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?

Defeat 1098 Prevails, Relying Heavily on YouTube

7 11 2010

The voters have spoken loud and clear. I-1098 was defeated in every county in Washington State. Despite this clean sweep, both sides of I-1098 were aggressive with Web marketing, fully embraced social media and raised incredible financial support – totaling $12,755,895.97 across all campaigns (PDC).

Both sides of the ballot populated their messages in a variety of online channels. All data below was captured on Nov. 7, 2010. Here are the properties and statistics for the “Yes on 1098” camp, which raised a total $6,401,764.01 and spent $6,099,874.10 on its campaign.


10,941 Likes, 22 photo albums, 34 events

Following 975, 275 followers, on 18 lists, 385 tweets

10,254 channel views, 23,227 total upload views, 15 subscribers, 16 videos posted

The campaign against I-1098, “Defeat 1098” hosted a competitive online presence as well. Here are the properties and statistics for Defeat 1098, which raised a total $6,354,131.96 and spent $5,113,900.13 on its campaign.


4,325 Likes, 0 photo albums, 1 event

Following 1,502, 526 followers, listed by 28, 510 tweets

93,508 channel views, 26,586 total upload views, 13 subscribers, 30 videos posted

While we can’t see how much traffic came to the campaign websites, we can see they had varying success in social media. For example, Yes on 1098 had used Facebook to much greater effect, utilizing events and photo applications and earning nearly 11,000 Likes. The engagement therer pummeled Defeat 1098, which drew just 4,325 Likes, on the biggest social networking platform. Twitter didn’t seem to be a successful medium for either campaign, which each drew fewer than 600 followers.

The big difference online for the winning opposition campaign was YouTube. While the pro-1098 camp only posted 16 videos drawing 10,254 channel views and 23,227 total upload views, the Defeat 1098 campaign posted 30 videos drawing an incredible 93,508 channel views, 26,586 total upload views. I had to double-check the numbers because the channel views were so dramatically dominant. I noticed the Defeat 1098 YouTube videos in ads on YouTube and ad spaces on other blog sites, so I have to believe there’s a correlation in the ad spend driving people to the YouTube that the campaign made and the high number of channel views they received.

What stood out to me was how the effective the video medium had to have been in delivering the message. Defeat 1098 essentially extended its television ads online and drove voters to watch them to get the message. We often think about social media being about the conversation, and Yes on 1098 put a lot of effort into hosting the conversation on Facebook, an obvious choice. However, strong campaign messages can get lost in social media conversation, where the latest opinion is usually the most prominent. Defeat 1098 appeared to control and drive its message with more content and less opportunity for rich dialogue — and that worked tremendously.

Yes on 1098 spend nearly $1 million more than its opponent, but it should have prioritized more of that budget on video commercials to spread its message. The lesson in this initiative race seems to be that while organic conversation that social media offers can be an opportunity for campaigns, if you want to control the message you have to amplify the messaged content to regularly steer the conversation in your favor.

Bite-Size Messages, Big Time Implications

1 11 2010

As I began reading Joe Trippi’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an excerpt stood out to me in Chapter 3.

“A television ad reaches voters passively. You just sit there and the box tells you what to think, or what you want — unlike the Internet, where you open a search engine or eBay or Amazon.com and tell the box what you want… This is the bottom-up, interactive communication. Television has a top-down, one-to-many  structure… If it’s done well, some images stick, possibly even some ideas — although in a 30-second spot, there is usually only time for one or two visceral reaction so stick. Children playing: good. Pollution: bad. Old people in church: good. Criminals on street corners: bad. This is one of the reasons political debate in our country has been “dumbed down” — not because media consultants don’t want you to think — but because no serious discussion of issues can possible occur in 30 seconds. “

I was shocked by the disparity Trippi identifies between the two mediums, which I believe are becoming more and more the same. I agree with him that television is a passive communication (for most people without Internet TV yet). You just turn on the TV, browse the channels and wait for the content to come at you. During prime-time hours right now you will get inundated with political ads. Trippi paints the picture of the Internet being interactive, allowing users to dictate what they see. I get his point, but I think that’s becoming less true over time.

On the Internet, I definitely have control over my time and which websites I browse to, but as I check a friend’s blog I see an ad for Dino Rossi in the ad space. I head over to a local tech reviews blog and see an ad against I-1093. My IP address must have triggered the ads. What’s so different between websites and TV channels now?

