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Convergent Audiences: When Consumers are Creators

April 18, 2004  |  Las Vegas, NV

Broadcast Educators Association Convention

Presented by Jan Schaffer, Executive Director, J-Lab

I have a personal antipathy to the word convergence. That’s because so much of the emphasis of convergence is on new media and multi-media platforms. And we tend to focus on such things as:

  • Speed–Who’s first?
  • Delivery–What platforms should we use–TV, online, print?
  • Mix–International, local, entertainment, infotainment.
  • Revenue–How can we make money off of this?

When you think about it, this really puts the focus not on the consumer, our audiences, but on the supplier, the news organizations. It becomes an exercise in Us vs. Them.

In the end, you get a lot of “me-too” news that duplicates what’s already out there. It delivers very little added value, but it does deliver more noise.

Our early work in the civic journalism arena tapped into a public appetite for other kinds of news and information, distinguished by a higher level of involvement and a more personal stake. There were town hall meetings, task forces, solutions reports. This appetite had big ramifications for distinguishing between noise and meaningful information.

Moreover, I suggest that information becomes meaningful when the user develops some kind of attachment to it or involvement with it. Let me repeat: Information becomes meaningful when it is accompanied by attachment or involvement.

So I think we are focusing on the wrong “C” word. Rather than focus on convergence, we should be focusing on connections and how new digital tools can help us build all kinds of innovative, new connections with our audiences. The potential of new media is not simply more noise but more meaningful interaction and hopefully more meaningful learning.

If our aspiration is less noise and more meaningful information, our focus then changes. Instead of focusing on Us, the journalists, we need to pay attention to Them, our users. This means thinking about:

  • Our viewers’ or readers’ needs.
  • Our relationships with them.
  • Interactions with them.
  • Participation opportunities — entry points for them to engage actively with the news.

Notice the words interaction, participation — you could add involvement.

What if we substituted the words media participation for convergence? It evokes various levels of interactivity in our journalism. Think of the possibilities and these are early observations:

  • Story making in addition to story telling o Consuming the stories we make (Content consumption) o Making the stories we consume (Content creation)
  • Deconstructing in addition to constructing stories
  • News experiences in addition to news stories
  • Civic participation in addition to news and information

MIT Professor Pablo J. Boczkowski has just published a new book “Digitizing the News” and makes an assertion that resonates with me: ” News in the online environment is what those contributing to its production make of it.”  He reports that news is moving “from being mostly journalist-centered, communicated as a monologue, and primarily local, to also being increasingly audience-centered, part of multiple conversations and micro-local.” 

I would add micro-personal.

Digital storytelling allows us to introduce a level of interactivity into our story telling. We can build in entry points for ordinary folks to participate or converse and then let that interaction improve the journalism, even help create it. This process of interactivity really distinguishes what we can offer in a digital age.

Participation gives consumers some attachment, and ultimately some ownership, of the learning process. It’s just like anything: Once you get involved in something, you tend to form some attachment, care about it and want to learn more about it.

These new digital opportunities change the construct a bit from what journalists have traditionally done.

You could think of it this way: Future News might well be less about story telling — the stories we journalists want to write, produce or tell — and more about story making. Less about story telling — and more about story making.

People nowadays are able, thanks to new technology, to co-author or co-produce their own stories. In the new media world, I’m seeing two ways to make a story.  Think about it: One involves consuming it. One involves creating it. One way is internal; the other is external.

Internal Story Making: Individuals as News Aggregators

Daily, people are constructing their own internal master narratives of that day’s events or issues by assembling information from a variety of sources.

  • From traditional newspaper stories, headlines, photos
  • Drive-time radio
  • Internet news sites/ blogs
  • E-mail from friends or news alerts
  • White-noise TV in the office
  • Cell phones
  • Late-night TV comedy–Letterman, Leno, Jon Stewart.

After they sift through this onslaught of info-bits, they come up with their sense of the day’s developments. Because of the explosion of new media sources and the choices people make in accessing the news, they are much, much more involved as aggregators of information. Sure, Yahoo can do this for you . . . but, informally, you are doing this for yourself all day long.

External Story Making: Citizen Reporters and Citizen-Created Content

Access to user-friendly publishing software is making it much easier for people increasingly to create and publish their own news.

  • Blogs
  • News Exercises
  • Discussion Forums
  • Email correspondent corps (such as San Francisco’s Two Cents initiative)
  • Citizen journalists
  • Non-profit news media

Now, whether this process is internal or external, a lot of it involves consuming not so much full stories but often pieces of stories–components–a headline, a photo, a graphic, a caption, a snatch of TV, a push email, an online exercise.

Now, here we are journalists and journalism educators and we spend all this time on craftsmanship, right? How can we produce a beautiful or succinct story package? And our consumers are sort of grazing and snacking on morsels here and there–what I call components of news.

Deconstructing in addition to Constructing Stories

So I ‘d suggest that future news will, in part, be about building the components that help users co-produce their stories — internal or external. What are the components that will deliver news and involvement, attachment, connections? Now the process of assembling components involves deconstructing a story more than constructing–dividing it into its various parts (parts that can, of course, be re-purposed in a multimedia world).

This has major ramifications for journalism education because we teach student to build stories not disassemble them.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t produce nice story packages. It’s not an Either/Or. It’s an And. Digital storytelling, as we see around us, is increasingly relying on such components as visual information, interactive databases, games, simulations, news bits, slide shows, streaming audio and video, polls.

These news components open up all kinds of possibilities for creating news experiences in addition to new stories. News experiences are components that accompany, embellish or add interactivity.

