The death of Michael Jackson on Thursday seemed to herald a seismic shift in the information age over who controls the flow of breaking news.
Usually, when a figure as well known as the King of Pop dies, there is a well-established tradition to the reporting: news outlets, often cable TV channels or the Associated Press, jockey to be first to announce the death. Then memorializing begins, sprinkled with news reporting on any lingering issues.
But Hollywood-focused Web site TMZ.com grabbed the brass ring this time, reporting Jackson's death at 5:20 p.m. (EST), nearly one hour before the Los Angeles Times — and six minutes before authorities would even pronounce the pop singer dead privately.
Once his death was announced, fans on the microblogging service Twitter and social networking sites such as Facebook went into action. They traded messages of consolation, links to YouTube clips of his best performances and quotes from celebrities memorializing his legacy all before television could muster similar coverage. The outpouring reportedly doubled Twitter's update frequency and tripled Facebook's activity.
So forget the old model of a Wolf Blitzer or a Brian Williams breaking into a television broadcast to make an announcement. About a half hour before the Los Angeles Times would confirm Jackson's death, radio personality Ryan Seacrest tweeted "I am hearing from a source at UCLA Medical Center, Michael Jackson has died. I am checking other sources right now."
Even the explosive online rumor that actor Jeff Goldblum had also died Thursday was knocked down on Twitter by a message from actor Kevin Spacey, passed along — or "re-tweeted" — by CBS News, among other outlets.
"Social media has stolen this story from the cable news networks," said Jeff Jarvis, a columnist, journalist and expert in social networking who wrote the book, What Would Google Do? "Once he's dead, you're more likely to want to talk with your friends about what happened than hear the same lines from Al Sharpton or Paul McCartney. We can all comment on it; we don't have to share the experience through cable news."
This is something we've already seen happen regarding stories that are hard to reach, from post-election riots in Iran to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
But even though Jackson died in Los Angeles, surrounded by dozens of paparazzi and reporters from traditional news outlets, cable channels were forced to cite TMZ's report on his death for nearly an hour. In particular, Fox News Channel cited TMZ repeatedly in its Friday coverage, airing streaming audio from TMZ.com of the 911 emergency call from Jackson's home that the Web site had obtained before police released it to the media.
So what if TMZ has a checkered past — scooping the world on Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rants during a drunken driving arrest, but posting anti-O.J. Simpson comments from someone they mistakenly thought was the judge who presided over his 1995 murder trial? Concerns about how TMZ gets news has paled in the wake of its success in obtaining it faster than general interest news networks.
Jarvis calls some of this the progression of journalism from product to process. No longer do journalists produce a single newscast or newspaper with presumably perfect reporting. Instead, they're often acting as curators — combining their reporting with data from a multitude of sources into a more comprehensive report.
"The Iraq War made CNN; does the Michael Jackson story break them?" he asked. "I wouldn't go that far. Yet. But we gather around them less. They couldn't keep us glued to this story."
Of course, this change didn't come without strain; sites such as TMZ, YouTube and Twitter struggled to keep up with the heavy influx of users.
Given the visibility of celebrities on Twitter, it makes sense that so many would express their condolences online. Even as cable TV channels scrambled to find big names for their shows, Paris Hilton told her followers on Twitter ":( I can't believe Michael is gone." MC Hammer said "I will be mourning my friend, brother, mentor and inspiration."
"Already been asked several times if I'm 'disappointed' in Twitter for going much crazier over MJ than Iran election or Swineflu," tweeted Laura Fitton, author of the book Twitter for Dummies. "But see, Twitter's about 'What do we have in common.' 500 million have just Thriller in common, let alone the rest of his life/career."
Blogger Ethan Zuckerman complained that journalists quoted his tweet noting that Twitter messages about Michael Jackson reached 15 percent of the total at the story's peak — dwarfing tweets on Iran and swine flu — without noting that the trend later settled down to about 3 percent.
"Reporters seem to have chosen Twitter as the go-to sources for reactions to new events," he blogged, "This, in turn, increases the chances you'll be wrong."
Jarvis' last question: Will this affect how long old school media outlets keep reporting on Jackson?
"Will cable TV news give us days of coverage like they used to?" he said. "Or will the point of overdose come quicker because of all this social media?"
For TV outlets that depend on a quick ratings boost for continuous coverage, that may be the most important issue left.