Spreading The Word

As June 25 enters the history books as the day Michael Jackson died, the date may also signify another pivotal moment – the day one of the biggest news stories of the year wasn’t delivered to audiences via news wires, major networks, radio or even online newspapers.

Instead, news of Jackson’s collapse, rush to the hospital and, eventualdeath was exclusively announced by gossip site TMZ.
Launched as a joint project between two Time Warner divisions – AOL and Telepictures – in 2005, TMZ scooped Associated Press, Reuters, Los Angeles Times and every media outlet in the world when it announced Jackson was seriously ill and had been taken to the hospital. News organizations quickly followed by carefully positioning their own news copy as “according to TMZ.”

It had to rankle even the most hard-boiled journalists. During the last few years many reporters have almost religiously followed talking point describing bloggers as people dressed in bathrobes and typing in their mothers’ basements. Needless to say, they don’t think too highly of gossip bloggers either.

But while the world waited for official word from established news outlets, TMZ was already ahead of the game. It announced Jackson’s death at 5:20 p.m. (EDT), while other news organizations were still waiting for word from the family, the hospital, or somebody important enough to be considered an official source.

Of course, TMZ and other gossip sites are not bound by the same chains as traditional news organizations needing to vet every item before releasing it to the world. While reporters scrambled to obtain confirmation on what TMZ was reporting, the gossip site stayed one step ahead while at the same time working its own sources.

“Everything starts with a tip,” TMZ Managing Editor Harvey Levin said. “We wouldn’t have put it up if we weren’t positive.”

How far ahead of the pack was TMZ? It was a race between online and traditional media with traditional running a distant second.

Traditional news sources didn’t receive confirmation of Jackson’s death until minutes before the major TV nightly news programs aired on the East Coast. Because of technology and the aforementioned vetting process, those programs were forced to run with only a few lines announcing Jackson’s death before moving to their preplanned programming – an extensive Farrah Fawcett obit staffers had assembled.

Even after TMZ broke the news, many people turned to other online sources for more information.

“We saw over twice the normal tweets per second the moment the story broke as people shared their grief and memories,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stones said in an e-mail. Twitter’s celebrity users, including everyone from Lindsay Lohan to ?uestlove of The Roots, sent tweets to their followers describing their own special memories of Jackson.

Google’s news page experienced so many “Michael Jackson” queries on June 25 that it automatically responded to those search requests with captchas – those squiggly lines used by online ticket services to determine whether real people or automated bots are attempting to purchase tickets – because the amount of requests triggered the search portal’s own defenses, causing it to react as if it was being hit with denial-of-service attacks.

Plus, Akamai’s Net Usage Index – an indicator of global news consumption – reported traffic at Web news sites increased by 50 percent on the day Jackson died.

As traditional news services try to have it both ways – online sites and outlets such as TV programs, magazines and newspapers – Jackson’s death is the latest reminder that the world has changed during the past few years. If news outlets continue to define themselves by methods of distribution, they may find themselves without audiences willing to wait for what they have to report.

And those great news organizations that always had the big story first in past years might end up as only memories of the past.

Banned From Downloading?

Not content with a $1.92 million ruling in its favor, the recording industry now wants a judge to ban Jammie Thomas-Rasset from sharing music files … forever!

Of the thousands of people the Recording Industry Association of America has filed infringement suits against, Thomas-Rasset was the only person to make it through the court system. What’s more, she’s been tried twice with the first trial ending in a judgment ordering her to pay $222,000 in damages to the label.

But U.S. District Judge Michael Davis felt he erred in his instructions to the jury in the first trial and ordered a second, which recently resulted in a $1.92 million judgment favoring the recording industry.

Now recording industry lawyers want more than nearly $2 million from Thomas-Rasset. They also want the judge to ban her from ever swapping songs again.

In the request to ban Thomas-Rasset from future infringing activities, recording industry lawyer Timothy Reynolds submitted papers July 6 stating the Minnesota woman actually distributed more than 1,700 songs to millions of others using Kazaa for their P2P trading. Those users distributed the songs to others, thus increasing the number of infringements exponentially, Reynolds claimed.

But you gotta take some of those numbers on faith. Although the recording industry officially sued Thomas-Rasset for distributing 24 songs, it previously accused her of providing approximately 1,700 tunes for downloading. Even so, the only downloading activity the recording industry could prove came from Thomas-Rasset’s computer were songs downloaded by MediaSentry, the company hired by the RIAA to investigate illicit P2P activities.

Nevertheless, Reynolds cited the 1,700 songs in his request to the judge.

“The extent of the viral, or exponential, infringement set in motion by Defendant is literally incalculable,” Reynolds wrote. “Absent an injunction, there is nothing to stop Defendant from downloading and distributing more of Plaintiffs’ copyrighted sound recordings through an online media distribution system.”

Of course, most people would consider a $1.92 million judgment as reason enough to never illicitly distribute copyrighted music again. But getting the judgment was easy compared to collecting on it, and Thomas-Rasset has already indicated she’ll never be able to pay the jury-ordered amount. So requesting the judge order her to never, ever download or distribute again seems more like a situation where the RIAA wants to cover all the bases than just inflict more legal pain into Thomas-Rasset’s life.

In fact, such requests are common in copyright cases, and a similar request was made after Thomas-Rasset’s first trial ended.
Meanwhile, one of Thomas-Rasset’s lawyers – Kiwi Camara – says her client will appeal the $1.92 million verdict even though the RIAA says it’s still willing to settle for a much lower amount.

Who knows? Maybe Thomas-Rasset wants to be the only person in America to be tried three times for infringing on recording industry copyrights. After all, fame is fleeting.