Newsroom convergence in higher education is an often-elusive task that’s been studied for nearly 20 years. At Slippery Rock University, we are in the earliest stages of introducing convergence with our two student-run news organizations: The Rocket newspaper and WSRU-TV. After an immense amount of research and two conference circuits, we’ve learned one thing is certain: discourse surrounding convergence is alive and thriving, but the term itself often results in head shakes and shoulder shrugs. In academia, our equivocal understanding of how to successfully converge student media is because every case of convergence is unique, making it nearly impossible to find one blanket “convergence formula” every university can adopt.
Whether or not you can relate to what we’ve experienced at Slippery Rock University, convergence efforts do have one thing in common: our organizations are nothing without people. If we fail to consider the people involved in implementing newsroom convergence: students, the faculty, staff and audience, the same people that make our news media relevant, then there’s no point. Furthermore, if we, the advisers, the mentors, the professors, cannot fully agree on one definition for convergence, how can we expect our students and staff to practice it? Our plan, therefore, was to have our staffs engage from the beginning by explaining and assessing our efforts through a specific convergence framework to guide the transition from operating as separate silos to a single news media organization.
A Case Study In Convergent Implications
At Slippery Rock University, The Rocket and WSRU-TV are both housed in the Communication Department and both are given a budget through the Student Government Association. However, the histories of the two organizations are wildly divergent.
The Rocket has been a campus institution since 1934, originally housed in the English department and moving to the communication department in the 1980s. The Rocket has established itself as one of the most successful small college newspapers in the country winning national Pacemaker and Pinnacle awards and being recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, The Society of Collegiate Journalists and The Pennsylvania Press Association. While receiving a small stipend from the Student Government Association, more than 90 percent of The Rocket’s operating budget has come from advertising. This formula changed a few years ago when The Rocket, like many print outlets, found its advertising base drying up. At that time, The Rocket cut its print editions, relying on its website for breaking news.
In contrast, WSRU-TV has had a checkered past over the last few decades, partly due to three different studio locations during that time, and, for a time, no studio at all. WSRU-TV has also suffered through a revolving door of advisers, and, for a time, no adviser at all. With the hiring of Dr. Brittany Fleming, WSRU-TV is once again active and has been recognized as a campus and community news outlet for a little more than a year. WSRU-TV operates less like a business and more like a student club, relying on money from the student government and fundraising for additional spending.
Tools to reach the audience also differ: The Rocket uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to direct traffic flow to its website, while also publishing five print editions per semester. WSRU-TV, on the other hand, relies solely on Facebook and Twitter for audience engagement.
In addition, The Rocket offers paid staff positions for all editors, while WSRU-TV is comprised of all volunteers. Obviously, the two organizations are not playing on a level field, and this creates conflict among students when discussions about “converging” are brought up.
Applying Types of Convergence to Student Media
More than a decade ago, Huang, et al. (2006) in the article “Bridging Newsrooms and Classrooms: Preparing the Next Generation of Journalists for Converged Media” conducted a study polling professors, newsroom professionals and editors in search of best practices for training journalism students to work in a converged environment. In their report, they compartmentalized definitions of media convergence into four categories: form, content, corporate and role.
At Slippery Rock University, we are introducing these four categories to our staffs to help them understand the process. We believe once we can provide evidence of each area of convergence, we can officially consider ourselves a converged news operation.
Corporate convergence is by far the most complicated type, and the FCC’s recent relaxing of the media cross-ownership ban makes this the most appropriate one to begin with. It’s because of newsroom consolidations like the ones bound to result from the abolishment of this decade-old law that the word convergence carries such a horrible connotation, in turn scaring our students into resistance. Convergence sounds like consolidation; it’s a word no journalist wants to hear, something we find true even in higher education.
By no means are we attempting to consolidate newsrooms; the more the merrier. However, it goes without saying that The Rocket is more financially stable than WSRU-TV, and it took an open conversation to understand that the potential consolidation of paid staff positions was at the top of the list of concerns, followed by ownership. Until the fall 2017 semester, each organization was advised by two faculty members. Now under the direction of one adviser, both WSRU-TV and The Rocket have taken their first steps toward corporate convergence. It was vital all faculty members were on the same page and not protecting their turf or reinforcing silos. Luckily, that has not been an issue at Slippery Rock University.
