/ 19 December 2013

Pistorius ‘spike’ breaks journalism!

The nation ravenously consumed everything from Oscar to Krejcir
The nation ravenously consumed everything from Oscar to Krejcir

Whatever else Oscar Pistorius is guilty of, you can add the charge of breaking journalism. Here at the Mail & Guardian, we date things as either BMP or AMP – Before Mount Pistorius or After Mount Pistorius.

Mount Pistorius is the name given to that massive, vertiginous spike on our online stats graph the day news broke of Pistorius's killing of Reeva Steenkamp. After that spike, everything changed. After that spike, we all became the tabloid nation.

Of course, Mount Pistorius happened to all South African news organisations, on all platforms. It forced local media outlets finally to come to terms with how the consumption patterns of readers, viewers and listeners have been changing over the past few years. Thanks to the culture of immediacy fostered by the internet, media organisations can only own a breaking news story for a few seconds.

The thing traditional media outlets used to thrive on – the ability to be sole purveyors of a news event for a prolonged period of time – has become the Achilles heel that will eventually obliterate us all in our current guises.

It has become more, way more, than just being first to break a story. There used to be a division, one that I'm starting to suspect was always artificial, between tabloid journalism and serious journalism. In truth, that division was always about brand differentiation, trying to make your news products stand out from the sea of options around them, rather than about what your readers actually wanted. It showed little respect to the reader as a complex consumer of content.

An example of that complexity? When we recently asked M&G readers to rate the top 10 daily newspapers they read, number one on the list was the Daily Sun.

Today's reader has become a user – not just in the way people manipulate, contribute to and create all sorts of content but also in the way they have become addicted to the rush of consuming and disseminating constant data. This used to be the preserve of tabloid journalism: the quick sugary hit, the constant craving and the inevitable entropy of disposable data.

More – I think they used to be called "serious"? – yes, more "serious" publications provided the less easily digestible, but allegedly more nourishing, long-form and meaty content. Tabloids thought they were about scandal, gossip and sensationalism. But it turns out all of that content is just an excuse for creating a fundamentally different way of reading, based around sharing and constant dataflow. Tabloids were catering to the internet generation before there was internet.

How we laugh at Andy Warhol's supposedly prescient aphorism – you know the one: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Try 15 seconds, and you're probably still overestimating it wildly. With the rise of social media, fame isn't measured in units of time – it's measured in influence and engagement. Today, to quote the new 140-character generation's aphorism of the internet, "online, everyone will be famous to 15 people".

This new way of measuring journalism brings with it fatal problems for the old model, as well as great opportunity. Some refer to the "media frenzy" that Mount Pistorius kicked off, but this only makes sense if we redefine what we mean by media. It used to be a collective noun for the main conduits of mass communication: television, newspapers and radio. Now, of course, it's everything. This doesn't just refer to the proliferation of platforms, such as your phone, tablet or computer, it also refers to the agents of communication – your friends, your contacts, your friends' contacts and your contacts' friends. The frenzy is everyone.

This competition for Pistorius mindshare is what finally broke journalism here, although we're using an old definition of journalism. On the days succeeding Mount Pistorius, traditional media outlets rushed to publication with facts that were at best misinformed and sometimes just plain wrong.

Social media reputations were forged by a stream of unverified opinion and journalists became judged on how close they were to real-time events rather than veracity of information, on the speed of publishing rather than caution.

It's tempting to conclude that South African journalists succumbed to market forces and turned into bad journalists. That's not quite true. They experienced – perhaps, are experiencing – an interregnum period during which the old models were morphing into the new. The truth is that journalism is left much stronger by succumbing to the tabloid economy. When information is fluid, meaning becomes much more openly contested, stories become important not because they have been covered by news outlets but get covered by news outlets because they have become important.

A great recent example is the misnamed "Obama funeral selfie". Instead of focusing on what some might see as more pressing issues surrounding Nelson Mandela's memorial, news outlets – all news outlets around the world – were forced to spend considerable time on analysing why United States President Barack Obama would pose with the Danish and British prime ministers for that candid, smiling self-portrait that owes its being to social media.

Becoming more tabloid doesn't mean that news media necessarily have to change the content they cover. We're not going to start including a category in our annual Cabinet report card that rates ministers by their dress sense – although that might be fun. We're not going to start using more exclamation marks!!! But news organisations are going to have to change, if they haven't already, the way they think about the life cycle of stories. Tabloid, it turns out, is about a way of reading, not necessarily about what you read.