Media General's Ashe talks convergence

 

Reid Ashe, president and chief operating officer of Media General, was the special guest speaker at several School of Communications classes Sept. 24.

Ashe is best known as the news manager who recently oversaw the inception of the nation's most visible media convergence project: a combination newsroom for the Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV and TBO.com, an online operation.

"Think about the difference in the media landscape between now and when I was your age," he began. "Nobody had ever heard of cable television, and the Internet wasn't even a dream. Today we have a lot more choices and distractions. How do we cope with this new world? At Media General, we are trying to reassemble the splintered media audience. We all look at newspapers, use TV and use the Internet. We want to reach people in ways that are convenient to them."

Students asked Ashe how young journalists can best prepare themselves for a future in a news world that includes converged media.

"The most important thing is to learn to be a good storyteller," he replied. "If you have an interest in learning about working in multiple areas of communications, do so, but it isn't necessary to survive. We'll always have a need for the specialists in print or television or online work. If you can branch out and learn more skills, it can be to your benefit, but it's not required.

"Another important skill for journalists is to learn how people in a community relate to each other and to understand how to cover these relationships. While you are at a university, learn economics, government, environmental science; get a good background in all the areas you'll be covering."

Ashe, a Charlotte, N.C., native, attended MIT in the 1960s to earn an engineering degree. He found his life's work when he began to write for a college newspaper and discovered journalism to be more compelling than electrical engineering. His first newspaper job was as a reporter for the Washington (N.C.) Daily News, and a few months later he was working for The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun. At age 25, he became executive editor of the 32,000-circulation daily. At age 29, he was publisher. He was president and publisher of The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle from 1986 to 1991, leading the paper to a top-flight reputation as one of the nation's foremost practitioners of civic journalism.

"News has always been a commercial enterprise, but today because it's more competitive we have to pay more attention to what people are interested in," he said. "We have to understand our community and our shared concerns. We have to figure out ways to engage people because there is so much more competition for people's attention."

He said there's no need for the kind of around-the-clock coverage we have seen of stories like the OJ Simpson trial and the death of Princess Diana, but they are important because people are interested in them. "You have to make choices intelligently and anticipate what will engage people's attention," he said. "Know what will stimulate that 'Whoa, look at this!' moment for the audience. We do have the ability to give people all of the content they need and give them variety and balance."

Media General owns 26 TV stations and 76 print publications in the southeast region of the United States. Many of these have online components, and the company encourages convergence efforts in regions in which it owns newspapers and television operations. Ashe pointed to variety and blanket coverage as two of the advantages of converged media. "If people don't want to read a newspaper, we can reach them online or on television or on radio, " he said. He discussed the strengths of various media.

"Newspapers can serve the shared concerns of people in the community," he said. They are generally the best-staffed news operations in most cities, and they can specialize in getting depth of coverage. Television can bring people to the scene of a story, he said, and it excels in live coverage of breaking news. Online news operations can present news in a variety of ways. "I don't think we know yet just what's the best way to write on the web. We can embed links to sidebars, include video footage, offer a long narrative or chop a story up into smaller segments and organize it through hyperlinks."

He smiled when asked about the value of his first job in journalism, as a reporter in the small town of Washington, N.C. "The experience of working in a small newsroom is a precious one that I wouldn't trade for anything," he said. "You learn things that are essential for your business that you can't learn anywhere else. It gives you a ground-up perspective of our business. If you do it, it's an experience you'll treasure for the rest of your life."

 

 

 

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Last Modified:  9/23/02
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