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18th Apr, 2007

Virginia Tech Redux: Did the Old Media Lose it in Blacksburg?

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As the words continue to flow along with the tears after the deaths at Virginia Tech, one important observation rises above the ruins: the incident represented a triumph for what the pundits term the New Media over the Old. The keys to this triumph lie in the strengths of the New Media: its immediacy, diversity, and ability to speak personally.

The immediacy of the New Media put them far ahead of the Old Media even as the crisis unfolded. The on-campus emails that first informed many students that something terrible had happened became like pebbles dropped in a pond, rippling out into the ether. New Media such as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and search engines became the preferred sources for people desperate to find out what happened. Probably the most dramatic illustration of this was the group of students who fled to the library and then frantically searched the Internet to find out what was happening. A decade ago they might have turned on the radio or television.

Even the Old Media had to acknowledge the role the New Media played for the students at Virginia Tech. CBS ran a story “Students Turn To Web In Time Of Tragedy” whose sub head read, “How the Internet Helped Va. Tech Students Cope with Shooting Massacre.” The Los Angeles Times reported about University of Southern California sophomore Charlotte Korchak who instead of using a cellphone to check on friends at Virginia Tech, immediately went to Facebook.

I was able to immediately find out who was OK,” she said. “Without Facebook, I have no idea how I would have found that out.

As for the news on campus, the Old Media struggled to catch up. National Public Radio even published a desperate-sounding plea on their web site for witnesses of the tragedy to please contact them so they could line up interviews. In short, in the first few hours after the shootings the Old Media became just like the rest of us, searching the web for information and answers.

Later National Public Radio would gloat, its words a bit of an unnecessary distortion (i.e. many bloggers), on the misinformation posted on some blogs. Referring to a Wired post the NPR blog stated:

Wired reports that many bloggers originally misidentified the shooter in yesterday’s rampage at Virginia Tech, linking to “to the LiveJournal blog of a particular 23-year-old gun nut in Virginia.” It turned out that this person was not connected to the shootings.

However, the zealotry of some blogging wingnuts pales beside the old media’s inability to even get the name of the institution correct. Most of them resorted to the shorthand Virginia Tech. It wasn’t until a day after the shootings that the New York Times published the official name of the school–Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. As for misidentifying the killer, there were also many false reports in the Old Media, which at one time speculated the shootings at the two different buildings might not be related.

Others in the Old Media recognized the role the New Media played in getting the story out. The Los Angeles Times admitted:

Members of the most wired generation in history dealt with Monday’s bloody rampage by connecting on blogs, Facebook and other websites. Their eyewitness descriptions, photos and video made the trauma unfolding in the rural Virginia town immediate and visceral to millions.

The Hartford Courant also acknowledged:

the most arresting coverage from Virginia Tech came from citizen journalists who went to work well before the media could grasp the massacre’s full scope.

The reliance of the Old Media on the New gave rise to a host of stories with the following disclaimer, “[this network, newspaper, radio station] is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites.” Those in the Old Media who won out in the rush to tap into local sources were those like CNN who have consciously solicited the work of citizen journalists. The Hartford Courant pointed out student Jamal Albarghouti, whose cell phone camera pictures were among the first of the massacre:

Was one of more than 100 so-called I-Reporters to submit Virginia Tech content to CNN.
Once CNN realized what it had, it paid him an undisclosed amount of money for exclusivity, limiting other networks to no more than 10 seconds of the clip.

Some students became weary of all the attention as the Old Media desperately searched for someone, anyone who could give them an interview. One Virginia Tech blogger (in keeping with his request to limit intrusions I will not link to his site here but a secondary source) wrote:

As of the time I am writing this I have done a radio interview with BBC and talked with a reporter from the LA Times. CBC Newsworld, the Boston Herald, Current TV, and MTV have asked for interviews and further information. As I said I intend to share my experiences with everyone, but I want to reinstate that I am just an average student and I don�t want to be made into something I am not.

The Old Media have no one but themselves to blame for not having reporters near the scene. For more than two decades they have been furiously pursuing a policy that has concentrated radio and television stations and newspapers into fewer and fewer hands. The changes in media concentration first proposed by the FCC in 2003 essentially would have allowed a single company to control almost half of all broadcasting stations and, more important, two companies could control 90%. It also raised the caps on how many local stations could be controlled by a single company and widened the ability of companies to engage in cross-media ownership within a single market.

What this has meant is the steady decline of local media and the Old Media. An online check of Blacksburg showed that essentially Virginia Tech itself was probably the main local media. City-data.com lists five radio stations actually in Blacksburg. One of them is owned by a national chain, Capstar TX Limited Partnerships and three are owned by what seem to be regional corporations. Only one appears to be locally owned�the FM station owned by Virginia Tech.