We are in the process of developing Rock Media, an umbrella brand similar to a parent organization, which both organizations will operate under, allowing WSRU-TV and The Rocket to keep their identities. However, the staffs will work for ad contributions to both organizations. For now, paid staff positions will remain under The Rocket’s budget, but slight changes in the roles and responsibilities of each position will be implemented for fall 2018. Staffers will be required to bring more multimedia journalism skills to the table, broadening our pool of applicants.
One obstacle in achieving corporate convergence for us is physical: the television studio is on the opposite side of the campus from the Communication Department and The Rocket office. Maltby, the building that the television studio is currently housed in, is underutilized, and the department has brought a proposal to the dean of our college to move the entire department to this building. He has been supportive but, best case scenario, this won’t happen for many years.
Content convergence is the sharing of leads, sources and information among reporters, and even some cross-platform reporting, without the actual merging of newsrooms. Thus far, The Rocket and WSRU-TV have used a segment called The Rocket Sports Report to demonstrate content convergence. Both organizations are credited for this segment and share it with their audiences via social media. As far as producing goes, The Rocket’s editor-in-chief and sports editor both research, write and report the stories on-air, while WSRU-TV provides the technical crew. In fact, during production, the students refer to themselves as “the sports crew,” rather than identifying themselves with one organization or the other. Because this type of convergence has been the most accepted by our students, we will continue to implement the “shared segment” method into more programming.
Form convergence refers to the technology and platforms that deliver multimedia news: websites, applications, social media sites, etc. Until we are further along in the convergence process, The Rocket and WSRU-TV will continue to reach their audiences separately to avoid confusion between brands. As previously mentioned, our organizations will merge under the name Rock Media, but will remain separate but cooperating news outlets.
The combining of the two organizations into a Rock Media website seems to be a valid step toward form convergence. Fortunately, the rise of streaming media makes the web a viable outlet for all of our content: print and video. For many years there was a discussion of getting WSRU-TV up on a local cable outlet but now that seem like an outdated model.
Role convergence, as educators, should be our ultimate goal. Role convergence is described as a journalist’s ability to report, design, produce, direct and edit across media platforms. It wasn’t just 10 years ago when radio reporters, for example, were expected to merely write for radio. Now, reporters are expected to tell the same story via broadcast, long-form print online, Facebook, Twitter and more by incorporating photos, videos, sound bites, graphics, maps and interactive multimedia. Every news organization, local or national, has adapted to the online world, and by converging our student media organizations now, our students will be better prepared for tomorrow.
Where is Slippery Rock Headed Next?
After delivering a presentation on convergence recently, we were asked by a member of the audience if we were considering our convergence effort an experiment, or if we really thought it was going to work. The answer we provided was similar to a participant’s from Huang’s, et al. (2006) study:
At the end of the day, the practice of journalism is the telling of stories. For a variety of reasons, there has been an obsession of late with the delivery method, but in that obsession, we are missing a point: A good news story remains so whether it is told in print, video or through a variety of multimedia platforms. Breaking down the walls of traditional thinking is truly the first step toward a true converged media environment. The process of breaking down these walls is the challenge, and this is the first of many steps along that journey.
Dr. Brittany Fleming is the adviser for WSRU-TV and The Rocket at Slippery Rock University, where she won 2017 Adviser of the Year. With a background in video production and local radio reporting, Fleming teaches in both the Digital Media and Converged Journalism concentrations in the Communication Department. Her research interests include newsroom converge in higher education, best practices in advising student media organizations and the local television news landscape.
Dr. Mark Zeltner has been involved in advising student media for almost 25 years. Zeltner took over the advising of The Rocket at Slippery Rock University and advised the newspaper for seven years, and then after a stint as department chair, another six years. During his time as adviser, The Rocket won a Pacemaker award, a Pinnacle award and was recognized with over 300 other awards from regional and national collegiate journalism organizations.