What do the Occupy Wall Street protests have to do with the digital news revolution?
Turns out, quite a bit.
Occupy Seattle Photos (c) Eric Becker / We Are Shouting
Until recently, the effective strength and success of protest movements was ultimately determined not in the streets, but in editorial meetings. Newspapers and broadcasters would decide how much play to give the protesters, who would wait with bated breath for the 5 o’clock news or the next morning’s edition to see how much anyone else would hear about their cause. Sometimes they got plenty of attention, like when the WTO came to Seattle in 1999. But this system awarded aggressive behavior from protesters and police, taking notice proportional to property destruction and tear gas, while massive marches like the ones on the eve of the Iraq invasion were effectively ignored if they were peaceful.
But the game has changed.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have been a testament to this new kind of protest coverage (as perhaps the Tea Party movement was before it). The protests were initially written off, ignored and marginalized for several weeks. But the outpouring of support in Facebook and Twitter streams, and the challenges from upstart outlets to the mainstream media coverage or lack thereof coupled with the tenacity of protesters, finally caught mainstream attention.
Last Thursday, the momentum shifted. The New York Times put #OWS on the cover, and with Amanda Knox shuttered in her home, the cable news channels switched protest coverage into overdrive. Once the dominoes started to fall, politicians started feeling the pressure to weigh in, creating yet more news.
While the proliferation of alternative media outlets certainly deserves credit here, another big change from the past is the diversity of voices coming from within mainstream media itself.
I first heard about the #OWS protests in their first week from the twitter feed of New York Times Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts. He might not have thought the protests we’re worthy of print at the time, but clearly they were interesting enough for a few tweets.
On September 30th, he tweeted that Occupy Wall Street was the most searched term on the Times’ website. Five or Ten years ago, the paper would have barely been able to measure what was a clear message to engage with more coverage.
For now, OWS coverage continues full clip, and protests are springing up in hundreds of cities around the country. In a bygone media era, would the same movement have just fizzled out?