Ten years ago, Media General embarked on a grand experiment. It created the Tampa News Center, which combined the news operations of The Tampa Tribune newspaper, the NBC-affiliated WFLA-TV, and the Tampa Bay Online – TBO.com – into one news organization. Media General spent $40 million on the 120,000-square-foot, four-story News Center, which houses all three news outlets. It was designed to encourage interaction and coordination among staff of the three media. Here’s how Dupagne and Garrison (2009) describe it:
The first floor (and, by extension, part of the second floor) houses two large WFLA production studios. The second floor provides space to both the WFLA and TBO.com newsrooms. The third floor is home to the Tribune newsroom and TBO.com executive offices. The fourth floor houses the WFLA executive offices. A central piece of the building is an atrium, which rises through the second and third floors. Lying in the middle of the atrium on the second floor is the so-called “superdesk,” a circular multimedia assignment desk where editors of the three news organizations work side-by-side. … The atrium is often an area bubbling with activity where employees interact and even pass on videotapes. (p. 188)
(I guess the Tribune newspaper either doesn’t have executives or they don’t have offices, because there’s no mention of them.)
I think the layout of the News Center says a lot about the priorities of Media General: the TV studios are on the first floor and the TV and Internet newsrooms are on the second floor, while the paper’s newsroom is on the third floor. The TV station’s executive offices are above the fray on the fourth floor. The entire news operation is controlled by the “superdesk,” located on the second floor, close to the newsrooms of the TV station and Internet operations. In contrast, while Tribune newsroom staff can lean over the railing on the third floor and look down to see what’s happening on the superdesk, they have to go down one floor to have a direct conversation with the multimedia editors. I think placing the Tribune’s newsroom on a different floor from the TV and Internet newsrooms is a tipoff that Media General values the TV and Internet operations more than it does the newspaper. I was a newspaper editor and reporter for 20 years, and the location of various personnel and departments in a newsroom tend to reflect the newspaper’s power structure.
Three kinds of convergence
Dupagne and Garrison (2009) begin by defining three types of media convergence: technical, economic, and regulatory. “[T]he term ‘technical convergence’ is ‘the coming together of all forms of mediated communications in an electronic, digital form, driven by computers’ (Pavlik, 1996, p. 132; see also Blackman, 1998; Vallath, 2000)” (p.184-185). Economic convergence emphasizes a single business that operates multiple, integrated media platforms. And regulatory convergence is the melding of industry laws that previously regulated separate industries. The authors conducted their research of the Tampa News Center in June 2003, about three years after its creation.
While Dupagne and Garrison mention the fears of some critics that “a convergent newsroom would damage the editorial independence of news operations, reduce the amount of original content, and augment employee workloads without proper compensation” (p. 189), the gushingly positive tone of their article shows how enamored they are with the presumed benefits of convergence. In the best of all possible worlds, a converged newsroom would combine “the depth of newspaper coverage, the immediacy of television and the interactivity of the Web (Media General, 2003c, p. 4; see also Gabettas, 2000)” (2009, p. 188). It’s too bad we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.
For their research, Dupagne and Garrison used a combination of documents and in-depth interviews to address three research questions:
- How do employees at the News Center define media convergence?
- What changes have journalists experienced on their jobs and in the newsroom since the creation of the News Center?
- What skills do news staff members need to function optimally in the convergent environment?
TV news benefits the most
The authors conclude that “shared resources benefit all interviewed journalists in the Media General News Center in Tampa, but the real winner seems to be the television news operation” (Dupagne & Garrison, 2009, p. 197). That fits in with my assertion that Media General values the TV and Internet operations more than the newspaper operations. And, sure enough, the journalists experienced changes in their jobs: “Most changes related to additional duties or responsibilities beyond those already stipulated in a single-platform environment ” [emphasis added]. (Dupagne & Garrison, 2009, p. 198). While their core work hasn’t really changed, the journalists are doing more work than they did before convergence.
This will not surprise anyone familiar with the news business: even back in the good old days when newspapers had big profit margins, owners and publishers were continually looking for ways to use new technology to replace employees and cut labor costs. That was the driving force behind the shift from hot metal typesetting, which required linotype operators, to “cold type,” produced by computers and phototypesetting machines. The next innovation was pagination, where computers are used to design and lay out pages that are sent directly to the machines that make the
metal page-sized plates that go on the press. Pagination did away with the people in the back shop who used to cut and paste typeset stories on cardboard flats that were photographed and transformed into the page-sized negatives then used to make the metal plates.