This suggests that a news organization’s Web site becomes:

  • Not just something you READ.
  • But also something you DO.

It provides you with some ways to engage more actively in the news–consuming it, learning more about, reacting to it, creating it. What we see developing around the country is an appetite for a level of interactivity that is very much informing the nature and level of story telling.

There is already documented activity around contributing online content. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press recently reported that 44 percent of survey respondents had provided online content in various ways.

Consider that Technorati now tracks now more than 2 million weblogs. OhmyNews, the South Korean online newspaper claims to have 30,000 citizen reporters writing for it. Wikipedia, a three-year-old, open-content encyclopedia now has more than 250,000 articles written by anyone who wants to contribute. and show us the future of citizen-produced news products. And MIT Prof. Jack Driscoll reports on the flourishing activity of his Silver Seniors and Junior Journalists in building their own local news outlets. 

So, instead of thinking of our audiences as users, readers, viewers, customers or consumers, we need to think of them as co-authors, co-producers, active contributors–even active citizens. Journalism therefore becomes not just a one-way pipeline for us to disseminate what we think people need to know. Rather it is a two-way conversation for people to react to what we report, add to it, tell their own stories. People now expect this level of participation. They have gotten used to being part of the conversation simply because they can: They can email, fax, voicemail, instant poll. And they like it.

So how do you involve people?

  • By showing as well as telling.
  • By providing knowledge as well as news.
  • By providing entry points.
  • By not just providing space for the stories we want to tell them, but also providing space for them to tell their own stories as well.

When people have some participatory stake in a story, you get intelligent interaction. We are now seeing the creation of entry points that connect with news audiences in new ways.

News Experiences in Addition to News Stories

Some of the interesting interactions include what we call news experiences rather than news stories.

  • Blogs — Look at
  • Games — Plan your Park at
  • Searchable databases — Crime trackers, Follow the Money
  • Tax and state budget calculators
  • Clickable maps — Everett Waterfront Renaissance project
  • Choices exercises — You Decide
  • Matchmakers — Candidate selectors

Several of these early interactive journalism projects–from state budget calculators in Minnesota and California to a downtown revitalization game in Rochester, N.Y., to gridlock exercises in the Pacific Northwest–have impacted public issues. They have served as surrogate public hearings, prompted public officials to alter tax plans and changed waterfront redevelopment projects. They have created new public spaces for ideas and contributed to the understanding of difficult tradeoffs.

  • For instance, 11,000 users wrestled last spring with how to close Minnesota’s $4.2 billion funding gap using Minnesota Public Radio’s “Budget Balancer” exercise. These people spent as long as 17 minutes on the exercise then 4,000 came back and tried to balance the budget again. Who were these people? Interestingly, 43 percent were age 30 or younger.
  • More than 2,000 people played transit planner last year with The Seattle Times’ “You Build It.”  The exercise let people figure out which transit projects they’d like to see built and how they’d pay for them. Their “vote”  was not binding, but it prompted the regional transit board to back off its proposed half-penny sales tax hike and look for other revenue sources to ease the region’s gridlock woes.
  • Another 2,000 people in Everett, Washington, voted  on waterfront redevelopment options by using a clickable map created by The Herald newspaper. Again, there was civic impact: Users strongly signaled they wanted access to their waterfront, so hiking and bike trails were added to the plans.So we see that one outcome turns out to be not just news to be consumed, but civic life to get involved with.

Civic Participation as Media Participation

I want to close by suggesting that we are on the cusp of a new opportunity for media and I think it’s very exciting. It’s redefining civic participation.

We’ve always measured civic engagement by voter turnout. But participation in civic life as measured by voting has been on a downward spiral for nearly four decades. Voter turnout has dropped from about two-thirds of eligible voters to slightly more than half as of the 2000 general elections.

And, of course, news viewership and readership have been on a downward spiral as well.

Yet, citizens’ use of media, especially television and the Internet, has steadily risen. This year, in the Democratic primaries, we got a real look at how civic participation was becoming a new form of media participation.

Look at how voters used new media tools to fundraise, network, mobilize, blog, match issues, follow the money, play a game, design an ad, watch a video clip and even score it to music.

Web sites activated citizens to funnel more than $40 million to Howard Dean’s war chest and prompted more than 183,000 supporters to sign on. People propelled the now-infamous Iowa scream  from e-mailbox to e-mailbox, sharing the image with friends and ultimately imploding Dean’s candidacy.

They hooked up with other campaign volunteers at and entered a competition for best anti-Bush campaign ad at

Meanwhile, millions of viewers nightly clicked their channels to Jay Leno or Jon Stewart to partake of their daily dose of political comedy.

This is a new kind of political engagement and it’s allowing people to interact with politics in highly hands-on ways, ways we’ve never seen before. More importantly, it presents an historic opportunity to foster new kinds of civic participation in a digital democracy.

This moment is every bit as redefining as the impact of television on the political landscape of the 1960s.

The difference, though, is dramatic: Then, television empowered a small cadre of the powerful, who broadcast one-way candidate messages to mass audiences. Ordinary people had limited opportunities to respond: They could click the “off”  button or cast their ballot.

I think this is a new, new-media opportunity and I hope new organizations don’t let this creative participation stop with the November election. We should look for opportunities to apply it to other issues. Consumer, community issues, environmental issues, spending priorities and legislative proposals. This, not convergence, is the real promise of a digital democracy.

News media can establish important connections to our audiences by developing these participation opportunities. The participation builds attachments. The attachments build relationships. And the relationships build audience.

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