Friday, June 26, 2009
Media coverage of Michael Jackson
I first heard about Michael Jackson's death when my wife popped her head around the door mid-afternoon yesterday and asked if I'd seen the news. She'd found out through Twitter, roughly within a half-hour of Jackson's passing. Yesterday's events were a fascinating case study of the schism between new and old media. TMZ.com was first to report that Jackson had been rushed to hospital and it was first to report that the Peter Pan of Pop would never return to Neverland. As such, Harvey Levin's upstart startup left even the Los Angeles Times flatfooted.
As LA Observed, notes, "TMZ displayed the best of old media values. It got out in front of the pack early, then confidently reported Jackson's death based on its own solid sources."
TMZ has also been out front on the details of the initial 911 call, reaction from the Jackson family and other celebrities, the results of the autopsy, and the issue of the pop star's elusive doctor.
Also worth noting: TMZ didn't rise to the bait of the false rumor on Twitter that Jeff Goldblum had died yesterday. Those who complain that new media sites such as TMZ lack old-school journalistic values forget that TMZ's frontrunner status in celeb news is based on its credibility as a news source. (The subject of TMZ's ethics in, say, running pictures that allegedly show Rihanna blackened and bruised is another discussion for another time.)
Maybe the lesson in all this is that old media/newspapers shouldn't try to be comprehensive anymore, but rather specialize in niche areas in this Internet era. The NYT, for example, doesn't do particularly well in sports or business coverage, yet it remains quaintly dedicated to the old model of all-encompassing coverage. In an age when people rely so heavily on the Internet for news -- and jumping from site to site to cherrypick news, sports, weather, entertainment, and opinion -- it makes less sense now to try and be everything to everyone. Especially as news organizations struggle with fewer resources. On the Internet, those with a niche specialty reap the rewards of a competitive advantage.
But, I hear you ask, "What about in-depth investigative reporting? What about and providing background and context -- things newspapers have traditionally excelled in?"
Once again, it's a question of where best to allocate resources and expertise. The New York Times should duke it out with Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh in unearthing political skullduggery. But its sports pages are never going to usurp Sports Illustrated in terms of breadth and scope of well-written coverage. (Also, it was Sports Illustrated that unearthed Alex Rodriguez's steroid use). For pop culture, I'm going to turn to Entertainment Weekly or Nikki Finke's Deadline Diary for both breaking news and in-depth coverage before I read any of the newspaper Arts sections. And so on, and so forth.
That was very much the case yesterday. Since newspapers lagged behind the news, I kept refreshing TMZ. Later, I started reading LA Times coverage because this happened in the newspaper's back yard. But I certainly didn't bother with The Washington Post, New York Times, or Wall Street Journal, even though those papers threw dozens of writers on to the story.
Given the magnitude of Jackson's death on the pop culture radar, each of those publications would have gained a good share of interested readers. But what was the opportunity cost of trying to chase a story that other outlets had a better (and faster) handle on? Wouldn't it have been better for those outlets to link to, say, TMZ, Billboard, People, or Entertainment Weekly? Instead of diverting manpower and money to covering the Michael Jackson story, wouldn't it have made sense for the Wash Post or the New York Times -- both strapped for cash -- to have allocated those resources to say, covering the Iraq war that everyone's forgotten about?
As newspapers struggle with smaller staffs, some of them are at least recognizing their limitations by embarking on partnerships with others. My alma mater, The Christian Science Monitor, recently embarked on a content-sharing partnership with the McClatchy-Tribune newspaper group, for instance. McClatchy-Tribune recognized the Monitor's strength in international reporting at a time when many new outlets have downsized or closed bureaus.
It's a step in the right direction, but these newspapers are still trying to cover a wide landscape of topics. In the long-tail era, it's no longer a viable business model.