If you are ever anxious about the disappearing craft of journalism and your metaphorical engagement in horse-shoe manufacture during the age of space travel, comfort yourself with the sight of small town American libraries and school gyms heaving with a seemingly limitless throng of media talent. Like a roil of mating frogs in a pond, the ‘pack’ of press that trails around the Primaries, sucking up the West Wing atmosphere shows there is life in the old ecosystem yet. Given the vast numbers of reporters and huge resources thrown at the election, it is a grand time to watch out for digital trends and innovations which news organisations showcase during such events. I thought I would write a few down as an ongoing aide memoire as to which innovations stuck, and which fell by the wayside. Please feel free to add, disagree or amend.
Week one of the Primaries saw us in Iowa, and a thunderous unveiling of thousands of pixels of election coverage, each replicating and out doing each other, as if the past fifteen years of lessons-about-aggregation had never happened. If you want a sense of the on the ground media scrum, here is a really good piece by Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone on the frenzy of the press pack covering what is potentially quite a stright forward ‘Romney Wins’ story. My favourite quote is the highly over-excited testimony of Alex Castellanos, a CNN pundit and Republican consultant predicting that we are moving inexorably towards all-live-all-the-time campaigning:
“Twitter’s live, but TV isn’t,” Castellanos said. “And we have the satellite capacity, uplink capacity, Skype capacity — you can do it live from anywhere now. At some point, we’re going to stop doing the same spots over and over and just start live-streaming the campaign on broadcast and on cable.”
“I think the next big hit will be run your campaign live,” he predicted. “Kill your media consultant. Kill your TV spots. And just start setting them up in Iowa for real-time television. The contest has become such a reality show, why not do reality TV?”
Five notable trends out the trap.
1. Google : fugly but first.
Speed is a central issue in election coverage and Iowa threw down the first challenge of the campaign and produced the first shock result. In terms of who was first and most reliable with election night coverage of the Iowa results, the answer was Google’s election map. An ugly beast of a thing, which proved the old addage in online journalism, well, online anything really :’working code wins’. Much to the chagrin of the paid-for AP feed the free-for-now Google feed remained ahead and alive all night.
Here is the link to the Google page displaying the results and here is the article on Poynter about what was significant about this ‘map win’. As mentioned in the Poynter article, the stand-out star of first round map wars was John Keefe’s patchwork map for the WNYC website. Keefe presented on his use of Google fusion tables and maps to a packed room at last year’s Online News Association annual conference, demonstrating how had done a similar job on Hurricane Irene and New York’s evacuation zones – in other words taken widely available data, used the available tools to make the best, most useful and clearest implementation.
2. Facebook and NBC, the future of polling?
Years ago, before a particular UK election (2002 from memory), our online politics editor at the Guardian made the observation ‘we should get into polling’. In many ways it was a smart call, although at the time it seemed logistically impossible. The collection, interpretation and presentation of data to give insight into wider voting intent is something that journalism and polling do. The link between Facebook and NBC to produce statistically sound polling data is a genuine innovation, although in this Poynter piece Jeff Sonderman raises issues about the statistical soundness of the methodology. If NBC/Facebook produces polling data which is as accurate as the established polling organisations it will be a significant moment for disruption. Elsewhere the most notable use of the social media firehose is the Washington Post’s @mentionmachine which is a tracking tool that compares the mention rate on social media versus mainstream media. As with Facebook/NBC, it is too early to tell whether this has lasting value, at the moment it is telling us what we already know – the Internet really loves Ron Paul.
3. BuzzFeed is the, erm BuzzFeed
If there is one ‘everyone’s talking about…’ in the early moments of the 2012 campaign it is BuzzFeed . Varying their habitual diet of stories such as ‘The 25 worst haircuts in sports history’ (which, it has to be said, is worth visiting the site for alone), the high-profile hire of Politico writer Ben Smith as editor-in-chief and a string of other sharp reporters, ahead of the campaign provoked the most media intrigue. Maybe unsurprisingly for a project brought to you via Huffington Post veterans Jonah Peretti and Ken Lerer, BuzzFeed feels like the inevitable disruption of the old new media and for this reason alone is one of the most noteworthy developments of this campaign. Its reporters are already dominating campaign-oriented social media with their quick fire stories and analysis. Just to underline intent, this week BuzzFeed announced it has $15m of funding to add reporters and technology to the site focused on news for the social web. The battle with the Huffington Post will be intense.
4. The New York Times with added Silver.
‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ might as well be the NYT’s motto when it comes to covering major events on the web. Yes, they have dozens of resources, but when you visit their politics home page you know why. The one thing I admire more about the Times more than anything else is their relentless iteration on the web to improve their platform with every turn of the cycle. Yes, they might be dull and pompous and their meandering headlines and endless features about the availability of hummus in Brooklyn and shoes for dogs sometimes make you want to weep, but this is a really extraordinary news organisation which is digitally on top of its game. One piece of very smart transfer window business the NYT did was to purchase Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight blog, and have Silver join the Times as a key political commentator. In the unlikely event of being asked to pick only one source of election coverage, I would be hard pressed to think past Silver. His big kick-off piece for the Times magazine last year shows that the trend for real time stokes a hunger for the best in-depth analysis. Not everything that the New York Times does works all the time, but the distance for a serious news crowd between the NYT and its rivals feels as wide as ever. In fact, sometimes wider….
5. Please Stop! The curious case of too much innovation…
This is a strange one, prompted by Patrick Pexton, the Washington Post’s ombudsman’s column on ‘Is the Washington Post innovating too fast?’, citing the aforementioned @mentionmachine as one such culprit. Making full use of that new fangled invention the public laundry, the Post’s managing editor Raju Narisetti disagreed and NYU’s Jay Rosen asked Pexton to expand on his comments in an interview on Rosen’s PressThink blog where, unless I am misreading it, it seems as though the real problem is a slow site and therefore not nearly enough innovation. I am familiar with the newsroom frustrations and arguments about the pace and implementation of innovation, and sometimes criticism can be justified. Poorly implemented new features which are not properly explained to journalists or users and ill-thought through ‘bells and whistles’ that are neither use nor ornament can and should frustrate.The problem however is not ‘too much innovation’.
Two states down, forty something to go,a campaign ripe with innovation promise and unlike the Republican nomination, winners are too early to determine.