SPLC’s Adam Goldstein: ‘The Future is . . . Divergence’

Divergence. Adam Goldstein is convinced this single term holds the key to the success of college media in the 21st century.

The impassioned attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center is sick of convergence.  He believes it is a false prophet, a cheap-and-easy cross-media catch-all that audiences do not actually want or benefit from.

In a comment on a recent post of mine, Goldstein stated, “[F]or a decade now, I’ve been warning against the concept of convergence, inasmuch as it’s been used to suggest that content needs to be delivered in the same way across platforms.  The only kind of digital content that survives is the content that takes full advantage of the medium, just as original and creative print layouts take full advantage of the print medium.  The future is . . . divergence.”

Divergence?  Admittedly, the first thing that came to mind was Robert Frost, specifically his poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

I Googled it.  The first site that popped up was a Wikipedia page linking the term to vector calculus.  Hmm.  Goldstein obviously meant it in a modern media context.  I e-mailed him, asking for more.

Below are his responses.  The basic sentiment: Convergence is the popular path, but it is a road to nowhere.  Divergence is the road less traveled, but it has the potential to make all the difference.

How do you define modern news media convergence?

I’m not sure there’s a real consensus as to what convergence means in theory, but in practice, it means creating content that’s basically medium-agnostic: The story that you get on the news website is the story that you get on TV, and the story you get on TV is the story you get in the podcast.  This has the theoretical benefit of letting the audience choose when and how to get news, thereby increasing the audience, because the medium is no longer a barrier.

What’s your problem with convergence?

The problem is that, once you’ve decided that content has to live in places other than the platform for which it’s created, you’re losing any of the benefits unique to that medium; and consumers choose the medium where they consume news primarily for those unique benefits.  For example, newspaper readers like newspapers because the stories are longer and more in-depth. If you make the stories shorter so you can “converge” them with the website, you’ll make a newspaper nobody wants to read.

So, what is divergence?  And why is it the key to quality journalism?

Because consumers choose a medium for the characteristics of the medium, the best way to attract consumers is to tailor content to take full advantage of the divergent aspects of the medium. To be blunt, we need to stop thinking about how to make content more alike, and start thinking about how to make it different.

Take a simple example.  You want to impart information to the audience about a candidate for public office.  The convergent way of doing it would be to put together a video package with a script that can be published as text online with the video next to it; read on the radio and podcasts; included in a video podcast; and printed in the newspaper with a screen grab of the video as an image.

The divergent way of doing it would be to tell the story of the candidate’s life with period song clips for radio and podcast; do an in-depth news analysis for newspaper and online; and then add an additional interactive package showing where the candidate stands in the political spectrum against other opponents.

Why aren’t more journalists or outlets in favor of divergence?

It’s obvious to me why divergence is unpopular— it’s expensive.  Convergence is “write once, run anywhere” content.  Divergence is “write, release, repeat.” The corporate appeal of convergence is that you can hire fewer journalists and still put out as many newspapers, broadcasts, and web pages.

Mind you, nobody will want them.  Look at the new media that’s really changed things in the last 15 years— not journalism, which has nearly converged itself out of existence— but media.  Facebook.  Twitter.  YouTube.  None of them can really be represented meaningfully in other formats. Look at content in traditional media that’s best of breed: This American Life.  The New York Times.  Real Simple.  These are not media outlets that are wringing their hands trying to figure out how to box their content for delivery on a Blackberry.

What’s the bottom line with all this?

People want media that makes the best possible use of every pixel, every column inch, and every moment of tape.  That’s what survives.  Perhaps this is the shortest way to put it: Convergence is the theory that Marshall McLuhan was an idiot. As it happens, he was not.

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