Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

Is the new news news to you?

NO ONE could hold it against you if you hadn’t noticed the extent to which our news media are in crisis. After all, the traditional media are no longer the source of your really important news any more. And by “really important” I mean really important to YOU.

Of course, the headlines of the day are still accessible on TV, in the paper, over the radio or, for the minority of us who have web access, via the internet. But the romantic images of paperboys on street corners yelling, “Read all about it!” are long gone.

While some of the great institutions of newspaperdom abroad — The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and even the venerable Christian Science Monitor — are fighting to stay alive, South Africa is still a relatively big consumer of newspapers.

The reasons are many. Our web penetration is less than 10% compared to 80% in the US. Local readers are both loyal and less demanding or discerning. A newspaper is an accessible status element among the previously deprived majority — it says, “I am informed. I know what’s going on”. We still look to print for ancillary value (classified ads, share prices, betting forms, movie reviews, recreation) and then there’s good old convention, habit and the physical feel of paper.

But we’re fast changing thanks mostly to cellphones and social networking. Person-to-person contact via SMS, call, MXit or even MMS has become the primary source of news that matters to the individual. Unlike news media, which make informed and educated, but ultimately subjective guesses at what the public should know, our friends really do know what will make you and me sit up and take notice.

The fact that we import and pay through our noses for computer hardware — which is bizarre because we have some exceptional and free software! — may be one of the causes for the relative scarcity of desktops and laptops.

But cellphones have taken the nation by storm. While the high cost of web access via cellphone and the poor network coverage nationally limits their use to cities, cellphones and networks such as MXit have had a huge impact on how individuals share with each other news of common interest.

This is likely to grow as marketers feverishly hunt down new ways of reaching consumers in the build-up to 2010 — despite Telkom’s stranglehold monopoly. SMS technology has also opened the floodgates to interactive news in which consumers are no longer the passive targets, but active — and influential — participants in the reporting process, providing commentary, views and DIY opinion polls. Witness the continued success of talk radio and the sheer volume of comments running on screen during TV debates for proof of this.

The psychology is simple: what I think and feel about “this” is important & I can tell the world my views.

Already political parties, most notably the new Congress of the People (no doubt alerted by the unprecedented impact of cellphone campaigning by Barack Obama’s Democrats in the US), are clocking the gallop, so to speak.

But all of this still does not mean the end of newspapers any more than podcasts mean the end of radio news or vlogs, MMS, YouTube and new connectivity software for P2P video means the end of television.

What it all does mean though is a sea-change in the way traditional news media have to approach their respective and highly competitive roles. Now, as the Sunday Times is showing, the consumer really calls the shots.

The implications for the entire media industry are vast, from what happens in newsrooms to how advertisers decide to split their ad-spend. Traditional media constraints from law and ethics to deadlines and language, from visual material to the job of an “editor”, from editorial choices and independence to fundamental social and political issues around freedom, censorship, protection and propaganda — all this will change. And so will the very process of producing the graduates who will populate the industry.

And as all of this changes, so the body of knowledge, the archives of information and multiplicity of interpretations of any single event will explode exponentially.

What will the individual’s reaction be? How will we locate ourselves in an ever-expanding, ever-diversifying world of catch-up news?

Probably much as we are doing now — by natural selection. We will choose what fits us best. Our values, our dreams, our priorities, our prejudices, our beliefs, and nature — none of that will change, but we will have greater control over what we invite or allow into our lives.

When something happens we will probably first get to know about it — the breaking news — via something other than the traditional media. Already that happened in 2001. I remember phoning my father, my best friend and my sister to tell them I was watching planes flying into the World Trade Center towers on CNN. Only one of them was able access the live coverage, but all watched the news later or bought papers on the way home.

As our networks grow, so too will the sources we trust for background information. Whenever there is an aviation incident these days, I phone my brother who is chief engineer at one of the top helicopter companies to find out what might have caused the accident. That is because our electronic media — TV, radio and internet — no longer use “beat reporters” or encourage journalists to specialise in anything aside from politics. That will have to change if they want to remain competitive. The big question is how they do so when good ol’ print has had specialists for decades?

These and hundreds of other questions will fuel debates and give birth to blogs for a long time to come, but one thing is beyond doubt: the news we knew is not new anymore. We only care about so much of what’s happening in the world. So we will pick the ones we like best and disregard the rest. Editors or content producers will compete for our attention and they’d better be alert to it.

Hopefully, newspaper managements will also finally wake up to their REAL responsibilities and stop the kind of destructive tyranny and meddling that prompted yet another top editor, Tyrone August of the Cape Times, to resign this week.

Amid all this seriousness and gravitas, it’s good news that the news can still be spectacular and keep your eyes glued to the screen. Especially for all the guys who feel hard done by when taking the Beloved Leader shopping and being bombarded by the barrage of women’s mags as they push the trolley in the check-out queue — Naked News is on the way to SA. Get a foretaste (get it?? fore-taste?) right here. This is freedom of expression like never before!