The Convergence Newsletter
The Convergence Newsletter

From The Newsplex at the University of South Carolina

Vol. VIII No. 8 (November 2011)

What the new social media and convergence tools require of us

By Chris Frear

Convergence has given us new tools for telling the story – whether in the newsroom, the classroom, or the community. And those require media professionals and professors continually to learn new skills.

For instance, Kelly Fincham of Hofstra University pulled off a tour de force of learning and adaptability when she recreated her Storify presentation overnight for delivery at October's 10th Annual Convergence and Society Conference at the University of South Carolina. The software company had changed its layout just before the conference. In explaining her scramble to rebuild the presentation, Fincham also has some useful observations on how Storify can be used in teaching.

When biased reporting and commenting showed up on a Midwestern newspaper's website in 2010, Robert "Ted" Gutsche Jr. of the University of Iowa took a closer look at the use of community volunteers to blog about the news. His case study provides a look at the application of news standards in the pro-am model, especially when applied to controversial situations that inevitably arise. It also serves to point out the potential problems when guidelines do not exist or are ill defined and can be interpreted differently by the professionals and volunteers.

Also at the Convergence Conference, Rob Curley, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun, energized the Newsplex with his explanation of the Sun's progress toward achieving financial sustainability. His data-driven approach to reporting the news is earning rewards with readers and advertisers – and awards, as in Pulitzer.

Note: In trying to bring you the best of the Convergence Conference – and the usual holiday and end-of-semester press – we were delayed in publishing the November edition. Please pardon our tardiness and look for the December edition shortly.

The Convergence Newsletter welcomes articles and feedback from all our readers.

The newsletter is a perfect place for a description of front-line issues or for gestating ideas that have not advanced to being ready for peer review. It also is perfect for those aspects of research that are compelling but that, for whatever reason, do not make it into your journal article or had to be so abbreviated that they deserve fuller treatment.

We are especially interested in work by graduate students.

Please e-mail articles or suggestions to us at You can comment on all articles at The Convergence Newsletter blog. View past newsletters at The Convergence Newsletter Archive.


Featured Articles

Storify the news: Making sense of 140 million tweets a day

Case study: Conflict within an expanding journalistic community

Rob Curley: Making digital pay in Las Vegas


Conference Report

Journalism and Sustainability: What Did We Learn?

Steve Outing's predictions


Quick Glance Calendar (Details)

Feb. 22-23: Digital Age and Society: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities Conference, Muscat, Oman

May 9-11: International Conference on Communication, Media, Technology and Design, Istanbul, Turkey

May 17-19: International Association for Literary Journalism Studies Seventh International Conference, Toronto, Canada

May 30-June 2: 11th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences, Honolulu, Hawaii

June 10-13: International Symposium on Language and Communication, Izmir, Turkey


Featured articles

Storify the news: Making sense of 140 million tweets a day

By Kelly Fincham
Hofstra University

Social media plays a huge role in journalism today, so much so that entry-level journalists are expected to work with new sources of content in ways that were unimaginable when I went into journalism in the early 1980s.

Consider Friday, Feb. 11, 2011, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced he would resign. Wire editors and foreign editors liaised with staff reporters and stringers while simultaneously trying to verify sources and curate the content emanating from thousands of on-the-spot updates on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

The sheer quantity of this information is unprecedented in journalism. It also means that educators need to teach students how to manage and filter these social media news streams.

And yet, a recent study by Pearson found that roughly half of the surveyed faculty said Facebook (53 percent) and Twitter (46 percent) had "negative" value for use in class. [1] This should give journalism educators pause. We must find a way of making positives out of those negatives.

These tools are front and center in newsrooms, and our students need to know how to use them professionally. So the challenge for educators is to find ways to harness the power of social media and use it in class assignments.

One way is Storify, a Web-based storytelling tool that lets reporters incorporate dynamic social media elements such as tweets, updates, videos, audio, Web pages, and images into their stories.

Reporters can verify sources and stories and report on them as they arise. It teaches students how to find the signal in the noise, the verifiable sources, and the real issues.

The interface allows searches for content and sources, which can then be dragged and dropped into the story line. These searches often involve, but need not be limited to, social media sources such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. This is not cut-and-paste journalism but a form of dynamic storytelling.

For instance, on the day Mubarak resigned, journalists at CBC in Canada, The Washington Post in the U.S., and ABC in Australia used Storify to verify sources, collate information, and create a more cohesive narrative. Their reports, which included videos, images, and tweets from Egypt, were richer for the effort.

