Published: May 16, 2018
Updated: May 17, 2018

Convergence in Journalism: The Evolution of Traditional Media to Backpack Journalism VR, and Beyond

Author: Christy Roland

photo of people looking at devices
As more consumers turn to digital outlets to consume news, journalists and media organizations are reshaping their approach to content creation and distribution. In less than a generation, studies show that approximately two-thirds of adults in the U.S. get their news from social media sites, and about 40 percent of the over 7.5 billion people on the planet use social networks as a news source. Twitter now has 16 streaming news partnerships, YouTube TV offers a “breaking news” summary on its homepage, and Snapchat teams with CNN, NBC, and The New York Times to deliver news and there are more deals on the horizon. This article will look at how convergence in journalism is changing not only the way we get our news, but how reporters deliver it, and the new frontiers still yet to explore.

To remain relevant, journalists like Nonny de la Peña are using new storytelling forms and convergent media to engage consumers.

Nonny de la Peña
Nonny de la Peña

Known as the “Godmother of virtual reality,” de la Peña is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and CEO of Emblematic Group, a digital media company focused on immersive virtual, mixed, and augmented reality. Credited with helping create the immersive journalism genre, de la Peña notes that “Journalism has always strived to communicate the way that events unfold in real life and VR lets us get closer to that ambition. There was the belief that radio would kill print and that film would kill radio and yet, all of these media still exist, and the landscape remains diverse and robust. Having the ability to be immersed in stories in a way that is more akin to how we take in the real world is certain to grow, but I am unsure how it will affect the storytelling platforms that preceded it.”

Since the 1990s when internet use boomed and the early 2000s when social media began its ascent, different types of multiplatform or convergent journalism have come into play. This new environment prompts questions: What are the tools for journalists in a digitally networked world? Who’s a journalist when almost anyone can create content and access an international audience? What is journalism in the post-truth era?

Defining Convergent Journalism Modalities

The same synergies between technology, media, and information that are changing society are changing journalism. Convergent journalism makes use of print or audiovisual content and is also a portal for more content like text, video, and podcasts, as well as providing links to related resources, online archive access, and opportunities for users to comment on the story or provide links to relevant material. Here are the several definitions that relate to convergence in journalism:

Chris Michaels
Chris Michaels
  • Convergent Journalism, also known as Multimedia Journalism or Transmedia Journalism: Chris Michaels is a journalist and Director of PR and Communications for Wowza Media Systems, which offers a customizable live-streaming platform to build, deploy and manage high-quality video, live and on-demand. Michaels explains, “Today’s journalists are multidisciplinary. In the simplest terms, convergent journalism is using two or more media at the same time. For example, a package to cover the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. from Mashable included a written article, video interviews using mobile, social packages with a three-second clip to share on Twitter or other platforms, and live video reporting from a mobile device so viewers could see it on-demand in any format — Facebook Live or YouTube.”
G. Stuart Smith
G. Stuart Smith
  • Backpack Journalism, also known as Mobile (Mojo)Journalism, Solo (Sojo) Journalism: “People used to create news pieces and documentaries in crews, but with lighter, better equipment one-man bands are now doing backpack or solo journalism,” says Stuart Smith, Associate Professor of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University, and award-winning documentary filmmaker and author of Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century. A backpack journalist himself, Smith notes that with the cost pressures on traditional newsrooms today, particularly those in small markets, journalists are often reporters, photographers, and videographers, as well as editors and producers of stories—essentially, a one-person news team. Smith adds, “These days, it’s almost possible to use your phone to do the job.”

Mojo and Solo journalists can either be mobile staff members or freelance journalists that use anything from compact digital cameras and camcorders, laptop PCs, to mobile devices. These journalists carry a high-tech mobile studio in their backpack and are able to report from anywhere on the globe across a range of media.

With cost pressures and staff downsizing, many organizations increasingly rely on Mojo or Solo reporters as news gatherers. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, more than half of newspaper industry jobs vanished between 2001 and 2016.

