A breakthrough victory for new media?

 

As news anchors filled time with little information, Twitter gave better value

POOR Farrah Fawcett. Hers was a big death until about noon, LA time on Thursday, when the herds of reporters must have checked their Blackberries, perked up like meerkats and then swept en masse to a story far, far bigger. And at that stage, Michael Jackson was being reported only as having had a heart attack.

At a time when the newsflash is a devalued currency, it is rare that there is a story so big, so surprising that the news channels gasp to keep pace with a story that sweeps everything else aside. It is common for Sky News or Fox News and CNN to give the impression that even the most minor car chase or a mundane celebrity story is worth hours of attention. Yet when a truly massive story breaks, it can be oddly disorienting for them, as newscasters, with little information, fill time with mindless chatter and scrambled calls to anybody and everybody who might have even a passing expertise on the story.

On Thursday night this meant calls to fan club presidents, showbiz hacks and Joe Pesci. At one point, Sky News got Uri Geller on the line, but he “couldn’t confirm” when he last spoke to Jackson, as if his great mental powers have their limits.

Sky News then asked if Jackson’s death was comparable with John Lennon’s death, as if there’s some kind of rating system.

Meanwhile, the web was straining under the pressure. In the hours leading up to midnight, traffic to Irishtimes.com doubled. Twitter began crashing. For half an hour, Google’s news section presumed that the bombardment of searches for “Michael Jackson” constituted a viral attack.

News of his death was broken through online entertainment site TMZ. It was interesting to see how the traditional media both fed off TMZ and attempted to keep it at arm’s length. For about half an hour, the website’s news was treated – understandably – as an “unconfirmed report”. Some news channels wouldn’t run with it at all. CNN, for instance, moved towards the story that Jackson was in a coma and stuck with that even as it became apparent that things were far worse.

Some newspaper websites held back too, although some – including Irishtimes.com – were quicker to publish the TMZ report and later to feel confident enough to pronounce his death as having moved beyond rumour and into fact. Nevertheless, it was only when the ‘LA Times’ said what TMZ had been saying for half an hour that it was considered okay for Sky News to announce it in a formal way and to break it to Uri Geller. The other traditional outlets gradually fell in with that. It was a potentially seminal moment in the relationship between new and old media – and the balance of power.

Just as interesting was the vibrancy of the chatter on Twitter compared with that on television. It’s easy at the moment to get caught up in the hype over Twitter and its next-big-thing status, but between the very different events of Iran and Michael Jackson’s death it really has proven itself a vital corner of the media.

On Thursday night, as the world’s news anchors filled time with little information, Twitter gave a truer sense of the breaking story than any news channel.

Its users trusted online sources in a way the channels did not. And, as it reported the story in its collective way, it did so with a mixture of surprise, debate, confusion, insight, critique and wit. The chatter reflected what was happening in people’s homes rather than what was happening in TV studios. It was far more honest, far less cautious, and came without the coating of insincere grief of the showbiz correspondents and news anchors.

The millions on Twitter were no more informed than the voices on the news channels, but they were far, far more interesting.

On the story went. There was a surreal cameo from the actor Jeff Goldblum when a rumour swept Twitter that he had fallen off a cliff in New Zealand. It was a spoof, playing on the fact that Fawcett and Jackson had gone – who knew who could be next? For a few minutes, “Goldblum” was the biggest trending word on Twitter.

By midnight, Sky News was actually reporting the celebrity tweets, but they were largely vacuous. The best commentary was coming not from the celebrities or the experts, but from a global public.

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