Brunswick Review Issue 2

Oliver Michalsky - Deputy Editor, Welt Online

A personal view on the impact of new media in Germany.

The night of Michael Jackson’s death – a night of explosive click rates on many websites – offered a glimpse into the future of the media business globally. The problem for traditional publications in Germany was particularly acute. The news broke at midnight Central European Summer Time. Very few newspapers managed to get the story onto the front page of the next day’s editions. Most radio stations resorted to rehashed news and many TV channels at that time of night could do little more than display a news crawler across the screen.

For background information and reactions, reports from the scene, in-depth obituaries and photographs, the only place to go was online. 

Consumers today expect, and get, expert 24-hour reporting from trusted media brands, whether the information comes in the shape of words or video, arrives on paper, on a laptop or via a cell phone, or reaches them on the commute to work. 

And while a newspaper is a self-contained product, every contribution made online serves as a potential gate to a virtually inconceivable wealth of information – within and beyond the initial platform it appeared on. At the point where a newspaper wraps up its job, with a headline, 80 lines of text, a photo and perhaps a graphic, online reporting is just getting warmed up.

Readers of an online business story, for example, will find a link to the relevant company’s stock chart (with prices updated in real time), previous articles or even academic research. Or they might click to a live webcam transmitting scenes from the trading floor of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Readers are increasingly becoming real-time observers.

In the Michael Jackson case, “Welt Online” had a full report complete with an obituary, several updates, photo galleries, videos and an online condolence book more than 24 hours before the physical newspaper distributed news of the pop star’s death. 

Upcoming generations want to be informed, albeit not in the conventional sense of “I will now go to the home page xyz.de.” According to the German survey (N) Onliner-Atlas 2009, 97 per cent of all German secondary school students use the internet, a ratio topped only by university graduates. And many 14- to 25-year-olds have joined social networks like Facebook or its German equivalent platforms Wer-kennt-wen, SchülerVZ or StudiVZ to communicate with their peers.

Those wishing to disseminate information to this group must acknowledge this new reality. Experienced “traditional” journalists like to tell us that the content of messages on Twitter or Facebook is either irrelevant – “I am now on my lunch break” – or unverifiable (as in some of the claims about the size of demonstrations made after the presidential election in Iran), and they have a point. 

But, more than anything, such comments reflect the arrogant attitude of “classic” journalism toward the information channels used by younger generations. They fail to understand that “traditional” journalism is an outdated one-way street where senders transmit information to a recipient. 

Social networks are dissolving this relationship by providing a platform to give, take and discuss information. Journalism should use these networks both as research instruments and as tools for the targeted dissemination of proprietary information. An information portal that is not linked to social networks will, in my view, end up struggling to reach readers at all. As US media expert Jeff Jarvis (author of What would Google do?) observes, part of Google’s recipe for success comes from the way the search engine does not wait for the user to find it, but instead finds users by making its applications and search functions available on other websites as well.

The logical conclusion is that publishing companies encompassing traditional print newspapers and a complex parallel universe of web portals with visually appealing home pages should develop into branded information providers. By “disseminating” targeted information via linked pages, they will be able to find readers, irrespective of the equipment employed by the end user.

This could be on Facebook, where millions of Michael Jackson fans gathered to mourn the pop star on the night he died. Or on Twitter, where no other topic generated as many “tweets” in the hours after the pop legend passed away – and where exclusive statements from dozens of celebrities were made available.

The days when all this would have been done by telex, fax or mail now seem very, very far gone.

Oliver Michalsky is Deputy Editor of Welt Online.