  • Citizen Journalism also known as Indy Media, Guerilla Journalism, Bottom-Up, Citizen Media: All of these terms refer to the reporting of news events by members of the public who use the internet for dissemination of written or video content on blogs, social media, and websites. Citizen journalism can be simple fact reporting and coverage that may be ignored by mainstream media organizations. Some types of citizen journalism can also act as a check on the reporting of larger news outlets by providing alternative analysis.
Linda Royall
Linda Royall

Linda Royall, Professor of Journalism at Oral Roberts University and an investigative journalist and author, teaches convergent journalism. “Philosophically and technically I don’t consider many citizen journalists to be journalists,” Royall stresses. “Journalism is a craft and a discipline, and the problem with media now is we have news being produced by people who do not understand the principles of journalism. It may be news, but it may not be journalism. True journalism requires interviews, fact checking, research, and substantiation—in other words, adhering to a code of ethics.”

  • Cyber Journalism, also known as Online journalism, Digital Journalism: In the simplest terms, cyber journalism is any editorial content that is distributed via the internet. Bloggers, whether they have journalism credentials or not, are considered cyber journalists, and have the same legal protections and responsibilities as trained journalists. Citizen journalists are considered cyber journalists.
  • Immersive Journalism: The intention of immersive journalism is to present first-person, interactive experiences of news to more intensely connect audiences to events. Most recently, media organizations are considering or using augmented, virtual, and mixed reality as the possible next step toward that goal. In 2010, de la Peña defined the concept as “the production of news in a form in which people can gain first-person experiences of the events or situation described in news stories.”

Understanding the Tools of the Convergent Media Trade

Technologies like virtual reality are enabling journalists to increase empathy by putting people directly into the action. Emblematic Group’s de la Peña holds the view that journalists have always welcomed new and better ways to tell stories more effectively. “In fact, it is often the journalist who drives technology forward rather than the other way around,” she notes. “If you look at the history of sound recording it was journalists who worked on the first machines that they used to capture sound out in the field. Similarly, we were 3D printing our own headsets before there were any commercially available. Sometimes in the mission to try to tell stories more accurately, it has been the journalist who has tackled the technological divide rather than the other way around.”

In AT&T’s Futurecast video VR: The View from the Ground, de la Peña describes how immersive journalism and virtual reality technology put people on the scene.

Video: Futurecast Series How Immersive Journalism with Catapult VR

De la Peña’s team at Emblematic creates experiences that immerse full body and mind like After Solitary. They produced the piece in collaboration with PBS’ investigative series FRONTLINE.

Here are some of the technologies that are—or will soon be-used by journalists to deepen the storytelling experience. They continue to be refined, more affordable and accessible:

  • Virtual Reality (VR): Originally created for consumer and entertainment-oriented applications, VR duplicates an environment that exists in the real world or imaginary ones. It allows the user to interact in the virtual world. There are currently many different types available of varying cost and sophistication.
  • Augmented Realty (AR): Originally created for utility-oriented and enterprise applications, AR provides a direct or indirect live view of a real-world physical environment augmented with added or supplemented elements by computer-generated inputs such as GPS data, graphics, sound, video, or text.
  • 360° Video: Immersive videos are visual recordings of a real-world scene which records simultaneously in every direction. The user has control of viewing direction during playback.
  • Mixed Reality(MR) or Hybrid Reality: Merges real and virtual realms in real time to generate new visualizations and environments where digital and physical objects exist and interact.
  • Visual Effects (VFX): Integrates live-action footage and digitally generated imagery to create realistic looking environments that would be expensive, impractical, time-consuming or impossible to otherwise capture. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) visual effects have recently become widely available with easier-to-use and more affordable compositing and animation software.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI is a useful tool for covering stories that are best understood through numbers and facts. The technology can also serve to help understand emotions through face recognition algorithms, and serve up customized content to support news stories.
  • Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) and 5G Computing: MEC is a cloud-based network architecture that brings high-bandwidth accessto radio network information in real time to improve application performance and delivery to users. MEC is the architecture for 5G, the next generation of mobile networks that promises network speeds as fast as 10Gb/s. MEC and 5G together will enable the simultaneous usage of a massive number of connected technologies, like Mixed Reality, without incurring network outages due to traffic bottlenecks.

chart showing convergent journalism tools and technologies

A (Very Brief) History of Convergence Journalism Firsts

The history of journalism has always been defined by, but acceleration has been supercharged since the late 1990s with the explosion of the internet.

