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The murder of South African white supremacist Eugene Terre’Blanche early on Saturday evening is arguably one of the biggest news events in South Africa this year, and once again, traditional news outlets were beaten to the punch by Twitter and the blogosphere.
Terre’Blanche was allegedly slain by two of his farm employees following a wage dispute the preceding afternoon. His death comes in the wake of litigation against ANCYL President Julius Malema by Afrikaner lobbying groups aiming to ban him from singing an apartheid struggle song with the lyrics “shoot the boer/shoot shoot”.
While there were mixed reports as to who broke the news first, according to BizCommunity’s Simone Puterman, the news was first broken on Twitter by blogger @fromtheold at 10.18pm on 3 April, then picked up by 702’s Aki Anastasiou at 10.22pm with a link to @fromtheold’s blog. Mail & Guardian editor @NicDawes then tweeted on the breaking news at 10.32pm.
What was surprising was how international news outlets anticipated being beaten to the post by Twitter and the blogosphere, and leveraged it for their gain.
“I’ve just learned Eugene Terreblanche has been murdered on his farm. Two workers arrested.” Dawes said in his tweet at approximately 10:32pm on Saturday night.
Critically, blog FromTheOld.com was the first to publish any kind of written story on the incident, while bona fide news outlets got in on the action within half-an-hour of the publishing of the FromTheOld.com story. Eyewitness News was the first South African news outlet to publish the story on their website, and was closely followed by Beeld, News24.com, and the Mail & Guardian Online.
BBC News was the first international news outlet to pick up the story, but instead of publishing a breaking news piece, the BBC ran a feature-length obituary of the AWB leader. In other words, BBC News published news analysis and insight, and not hard news. More importantly, as tweeter @riaanw states, this suggests that BBC News had an already-written obituary of Eugene Terre’Blanche on file, and adapted it for the details of the occasion.
Harry Dugmore, MTN Chair of Media and Mobile Communication at Rhodes University, told memeburn.com that Twitter’s ability to act as a breaking news source depends entirely on who you follow. “If you follow a whole bunch of interesting people who are likely to break news, then you’ll get it before news agencies. That’s why journalists follow each other.
“Of course following trending topics is another way. A lot of people picked up on Eugene Terre’Blanche through trending topics,” Dugmore added.
This was the case for those following @NicDawes, @AkiAnastasiou or @fromtheold’s initial tweets. With only minutes left in the day, the story went viral, with activity only tapering off to a lower level in the early hours of Sunday morning. Interest and reportage exploded again during the waking hours of Sunday, when the majority of the news-consumptive public were awake and reading the headlines of the Sunday broadsheets, most of which had managed to cram the story into their printing schedule.
Twenty-four hours after the first tweets, Eugene Terre’Blanche, and variations on the phrase such as “Eugene Terreblanche” were global trending topics on Twitter, with the later showing up as a trending topic in the UK, whose national media was running strongly with the story.
At the same time, nine out of the ten most popular blog posts aggregated on Afrigator.com were directly concerned with the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche.
In addition to the flurry of activity that spilled over onto Facebook from Twitter users, Facebook pages have been set up in honour and derision of the right wing leader’s life, and continue to attract high levels of interest as users debate issues in South African society that have been highlighted by the murder.
The lesson of Eugene Terre’Blanche’s death for news outlets is this: predict the news cycle, don’t run with it and try and compete with Twitter, rather use Twitter for what it is, and then offer what Twitter can’t – carefully crafted, hard-hitting paragraphs of insight and analysis of the event.
- Editor’s Note: In the original version of this article, we stated that Nic Dawes was the very first to tweet the news, however, we recently learnt that Dawes was beaten to the punch by blogger @fromtheold and Radio 702’s Aki Anastasiou, making Dawes just “one of the first” to break the news… We hope to have a tweet-off by Nic, Aki and @fromtheold in the near-future…