The service, as designed by former AP reporter Burt Herman, was intended to provide a way for journalists to:

  1. Find, verify and cite sources.
  2. Curate multimedia content.
  3. Produce a dynamic package.

In the olden days, all the way back to 1994, wire editors would source and curate content from the feeds by AP, Reuters, AFP, etc. Stories would be produced in a linear fashion and published via radio, television, or print.

Now, a recent IBM study found that each of Facebook's 800 million users posts on average about 90 pieces of content a month. Twitter users send about 140 million tweets a day, and YouTube's 490 million users upload more video content in 60 days than the three major U.S. TV networks created in 60 years. [2]

The same study found that 90 percent of the world's data was created in the past two years alone.

This is why it is so important our students know how to navigate this content. Although Storify was originally intended for journalists, it has much wider application in the classroom. And just as journalists used Storify to filter the news stream, students can use it to curate content in the same way journalists do.

It's also useful in teaching students to use linking to avoid copyright issues on the Web. Every Storify element is linked straight to the content creator.

Our students may be "digital natives" but they are unsophisticated in their use of social media. They treat all information, comment and opinion gleaned from the net as intrinsically factual and somehow equal. Storify helps them separate the wheat from the chaff.

Students are taught how to "follow the source" from the information that caught their eye to the original source. In one example, we work with searching for sources on Occupy Wall Street. Clearly this type of event draws strong reactions, and much comment is posted on social media. Storify lets students assemble the most informative posts and then check out those sources by following links back to each one. Each source can then be further examined by information on its website and through links, connections to credible sources, or comparison with information published on other websites known to be reliable.

Storify, which was launched in September 2010, used to be invitation-only but is now public. I think it should be part of every educator's syllabus.

I have been using Facebook, Twitter and now Storify in the classroom since 2010. I had resisted using Facebook in particular because, like many colleagues, I feared losing my students' attention span. Now, I don't know how I worked without it. Facebook helps drive conversations outside the classroom, and it helps keep students engaged. Twitter helps them stay on stop of current events. And Storify helps them make sense of it all.

And a small bonus? Students are constantly surprised at just how much work is actually involved in social media.

[1] Pearson,


Kelly Fincham teaches online journalism at Hofstra University as an assistant professor of journalism, media studies, and public relations. She worked for more than 25 years as a senior editor of print and online media in Australia and Ireland.


Case study: Conflict within an expanding journalistic community

By Robert Gutsche Jr.
University of Iowa

Having residents write about their own city seems a great way for a local newspaper to cover its community – especially when the writers work for free.

But what happens when the newspaper, which wants to expand coverage in print and online for little to no cost, expects to do so under traditional journalistic standards that might not correspond with those of the writers, many of whom just want the prestige of being published?

A co-authored paper that I presented at the 2011 AEJMC meeting in St. Louis looks at one newspaper's experience of using community participants in news coverage to understand the challenges of expanding the journalistic community. Such a case study is helpful, particularly when the news industry continues to move online and into social media with the help of audience members.

Increasing volunteer involvement in the creation of news helps spread democracy, supporters of citizen journalism say. But my paper suggests otherwise – at least in this case – in part because of a mismatch between the needs and goals of the newspaper and the volunteers.

In summer 2010, I interviewed a handful of community members who had been selected by a local newspaper's opinion page editor to write monthly columns for the print issue. This daily newspaper also has an active website and blogs to help serve a Midwestern community of about 70,000 and encouraged participants to write blog posts on the website [1] .

My interest in the interactions and purpose of community participation in the newspaper's formal writers group deepened during summer 2009 when racially charged crime coverage in the city's newspapers increased following street crime involving African-Americans in a majority white city. Crime news coverage throughout the year tended to focus on black aggressors and white victims, while the majority of the city's crime, white-on-white crimes, occurred in heavily white areas.

A perceptible racist tone also increased in the community columns and online reader comments written about those columns. One columnist referred to black newcomers to the city from nearby urban centers as "perpetrators of urban decay" whose culture began to ruin the columnist's own community.

I wondered why and how these community writers received such prominence in the local newspaper. Among the questions:

  • What was this formal writing group?
  • How was this group endorsed by the newspaper?
  • Why and how had the newspaper established this specific group?
  • Why would people engage – for free – in local opinion and news writing in the first place?

I interviewed six community members (about half of all of the regular community columnists) and the opinion page editor who coordinated their efforts, and argue that even though results and conclusions from this study aren't generalizable, a deeper understanding of media production in this case sheds light on potential conflicts of expanding the journalistic community, which could exist elsewhere.