New developments in VR and AR headset technology, which aren’t in widespread use at the moment, are poised to be a major factor in the near future. With the New York Times leading the way, news organizations like Euronews, CNN, USA Today, the Guardian, and BBC have launched immersive apps, introduced 360° players on websites and VR content.

The necessary VR headsets to view news are in more homes than ever before and have made their way there thanks to gaming enthusiasts. The growing market for headsets means the introduction of new versions at different price points, from simple cardboard versions in the $30 range to those that depend on smartphones like Google’s Daydream View high-end versions (cost up to $800) that let you move around in space. There are even more expensive models like the Santa Cruz (created for developers) that is completely untethered and has built-in positional tracking. More than one million VR headsets were sold in the last quarter of 2017, according to Forbes.

Here’s a sampling of some entertainment, technology, media and journalism developments that have contributed to convergence:

Some Technology Developments that Have Influenced Convergent Journalism

timeline graphic of convergent journalism firsts

  • 1991: SEGA VR, Genesis gaming system included LCD screens in the visor and stereo headphones.
  • 1995: USA Today became the first newspaper to offer an online version of its publication. CNN launched its own site in the same year.
  • 1996: Sony created CyberCode the model for future marker-based AR systems.
  • 1999: The release of ARToolKit, a software library that combines real life with virtual graphics, overlays computer graphics on a video camera.
  • 1999: Online News Association founded for digital journalists.
  • 2001: Multiple news organizations created websites to share developments after the 9/11 terrorist attack.
  • 2002+: Rise of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and WordPress.
  • 2003: Nokia added video recording to cell phones
  • 2003: Vienna University of Technology’s Wagner and Schmalstieg introduced the first handheld AR system on a ‘personal digital assistant’ running on an unmodified personal digital assistant (PDA) with a commercial camera.
  • 2007: ProPublica founded nonprofit newsroom staffed by professional journalists that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.
  • 2010: The concept of immersive journalism was introduced by de la Peñ
  • 2010: Palmer Luckey created the prototype for Oculus Rift.
  • 2011: Snapchat introduced.
  • 2011: Siri intelligent voice-controlled personal assistant introduced by Apple.
  • 2012: Google Glass introduced.
  • 2013: Panorics Omni-dimensional video introduced.
  • 2016: Facebook Live introduced.
  • 2017: Microsoft adds a mixed realty built-in viewer for Windows 10
  • 2018: The New York Times published its first augmented reality feature to preview the Winter Olympics.

To keep up with technologies that are already here and those to come, what does it take to become a convergent journalist?

Elements of Formal Multimedia Journalism Training

As the American Press Institute notes, “The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

Trained convergent journalists aim to disseminate information, tell stories with truth and accuracy, and engage audiences. They must understand both how to report and write, be proficient in film, editing, and photography, and move self-assuredly across media platforms using the latest tools and devices.

The syllabus may vary, but colleges and universities (see a list of learning institutions active in this area at the end of this article) that offer convergent journalism training and majors cover these several areas:

