To cover New Hampshire’s quadrennial presidential primary, a newspaper reporter once could get by with little more than a notebook and a felt tip pen. Felt tips don’t freeze like ballpoints do on a February evening in the Granite State. But the multimedia team that The Washington Post’s Web site sent to New Hampshire in 2000 needed more than reliable writing implements to do their jobs.
Among the gear they carried: laptop computers equipped to host live online discussions and edit video clips, even in the back of a moving rental car, and a digital video camera for quickly capturing images and audio that were uploaded to the Web site through a modem or cell phone.
OnPolitics, washingtonpost.com’s campaign news channel, is more than the newspaper’s coverage of Campaign 2000 repackaged for Web readers. It is an ongoing research and development effort that has effectively turned the newspaper’s respected political staff into multimedia reporters, filing breaking news reports, answering reader questions in live online auditoriums, and standing in front of video cameras to offer instant analysis. It has also become a platform for experiments in original online features, including news, analysis and information that are not available to readers who exclusively get their news from the Post’s pulp and ink edition.
The Washington Post’s online coverage is the product of all the newspaper’s established expertise in election news and more than four years of covering national politics online, including experience drawn from two presidential campaigns, a national midterm election, and a presidential impeachment trial. Among the lessons we have drawn from those stories are a series of key attributes that may have broad application in online journalism, whether the topic is politics, sports, business, science or local news.
The most current headlines are still among the biggest draws to any online news site. This has usually meant offering the most recent stories fed off the wires or, at best, hiring modest staffs to serve as old-fashioned rewrite desks, re-crafting wire and TV reports. In this model, the number of writers and the amount of daily news they were expected to generate often limited the amount of original reporting and duplicated work that was already being done elsewhere within a news organization.
During the 1998-1999 impeachment saga, washingtonpost.com was able to offer news reports from the next day’s newspaper nearly half a day earlier than they were available in print for most readers. Eventually the Post’s White House reporter at the time, Peter Baker, began filing midday updates that were published on the Web site, sometimes several times a day.
Other sites tried to do similar things. After two newspapers had to withdraw exclusive stories they’d published online, we set up a rule that has become the guiding principle of our site: We’d rather be right than first. We extended this rule to our news wire reports as well, holding off on publishing stories based on unnamed sources unless the information was confirmed by our own reporting.
After the impeachment trial, washingtonpost.com formalized this collaboration with the newspaper, launching a five-day-a-week afternoon edition exclusively on the Web. During the presidential primaries, Post reporters traveling with the candidates filed as many as four stories a day, some of which never made it into the print edition. On occasion, Post reporters have also produced original stories for the Web after deadline, when an evening speech or fundraiser was too late to make it into the next morning’s newspaper. The reporters have also provided enhancements for the online versions of their stories, such as transcripts of candidate speeches or interviews.
The Post’s mission is still to produce the most authoritative news reporting that deadlines allow, and that depth and analysis is also one of the Web site’s biggest selling points. Creative use of talent and time can minimize any disruption to the work of the paper’s political staff. On primary nights, for example, one staff writer filed a running news story until the version another staff writer produced for the print edition was available to publish online. This allowed us to give our readers the Post’s most current information on a breaking story without taking time away from the reporting that eventually went into the newspaper.
Interactivity and Databases
The Web is an interactive medium, which means news sites must provide readers with something to do. Washingtonpost.com offers opportunity for the same kind of unedited discussion areas that many Web sites do. The site also provides more structured “Live Online” interviews with Post reporters and editors, newsmakers and experts. White House officials, members of Congress, and governors are regular guests on OnPolitics, which hosts at least one of these discussions most days of the week. These interviews are conducted Larry King-style, with readers submitting the bulk of the questions and online hosts, including Post reporters and columnists, moderating and asking follow-up questions.
We have resisted featuring the kind of online polls that appear on many Web sites. These self-selected “surveys” are enormously popular, driving a lot of traffic with very little effort. But the data they produce are absolutely meaningless—and even misleading. The Post invests too much in its more scientific and more reliable random telephone surveys to risk diluting their value and confusing readers by putting the Post’s name on bad data. Instead, OnPolitics poses interactive “Poll Taker” questions: Readers submit their answers to questions asked in actual Post polls and then their answers are compared with the real survey data. Readers can also compare their answers to demographic subgroups, reorganizing the data by education, income, gender and race.
Interactivity doesn’t always involve complex databases and specialized programs. OnPolitics offers a weekly online column written by Ken Rudin, a longtime political editor at National Public Radio, and based on reader questions. The topics include campaign buzz, trivia and political history. And the only technology required to produce Rudin’s interactive column is e-mail.
