Tory Healy
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Hack of all Trades, Master of None

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Convergence may be good news for business. So far it's bad news for journalists

David Akin works in what was once The Globe and Mail‘s composing room. In another, less high-tech era, this was the place where compositors laid out the paper before it went to print. Now, illuminated by the glow of monitors, it’s home to Toronto’s CTV News bureau. And since Akin works for both the paper and its corporate sibling, it’s where he spends most of his days reading, typing, and talking.

His shift usually starts at about 8 a.m. First things first, though, he grabs a coffee in the noisy cafeteria, looking snug in wrinkled clothes, ruffled hair, and glasses. Then he’s off to e-mail story ideas to his assignment editors, deciding which would run best in print or on TV, or both. If he’s writing for the Globe, he hunkers down to file by six. If he’s doing a CTV piece, he has to get his standup shot and edited by nine. But when both are due, his pace quickens. Once the print piece is in, out go the quips and doughboy expressions, on goes the sports jacket and it’s showtime. It’s a long day but no one knows it when he’s on air with Lloyd Robertson at 11 p.m.

The hectic, double-duty days are still rare for Akin because he is still only, by his own admission, a “convergence guinea pig.” But if the country’s media owners have their way, he’ll be a role model. “In the future,” Leonard Asper, president and CEO of CanWest Global, prophesied to the Canadian Club in January 2001, “journalists will wake up, write a story for the Web, write a report for TV, and file a video clip for the Web,” ensuring “a quantum leap in the product we offer advertisers and a massive, creative content-generation machine.” This is Asper’s profitable utopia, but not Joel Carr’s. As administrative vice president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP), Carr worries that a world full of “news technologists” won’t be quite so wonderful-at least not for the journalists. “Imagine it,” he says. “They’ll have satellites on their backs, camera on shoulder, pen and paper in hand. They’ll always be running.”

Across Canada, after buyouts and mergers, newspapers and television stations-and the people who work for them-suddenly find themselves in the same corporate family. It’s nothing new; the legendary William Randolph Hearst was an originator of convergence. The American media baron owned more than two dozen newspapers, and numerous magazines and radio stations in the 1920s. Back in those days, bemused journalists snickered at Hearst’s pompous editorial guidelines meant to standardize his newsrooms. But the modern model of convergence is no laughing matter. Arnold Amber, in his capacity as director of Newspaper Guild Canada, has fought to get the CRTC to impose restrictions not only on mergers, but also on the consolidation of newsrooms. So far, the regulator has done nothing, leaving the unions frustrated. “We need clear firewalls between content going from one newsroom to another,” says Carr. “When all the feed goes through one pipe and out to two platforms, it is scary for democracy and civil society because its very blood-discourse and free access to information-is diluted.” For sure, some reporters-Akin, for example-benefit from the greater responsibility and increased profile that come with appearing in print and on television. But the fear is that having reporters do two jobs for the price of one will erode the quality of journalism by treating it like an ordinary commodity, standardizing the way it is created and forcing its makers into roles they were never meant to assume.

As media companies consolidate, the owners push for greater returns by hacking at newsrooms and content, increasing workloads and forcing more tasks on fewer people. For three years, Wayne Thibodeau reported solely for P.E.I.’s Charlottetown Guardian. Now the chief political reporter for the paper also works for Global Television as the bureau manager. Each day, Thibodeau, like his colleagues, is responsible for covering his beat-except when he does a story, he writes it for the paper, tapes it, edits it, does a standup for TV, and codes it for the Web. The job required someone young, open to the concept of convergence, and willing to run with it on untested ground. The 28-year-old is excited about his new opportunity, but he hopes he’s not spread too thin-and he wishes he had a camera operator to help him out.

All of the Southam newspapers have met numerous times to discuss which beat reporters will also appear on Global. “We’ve been doing a lot of looking at how things can play both ways,” says Mark Tremblay, the sports editor at the Montreal Gazette. In Halifax, Bill Turpin, the assignment editor at the Halifax Daily News, works closely with Global Maritimes’ news director Michael Fulmes. And in Toronto, executive editor Sylvia Stead, a 26-year veteran at the Globe, now in charge of “convergence matters,” says her role “really, is to meet with CTV senior staff and find out as much as I can from our partners that is helpful to the Globe. If I can help them out, I will. We’re all in this together.”