  • Journalism Disciplines: In any convergent journalism course of study, knowledge about laws and ethics regarding libel, privacy, access, and press freedom are essential. Methods include research, writing, editing, presentation, and cross-media implementation. Classes also teach students to understand editing and managing roles necessary in the journalism industry. Optional subjects could include Media Law, Media Asset Management, Intercultural Management, Media Psychology and the practice and theory of journalism in the fields of Sports/Health, Business/ Politics or Culture/Entertainment.According to Oral Roberts University’s Royall who wrote the convergent journalism curriculum, “Our focus is teaching the fundamentals of journalism to reconstruct a strong foundation in ethics.” She notes that one of the primary things she teaches students is to operate without bias.
  • Multimedia/Converged Technical Learning: Understanding the use of equipment technology and various platforms are essential for convergent journalists. Coursework can include the visual aesthetics of message design, the use of video including continuity, framing, lighting, editing, and pacing. Being able to work on camera to present news is important: how to speak, dress, and gesture. Many courses also provide clarity about how blogging and other social media platforms, usually based on opinion, differ from journalism and techniques for both.
  • Practical Experience: Learning by doing exposes budding journalists to the realities of deadlines, working on multiple platforms, and the challenges of being a ‘one-man band.’ Many convergent journalism programs provide newsroom experience to increase their storytelling skills across different media and to provide the student with published portfolio work. Students can gain experience in a variety of media agencies, from non-profit organizations and local newsrooms to public relations firms.

Smith emphasizes that the backpacking skills now in demand require an ongoing balancing act, “You have to be focused on different skills at the same time, to report and have technical skill mastery. You have to listen while you’re doing an interview, but you might be distracted by using the camera. It takes day in and day out practice to do well at every part of the practice.”

The Upside of Convergent Journalism: Getting People Closer to Stories

The immediacy of news delivery can be positive for our democracy. “There is a real opportunity for original reporting and the ability to act as a watchdog on the streets,” says Wowza’s Michaels. “Think about citizens who have used their phones to video police wrongdoing, or how phones were used during the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests to visually capture events and disseminate news to fellow citizens. I wrote a piece for Mashable that noted that during the attempted coup in Turkey the internet was turned off, but cellular networks were still available and used by reporters on the ground.”

  • Greater Personalization and Truthful Content: For all the issues of AI algorithms ‘force feeding’ news via Google, Facebook and other players using algorithms, it is an effective way to find information that is personally relevant based on past searches or viewing. Software can also sort what is true from myth and rumor. Google has already announced that it is improving its searches to filter misleading or low-quality content.
  • Greater Access: From the consumer point of view, in addition to the sheer ability to obtain news from broadcast, print, and the internet, it’s possible for algorithms to serve up content that users didn’t know they wanted but present a different aspect or point of view that may interest them. From the journalist’s point of view, freelancers need only spend about $2,000 for a laptop and high-definition professional quality camera to be broadcast ready.
  • Interactivity: One of the benefits of current news packages is the ability to make a comment or look for more information on any subject. Also, with media and news consumption becoming ever more mobile, many news outlets offer mobile versions with shorter headlines and articles.
  • Deeper Dive: USA Today offers a VR show and documentarians are already taking advantage of immersive technologies. VR, AR, MEC, and other immersive technologies bring news consumers deeper into the story and provide more context.
  • Resurgent Interest in News: One positive result of the current U.S. political environment is an increased interest in all kinds of news on every platform. While non-cable news watching and print are on the decline, news consumption is booming. According to Nielsen’s Total Audience Report, news consumption was up by 45 percent overall from the previous two years, and in 2017 local news consumption has increased.

The Downside of Convergent Journalism: Blurred Lines, Bubbles, and a Broken Business Model

Many of the challenges of the convergence of journalism and technology are affecting the quality of information, the state of our democracy, and user expectations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) introduced the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 and repealed it under the Reagan Administration in 1987, which opened the door to niche-news with a specific position that doesn’t necessarily provide for opposing views. “Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2016, and ‘fake news’ is in the Cambridge Dictionary.

Hofstra’s Smith believes that the devolution in fact-based reporting began even before convergence and unaccountable websites have exacerbated it. “When Congress got rid of the fairness doctrine in broadcasting fair and balanced went out the window,” Smith opines. “Today we have cable broadcasters that position talk programs as news…and breaking news.”

