Developing a vision for converged student media

Earlier I posted the text from a presentation I gave to the 2009 Convention of the Broadcast Education Association. I mentioned in that post that I gave two presentations, but I hadn’t posted the text of the second one yet. This second presentation, which I gave on the morning of the last day of the convention, wasn’t nearly as well attended as my first presentation. I think many people had caught early flights out of Las Vegas, or perhaps some were sleeping in after a night out on the town. So for what it’s worth, here is the text of my talk on developing a vision for converged student media.

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Do you recognize the person in this photograph? If you said Marilyn Monroe, take a closer look. [For those reading this on a computer screen right now, it might help to see the effect of this hybrid image by changing your distance from the screen. You can also see the effect by looking at the hybrid image at different sizes. Does the image on the right look like Marilyn Monroe? For more on this and other hybrid images, visit Aude Oliva’s Hybrid Image Gallery.]

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This photo illustrates something about vision. And at the same time, it says something about convergence. So it provides a good starting point for my talk today about developing a vision for convergence in student media. In the next few minutes, I’d like to share with you two general principles that I think this photo illustrates about the problems and opportunities for developing a vision for converged student media. And then I’d like to conclude by sharing just a few ideas from my own experience of advising multiple media.

This first general principle I think this photo illustrates is that vision is highly dependent on one’s range of vision. I’ve been a faculty advisor to various student media outlets for almost 30 years now, so I’d have to say I have a pretty long-term range of vision. And no doubt my perspective on student media is going to be at least somewhat different than the perspective of my students. I’d like to hope we can have a shared vision, but I have to admit that most of my students have a much more shorter-range vision. That is, they find it difficult to see very far beyond a couple of years, probably because they won’t be around in a couple of years. Well, hopefully they’ll be around somewhere, but if we’re doing our jobs, they’ll graduate. Their time with student media is finite. Faculty advisors keep coming back for more. So while I might be able to see things from a sufficient distance to see Marilyn Monroe in this picture, students tend to have a more close-up, short time frame view, and might be stuck staring at Albert Einstein. Personally, I think Marilyn is a bit easier on the eyes.

So developing a vision for student media really requires both the longer-term maturity of vision that a seasoned faculty advisor can bring, and the shorter-term immediacy of vision that enthusiastic students bring. And while I tend to think the faculty advisors role in developing a vision is important, I also think the students role is important. In fact I think it’s more important.

I didn’t always think this way. When I was younger and just getting started advising student media, I thought I knew more than the students, and that my knowledge made my vision more important. I thought my role was to direct student media, to manage things, to define the vision. But soon I discovered that students typically have their own view of how things should be. And sometimes, their vision turned out to be pretty good. I still think I know more than my students, at least about the things I know a lot about. But I also know that I don’t know everything, and I’m OK with that. I would much rather be working with my students in developing a shared vision, than working against my students in imposing my vision. So to sum up my first general principle: when developing a vision for student media, work with your students to see things from both a long range and a short range perspective.

I think this double-vision photo also reveals something about convergence. You know we’ve been talking about convergence for a long time. I was looking through my old BEA programs, and saw the theme of the 1997 BEA Convention, twelve years ago, was “Reinventing electronic media: Multimedia in the new millennium.” Well, we’ve been in this new millennium for almost a decade now. And while on one level some convergence seems to have taken place, there is one thing about convergence that’s hard to deny. We still have separate media. We still have radio. We still have TV. We still have newspapers, at least we have a few. And we still have the web. And while they might work together, they are still pretty much separate.

Sure, some student media web sites give the impression of convergence. In fact, the other day I was at a session where a student and his advisor from Wartburg College was showing off a really nicely done convergence site. But even though this website, which they call “the Wartburg Circuit,” looks great and brings together all of the different student media on campus for a unified web presence, they still have a radio station, a TV station, and a newspaper. It’s just that now they have another thing.

This isn’t so much true convergence, then, as a presentation of convergence, much like this picture here. This isn’t a picture of Albert Monroe or Marilyn Einstein. It’s two pictures, smushed together, and whether you see Albert or Marilyn depends a lot on your perspective. But it’s rather hard to see both as a converged thing. Rather, your eyes tend to want to see one or the other.