The Web is prompting new approaches to political coverage throughout the industry. Newspaper editors are thinking more like TV producers, just as TV news reporters are having to think more like their print counterparts. It’s not that all types of coverage are converging at some particular point, but rather that the presence of new possibilities is changing the way that members of all media think about reaching an audience.
OnPolitics displays news video from a variety of sources, including the use of a syndicated search engine of presidential candidate video from C-SPAN. During the presidential primaries, OnPolitics got into the business of producing its own campaign video, too, sending small video teams—a cameraperson and an editorial producer—to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and California. The Post political reporters on the trial served as “on-air talent,” offering daily “stand-up” news reports on the candidates’ activities and the direction of the campaign. Montages of man-on-the-street and polling-place interviews gave washingtonpost.com readers a chance to see and hear real voters discuss their choice for their parties’ nominees. There were also video interviews with local politicians and party officials.
Toward the end of the accelerated primary season, OnPolitics was able to offer a new kind of interactive multimedia experience. Given a chance to conduct a brief video interview with Texas Gov. George W. Bush during a campaign swing through northern Virginia, we asked our readers to submit the questions. In less than 12 hours, there were more than 1,000 to choose from, most of them far more issue-oriented than those usually asked by campaign reporters. I conducted the interview, picking five representative questions and then asking my own follow-ups. This format combined the best qualities of our interactive discussions with our increasing skills as video producers and will be a key component of OnPolitics coverage during the general election.
All of these features would be hard for a strictly online news organization to produce on its own. The key for washingtonpost.com has been its imaginative partnerships. Some of these arrangements resemble the traditional media’s model of syndication, while others are breaking new ground in the use of this technology in political coverage.
Our video search engine comes from C-SPAN, which syndicates its election coverage through a California company called Virage Inc. We also get campaign video through a partnership with MSNBC which, as part of the arrangement, publishes Washington Post stories on its Web site. OnPolitics licenses the information we need to maintain our database on the gubernatorial and congressional races from Congressional Quarterly. That information also includes CQ’s “risk rating” on the nearly 500 contests this year, as well as its background material on the summer’s national party conventions. OnPolitics also features all of CQ’s comprehensive news coverage of these races, with as many as a half dozen stories a day.
The competitive marketplace for first-class technologists means OnPolitics also depends on heavily high-tech partners for some features. Working with a California company called SearchButton, for example, we are able to offer our readers a searchable index of candidate Web sites: Type in “education,” for example, and find the most relevant pages on each of the presidential candidates’ sites. In this case, our partner collaborated with us by building this search feature as a way of demonstrating the abilities of their technology. Regardless of the business model, each of our partnerships give OnPolitics features and content that we could probably not afford to produce in-house.
Links are still the foundation of hypertext, the language in which the Web is written. Links are what allow readers to easily click back and forth among all the features described above. Linking to other sites, including competitors, is also a key feature.
“Early Returns,” a two-year-old daily column on washingtonpost.com, wraps up political news culled by a producer/writer each morning from more than 100 other news sites. We do not mind linking to other news organizations because we know that our readers appreciate the time we save them by sifting out significant political developments. By going through 100 sites, we save them time, an increasingly precious commodity in an era of information overload. Links to candidate and interest group Web sites, as well as the ability to connect easily to related and archival coverage on our own site, are also prominently featured in our news stories and across the site.
The Web is quickly changing the way news organizations such as The Washington Post cover campaigns. Collaborations between print and online newsrooms are establishing new traditions and pioneering new models for gathering the news. In the long run, these journalistic experiments, at the Post and elsewhere, may have as much influence on national political coverage as the live TV reports from the national party conventions during the late 1940’s and 1950’s.
The speed of the Web poses great challenges to the fundamentals of journalism, especially to fairness and accuracy. Editorial decisions are often made at what seems like the speed of light. At the same time, the interactive nature of the Web offers new opportunities for disenchanted readers and viewers to reconnect with political news and even to reshape and customize it.
The Web requires fresh thinking about how news can be delivered and, in turn, how it is received and absorbed. Traditional news organizations that mistakenly treat their online operations as virtual printing plants or online transmitters risk being left behind. Those that embrace this new medium, however, have a chance to combine the best practice and traditions of print and on-air reporting. Campaign 2000 is a perfect incubator for this new kind of journalism.
Mark Stencel, Editor of washingtonpost.com’s OnPolitics, is the co-author of “Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).