Let’s define some of these terms we hear regarding media and journalism:

  • Who Is a Journalist?: Citizen and backpack journalists who are untrained in ethical and other standards will likely continue to make up a greater proportion of news collectors and purveyors as budgets shrink. As Royall point out, “If science went off the grid and everyone had a beaker, would they all be scientists? No.” Her solution is to model best practices in all media rather than operating to the business model – like Fox and MSNBC to name two cable examples — and ideally that like scientists, journalists should have credentials. At the end of the day, readers decide where to source their news.
  • ‘The Bubble:’ The filter bubble is baked into social media. Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy, first used the term “filter bubble” in a 2011 Ted Talk to describe the way digital platforms shape the information we consume through algorithms. There is also the natural tendency of people to look for information that conforms to their own worldview, whether it’s from cable news or social media which have had no accountability and no standards. Facebook and other platforms are working to correct their role in filter bubbles and fake news.
  • ‘Fast News:’ Fast news is what people now demand, simply because it’s possible. Speed, sensationalism, and click chasing bring attention and ad dollars, but often don’t contribute to the dissemination of facts. A March 2018 MIT Sloan School of Management article, The Spread of True and False News Online, on how fast false news spreads via Twitter found that “false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. It also takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.”
  • Opinion and Entertainment as News: There have always been citizen journalists and those who haven’t received academic training who disseminate information and news. With access costs close to zero, anyone with engaging content can get online, and often, that content is not researched and can be inflammatory in some way. “The First Amendment doesn’t say you have to have a degree to be a journalist,” comments Smith. “I’ve worked with people who had no training who were good backpack journalists. But they had no ethical training.” As such, many bloggers and citizen journalists provide opinion rather than reporting verifiable news.
  • Broken Business Model: The internet has changed how we pay for news media–most ad dollars go to content aggregation sites and not necessarily content creators. The upshot? Less money to create good content.
  • Loss of Seasoned Reporters and Journalists: With the loss of money from the old business model came the loss of jobs. In 1990, the total number of reporters and editors was 56,900. In 2015, there were just was 32,900 editors and reporters. Coincidentally, the 2015 numbers are the last available data because the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) stopped reporting employment figures. Many experienced journalists who have ethical grounding have gone to other types of communications jobs like public relations. Entry level reporting jobs that formerly were how journalists were trained now pay so poorly that many of the best and brightest are going into other professions.
  • Immersive Journalism Issues: Emotional imprinting is a real effect of the intense, full-body immersive journalism new technology enables. Since the experience feels as if one has lived it, information and fact retention can be imperfect. Some critics say there is a risk of creating bias when creators are bad actors or hold particular religious, political, governmental or commercial interests. In a 2016 paper, Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct philosophy professors Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger emphasize that VR is a “powerful form of both mental and behavioral manipulation.”

“This is something that journalists have struggled with throughout history,” de la Peña points out. “Reporters are always going to tell stories relative to their own interaction with the material. Take for example the Kitty Genovese story. It changed the entire belief system that the bystander effect was real, and yet when The New York Times revisited it’s reporting, and it was found they had erred considerably. This is an important issue and always needs to be considered when reporting a non-fiction story.”

  • Propaganda vs. News: The challenge of convergent journalism, particularly immersive journal, is to prevent dishonest entities from producing fake news and presenting it as fact. As technologies and network speeds improve, there is greater opportunity for manipulating experiences and information. Will this result in more ‘fake news’ and less of the real news needed to support an informed citizenry?

As de la Peña explains,Propaganda is nothing new and false information has had serious consequences throughout history, such as the fake films that were made about the concentration camps in WWII.” She cautions, “That said, we must teach our children critical thinking about the material they absorb, they need to question the source and the accuracy of what they are viewing especially as technology evolves.”

While all these points collectively paint a grim picture, there are still organizations and practitioners dedicated to telling the truth.