Writing for self, not for democracy

While participants said they believed their writings could influence public opinion on topics within the city, few discussed their role in terms of providing a democratic outlet to engage the public in debate, information-gathering, and connecting the media institution with public needs and desires.

What the columnists wrote, one contributor said, "might actually influence" the public, but he said he wrote mainly to "express my own thoughts, my own feelings, express my own values about something." Another writer said he wrote because of "ego."

Such statements of what they might get out of writing and blogging for the newspaper seemed counter to the normative goals of journalism and opposed what many new media scholars profess an expanded journalistic community can do to promote democracy and approach an idealized public sphere [2] .

Trying to save the local paper

By and large, columnists seemed well aware of the financial aspect of their volunteerism, that their columns provided free, local content for the newspaper in an effort to attract readers and visitors to the website and the newsstands. "The bottom line," one writer said, "is that [editors need] to fill those pages," and that free columns from locals are seen as "good copy" for a local newspaper. They also were aware, and the opinion page editor confirmed, that their columns' content also contributed to people's picking up the paper and visiting the website.

One writer said newspaper management encouraged her to "stir up" the opinion page and blogs through her writing. She said that confused her perception of whether she was a community columnist, attempting to be "a reflection of the community," or whether she was a personality that "sells papers." These confusions, which appeared in each interview, influenced the group's perceptions about journalists and, perhaps, the very notion of journalism.

Me? A journalist?

Participants insisted their status as volunteers precluded them from considering themselves "professionals," which created tension for both the editor and participants as to what standards should be applied to their work. Neither considered the community writers as journalists, in part because they were writing opinion pieces.

The community participants said the distinction that they were not "professional writers" released them from complying with traditional journalistic standards and ethics, such as verification, accuracy, and the appropriate use of sources. But the participants said they still wanted the legitimacy, authority, and recognition from writing for a local news organization.

Who controls what?

Overall, the writers insisted that they maintain significant amounts of autonomy from the newspaper management in how they wrote and what they wrote about.

Community columnists did not receive training on journalistic standards or how to operate the blogging technology. However, in constructing an understanding of how these participants view their role as contributors and respond to elements of social control, it is interesting to hear about the interactions the writers did have with editors. Several comments revealed they were not as autonomous as they initially suggested.

One writer said she "completely control[s] the online posts." However, she quickly clarified, "unless someone says, ‘We are going to get sued for this, so just take it out or we are going to take it out for you.'" The writer also said she had been told more than once by management not to discuss advertisers in her blog, a directive she has challenged – and is confused by.

The opinion editor told me that newspaper management tended to believe the participants "fall under our umbrella," that "they are a part of our brand," and that despite his "efforts" in discussions with the public to create a distinction between the volunteer writers and the newspaper, "people don't know what the writers group is all about. They think these are paid columnists."

In effect, the editor said, this perception may have caused some to expect the community participants to abide by professional journalistic ethics and standards and that they were writing news, even though it was printed under "opinion."

Since the study was presented, one community columnist – in her words – was "fired" for not complying with newspaper standards. The newspaper continues to turn to community participants to cover sensitive topics, including poverty and race. In situations like this, journalists might revisit:

  • The goals of community participation to understand what participants think they are getting out of contributing to the news. Are these goals the same as those of the professionals? If not, is that a problem? What may community collaborations mean to the audience? Do readers see community participants as professionals? Does it matter?
  • What the news outlets gain from community involvement in terms of economics. Is this free news? Does an increase in community contribution coincide with layoffs of professionals or a lack of resources in the newsroom?
  • What level of involvement community participants should have in setting the news agenda and covering topics of importance? If professionals hand over the responsibility of covering sensitive stories to community members, restricting those participants from editorial meetings, staff memos and other "insider" information may not be out of the realm of possibility.

As the journalistic community continues to grow, stretching from newsrooms into people's living rooms, the question of "what is journalism" and "who is a journalist" is not as important as exploring how journalism is produced today. In this case, the meanings assigned to journalism – and to journalists – revolved around issues of whether compensation defines a journalist.

And, if citizens deserve a democratic press, they must demand of those involved in news production new levels of transparency and reflexivity with questions that include "Who construct the news, how, and why?"

[1] Originally presented at the 2011 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in St. Louis. Name of newspaper and those of participants not disclosed for blind peer-review process.

