling are native characteristics of the many-to-many form of communication. The networked sphere inherently fosters the principles of spreadability, multiplicity and subjectivity among others. In following posts I will examine how both models might be used.
“Convergence” is a central theme of early 21st-century journalism, in which once-separate media meld into each other. Newspapers become TV and radio on the Internet, and those broadcast media become publishers of text. “The people formerly known as the audience,” as Jay Rosen described them, become news producers and distributors themselves. Superficially it appears journalists either ignored the digital age or simply hoped it would go away as legacy media have never seemed to find a solid foothold in the newer communication medium. But, “the problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming,” writes New York University’s Clay Shirky in a blog post examining the troubles in the industry. “They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.”
One of the oldest of those plans, first instituted by the Tribune Company of Chicago and Media General’s Tampa Tribune in the mid 1990s, took the idea of spreading the reporting resources of journalists across multiple media platforms owned by those companies. For example, a story by a Chicago Tribune reporter would be written for the paper, the Web site, and for broadcast on WGN radio and TV. That reporter would often be interviewed on-air about the story. At both media companies this structure is still at work. It has been implemented elsewhere, from Sarasota, Florida to Lawrence, Kansas.
If the above approach is a bit of a pyramid — taking one story and spreading it across multiple media — the next definition is the inverted pyramid. Digital-era prognosticators have long talked about a singular “black box” device that would be used to consume Internet content, news and entertainment media content, and communicate through multiple channels. This black box now exists in the form of smart phones or electronic tablet devices, but it has not come to dominate media consumption — not yet at least. It is one of the array of sources news readers use daily. According to the Pew Research Center’s “The State of the News Media 2010,” one third of mobile users get news from their device. But Henry Jenkins disputed as simplistic the idea of “black box” convergence in Technology Review:
What’s all this talk about ‘media convergence,’ this dumb industry idea that all media will meld into one, and we’ll get all of our news and entertainment through one box? Few contemporary terms generate more buzz — and less honey… There will never be one black box controlling all media… Media convergence is an ongoing process, occurring at various intersections of media technologies, industries, content and audiences; it’s not an end state.
A third and more popular interpretation of convergence journalism is also often called “backpack journalism.” If the above are pyramids of either direction, this might be an hourglass. The idea taught for a decade in journalism schools is to funnel the multiple skill sets of legacy media into one multimedia journalist who reports, writes copy, shoots pictures and video, and records broadcast-quality audio. Then the work of that single person is produced for use across multiple media platforms. For the Online Journalism Review in 2002, veteran reporter Jane Stevens wrote:
I am a backpack journalist. I use a video camera as my reporter’s notebook. I can put together multimedia stories that include video and audio clips, still photos grabbed from the video, as well as text. I can put together graphics information for Web designers. I can throw together a simple Web page. I can’t do Flash yet, or simple graphics but they’re on my list because they’re handy skills to learn. I can do a little muckraking, if needs be, as well as write a broadcast script and a print story. I’d rather be called Maxine Headroom than Martha Stewart.
Critics of this method have long complained that it creates journalists who are jacks of all trades but masters of no one medium. Though the product could be delivered anywhere, the individual pieces of work — reporting, photographing, recording — might all suffer from lack of proper attention. Sam Ford, a former blogger for the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT wrote, “…each medium should deliver what it is best at and that journalists in various mediums should work together — CONVERGE — to create a better news product. The truth is that, when journalists do this, it probably requires MORE people working, not fewer, to be done well.” But in the realities of the market, this form of convergence holds a solid position. Smaller local news agencies with fewer resources depend on this idea to reach across media within a limited budget. And in the realm of remote and foreign reporting it can often be a valuable way to do the work. For reporter, producer and educator Janet Kolodzy, it — like all aspects of journalism convergence — is about flexibility.
Though convergence journalism is “multimedia” in that it makes use of multiple media delivery technologies, I argue it is not transmedia. In most examples of digital journalism so far, the same content is simply repurposed for a new medium. The public gains no added value from reading or viewing the same story in another form, and neither writing nor production changes to reflect the differing users of those media. Randy Covington, director of the University of South Carolina’s Ifra Newsplex notes, “The Newsplex philosophy, boiled down to a sentence, is that news organizations will be best served if they focus on stories—not delivery platforms. The focus on production once made sense, but in today’s interwoven media environment, in which the public tracks stories throughout the day from a lot of sources, news organizations need to meet that public in places and formats that are meaningful and relevant to them.”
When Clay Shirky noted that plans were made early, he was addressing the legacy media’s business model. But content experimentation was there equally early. Fred Ritchin, an New York University professor and former New York Times picture editor, described this type of experimentation in a recent book on the future of photography:
In 1994-95 I was asked by the New York Times corporation to create a model of the future multimedia newspaper… We introduced a function allowing the reader to immediately see articles from newspapers worldwide on the same subject to provide contrasting points of view. We developed a way to listen to music from a concert being reviewed, as well as a REMEMBER button that readers could click to see a photo of an aging singing group change to an image of them in their prime… There was a photo accompanying an obituary on the actor John Candy that the reader could click that then transformed into a short scene from one of his movies. We had a bilingual studio visit with an artist and a virtual tour of the interior of a house for sale (the viewer could listen to the piano).
Many of these mid-90s innovations have come to pass in the mediascape of 15 years later. But they were not immediately adopted. He notes, “Sometimes there is a small window of opportunity when it is possible to experiment with a new media model before it is back to business as usual. It’s as if the habitués of agreed-upon form are distracted momentarily by the unknown, and for an instant the formulaic loses its ritualized status.”
Throughout the wide scope of journalism — professional and not — there are many attempts like Ritchin’s that seize the advantages in the way communication has changed. The early New York Times on the Web effort is instructive not only in terms of how new technologies change the way we can tell stories, but also by the fact that it was produced by one of the most influential legacy media companies. However, few attempts to re-imagine how journalists tell their stories have successfully changed legacy journalism thinking. The “formulaic” described by Ritchin has ruled the day, and stories produced using the same methods are simply delivered in the same way they were before. When new media are used, they simply repurpose the same content for that medium. As transmedia storytelling in entertainment shows, telling the story the same way in different media adds nothing to the larger story. New publics are engaged through different media, and when the story is told in ways native to each medium, new and deeper information is added to a complex story.
Next page: Transmedia Journalism Principles