This cooperation has led to television cameras being installed in almost every newsroom in Canada, and beat reporters at many newspapers have been asked to do standups for television. In Saskatchewan, for example, Colleen Silverthorn, a business reporter at the Regina Leader-Post, agreed to appear on Global Regina’s news. She wasn’t intimidated by working in a new medium-“It’s not rocket science,” she says. “Within a day you could be doing it”-but Silverthorn worries that crossing over may encourage more staff reductions. When one reporter works for two outlets, fewer reporters are needed and that means fewer jobs and fewer voices.

Meanwhile, the reporters who do survive job cuts won’t be making more money for more duties. While Thibodeau and Akin get paid for their print and television work, most newspaper reporters don’t get compensated for their TV appearances. More work from fewer workers is always good for business, but the suits are getting much more bang for their buck than mere cost-cutting. Through cross-promotion, the Globeis strengthened by CTV and vice versa. It’s the same with Global stations and Southam newspapers. Reporters who write and appear on camera reinforce both brands.

Double duty can, however, also turn some reporters into brands. Akin’s two gigs double his importance to the audience. Though he says he is a “print snob,” in August 2001 he left the National Post to become the national business and technological correspondent for CTV and special contributing writer for the Globe. He took the job when asked by CTV News senior vice president Kirk LaPointe, for whom he had worked twice before, because, frankly, he wanted to be on TV. He admits it might be vain, but TV is great for exposure. “At a certain level, value is attached to you,” says Akin. “You could take readers with you and so you’re valuable to your employer.”

Akin calls this phenomenon the trademark journalist. So far, this trend affects only a small number of columnists in Canada, but Edward Greenspon, the Globe‘s political editor, is one of them. Based in Ottawa, he spends five and a half days a week filing three columns for the Globe, attending meetings, researching, interviewing, and appearing on CTV’s Question Period. Before this, he spearheaded the editorial side of’s news organization. Greenspon subscribes to what The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. once said: “It’s not the paper in newspaper that defines us, it’s the news.”

Not only paid to do several duties, trademark journalists are the voices for their particular beats and are therefore in a good position to weather future staff cuts. But only an elite few enjoy this status; for other reporters, the additional responsibilities aren’t quite so attractive. “This is just part of the ‘new’ job,” says John McLeod, veteran business columnist at the Halifax Daily News. “As a columnist, it doesn’t hurt me to get more exposure. Others in the newsroom simply see it as more work for no pay, and resent it.”

But the risks are greater than a simple decline in office morale. “Everyone rushing to jump on board as technology leads the way is problematic,” says Gillian Steward, a former editor at the Calgary Herald and current instructor at the University of Regina’s journalism school, “especially if people lose sight of what media is and what journalism is.” Although the Gazette‘s Tremblay agreed to double his exposure, he questions the legitimacy of not only doing free work, but of a television station simply squeezing tips out of a newspaper and taking the credit. Print reporters are not experts, yet TV news lazily presents them as such. “There’s nothing wrong with doing superior journalism more efficiently,” says Vince Carlin, chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, “as long as ‘efficiency’ is not a code word for diluting the quality of journalism.” And while John Pavlik, executive director of the Center for New Media at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, believes convergence could actually offer opportunities to improve journalism, he is not convinced it will. “It’s the age-old problem of public companies trying to squeeze out every dollar for the stockholders, versus journalists trying to do the best they can to serve the public interest,” he says. “Convergence holds the promise of a better journalism that better engages the public, but commercial interests may overwhelm this potential.”

The typical response to the critics is that it’s too early to determine what the actual impact will be. Mark Hyland, director of broadband and digital services at CBC TV, says fear is expected but unwarranted. “The reality is that the whole media industry is in flux,” he says. “The major concern is that there’s a lot of change going on and people are trying to understand it instead of getting washed down the river with it.” Peter Kent, Global’s convergence editor, dismisses the concerns as mere hype. “Convergence really isn’t as spectacular as people think,” he says. “Even in the old days there were joint radio and TV stations. We take that for granted, but it’s the same thing. Now we use it to gather news, share raw materials, collaborate on both platforms and contribute to the whole. It’s the reality of free enterprise. There is no top-down agenda.”