[2] Benson, R. (2008). Normative Theories of Journalism, in W. Donsbach (Ed.), The Blackwell International Encyclopedia of Communication, Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing (pp. 2591-2597); Ferree, M., Gamson, W. A., Gerhads, J., & Rucht, D. (2002). Shaping Abortion Discourse: Democracy and the Public Sphere in Germany and the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press; Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Robert Gutsche Jr. ( is finishing his dissertation in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Iowa. As a journalist, his work has appeared in The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and other publications.


Rob Curley: Making digital pay in Las Vegas

By Chris Frear
Editor, The Convergence Newsletter

Rob Curley says he learned how to listen to readers by watching mice.

For a third-grade experiment, Curley's son fed mice different diets – one junk food, the other healthy food. The junk food mouse grew rapidly, easily outsizing the other mouse. But in time the junk food mouse became lethargic and died, while the smaller mouse remained active and alive at the end of the test.

"Feed our readers garbage, celebrities and fluff, and we'll kill our business," said Curley, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun, in a presentation at the 10th Annual Convergence Conference in late October.

In a Skype video call, Curley explained his newsroom's strategy of feeding readers the news that they want – not the junk food some editors imagine, but stories the Sun's website metrics show they read – stories about crime, community, courts, politics, and government.

"We see what our readers read, and it's news," he said.

Using detailed, real-time Web traffic measurement, the Sun's 24-reporter staff writes from 40 to 50 stories a day. Each typically starts as a five-paragraph brief that reporters and editors add to as long as reader interest moves it up the digital charts displayed in the newsrooms. The metrics show the stories, ZIP codes and reporters generating the most traffic.

"If it jumps to the top, we add, add, add," Curley said. Reporters follow reader comments closely and might turn to one expert in a specific area to help develop a story.

That hyperlocal, hard news approach has helped the Sun increase its traffic to eightfold what it was three years ago and, more importantly, has built an audience and resources for the "Big J journalism" projects that earned the Sun a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for public service and a 2011 Goldsmith Award for investigative reporting, Curley said.

The combination, Curley said, convinces him that the Sun and its new-media division, Greenspun Interactive, can create "a completely sustainable digital newsroom. No more relying on print to pay the bills." He said the Sun is on track to cover operations with revenue in the first quarter of 2012.

Curley's approach is marked by metrics, a willingness to experiment, and selectivity. The staff turns to Twitter trending topics in the region or Google search trends for story leads. New apps let Las Vegas news – narrowed down to a reader's ZIP code – follow readers wherever they go online.

"We're not trying to get you to come to our site, but to get the news to you," he said.

As part of a joint operating agreement that requires the Sun to continue to publish a print edition, Curley said the same staff produces the daily newspaper, built from the articles developed throughout the day on the website. Yet the newsroom doesn't try to be all things to all readers. Instead, for example, the sports coverage emphasizes high schools, the area's major colleges and mixed martial arts, a new staple of Las Vegas. The Sun has persuaded high school coaches to report detailed box scores for their games, and those details get sliced and diced, enabling the Sun to produce an online page for each team and for each player, with game and season stats.

Curley said he advises editors to "understand how the ecosystem works," to know in detail how the Web software operates, what it can do, and what it can measure; to not trust their instincts on what readers want and instead measure it in detail through Web metrics; and to build a sense of community online.

One ways the Sun has worked to build community is through two tiers of comments, a near-anonymous level and a verified level that he said is more formally vetted than letters to the editor at most newspapers. Verified comments receive more prominent placement on the website to encourage informed, civil discussion.

The experimenting lets the Sun cut off projects that aren't driving traffic – video, for example – and to leverage its Web software to produce customized content, Curley said, all in an effort to serve readers what they want and what they need.


Conference report

Journalism and Sustainability: What Did We Learn?

By Chris Frear, Editor, The Convergence Newsletter
Augie Grant, Chair, Convergence and Society Conference

Journalism has always been a conversation in a community, but sometimes the conversation takes an unexpected turn.

The 10th Annual Convergence and Society Conference, for instance, had to turn to Skype to hear from keynote speaker Steve Outing after a bicycling accident prevented him from traveling to Columbia. Another unexpected turn was that the arrangement reduced the carbon footprint of the conference by one flight.

Another Skype conversation – this one planned – brought in Rob Curley, who, among other things, explained how the Las Vegas Sun is moving closer to covering its costs with digital revenue (see more in the previous article).

The challenge for journalists is to maintain the conversation in the digital environment in a sustainable way – financially, ethically, and environmentally. At the conference, we heard more than three dozen presentations on the themes of sustainability and media regeneration.

