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Pondering Mainstream Media's Survivability

Michael Jackson waves as he leaves court, Monday, June 13, 2005, in Santa Maria, Calif. Jackson was found not guilty on all counts against him.
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The Monday Note covers the intersection between media and technology and the shift of business models. It is jointly edited by Frédéric Filloux, a Paris-based journalist and Jean-Louis Gassée, a Silicon Valley veteran currently general partner for the venture capital firm Allegis Capital in Palo Alto. Their column appears on CBS News.com each Monday.

In the Internet storm sweeping the media, breaking news is, without a doubt, the main casualty. This branch of the information stream is the most likely one to endure a kind of "commodity syndrome." The breaking news, circa 2010, will be ubiquitous, instantaneous and simultaneous. Its value, its market price actually, will tend to zero as a result.

Two forces are at work, here: the professionalization of the blogosphere and the impact of Twitter. Dealing with this is critical for the survival of traditional media. Let's have a closer look.

Who had heard of TMZ prior to Michael Jackson's death, honest? Truth is: very few of us. At best, TMZ was considered the brightest spot in the celebrity web sites galaxy. As we know, on June 25th, it broke the news of Michael Jackson's death, not only ahead of the competition but six minutes before he was pronounced dead. TMZ had sources everywhere: within the star's pharmaceutical advisory board (i.e. the greedy docs on staff), inside the UCLA medical center's emergency room, etc. The rest of the media crowd was left in the dust.

How can that happen? CNN, The Los Angeles Times has been in the celebrity field for decades, how can they be outrun in such manner? What about Fox News, probably the most connected, the most unscrupulous in its class? Well, let's try two possible answers.

The first one is the structure: its size and agility. TMZ is a few dozen person newsroom that operates a small TV station and a web site. It is compact, with a short chain of command, managed by a take-no-prisoners kind of guy named Harvey Levin. By the way, TMZ stands for Thirty-Mile Zone, which is the celebrity enclave in Los Angeles. (The best story on TMZ, can be found, as often, in the Guardian).

The Los Angeles Times is the opposite: an old (and mythical) news machine, with 800 or so newsroom staffers; most of them having seen their motivation diluted in the endless restructuring ordered by the debt-loaded Tribune Co. The same applies to news organizations such as big TV networks, where wealth (OK, shrinking wealth), arrogance, unshakable certitude of moral and ethical superiority have all led to a lowered competitive metabolism.

These news organizations tend to forget the TMZ guys work exactly like the tabloid press of the 50's and 60's. At the time, the motto was: Whatever It Takes (to grab the news and beat the competition). As the mainstream media (not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well) abandoned this attitude, it became complacent, leaving the field wide open to a new breed of agile outfits like TMZ. The celebs site does what it takes to get the scoop first, including paying for useful tips, as Harvey Levin acknowledges himself in this AllThingsD video.

Shocking? Oh, please.

First, TMZ is doing what tabloids all across the world do: aggressive sourcing. Second, there is no such thing as a totally disinterested informant. Every reporter knows it: when a source comes to you, the act is always the result of a well-defined motivation. It can be frustration, revenge, or ambition. Regarding the latter, at an early stage of their career, public officials or executives often bet on promising reporters. The deal is the reporter gets a reliable source, and the source has its newsman/woman inside the news organization. In France, I could name reporters I knew twenty years ago and who have "grown" professionally to the top: they followed a parallel path with politicians, cops, lawyers or even judges.

Such coziness has resulted in a narrowed-down definition of investigative reporting: mainly recycling confidential documents. The only evolution has been a technological one. In the eighties, "investigative" reporters were going to the messenger's desk; then they were standing by a fax machine; now it's email.

In this context, TMZ paying off a nurse in the ER, or a clerk working in the basement of a talent agency now seems acceptable. News is news. And it appears to work for TMZ: its audience is said to reach 10 million unique visitors an month. That is, roughly, the same audience as (gulp) the Washington Post, half of the New York Times' traffic and a third of the Guardian's. This makes the celebs site a solid profit machine.

Let's face it: traditional news media relinquished the entertainment/celebrities patch; if they do the same in other sectors such as business and politics, mortality rates will continue to rise. Nature abhors vacuums and other life forms will take over.

Coming back to the subject of breaking news, we need to factor in a second (recent) element: the rise of microblogging services such as Twitter, Twitpic, and their clones. These are the quintessential tools for breaking news. As we speak, big news organizations are considering the launch of well-structured Twitter feeds in order to secure their position in the breaking stories field. The idea is that exclusives are more ephemeral than ever. The days when you could hold a piece of information until press time are over. So is the idea of waiting until 16:00 to break a story on a web site, trying to avoid giving competitors too much time, while also attempting to protect the paper.

Now, when you get something reliable, you publish it. (Agreed: the notion of reliability is unfortunately becoming more flexible.) Because if you publish, you might benefit from another media law: the one who breaks the story and quickly follows up - this latter element is key - usually keeps the lead during the news cycle. Scoops and sources tend to coalesce, pushing and pulling one another. If you're behind, chances are you'll stay that way.

Therefore, the equation becomes clear-cut: either the mainstream media recaptures breaking news by twittering, or microblogging in some fashion, or the crowd will take care of business. Examples abound. As the Internet pundit Clay Shirky recalls it in this TED presentation, the recent (last May) earthquake in China was widely reported by inhabitants using their cell phone for taking pictures, video and sending tweets.

"The BBC got their first wind of the Chinese quake from Twitter, says Shirky. Twitter announced the quake several minutes before the US Geological Survey had anything online. The last time China had a quake, it took officials three months to admit it had happened".

Problem is, while the news environment is evolving very fast, traditional media are slow to recapture their pre-eminence on breaking news. Too bad since it doesn't require large investments, but, rather, trust, vision and, above all, decisive leadership. But that, too, appears to be in short supply in today's MSM.

By Jean-Louis Gassée and Frederic Filloux
Special to CBSNews.com