During the next few years, the migration of news media to the Internet will start to become a background reality, a given. Paper publishing will still be around, as will over-the-air broadcasting. But both will be on their way to becoming niche artifacts. The technological superiority of online distribution for multimedia presentation and its vast potential for interactivity will make the Internet the principal venue for news and topical commentary.
So much for the objection that the concerns I'm about to raise are signs of resistance to technological advance. I've long argued that the news business needs to learn from Hollywood. A half-century ago, moviemakers sold five times the tickets they sell now (to a population half its current size). If Hollywood had stuck to the belief that its business is to pack theaters, it would no longer have a business. It has prospered, as Edward Jay Epstein recounts in "The Big Picture," by being technologically nimble, becoming the premier source of home-based entertainment content—first via broadcast TV (initially viewed as a mortal enemy), lately for cable, Web delivery, DVDs, podcasts, mobile and so forth.
The news business faces a similar set of technology-related opportunities. But as it addresses them, my question is, what will happen to journalism? And by "journalism" I mean a professional practice constituted by independent truth-telling that's intended to serve the public by illuminating important social and political realities. Some would object that this definition might exclude coverage of celebrity pregnancies and basketball drafts, and for the purposes of this polemic it does.
I worry that the answer to my question, judging by the industry's performance to date, is that the news business will continue to marginalize journalism, as yesterday's newsrooms transform themselves into tomorrow's market-driven, multimedia information utilities.
Concern About Convergence
Concern about the consequences of this technological transformation for journalism brings us to the topic of convergence, which so far consists primarily of integrating audio-visual media and round-the-clock Internet distribution into formerly print-based news operations. (I applaud the interactive initiatives of some news organizations, but I don't see them as part of the convergence paradigm, which mainly concerns news distribution, not collaborative conversation.)
Convergence has swept the news business and has prompted, in some places, a radical overhaul of newsroom operations, affecting workloads, assignment philosophies, production expectations, and service goals. It has become, as a colleague observed, "the new orthodoxy." It is also, in its current form, deeply flawed.
Here I have four basic points to make:
Convergence has principally been a response to business needs, not journalistic ones. That seems obvious and trivial, but I think it's important.
Convergence isn't really "platform agnostic" at all, but instead privileges certain technical capabilities over others and certain kinds of information over others.
Convergence seems to engender management practices that degrade newsroom working conditions and that encourage journalism that is thin and hasty.
Intelligently blending powerful communications technologies could be a boon to journalism, but only if enhancing journalism replaces marketing objectives as the chief goal of the process.
To the first point: It's a commonplace to note that convergence has been driven by a recognition among the people who own and run news operations—especially monopoly metro dailies—that their future audience is turning to the Web for informational needs and that legacy organizations must create a strong and vital online presence. Leveraging their capabilities by developing sites and customizing their offerings to suit the Internet audience are essential to business success and, indeed, survival.
Fair enough. I'm all for survival. I simply want to point out that this technological redirection is not being decided in the name of better journalism, of seeking better tools with which to create more powerful reporting about matters of compelling interest and concern.
Once, news organizations embraced the telegraph, installed telephones, and issued walkie-talkies so they could gather news more efficiently. Not so with the migration to the Web. It hasn't been a response to demands from reporters for smarter technologies with which to get the news, better techniques to plumb realities that have heretofore been inaccessible, and new ways to hear from people who have important realities to share and until now have been beyond reporters' reach.
Those are the sort of things advanced communication technologies can enable us to do, and they might have huge importance to the practice of journalism. But those aren't the concerns that are driving convergence. Instead, convergence is about enabling the legacy news business to colonize cyberspace. That is its DNA.
Secondly, we hear declarations from news executives about making their operations "platform agnostic," a term embraced, most recently, by New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.. I know what the executives mean—they want their staffs producing great work irrespective of whether it runs in print or with sound and pictures on the Web. But the hard fact is that technologies are not media-agnostic.
Once deployed in specific ways to accomplish certain objectives, they're anything but indifferent. Once you commit to nourishing a round-the-clock Web operation that's programmed to be on top of the news, you've taken on a hungry young monster, one that's happy to devour whatever it's given, but which must be fed. Do we hear journalists clamoring for the chance to post multiple versions of stories as the day progresses, or hungering to record and edit video they're barely qualified to make, just in time to prepare radio scripts so they can post multimedia streams and feed audio to affiliated stations?
Welcome to the converged newsroom.
To the third point: What kind of a job is that, anyway? Based on recent coverage of convergence efforts in the American Journalism Review and Editor & Publisher, what I've described isn't far from the realities of some enthusiastically converged newsrooms: The working conditions of journalists are being degraded, and reporting energies are being drawn away from the richly detailed, thoughtful reporting that exemplifies the best in journalism and that makes a difference in the lives of our communities.
Much of the problem seems to derive from enshrining speed as an operational priority. Newspaper staffs accustomed to meeting end-of-day deadlines are now running on round-the-clock Internet time, as if that was essential to their authority. Is it really? Is the public perpetually hungry for real-time updates on fast-breaking near-news? Sometimes, perhaps they are. But in a larger sense I'm struck by the paradox of a business that wrings its hands ceaselessly over its shaky credibility and that is now reshaping itself to fit an operating mode in which half-understood stories are published with wire-service haste, in the belief that fixing them later, as facts are clarified, will repair the harm done by earlier versions.
Publishing now, editing later—that seems an odd way to regain public trust.
We're likely to see many of the same issues arise with the accelerating use of citizen-generated videos and photographs—generically referred to as "user-generated content"—on news Web sites and in newscasts. As with any information that comes from outsiders whose identity, circumstance and purpose are not known, authenticity has to be a constant concern, especially as news organizations come under greater marketing pressures to welcome YouTube-like input. True, nonprofessionals have given us historic news images, from the Kennedy assassination to the South Asian tsunami, but recently we can also thank them for supplying images of the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.
For now, convergence efforts have proven that you can convert a city room into a 24/7 cyber-news mill, tarted up with pictures and sound. But is this the only way to go? Of course it isn't. Maybe the needs of the thoughtful, courageous journalism that contributes so much to civic life won't fundamentally shape the way the news business makes its historic movement online. Media strategy, after all, may be too important to be left to journalists.
And to be fair, it's early yet. The current state of convergence recalls the period soon after USA Today debuted and newspapers discovered plumage. Suddenly, everybody had to have color. What followed was a wildly iridescent period, which one savvy design person later described as "Fruit Loops," colors lavished promiscuously and pointlessly around humble columns of gray. In time, good taste reappeared.
In that spirit, I can't help but wonder what will happen when key decisions about technology are made by reporters and line editors, who ask how this epochal array of powerful tools will help them do their jobs better: How will it enable them to bring greater intelligence and reach to their reporting? Or to hear people who have been silenced? Or tell stories more vividly and compellingly? Or inspire and participate in a richer communitywide conversation?
That's not about branding, repositioning, leveraging, monetizing or line extension. It's about journalism, which is what the news business, converged or not, is supposed to be about.
Edward Wasserman holds the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation chair in journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Since 2001 his biweekly column on the media has been distributed nationally by the McClatchy-Tribune wire. This essay is an expanded version of a column first published in May 2006 and archived on the Washington and Lee University Web site.