Many researchers explored the economic sustainability of journalism in an environment where consumers expect free content and online advertising revenue is less than the revenue lost by traditional media. But many presenters were equally concerned with the media's role in environmental sustainability. Outing, for example, shared his frustration with magazine publishers who offer lower subscription rates for those who subscribe to print editions than for those who view magazines online only.

As always, the presentations ranged from detailed research reports to anecdotal accounts relating to the teaching and practice of convergent journalism. Over the next few months, this newsletter will share some of the research. Kelly Fincham's odyssey with her Storify presentation (see her article earlier in this newsletter) typifies the cutting-edge nature of the conference. In her words:

It's about 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25 and I'm flying to Charlotte on U.S. Airways … when I check my email [via GoGo]. There's one from Storify saying: 'We've taken your feedback and have rebuilt Storify on a stronger foundation.' They're rolling out a new site the following day.

I curse the screen. I had just finalized a screenshot-based Prezi on Storify which I was going to present at USC Columbia.

And we were landing in 20 minutes.

On the plus side, the Storify revamp was timely and would enhance my session on 'Teaching Outside the Box.' On the minus side, I had no presentation. Everything was based on how Storify had looked yesterday. By Friday, the whole thing would look dated.

That's how I ended up creating a Storify about Storify. Because I had no time to do anything else. Which is when I realized how much time I was really wasting using anything else to organize multimedia information.

Next semester, all my course content will be published in themed Storify handouts. Each element will include narrative, curated links and embedded multimedia. Students can move through the items without leaving the page.

Storify, of course, was never designed to be used like that. But [Storify creator Burt] Herman says he's happy to see it used this way: "Most people don't need advanced CMS functions and we are all about making storytelling and publishing as simple as possible, so it makes sense that people might indeed use us all on our own," he said.

Fincham's experience is typical of those trying to stay on the cutting edge of journalism and publishing. And it provides an interesting set of lessons to build upon during the 11th annual conference next September. Look for next month's issue of The Convergence Newsletter for details.


Steve Outing's predictions

Outing didn't just complete the online survey following the Convergence Conference, he turned it into a blog post. On his website, the conference keynote speaker wrote that the survey had "a couple of questions that I should not answer but cannot resist" about what online news will look like in 20 years and how devices and the reader's location will affect the format.

"Twenty years?! Now there's an opportunity to make a fool of myself with predictions that have a slim-to-none chance of turning out to be correct," Outing responded. "And when I'm 74, I can chuckle at my prognostications while relaxing in my solar-powered rocking chair as my digital assistant finds this old blog item, reads each prediction, and explains where I went wrong (or was right). [Note to future self's information assistant: Find this and bring it to my attention 20 years from today.]"

The post drew the attention of The Poynter Institute's Steve Myers. He took note on of three Outing predictions: news tools will fact-check every news story and highlight mistakes, mistruths and bias (such a tool is actually under development [1]); another tool will guide you away from a crime scene and provide available information about the scene; and more journalists will cover niche topics going uncovered now.

[1] Phelps, A. (2011, Nov. 22). Bull beware: Truth goggles sniff out suspicious sentences in news. Nieman Journalism Lab. Retrieved from


Conferences, Training and Calls for Papers
Return to Top

Digital Age and Society: Issues, Challenges and Opportunities
Bayan College, Muscat, Oman
February 22-23, 2012


Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference
American Journalism Historians Association and the AEJMC History Division
New York
March 10, 2012
Editor's Note: Link expired, renewal pending.


International Conference on Communication, Media, Technology and Design Istanbul
May 9-11, 2012


International Association for Literary Journalism Studies 7th International Conference
May 17-19, 2012


11th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences
May 30-June 2, 2012


International Symposium on Language and Communication
Izmir, Turkey
June 10-13, 2012


Job Openings

Public Relations, Assistant or Associate Professor Journalism and Mass Communications
University of South Carolina, Columbia
Deadline to apply: Review begins Dec. 1


Visual Communications, Academic- or Professional-track Candidates
University of South Carolina, Columbia
Applications currently being accepted.


Professor of visual journalism, one-month foreign reporting program
Istanbul, Turkey
June 21-July 19, 2012
Contact: Director Mary D'Ambrosio, Journalism in Turkey,,


Publisher and Editorial Staff

The Convergence Newsletter is free and published by The College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Executive Editor: Doug Fisher

Editor: Chris Frear

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