Breaking news for the community
Leaving the office rather late the other night I noticed four young men returning up the hill to residence. They were walking at an awkward angle with necks craned and eyes fixed on a spot slightly to the right of my head. I swivelled around to see what had caught their eyes. But of course, the flashing, danger-red ticker tape that wraps around the Africa Media Matrix.
On my first visit to New York to attend a United Nations conference, I had been in the city for two days already and when not attending the proceedings at the UN headquarters was putting energy into negotiating the subway system to and from my hotel in Tribeca. One night, after attending a Danny Schechter movie launch at the SA embassy, I was on the train home when we came to a stop that said “Times Square”. This is it, I thought, famous Times Square, what the heck am I doing sitting on a train waiting to return to a grey and very small hotel room when the hub of Manhattan is just above my head.
I emerged from the subway station into an overwhelming and dazzling bright streetscape and wandered around dazed for awhile until my eyes fixed on the famous ticker tape running the day’s news. This most famous of ticker tapes is called the “zipper” and wraps around 1 Times Square. It’s an amazing sight if you’ve never seen such a thing before.
And so to Prince Alfred Street, Grahamstown, and the ticker tape zapping out the daily news on the Africa Media Matrix building. It is such an act of hubris for this building in this corner of Africa to emulate the world’s centre of media gravity, so very over the top, that, to my mind, it works in a funny kind of way. Every time I come up the hill, especially at night or in the fog, and see the rolling letters spelling out what’s going on in the world today, it’s no less a thrill than putting my head above ground in Times Square and seeing that sight for the first time.
But what impresses me most about the ticker tape is one of its shortcomings: because some bits of technology don’t talk to other bits of technology perfectly, we require a “news DJ” – a human being – to choose our news and physically type it into the system every day. As a result we get writing and design lecturer Simon Pamphilon’s take on the important issues of the day, instead of some disembodied news output. Pamphilon also puts his update out on our school staff list so that those of us already in our offices before the new news goes out can read it from within the building. And then Rod Amner relays it via email to our first year class, just in case they’re not coming up the hill today.
Pamphilon’s daily dose has become my new favourite news service. I’ve unsubscribed from all those others pouring through into the email inbox. And why? Because we get a four-dimensional news service: international, African, national, and hyper-local – meaning Grahamstown. By interfacing with Grocott’s Mail and finding out what its journalists are up to, Pamphilon brings us – along with Hillary and Obama, Morgan and Bob, a host of tiny little matters that matter a hell of lot to those of us who live here.
An example from Friday 18 April which proves my point: ZIMBABWE: TRANSPORT UNION REFUSES TO UNLOAD ZIM ARMS SHIP AT DURBAN HARBOUR and RAILA ODINGA SWORN IN AS KENYAN PRIME MINISTER, goes with BULLARD APOLOGISES FOR OFFENSIVE COLUMN, and most importantly, LOCAL NEWS IN GROCOTT'S MAIL: COPS FIGHT OVER GLASS OF WATER ::: HERITAGE CEMETERY CLEAN UP BEGINS ::: BATTLE OF EGAZINI TO BE RE-ENACTED ::: GRAHAMSTOWN EXPORTS GERANIUM OIL TO FRANCE ::: SCIFEST: BUNNIES THAT GLOW IN THE DARK - A DEBATE ON VIVISECTION ::: NEW TYPE OF RICE TO FEED AFRICANS ::: ARE GIRLS SMARTER THAN BOYS? ::: And then of course the really important bit: FIRST SNOWFALLS EXPECTED OVER WEEKEND.
Pamphilon has a fine sense of sensationalism too: giving us “ROBBIE WILLIAMS WANTS TO QUIT SINGING TO STUDY ALIEN ABDUCTIONS”.
Pamphilon starts at about 8am each day and consults the Mail&Guardian, News 24 and iol websites, The Argus newspaper website, The Cape Times, independent.co.uk, the Daily Mirror website, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Daily Dispatch, the Herald and Grocott’s sends him its headlines on Tuesdays and Fridays (which are its publishing days). It takes Pamphilon up to an hour to compile our very own news headline service.
He says he makes the compilation with a consciousness “of our audience here”: Journalism and Media Studies students and staff, students generally (we’re on the road to and from some residences), but also we’re diagonally across the road from the Jamaat Khana which is full every Friday and there are always visitors coming to Rhodes.
Pamphilon’s news mix recipe: “I try to find news which is international, national, regional and local. I have no space constraints -- how much space there is on the ticker tape, I don’t know. There must be a limit but I haven’t found out what it is yet. On occasions I have put up an entire page of headlines.”
The first ticker tape for news was put up by the New York Times in 1928. The name comes from the tape that telegraph machines spewed out and the sound that those machines made. Ticker tape was chopped up into confetti for “ticker tape parades”.
There’s something marvellous about holding to that name, and the first really revolutionary technology that changed the news into something immediate, with this screaming digital stuff that pours forth daily.
But as I said before, the best bit about this cutting edge technology is that it doesn’t quite work the way it should. So we get something quite special – a personalised headline news service, tailor-made for the community we live in.