Finally, Dupagne and Garrison (2009) found that, while 21st century journalists will have to be able to produce stories in multimedia formats, “good communication, reporting, and writing skills remain the bedrock of the news profession” (p. 198). Let’s hope so.
The Media General experiment: Ten years later
So that was the situation in 2003. But what is the situation now, in 2010, when several major newspapers, such as The Rocky Mountain News, have folded and others, such as The Christian Science Monitor, no longer publish a print edition and exist only on the Web? I was curious, so I did an extensive Internet search. Here’s what’s Alan Mutter, a former newspaper editor and reporter and current new media entrepreneur, has to say about the effects of convergence on today’s Tampa Tribune, WFLA, and TBO.com:
While hybrid newsrooms undoubtedly save money on everything from reporters to real estate, the journalistic improvements promised by Media General a decade ago are not evident at the combined news operation of the Tampa Tribune and WFLA, an NBC affiliate.
As advertised when the Florida newsrooms merged, print reporters indeed learned to work on camera and TV personalities began to contribute to the newspaper. But those efforts, which are presented today for the world to behold at TBO.com, are, in a word, underwhelming.
Instead of combining the assets of the newspaper and TV station in a single, dynamic website, TBO.com is primarily a compendium of cheesy police news and out-of-market AP stories. If you follow the breadcrumbs on the website to the separate pages for the TV station and newspaper, you get nothing more than the sort of shovelware that populates the website of a mediocre broadcaster or publisher in a mid-sized market.
… Neither the newspaper, the TV station nor the website has an iPhone app, although the competing ABC and Fox affiliates in the market do.
The weak execution is understandable in light of the steep cuts Media General has made in staffing at the Tampa properties since they first were combined. Half of the 1,326 people working at the newspaper, TV station and website were cut in 2008 and subsequent layoffs and reorganizations have claimed more positions since then.
The gruel at this newsroom of the future is way too thin to woo discerning readers and advertisers. (2010, para. 11-16).
Not exactly a resounding recommendation for this widely cited experiment in convergence. Dupagne and Garrison (2009) reported that the number of News Center employees was basically the same in June 2005 as it had been in March 2000. So the number of employees has been reduced by more than half in the past five years.
This doesn’t mean that convergence never works, just that it’s not the savior of journalism that it seemed to be a decade ago. Convergence isn’t going away. In his blog post, Mutter (2010) speculates that the next big thing will be mergers between TV stations and newspapers. Given the example of the Tampa News Center, he’s not hopeful about the outcome. I think the success or failure of convergence comes down to a question of profit and resources: if a news organization has the profit to pay for the resources needed to operate a truly converged newsroom, then it will produce quality journalism. Without the necessary resources, it won’t. This is not rocket science. The difficult part is figuring out a business model that will produce the profit needed to support a converged newsroom – or any kind of newsroom, for that matter.
Such an environment is not likely to produce good journalism.
… [J]udging by the industry’s performance to date, … the news business willcontinue to marginalize journalism, as yesterday’s newsrooms transformthemselves into tomorrow’s market-driven, multimedia information utilities.(Wasserman, 2006, para. 4).
Breckenridge, P. (2000, winter). Wanted: A 21st century journalist. Drop the arrogance. Be interactive. Have technological savvy. Nieman Reports [Online version].Retrieved from http://nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/101780/Wanted-a-21st-Century-Journalist.aspx
Covington, R. (2006, winter). Myths and realities of convergence. Nieman Reports [Online version]. Retrieved from http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=100299
Dupagne, M. & Garrison, B. (2009). The meaning and influence of convergence: A qualitative case study of newsroom work at the Tampa News Center. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 182-203. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mutter, A.D. (2010, Sept. 1). Next big thing? TV-newspaper staff mergers. Reflections ofa Newsosaur [Web blog]. Retrieved from http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2010/09/next-big-thing-tv-newspaper-staff.html
Wasserman, E. (2006 winter). Looking past the rush into convergence: As technologydrives big newsroom changes, what will happen to journalism? Nieman Reports [Online version]. Retrieved from http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=100289