Stunning Media Changes In 2006 Have College Journalism Educators' Heads Spinning

(CBS/AP)
Danna Walker contributes part-time for CBS News in the Washington bureau. Danna Walker, Ph.D., is also an adjunct associate professor in residence and the James B. Simpson Fellow in the School of Communication at American University. Here Danna offers the following academic view of the changes the media is currently undergoing:

"Journalism is the art of collecting varying kinds of information (commonly called 'news'), which a few people possess, and of transmitting it to a much larger number of people who are supposed to desire to share it." -- Henry R. Luce, 1967.

"The medium is the message." -– Marshall McLuhan, 1964.

"Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one." -– A.J. Liebling, year unknown.

I told my "How the News Media Shape History" students at American University this semester that someday we would look back on 2006 as a landmark in the evolution of journalism. I didn't base this on one major announcement or development but on a collection of events in media at the national level. The events signaled to me that leaders at the top levels of the news industry had faced their prospects in the roiling media environment and blinked.

The events went beyond the idea that the Internet is now an important player in the world of media and every news outlet must have a viable Web site. That was a concept once called "convergence," a buzz word that meant to journalism academics that students going into the news profession needed to be conversant in print, broadcast and Internet writing, producing and reporting. Its manifestation was a place such as the Tampa Tribune whose news center is a hub for online, newspaper and broadcast journalists from the jointly owned TV station.

I've been talking to my students about "convergence" since I graduated from the University of Maryland's Ph.D. program in 2003 and began teaching communication. University communication departments have been puzzling over and analyzing convergence for several years as they watched the different forms of what we used to call mass media – print, radio and television – come together, first as text, then audio and video on the Internet. Not long ago, these departments began overhauling curricula to add components of online journalism – a move that seems quaint just a year or two later because of the now-obvious conclusion that we are moving to one digital media environment with the Internet dominating.

Communication, media and journalism students are barely conscious of the old lines of demarcation between print, radio and television. And, to think of all the energy we in communication academia spent on trying to insert online media into the existing structure of journalism education. It's understandable that we would think of the Internet as an add-on rather than an implosion, considering that most of us spent our careers in the pre-digital age.

So, if we in communication academia have been watching this all unfold and making predictions based on developments in so-called converged newsrooms, what is different about the latter part of 2006?

For the first time, mainstream news organizations themselves are moving to that place our students have occupied for awhile – a place where media "platforms" such as print, online and broadcast aren't something to be pondered and "converged." Such distinctions these days are becoming irrelevant, even in the eyes of mass media titans like the television networks and premier newspapers.

The first of a series of major announcements attesting to that fact came in October when NBC Universal moved to eliminate up to 700 jobs and restructure programming. Most industry insiders focused on what seemed to be yet more evidence of the never-ending downward spiral in numbers of viewers and readers for mainstream media. But those in university journalism departments zeroed in, instead, on a quote from NBC News President Steve Capus.

"We've been a TV business that dabbles in digital. Now, we're positioning as a news content-production center going forward that happens to do television," he told The Washington Post.

For my own convenience, perhaps he could have come up with something better suited to opening a book chapter or heading a syllabus. Something McLuhan-esque like, "Turns out, the medium ain't the message." Or harking back to A.J. Liebling: "Freedom of the press belongs to the gal who blogs." But I told my students Capus' statement will live anyway as a potentially earth-splitting crack in the once monolithic top-down approach to network television news. "Happens to do television?" Definitely a step beyond converging media.

Then, in November, Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, sent what Editor & Publisher called a surprise memo to staffers announcing a plan to streamline the newsroom, move reporters and editors around and maximize readership. Again, industry watchers saw it as another potential nail in the coffin of the news industry.

But Downie, like Capus, viewed it differently, and his words to the newsroom troops didn't sound like the usual front-office happy talk: "It is the most important change that I will lead as executive editor. It reminds me of my early days in the newsroom, when Ben Bradlee began boldly transforming the paper during the 1960s and 1970s." Among his announcements was a push to build audience on the Web site – a far cry from the site's step-child status a few "converged" years ago.

Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, also joined the fray in November, implementing a plan that calls for it to merge its newspaper and online operations into single units – no side-by-side operations anymore. "It's pretty big," Michael Maness, Gannett's vice president of strategic planning, told the Post. "It's a fairly fundamental restructuring of how we go about news and information on a daily basis."

And, The New York Times predicted this month that its Internet revenue could grow 30 percent next year, in recognition that its digital version is the one bright spot in a "challenging" media marketplace.

As Maness put it, fundamental restructuring is under way at the top levels of the news industry. Many would say the decline in what is sometimes called "old" media has finally filtered up to the pinnacle – to the giants of news that have long dominated our national discourse.

But I'd like to think these developments are more than just a reaction to declining profit margins and shareholder pressure. If we can take what those like Capus and Downie say at face value, maybe "old" media is still alive and well, or at least some of the stalwart ideas behind what originally drove American media. If I read their statements right, they seem determined, even optimistic, about a future in which they must compete in an exciting and dynamic environment – an environment in which people like my students no longer view them with awe and unquestioning devotion.

Americans are awash in news and information, and many of them are producing their own media with high-speed Internet connections, Web-building tools such as blogs and Wikis, and digital audio and video. Independent writers, journalists, commentators, students, intellectuals, and anyone else now have more outlets for expressing themselves and even competing with mainstream media in their watchdog roles. Many have been starkly critical of what they view as traditional media's growing symbiosis with their corporate sponsors and dwindling responsibility to the public.

In these independents' flourishing citizen journalism movement, they are speaking truth to power, even when the power had become Big Media themselves. And, there is evidence that Big Media are listening, in a development that's far beyond a business model that converges the way news is delivered.

(Quotes courtesy of the archives of James B. Simpson, author of Simpson's Contemporary Quotations, now under the auspices of American University and featured in ).
  • Vaughn Ververs

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