Best Practices in Convergent Journalism

Some of the best practices in convergent journalism are included below, but one of the best practices, according to all of our experts, is for journalists (of whatever stripe) and consumers to consider whether the news they are accessing is based in fact. There are fact-checking sites available to ensure veracity:,, and Pulitzer Prize-winning

News creators can also:

  • Take Advantage of the Ability to Provide More Context: Use AR, VR, and Mixed Reality to add context to a larger story package and give audiences a different perspective and an ability to interact with the story that other mediums can’t.
  • Adhere to Journalistic Ethics: Smith, Michaels, and Royall stress the need to adhere to journalistic ethics. Royall directs her students and those who are not formally trained to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which focuses on four basic principles to be practiced in all media: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent about how you collect, process, and disseminate facts to the public. The editorial standards of journalism should be adapted to fit the needs of new mediums.
  • Enable Greater Freedom: “Backpackers are about the mainstream media cutting expenses to some extent, but in some respect spending less is a benefit,” notes Smith. “You can be more experimental because it simply costs less to try something with less staff and cheaper equipment.” While he predicts that media in larger markets will still have staff, smaller markets will demand freelancers, which is also an excellent way to learn the craft.

Royall believes that backpack and other freelance journalists should be trained and take advantage of training opportunities. Oral Roberts University has a Global Learning Center with an unparalleled new media technical center where she teaches narrative storytelling using AR/VR and feature narratives like documentaries.

Convergent Journalism in the Near Future

To some extent, readers will decide who is a journalist. Anyone with good content can become a news source and even a media company. Some industry followers believer that digital will soon replace all print news – it’s faster, cheaper, and easier to personalize.

  • New Business Models: Convergent journalism offers tremendous access possibilities, but how will it be funded? Consumers expect information to be free, so subscription models may not be the answer (although the New York Times subscription revenue passed the $1 Billion mark in 2017, not exactly ‘failing’. Additionally, the company also offers a freemium model to attract new customers).
  • Two Production Models for News Organizations: Media organizations that thrive in a converged world will break down in two ways. There are producer-driven stories for breaking news and much daily news content. A producer-driven story will send out a team of reporters to research the story and gather information. The reporters file their story, and won’t know how much of the story will be published or in what format.  The other option is reporter-driven stories that are written and produced by an individual or small reporting team who put together a news package with content controlled from beginning to end. Package elements can include still photos, text and audio, analysis, video clips, and the opportunity for user comments.
  • Voice Interface: Voice operated systems like Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Samsung’s Viv may not be perfected, but they are quickly improving. The ability to ask for news will be a boon for consumers and pose more challenges for news storytellers. More audio possibilities are audio blogging platforms, aggregated stories, and having aggregated news read–shades of traditional radio. In 2017, Facebook Live Audio was launched, which allows users to obscure their appearance (no need for hairdressing), the audience to multi-task, and doesn’t requires a strong signal.
  • AI and Real-Time Fact Checking and Research: Computers won’t ever replace journalists, but AI software can provide more coverage. For example, the Associated Press (AP) is already using AI to produce company quarterly earnings reports. The technology can be used to research and fact check – for example, AI software can check quarterly statistics issued by the government.

There are challenges ahead to be sure, but new technologies—and appropriate training in techniques and ethics—will allow reporters to fact check and edit more easily as they provide richer, deeper, more on-the-ground reporting. Wowza Media Systems’ Michaels notes that skilled backpack, Mojo or Sojo journalists have the opportunity to build personal value. Because journalists will hold more than one role (reporter, editor, producer, on-camera talent), they are valuable to news outlets and organizations, and once they have some experience in so many roles, they will have a better business sense.”

Michaels also notes that an important part of delivering converged news well is dependent on lack of latency. MEC and 5G networks, in his opinion, are what the future of journalism will rely on for fast, quality transmission. “A good visual storyteller wants people to feel, that requires the power of technologies like 360 video and VR. It’s inevitable: convergence journalism is on the rise.”

U.S. Schools with Convergence Journalism Training and Majors

The number of higher-learning institutions that offer Convergent or Multimedia Journalism Programs as an area of concentration continues to grow. Here are some to explore:

Experience the SHAPE of Journalism to Come

SHAPE is an immersive event exploring the convergence of technology and entertainment. Discover how the future of content creation and distribution will usher in new audience experiences. Be inspired by visionary speakers. Experience interactive exhibits from promising start-ups and industry leaders at Warner Bros. Studios backlots.

SHAPE is happening June 2 and 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California, at Warner Bros. Studios.

* The views expressed in this presentation do not necessarily reflect the views of AT&T.

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