Not surprisingly, reporters Thibodeau and Akin are also positive about their new positions. Akin says BCE Inc. was bound to hire new foreign correspondents, but convergence, by freeing up CTV resources, has helped make this possible. Thibodeau says that before Global came to P.E.I., the island’s news audience had only the Guardian and CBC as major information sources. Both reporters think convergence is furthering diversity, not diminishing it. CTV’s Kirk LaPointe, who believes the critics are missing the point, adds: “Convergence does not have the objective of merely making money. Its purpose is to grow your business. People misjudge convergence to mean consolidation. It’s more like, ‘How do you make them work together to better reach the audience?'”

It’s hard to know whether better reaching the audience was what BCE and CanWest Global had in mind when they successfully argued before the CRTC that the two corporations be allowed to determine how their newsrooms would work. Quebecor, the Montreal-based media giant, however, agreed to keep Quebecor newsrooms separate. BCE did promise the CRTC it wouldn’t collapse two separate newsrooms into one, but the Newspaper Guild’s Amber says, “A voluntary code of conduct puts power into the hands of those policing it and is not worth the paper it’s written on. Convergence is about making money and not about good journalism.”

Without the help of regulators, reporters are in a tough position. If they complain too much, they risk losing their jobs. Even John Deverell, president of the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild, admits, “You can’t get too religious about where your bread and butter come from.” Steward, too, can sympathize. “Journalism is an individual thing,” she says. “Do what you have to do. Take advantage of opportunities as they come to you; it’s never going to be a perfect situation. It’s important for journalists to know the landscape they’re in-and try to do good journalism anyway.”

Columbia University’s John Pavlik suggests that journalism schools ought to assume a role in setting standards for journalistic practices during these strange times. But even J-school directors can’t agree on this issue. Ryerson students stream into, or study exclusively, their favoured mediums. Because of the changing roles of journalists, an update of Ryerson’s curriculum is being considered. Of convergence, Carlin, hardly its biggest fan, says, “I see decisions being made without a proper appreciation of how genuine content is created and how journalists work. Out of necessity, we’ve decided to give students a different menu, to get expert knowledge-the real premium down the road-and a broader skill set. Streams never mattered,” says Carlin, a former hirer at CBC, “but students must now be more flexible for the job market.” Donna Logan, however, founded UBC’s J-school in 1996 with convergence in mind. Her students learn the basics of each platform but instead of streaming, they focus on one particular area of expertise that can be used in any medium. Being able to cross over without committing to one medium exclusively, Logan says, ensures a reporter’s value.

Daniel Sieberg, one of Logan’s former prize students, survived a cutback at CNN a while back because, according to her, he is an example of the journalist of the future. “He’s attractive for TV, he has specialized knowledge, Web skills and he is able to work between media,” she says. Sieberg, now in Atlanta, is the technology correspondent for CNN’s Headline News in the morning and’s sci-tech editor in the afternoon. In a three-way phone conversation that includes a chirpy CNN public relations agent, Sieberg says the highlight of his young career thus far, and one his training at UBC prepared him for, was reporting on the “Code Red” worm. “That was an example of true convergence,” he says. “Being on air and talking about what was going on online.” But later, with no PR agent around, Sieberg explains that he doesn’t get to do as much writing as he’d like. “Due to time constraints and balancing the TV work, I usually have time for a couple of stories per week. But I do try to keep it up as often as possible.”

For those concerned about the craft, the big worry is that journalists will be jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. “The idea of excelling on all platforms has always been there,” says Peter Murdoch, vice president of media at CEP. “But it was the competition and pride in one’s skills that kept journalists dedicated to their particular medium instead of going out there and saying, ‘I can do it all!'” No one can excel at every medium. “People are being asked to multitask,” says Amber. “Asking a journalist to do two jobs dilutes the quality of work. If I’m a reporter, the most important part of my day isn’t the writing but the reporting. Anything that takes the journalist away from making one more call or checking one more fact-you’re depleting journalism when you split up that person’s focus.”

Even David Akin admits this is a problem. “One or the other job suffers,” he says. And that is why Akin says the jury is still out on whether he will end up a prototype or a failed experiment.

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