Let’s look at social media specifically. Here’s a few messages from my Twitter stream when I search “I-1100” right now, on the eve of elections:

  • @Yesto1100: I-1100 is ahead 48-40 in new KING 5 poll. Spread the word to friends, family and colleagues to push I-1100 over the top. Every vote counts.
  • @BizDevWRA: Vote for Liquor Reform—Vote Yes on I-1100 by Dominic Holden – News – The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper http://goo.gl/MoOM
  • @ gerrardiana Can’t decide on I-1100: a bad initiative now that I agree with in principle vs. the unlikely hope of decent legislation later?
  • @dredpiraterob: RT @1SunRisen: No on I-1100 and I-1105.
  • @comeonsrsly: I voted for I-1100. The opposition didn’t convince me.
  • @diggzdime: I hope everyone votes yes on I-1100 no more having to make two stops for liquor and chasers…

Honestly, I’m not getting a lot from these or any other messages to inform my vote. Many of the tweets I saw were humorous. Others repeated pro and con rhetoric. Many more simply linked to news sources with articles . I don’t see the proliferation of discussion so much as I see a higher volume of the same messages that I could find on TV. There are some new articles that I could find if I really dig, I’m sure. I gather that the smart organizations work to flood the social streams with their stories. To that point, our #digidem tweets were easy to find due to our retweeting efforts. But was that a good thing, minimizing the average citizen wanting to use the channels to make their voicse heard or search for a greater selection of sources and content?

Whereas at least with Twitter I have the ability to search and the illusion of limitless sources, Facebook is a wash. It has got to be as familiar an environment to TV as I can think of. I “subscribe” to a list of friends (channels) who populate the news stream (broadcast) with their links, thoughts and Likes. On top of that, I get serviced ads in the right sidebar — many of them political ads as of late. There are a lot of Halloween updates today, but they’ve slowly evolved into the evening and tomorrow they’ll be totally political. I don’t get to choose what they broadcast, I just chose to follow them and I’m served their messages. To Trippi’s point, this is definitely the interactive, many-to-many model, but do I get more meaningful messages out of it?

I have limited ability to search on Facebook and I’m limited to searching my connections. I can’t easily find discussions that aren’t hosted by supporter or opposition pages. Those pages just contain the YouTube videos replaying the TV commercials. I’m either finding an echo chamber or no chamber at all.

30-second TV spots or 140-character messages? If this is the promise of the Internet, it’s not Trippi’s promise. We’re not seeing revolution, we’re seeing more “dumbed down” debate and the Internet’s playing reruns of children playing, pollution and old people in church.

Great Expectations for Government Online Access Fall Short

18 10 2010

Sarah Schacht is founder and executive director of Knowledge As Power, an online nonpartisan system that helps individuals effectively participate in the legislative process. Her article “Democracy, Under Everything” seeks to expose the access and transparency issues in modern government and provide some solutions for how citizens can let elected officials know that they want change.

While I understood and sympathized with many of the points that Sarah made, I thought her expectations for government were at times totally unrealistic or simply unnecessary.

Sarah makes the case for transparency and access by citing the Constitution – a sound approach – but her expectations for how quickly we should have online access that information seems to be based upon the speed at which private businesses and far more simple databases can publish. She provides no context for how quickly government has been able to adopt previous technologies (telegraph, TV, newspaper, etc.) as to explain why government should be perceived as failing now.

I firmly believe that it is the government’s role to govern first, and keeping up with the Joneses of technology falls somewhere after that, probably in the double-digits of listed priorities. Technology should be a tool, not a responsibility of government. Sarah seems imply otherwise.

For example, she said that in 2006, “legislative staff members received 800 to 1,300 emails in their inboxes each week and peaks of 8,000 to 16,000 emails per day.” Obviously this number has multiplied as email has become a more preferred channel of communications. That’s a lot of email! Sarah criticized government’s inability to keep up with the unprecedented volume of feedback, and said, “… you couldn’t help but feel that most offices were so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that they weren’t able to hear what their constituents were saying.” Well of course they can’t. She doesn’t scale expectations or seem to understand that large organizations have to look at macro trends with data of that amount. Offices of government may fail to recognize these trends, but it’s simply unrealistic to expect that they should have to acknowledge individual messages of that volume.

In another instance, Sarah criticizes that the public isn’t able to access congressional records for 24 to 28 hours after a session. This is a failure according to what standard? A tweet? The US was set with checks and balances to maintain a deliberately slow, difficult process to avoid mistake or power imbalances. I don’t expect publishing to move any faster. As Sarah points out, many Congress members spend their time outside of Washington. Legislative process is relatively slow, so why the expectation to keep up to the pace of instant publishing? Especially in cases when people are elected to office every two or four years at the national level, what is the urgency for the public to need access to content so quickly? Surely mechanisms need to be in place to ensure confidentiality in cases that would affect economies or national security in certain cases, so do those considerations need to be sacrificed in the interest of pure access and transparency? I think not. The media has privileges to access and expedite the dissemination information process for the rest of us. That’s the whole point. Sarah admits that the language is robust and nearly unreadable. Even when we have access to legislative records, we’d rather wait for the media to translate it for us!

The only time when Sarah credits innovation and progress is a case in New York when private talent was hired organize and create systems for regular content publishing. Certainly that move made for tangible improvement but also required a contractor to do so. There was nothing democratic or legislative about the process. Someone got hired to do the job. I think Sarah should relook at her criticisms around access and transparency that that she expects democracy to afford and understand that to meet her expectations for speed and efficiency it came at the cost of private business. That’s really at the heart of the matter: Do we expect elected officials that turnover every election cycle to run an efficient, accessible business or focus their time to take on the issue that affect everyday people, on the issues they promised to answer? My guess is that they’re focusing on the later, and I prefer that.