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Why mainstream media will have to work harder

June 23, 2009 11:07 IST

My friend Hugo Roberto Diaz, a telecom services entrepreneur from Guatemala, narrated this story to me last week at a gathering of fellows of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. The venue was, where else, at Aspen, Colorado, 9,000 feet above sea level.

A few weeks before he left Guatemala, Hugo told me, Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano, a prominent lawyer working on very high-profile cases, was shot dead by unknown assailants. The murder took place as Marzano was riding a bicycle on a Sunday morning in his neighbourhood.

What made the murder most unusual was a video released by his friends at his funeral last month. In it, Marzano, wearing a coat and tie, staring into the camera announces his name and says, 'Sadly, if you are watching this message, it is because I have been murdered. It is because I was assassinated by President Alvaro Colom.'

The sensational video (go to Google, key in Guatemala, lawyer and video) was on YouTube in hours, jamming the servers. Twitter messages flew around the country and protestors later assembled in large numbers outside the Presidential palace, asking Colom to step aside to make way for the investigations. The protestors were brought together by Facebook, the social networking site.

Days later, Jean Ramses Fernandez, an IT professional, was arrested by the police for inciting 'financial panic' after he posted a Twitter message. In it, Fernandez urged Guatemalans to boycott the Bankrural bank and withdraw cash. He tagged the message with #escandalogt -- referring to Rosenberg's murder.

Rosenberg had represented a finance expert, who apparently refused to participate in corrupt transactions involving the same bank.

Soon, other Twitter users began resending his original message and circulated a campaign to free him and donate funds. Fernandez was out of jail in hours, as accounts go, after his employer put up the bail. Money was being raised as well.

In all this, my friend Hugo says that mainline media was not as responsive until the messages and videos streaming around turned into an avalanche. This was a lesson in the power of social media, he argued, and one reason why traditional media was under threat. Not just because younger people were switching to digital media.

And then there is Iran.

Twitter and blogger networks have not just been quicker off the starting block. Thousands of videos of violence and mayhem have been uploaded onto YouTube.

Amazingly, the twitterers pounded mainstream media for not being responsive enough to the bloody face-off between government and the thousands protesting the recent presidential election results. CNN came in for particular and sharp attack for showing a repeat of a Larry King interview with the stars of American Chopper! Some bloggers went on to claim that this act marked the end of mainstream media.

One particularly acerbic attack came from a blogger called Ozdach who blasted the MSM's coverage of the twitter/ blog contribution to the Iran civil unrest saying, 'Hey, old media! There's real news out there! Stop nibbling at it as a technology story and take a bite of the meat of the issue!'

Back home. In India, social media is emergent but not growing as rapidly as in other some parts of the world. It works on what I would call a 'utility' level but is yet to find the big occasion to exert real influence. It could, though.

And yet, despite more than 300 million mobile phones, internet usage is restricted to around 50 million or so. Both figures will grow but the headline is that Indian MSM continues to grow in double digits, whether television or print. And India has as free a press as the press wants to be. And yet if the country's educated elite (within the 50 million internet number) is dissatisfied with MSM, then it will increasingly rely on emergent media. And therein lies the crux of the battle.

I also put this situation to Peter Hirshbirg, new media thought leader and former Apple marketing honcho and chairman of blog search engine Technorati. I asked him whether social or emergent media would have a limited role to play at a time where MSM was still growing furiously.

He said one way to look at it was to see the challenge and thus opportunity for MSM to 'design the intervention' of emergent media and drive the combined evolution from here on.

Moreover, non-compensated social media may not find the motivation to pick up every small issue. The big stuff (including Mumbai's terror attacks) will surely see participation. Usually, it's a dire crisis.

The opportunity thus is to make MSM more interesting and exciting by blending appropriately with emergent media. It's happening and it's not. Though I am pretty sure we would have advanced considerably before I return to Aspen next time.

The author is Editor of UTVi Business News. He can be found on www.twitter.com/govindethiraj

Govindraj Ethiraj
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