One of only 120 programs in the nation accredited by the prestigious Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, the SIUE Department of Mass Communications has been teaching and producing highly capable graduates. As the means of communication move forward by leaps and bounds, the mass communications program must keep pace. The department's new media convergence laboratory will help ensure this.
"Media industries have entered what is known as the convergent era, meaning that there are no longer clear lines of distinction between the various forms of media," said Gary Hicks, associate professor of mass communications and chair of that department. "The once-distinct features that differentiated newspaper work from magazine, radio from television, and corporate communications from advertising, no longer exist. Instead there is a media environment that incorporates the products and processes of all of these former stand-alone industries."
M. Shawn Maxfield was hired in 2010 and is considered the department's expert on convergence communication and new media. "Convergent media are at the leading edge of a profound shift in the production, distribution, and consumption of media communications," Maxfield said. "As new technologies and uses appear daily, students trained in convergent communications media technologies, concepts, and practices are increasingly in demand across all disciplines, industries and endeavors."
One extremely successful Mass Communications alumna can attest to Maxfield's assessment. Paige St. John, who received her bachelor's degree in journalism from SIUE in 1986, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The award recognized her stories focusing on the precarious insurance industry in Florida. St. John's award-winning work, "Florida's Insurance Nightmare," was the result of more than two years of exhaustive research, and was presented as a series in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. As a journalist for more than three decades, she has observed and even participated firsthand in the changing venue of news delivery.
"I've given up on those who think journalism is dying," St. John said. "In many ways I think we are witnessing an explosive growth in how news is conveyed. I find myself now competing not just with papers, TV/R and web-based news organizations, but also special interest groups and advocacy movements that employ the same tools as journalists, command large audiences and attempt to provide (or sometimes not) a measure of credibility to their work.
"The most important skills for reporters in any medium have never changed: the ability to think critically and with your feet in motion. Technologies will change and modes of conveyance come and go, but what a reporter brings to the party is a clear, inquisitive, open mind," St. John said.
St. John said her education at SIUE provided an emphasis on the entire journalism process, from writing and editing a story to photography and design and layout. Learning multiple skills has served her well through the years as she has developed her own specializations, which include creating and using databases to link and explain complex issues.
"I believe every reporter today should be able to go beyond spreadsheets and handle at least one kind of relational database, because so much of what needs to be reported now exists in these formats," she said. "This digital sophistication also applies to how reporters now must present their work - in print, online and on the air, often all at once, accompanied less by static graphics and more by dynamic databases that allow users to interact with the news."
A multi-faceted approach is exactly what the new media convergence environment will prepare mass communications majors to do, department faculty say.
"Students will learn to produce quality content and then disseminate it on multiple platforms," according to Hicks. "What starts as a traditional newspaper article can be transformed by the student into a video, incorporated into an online experience, modified for a Facebook page, turned into steaming audio and video for internet consumption - maybe even digitized and used to create real-time animation and holographic images."
Maxfield said the new learning environment will have a tremendous impact on students in the Mass Communications program. "The convergent communications media lab will allow our students to fully engage in the digital communications revolution as active contributors and effective communicators," he said. "Yes, advanced conceptual and practical know-how will greatly enhance their marketability, but at the same time will also establish them as tomorrow's leaders as they will become intimately versed in the technologies and contexts through and within which people now work, play, and live. The environment will allow students to obtain a cutting-edge education that's in step with the still-emerging digital communications landscape."
The new convergence "environment," as it is envisioned, will include seven distinct "spaces," all connected through a very powerful state-of-the-art shared storage and file integration system. These spaces include:
Among the applications Maxfield envisions students and faculty creating in the new environment are websites, multi-channel news stories, interactive Web stories and training programs, simulations, e-learning modules, wikis, content communities and social networking sites.
The price tag of the new laboratory is $250,000. An additional $175,000 is being sought to establish a permanent endowment that will allow the Mass Communications Department to keep up with the latest technology and software.
The new environment will benefit faculty and students alike. "Simply put, the tools and technologies available in this environment will allow our faculty to maximize our efficacy, thereby allowing us to better serve and prepare our students," Maxfield said. "Now more than ever, competition for jobs is global. Coupled with the benefits of their broader SIUE education, experiences made possible by the new environment will provide graduating students with distinct, competitive advantages in the global economy."
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