This leaves the networks and newspapers without any local media they can instantly tap into. They have to rely on the Internet just like the rest of us. In essence the networks have no one to call. This phenomenon is happening all over the country as local media voices disappear forever. In The Strange Death of Liberal America I wrote:

Control of local markets by national conglomerates gives local citizens little information about their own community. In a way, many towns become . . . [media] ghost towns with only tumbleweeds howling through them and their vibrant down towns boarded up. Along with the loss of local voices comes the loss of venerable institutions like the broadcasts of the local sports teams, local personalities dishing out tips on canning this year�s tomato crop, and that lifeblood of many rural communities, the recitation of the current commodity prices. In a sense, conglomerates such as Clear Channel not only make people anonymous, they also make their communities anonymous.

The New Media have helped to fill this gap, rushing into the vacuum created by the loss of local voices. As the Washington Post noted,

Blacksburg, lead by Virginia Tech, is home to the Blacksburg Electronic Village, a pioneering project launched in the mid-’90s that sought to link everyone in an online community. A Reader’s Digest headline in 1996 called Blacksburg “The Most Wired Town in America.”

For Blacksburg, replacing the Old Media with the New was a move that, as we have seen, paid off during the massacre. It is difficult to speculate what the consequences of the shootings would have been without the New Media, but clearly on the Virginia Tech campus alone, the New Media performed a variety of crucial functions in linking fellow Hokies. If we then move to the level of the friends and family of those at Virginia Tech, without the New Media they might have suffered a great deal more agony. An online Post link observed,

Friends and family embrace the New Media to get the message out.

It was in the second and third areas�the personal and the diverse�that the New Media really excelled. The Internet allowed those at Virginia Tech and those with close ties to it to quickly link to one another and form an online community of grief. For the rest of us the Internet performed a similar function as blogs, chatrooms, online audio and video allowed us to link with each other and to those at Virginia Tech.

Now that the Old Media finally have their satellite trucks in place and have flown down their big name reporters to Blacksburg, they again appear in control. Once again their pious pronouncements and portentous analysis fill the airwaves. They desperately want to tell us how to think and feel about this tragedy. They seem almost eager to fill in the missing whys.

The Old Media still have not learned an old lesson, one as old as the Kennedy Assassination, that event that was their first national moment, the first time they had us all glued to the glowing screens. Then they kept their voices soft and restrained and let the pictures tell the story.

Now the Old Media broadcast events like the Virginia Tech shootings as if they were sports contests complete with the play-by-play person talking too much by telling us what we are seeing along with the resident experts pontificating about what it all means. And of course they manage to sign up a few “witnesses” who soon become THE voices of the tragedy–and, of course, each network tries to get exclusive contracts with them, trampling over the poor students in their zeal to find the most articulate, photogenic and dramatic. Then they ask the inevitable question, whether for the NCAA Final Four winner or a student at Virginia Tech is: “How do you feel?”

In contrast in the New Media, as the cliche goes, everyone can be themselves. Instead of pat answers and telegenic witnesses you find reality. We all know reality can be chaotic, it can be messy and it can be downright obnoxious. It has no pat answers, no resident experts and no one cares what you look like or sound like or even if you are articulate. In the New Media there is the feeling that anyone close to such a tragedy who sounds articulate is suspect.

The power of the New Media lies in its diversity. But what makes it powerful also has its dark side. You will find no shortage of rantings in various blogs that put even Fox News to shame. In fact right now unseemly discussions are raging all across the blogsphere like a tsunami of BS over who is to blame for this, whether we should or should not have gun control and the cryptic note the killer left behind.

But to have diversity we must be willing to accept the garbage along with the wisdom, even if sometimes it seems the smell of the garbage is enough to make you puke. if you are willing to hold your nose and look hard enough you will also find analysis that both moves you and provides you with more information and more unusual slants than you will ever find in the Old Media.

Clearly part of the attention and volume of comments the shootings have precipitated lies not merely with their horrific nature, but with the sense that many have that the massacre signaled something major had shifted in America. The seismic shock, the huge spike in online activity registered by blogs such as this one, signifies that a new world is being born, one in which the New Media have become the preferred means of communication and information. That the New Media are less reliable and more chaotic than the old has some people worried, especially in the Old Media.

In many ways the situation with media mirrors the murders at Virginia Tech, for just as the shootings now have made all of us a bit less certain about our safety, so have the New Media made us a bit less certain about our information. We have entered one of those uncertain and exciting times where an old world is dying and a new one is being born.

It may take a generation or two before the situation sorts itself out just as it did with previous media changes. As we weather these changes we need to remember that above all, the New Media is about connections and diversity, two things the Old Media lost sight of a long time ago.

So, in the days ahead I hope those of you who found this post will wander on to others. Above all, I hope you will make new connections, find interesting voices, and perhaps even bump into some uncomfortable ideas. For unlike the Old Media, the New Media is organic, almost a living thing, because it changes and evolves even as I write this.

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Some really fantastic info , Gladiola I observed this. “It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you are not.” by Denis Watley.

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