Alternative sources overrun TV news

Cell phone images, witness accounts flow

Media

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 18, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun television critic

As the rituals of national mourning began yesterday at Virginia Tech with a convocation featuring President Bush, network television arrived in full at the Blacksburg campus.

The ABC, NBC and CBS networks, which played catch-up to the cable channels yesterday, interrupted their regular programming to offer live coverage of the afternoon memorial service and special prime-time news programs. And they did what TV does best: Offer powerful visual images to millions of viewers.

But the scattershot barrage of information, cell phone images and witness accounts from local citizen reporters, bloggers and online social networks that fed the 24-hour cable channels of CNN, Fox and MSNBC continued.

The spectrum of old and new media coverage that streamed yesterday from the western Virginia campus offered an illuminating glimpse of the enormous changes engulfing the news industry today, analysts said.

"We are in this period of great transition, and that is exactly what we're seeing on display in the coverage at Virginia Tech," said Philip M. Seib, author of Going Live: Doing the News Right in a Real-Time Online World.

"There are two tracks of media today, and on a major story like this, they converge."

The conventional medium of television excels at coverage of grand events such as state funerals or yesterday's convocation. But at breaking news events such as Monday's massacre, the older medium is greatly diminished. Its coverage often seems slow in comparison with nearly instantaneous reporting by citizen journalists armed with cell phones.

By the time the network anchors arrived in force to cover the story, news consumers had for hours been taking advantage of the rich array of alternative information sources - from online community bulletin boards and blogs to cell phone images posted in Web galleries.

"Each time this happens, the traditional media of Katie Couric [CBS], Charles Gibson [ABC] and Brian Williams [NBC] lose a little more ground," said Seib, who is the Nieman professor of journalism at Marquette University.

However, yesterday's coverage of the massacre also illustrated the ways in which television is adapting to the Internet.

At 5 p.m. yesterday, the blog for Anderson Cooper 360, CNN's prime-time newscast, had received just under 1 million page views since news of the tragedy was first posted Monday morning. (Traffic on a typical day is about 60,000 page views, according to the network.)

"This story really lends itself to the Internet and other forms of new media," said David Doss, executive producer 360.

"Think of just a few years ago, when on a story like this we would look at what the AP [Associated Press] had or what the local papers had. ... Now we're looking at PlanetBlacksburg.com, which is the local school Web site down there. We're looking at the school posts online -- and MySpace, YouTube, Facebook."

Doss, who was executive producer of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw in the 1990s, said that to reach viewers, particularly young adults, "you have to speak to them in the places that they get their information."

MSNBC.com, which also launched an on-site blog yesterday, found an eager audience: 15.3 million viewers visited the Web site Monday, a 37 percent increase over its all-time high during Hurricane Katrina.

One posting about remarks made by Charles W. Steger, the president of Virginia Tech, received 151 replies in less than two hours. "That's a touch-point kind of response," said Mike Brunker, projects editor at MSNBC.

"There are a lot of aspects that make this story so suited for the Internet. It's complicated, details keep coming out, and it involves young people who demand a certain kind of interactivity. That's what we're trying to address with the blog."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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