Monday, April 27, 2009

Is convergence killing journalism as we know it?

The word convergence originates from mathematics and science. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines convergence as the merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole. The concept of convergence was first popularised by Ithiel de Sola Pool in his landmark 1983 book, "The Technologies of Freedom,". Pool described what he called "the convergence of modes:"

"The explanation for the current convergence between historically separated modes of communication lies in the ability of digital electronics. Conversation, theater, news and text are all increasingly delivered electronically ... [E]lectronic technology is bringing all modes of communications into one grand system."

The two most important convergent technologies today are the computer and the mobile phones. With increased processor speeds and larger storage spaces, the computer has become the most powerful technologically convergent gadget. Text, voice, pictures, video, fax and the internet are the media that have converged into one technology – the computer. Computers have changed the way media organisations gather information, design the content and produce and distribute it to the audience. The mobile phone offers the second most important technological convergence, offering almost the same benefits as that of a computer, along with the benefit of portability. 

With a mobile phone, a laptop computer, a video camera and a microphone, the age of backpacking journalism has arrived. A single person can, with the help of these convergent technologies gather information, edit it and create the content for all the media channels – newspapers, television, radio and the internet. 

Convergence has also led to 'sharing' of content among the television reporters, where cameras are hooked up and footage shared. This leads to many television channels 'breaking' the same news at the same time.

This multi-tasking functionality is not easy to adopt for the traditional journalist. Moreover, multi-tasking has taken a toll on the quality of news content, in the mad race for ‘breaking news’. This has raised concerns among journalists, researchers and also the audience about the quality of news appearing on the TV channels and also in the print and the internet. With large media organisations in India beginning to diverge and cater to print, television, radio and the internet audiences, the effect of convergent technologies will be more and more evident in the coming years.

The other most important phenomenon is the divergence. With information available at the click of the mouse, today's reader is not satisfied with the newspaper or the news on television or the radio. There are many more information channels availabel to choose from. Websites, news websites, blogs and community sites are all there to get more spicy and sometimes illogical and a lot of times, unauthenticated information. Add sites like YouTube and several similar sites and you also have videos available online. This has led to divergence of news.

So what could be the future of journalism? What are the skill-sets that a journalist should have in this mad race of 'breaking news' to survive and to prosper? The ideal scenario would be this....

Today's journalist ideally should : 

  • Handle and use the video and still camera
  • Think quickly spicy and attention catching headlines on the field 
  • Once the shoot is done, capture the footage on a laptop
  • Be adept at using a word processing, video editing, sound editing software
  • Write the story for newspaper, television, radio and the website.
  • Edit the footage, lay music and sound tracks
  • Encode the footage for the television, online video site and portable devices like the iPod
  • Create an audio file for the radio
  • Email the story to the newspaper
  • Upload the video and the audio files in different formats to the channel server as well as the online video website using FTP or by uplinking to the satellite
  • Move on to the next place to cover more news

And all this in a period of about an hour. This is the kind of multi-tasking that I think journalist will have to adapt to in the future. The media organisations, in turn, will have to develop a system by which the journalist on the ground is fed with proper background research, which can help in writing a story which is thematic and not just episodic. Ideally there should be a bank of researchers with access to archives to constantly monitor and communicate with the journalists on the ground. Only then we will be able to see an inprovement in the quality in news. Convergent technologies will actually be beneficial and the high standards of journalism could be back. And we might actually be able to get a responsible press, the fourth pillar of democracy.