by Piet Coetzer

Oscar and the media

Has Oscar Pistorius made alternative media mainstream?

Oscar Pistorius in court.jpg

That the media landscape, particularly for the dissemination of news, is in the midst of a sea change is not only illustrated by the ‘Oscar Pistorius story’, but is also accelerated by it. The mainstream news media of newspapers, radio and, to lesser extent, television is scrambling to adapt to the new environment as so-called ‘alternative’ and social media is fast becoming a mainstream of its own. 

Starkly illustrating this new reality is the fact that the news about the death of model Reeva Steenkamp in a shooting incident at the home of internationally famous sports star Oscar Pistorius was first broken by one of South Africa’s major newspaper houses, Media24 – not on the front page of one of its newspapers, but on a Twitter account.

Four minutes later the story was picked up by a radio station, which immediately tweeted the news – then it went viral to the rest of the world.

By the time Pistorius first appeared in court to apply for bail, not only Media24 but also newspapers in other parts of the world were running minute-by-minute live updates of the proceedings on their websites. This happened particularly in the United Kingdom, where Pistorius became an icon during last year’s London Olympics.

As far flung as the United States, people were following the bail hearing on live radio broadcasts from court, although the presiding magistrate had banned television cameras from the courtroom.

It is clear that a convergence of various news channels or platforms is taking place. In the Pistorius case we see newspapers, messaging platforms such as Twitter as well as Internet-based websites integrating into one interlinked chain. To this can be added the growing trend of media houses acquiring or establishing ownership in radio stations.

For some time there have been other signs of media companies adapting their business models to come to grips with the dual pressures of rising costs and competition in the news space from electronic media.

In South Africa the business model of The New Age with its events management arm, which includes a relationship with the SABC, has been very much in the news of late. The model, which offers advertisers a package of value-adding platforms, is nothing new. One of the success stories in recent times on the media front in the US is Atlantic Media Co. (AMC) following a similar business model and registering double-digit advertising and events revenue plus triple-digital growth.

AMC defines its market as the “influentials market” and tellingly, Justin Smith, president of AMC, describes the heart of the company’s sales strategy as “creative brand-marketing packages” involving all the platforms it offers.

In South Africa, Cape Media Corporation has been a pioneer on this front since 2006. By twinning successful print and digital business-to-business titles such as Leadership, Black Business Quarterly and Achiever magazine with high-profile events such as the DHL Tomorrow's Leaders Convention, the Van Ryn's Black Business Quarterly Awards and the BHP Billiton Skills Summit, Cape Media is able to offer its corporate customers an integrated branding platform. Cape Media's other business-to-business titles include Blue Chip, Service: Leadership in Local Government, Road Ahead and 12 others.

The Nieman Journalism Lab in August last year published an article under the heading, “Forget display ads: Technically Media’s events-based business model is working”, describing the virtues of the combination between niche publications and events.


As is the case with The New Age, this business model has not been without debate. In 2009 there was much controversy in the US when the news broke that the very much ‘establishment newspaper’, The Washington Post, was planning to host off-the-record ‘salons’ at which sponsors would pay to mingle with DC eminences and Post writers.

Although there may be some ethical questions around the issues of ‘money-for-influence’ or ‘pay-for-good-press’ associated with the events-based business model, it is in the hard news arena where the changing environment is posing the really tough questions and challenges.

The challenges lie on a multitude of fronts, from the practical functioning of the newsroom to the ethical, legal and professional spheres.

As illustrated by the minute-by-minute live updates during the Pistorius bail hearing, in practical terms there is no longer any ‘deadline’ for newspapers and their newsrooms. The deadline has become a permanent state, posing challenges of ensuring smooth handovers between staff on a 24/7 basis, having experienced and properly mandated decision-makers permanently at hand, structuring procedures for the cross-checking of facts, and permanent monitoring of the opposition.

There has been a dramatic increase in the involvement of readers via the comments facilities on news websites where things can become pretty heated. Moderating these contributions from both ethical and legal liability vantage points could become a massive challenge in itself. And not to forget the challenge posed by the fact that the electronic media does not respect the geographical boundaries of national jurisdictions with their own legal and legislative frameworks.

Additionally, on the business front there is the challenge of keeping the electronic traffic going while maintaining the desired profile to keep online advertisers interested.

As it develops over the months, or maybe even the years ahead, the ‘Pistorius story’ is likely to become a steep learning curve and a very interesting case study for the media industry, authorities and, surely, some academics and scholars across the world.


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Issue 392


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