The death of Michael Jackson – he of dramatic fate and tremendous, if squandered, fortune – is the latest global event to mark society’s inexorable march from the traditional news business to an all-digital one.
All along, the story of Jackson’s death has played out on the Internet. The coverage has been led and dominated by the Web site, TMZ.com. The site broke the news that the King of Pop had died on June 25, beating every other news organization to the punch by a long shot. The story quickly lit up the social networks, so that literally everyone was buzzing about it long before the Los Angeles Times finally reported that the county coroner had officially pronounced the pop star dead. The lightning speed of the broadband Internet left traditional media in the dust.
Tuesday’s service drove Internet traffic to its second-largest one-day total ever, following only the January’s inauguration of President Barack Obama, according to Akamai via NewTeeVee. Akamai’s content delivery network (CDN) “delivered more than 2.185 million live and on-demand streams,” with traffic running at more than two terabits per second. During the inauguration, Akamai peaked at 7 million active simultaneous streams.
Many people were watching the service on CNN or MSNBC or ABC while chatting about it on Facebook and Twitter. About 300,000 people logged on to Facebook via CNN.com, updating their statuses nearly a half-million times.
Jackson’s death is the ultimate example of what news has become: something everyone participates in almost as it happens. It never stops and it can come from anywhere at any time. If you wait even a few minutes to report something, you may very well miss your opportunity. Lately, reporters have been posting on Twitter that they are going to report something … in order to cover themselves in case someone else is a little faster on the keyboard.
It’s that immediacy and interactivity that’s putting traditional news, and especially newspapers, out of business. As Daily Show Correspondent Jason Jones asked New York Times’ Assistant Managing Editor Rick Berke in a piece last month: “Why is aged news better than real news?” The question is both brilliant and brutal. Why indeed? In Jones’ satirical piece, the editors of the New York Times seemed truly baffled when confronted with the notion that perhaps nobody cares about what the Times has to say on any particular story just because it’s the Times. Readers and viewers are just as happy to get their news from TMZ as from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or NBC News. News organizations might maintain that there’s a difference between these sources; viewers do not.
Maintaining a sterling reputation remains critical – TMZ’s Harvey Levin is quick to point out that the site has yet to get a story wrong – but that reputation has to be earned anew every day. This new age of news is a rough-and-tumble game that only the hardiest and the most nimble will survive.
Jackson was a part of that change and he – never known for his hardiness – didn’t handle the transition well. His overwhelming fame ultimately crushed him, and his odd behavior turned him into a tabloid fixture. Jackson never figured out how to handle media that had once hailed him as the King of Pop but now considered him the King of Freaks. And those media had become ubiquitous, relentless and merciless. No wonder he spent his last years wasting away.
As Gawker noted, and this was somewhat touching for Gawker: “So, that was that. An odd mess of a thing—part exciting, part sad, but mostly confusing. Fitting, then, for a life lived bizarrely and publicly, a life that needed a new word for famous, a life that, in many ways, really ended and disappeared many years ago.”