Political journalism on the Web: Added value or added noise?

7 11 2010

In Barb Palser’s article “The Web’s Campaign Contribution” for the September/August 2004 edition American Journalism Review,  she analyzed the contribution of Web journalism for the 2004 election primaries based upon findings published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Some of the PEJ findings she sources for the article include:

  • During the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, 37 percent of stories on the main election pages of 10 major news sites were wire copy, up from 25 percent in 2000. Of the remaining stories, many were edited or enhanced wire copy rather than original, bylined work.
  • Web sites generally trail newspapers and TV when it comes to percentage of staff-generated stories — even if you count stories produced by traditional reporters in partner newsrooms.
  • [On the Web] there are shrinking percentage of bylined stories, fewer links to external sites and less audio or video of candidates.

Palsner believes that the greater volume of syndicate content is the result of a few dynamics:

  • Practical efficiency: Two reporters aren’t required to be present to listen to a single source of news.
  • Speed: It’s common to post a wire story while in-house reporters start to work the story.
  • Convenience: With the limitless space on the Web, news organizations can afford to publish a syndicated article as well as a bylined, original article.
  • Cost efficiency: “In the era of shrinking staffs, small sites may have no choice but to switch to autopilot for routine news.”

Despite the original reporting, Palsner noted that there was no lack of original content. Web news sources have amplified multimedia extras and educational exercises. In 2004 that included The Washington Post’s “Veep-O-Matic,” which was designed to suggest a running mate for John Kerry and MSNBC.com’s video catalog of campaign ads as well as blogs like MSNBC’s First Read, ABCNews’ The Note and The New York Times’ un-blog, Times On The Trail.

“Overall, news sites are richer, more interactive and easier to use than ever before,” Palsner wrote. “Traditional reporters are providing more supplemental material, and our interactive know-how is getting better all the time. The original journalism is there, if you look beside the story.”

While I only had the chance to evaluate new sites post-election, I found that The New York Times and The Seattle Times still had their election sites up for the 2010 midterms.

The New York Times:

The Seattle Times:

A lot has changed online since Palsner wrote the article back in 2004, specifically social media. Both the New York and Seattle news outlets leveraged Twitter to extend and promote their coverage and featured their Twitter integration prominently. The New York Times went above and beyond with a dynamic Twitter infographics page and the Five Thirty Eight blog, which is the result of a partnership with FiveThirtyEight.com,the political data site that made headlines during the 2008 election cycle for accurately predicting the presidential winner in 49 states as well as every Senate race. Both organizations also published numerous videos to supplement their written coverage and wrote frequent, editorial-style stories to dedicated election blogs. It’s too early to measure what percentage of the video and written content was syndicated, but the “beside the story” content persisted for this election cycle.

In addition to traditional news outlets and their innovations, the social Web provided voters with additional resources, including:

Palsner’s article focused on election coverage, but I think the information shift is in election campaigns becoming their own news sources. Joe Trippi began the dialogue for this trend in his book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which documented his experience running Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and the emergence of the Internet at the center of political campaigning. Trippi wrote that Dean’s campaign blog, called Blog For America, “was the nerve center” of the campaign. Trippi argued that blogs provided more detail and less filter than traditional media could offer, and that was what attractive readers and contributed to the campaign. He wrote:

These blogs ran from the deeply personal to the deeply political, but most shared the assumption that you aren’t getting the whole story from traditional media… And so people with some expertise in a certain area – or just an informed opinion – would get online to offer the other side to a big news story, or to point out what the news media had missed, or just to offer their two cents.

In other words, where Palsner has questioned the value of a volume of syndicated, original content with some added value provided by news outlets, Trippi asserts that campaign blogs or other new media can fill in the gaps. Speed – one of Palsner’s reasons for the rise in syndicated news content – has been the key advantage for blogs, new media and social media to emerge on the political news landscape. In the case of blogs, whether by pundits, amateurs or campaigns, they hold authentic voices and sometimes instant (via livestreaming) timelines to produce rich content. In the case of social media, the voices of many on a Twitter thread or syndicated to a Facebook page can create powerful trends that sometimes create their own news cycles that news organizations report upon.

In this year’s and future election cycles, unoriginal content will continue to hurt news organizations who have new competition with completely original, always-bylined content fueled by user-generated content. Even if the messages are the same the many sources will drive the news agenda. News organizations will have to hang their hat on credibility and original sources and perhaps settle with the position of being the fact-checkers rather than the news-breakers.

Questions for class:

  • When you see a news article online, how important is it to you that the story is written by the source of where you’re reading? What about on news blogs like Politico or HuffPo?
  • When you identify syndicated content reporting local news, do you find it to be of better quality than reporting by local news sources?
  • Do you find a difference in the reporting qualities of a news organizations stories versus its blog stories?
  • Do you prefer to receive local political news from local news organizations or local blogs?
  • When you see a news comment in social media, do you find it more credible when a link to a news article is attached to it?
  • What share of time did you spend reading or participating in a social media conversation about a political issue compared to reading about it in articles published by news organizations?
  • When searching for information about a election online, what share of time did you spend reading the news provided on for/against election campaigns for news versus news organizations reports?
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2 responses

8 11 2010
Kathy E. Gill

Paolo – this is an excellent analysis and synthesis! You’ve set the bar high for your classmates. 🙂

8 11 2010

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