So developing a vision for converged student media is, like this picture, a bit of parlor trick. For just like our eyes find it hard to focus on different images at the same time, so too do our eyes find it hard to lock onto a clear vision of what converged media would look like. If anything, the vision that does emerge is, like this picture, a smushing together of things that are easier to focus on separately. So to sum up my second general principle: convergence probably won’t replace individual media, but it can provide opportunities for a combined presentation of media.

So let me conclude today by suggesting just a few things from my own experience about developing a vision for converged student media. Please take them for what they’re worth… a few ideas based on my experience in advising multiple media at West Chester University.

First, a little background so you know where I’m coming from. Part of the reason I was hired at West Chester was because they needed someone to help them launch a campus radio station, which I did. We got our FM construction permit during my first year and built the thing and got it running during my second. After four years of advising the radio station, the students asked me to advise the TV station, too. And a couple years later, they asked me to advise the newspaper. For a while, I was advising all three. But you know, that’s hard work for an old geezer. I was desperate for some kind of convergence on a practical level, if for no other reason than to preserve my sanity.

So I tried to influence the radio station, the TV station and the newspaper to meet together and work together and produce content that crossed media boundaries. At first students were excited about doing so. But then they realized that convergence, true convergence, is a lot harder than they thought. Pretty soon questions of turf came into the picture. And questions of equality and fairness. And questions of money. And yes, questions about whether one faculty member should advise three different media groups. If it was just one truly converged media group, maybe that would be OK. But we couldn’t. Or we wouldn’t. No matter how hard we tried to converge, some things, primarily related to the technologies we used, kept us apart.

But we did discover, together, that convergence came most naturally on the web. And that’s my first suggestion when looking to develop a vision for converged student media: look to the web. All three student media groups have content we put on web sites. So it makes sense to combine at least some of our web efforts and cross promote each other on our web sites. The vision of converged student media that is gradually emerging is largely one of multiple student media working together to create a more unified web presentation.

Here’s another idea: use the web to share content among student media. Start with a good online content management system. I like Drupal, because it’s open source and easily customized, but WordPress is mighty fine for some applications. Store your various media assets in a shared web database, something that all of your media groups can take advantage of. By encouraging students to share content with each other, they begin to focus less on the differences that separate the media and more on the content that they have in common. And it also helps students discover the emerging qualities of the most shareable content, that is, how to be more platform agnostic in creating media content. That’s an important lesson, but one that is more easily discovered through practice than through imposing a contrived vision of convergence.

My last suggestion, and one that I hope doesn’t upset anyone here at BEA, is to bring students from multiple media groups to the College Media Convention, which is held in the fall each year. This year it’s in Austin, Texas. If you’ve never been to a College Media Convention, you should go, and you should bring your students, and if you can, bring students from all of your media groups on campus. I used to bring students to BEA years ago. In fact, I tried to start a student division of BEA years ago. And a few of my colleagues still do. But BEA really isn’t a convention for students. The College Media Convention is. There are far more students in attendance than there are faculty, and that’s one reason why I’ve grown to love the College Media Convention. Co-sponsored by College Media Advisors, Associated College Press and Collegiate Broadcasting, Incorporated, this annual mega-conference is a great opportunity for students, and it’s a great way to build bridges between media groups on campus. There’s nothing like getting TV, radio and newspaper kids to share crowded hotel rooms, go to sessions with each other, and yes, maybe even party a little together. A lot of vision for convergence can emerge once you leave all the questions of turf back on campus and spend a few days together at a really well done convention, where students can quickly develop a broader perspective on convergence.

Well those are a few ideas for developing a vision for converged student media. If they sound rather modest, it’s because they are. Some of you may have noticed that I said earlier, “for a while I was advising all three media groups.” I’m not anymore, and to be honest, it’s a bit of a relief. Even faculty advisors have to have a life. I’m still not sure convergence is the wave of the future. But I do think we will continue to find ways to do a little smushing together, just like in this picture. Although the more I look at this picture, the more I think Marilyn needs to shave. Scarry.

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