This year will be remembered as the time when the Internet arrived as a major force in presidential politics. And it won’t be just because of Howard Dean’s pathbreaking, online fundraising. The Web has also changed the way the media cover the campaign. Part of this change is occurring at newspapers, where reporters are using the Web to break news faster and display coverage that print editions would otherwise leave on the cutting-room floor. But a more intriguing development is underway at major television networks, which by using the Internet have found a new way to influence the campaign’s media dialogue and agenda.
It happens at online publications like First Read, which I coauthor for NBC News. At ABC News, it’s The Note. CBS News and CNN have their versions as well, and many Webloggers do this, too. Each is designed to synthesize major campaign developments and try to signal—some would say, direct—the next turn in the story. Distributed by e-mail and displayed on network Web sites, these daily messages reach tens of thousands of readers, including political reporters, opinion leaders, strategists for the candidates, and political junkies.
This new niche audience for the networks—a boutique corner of a business usually oriented to audiences of millions—is a relatively new entity. It began four years ago at my former employer, the ABC News political unit, and was intended to be used solely as an internal news planning document. To create this, my colleagues and I awoke at a painful predawn hour and forced ourselves to think hard about politics while showering, shaving and brushing our teeth. When we reached our offices, we’d comb through wire service reports and campaign schedules and e-mails we’d received overnight. We’d race through newspapers online looking for underlying themes and pieces of news within the news, then we’d check hard copies of papers for story placement and graphics not found online. While doing this, we’d track key interviews on the morning shows. Adding into the mix our own reporting, we’d distill the most keen insights we could muster for the army of people involved in preparing our network’s newscasts.
At first, we distributed The Note throughout ABC News. Then it was sent by e-mail to favored sources outside the network, in addition to those at the network. Then ABCNews.com asked us to take The Note public on its site.
The Note’s expanding audience, and the insider buzz it generated, soon spawned similar efforts at ABC’s competitors, including my next and current employer, NBC News. Each of these Web publications differs in tone, format, length and audience. The Note, for example, plays up the inside-baseball details about the campaign, unwrapping its leads in a smart if not straightforward way. It is now written mostly for an audience outside of ABC News. CNN’s The Morning Grind reports one or two political threads about what to expect during the day, often breaking minor news in the process and offering links to key news clips. My Web publication, NBC News’s First Read, is written with its internal NBC audience in mind, laying out three to five stories and themes in politics on any given day. It assumes a politically savvy readership but leaves out the inside-ball references that are unlikely to make it into the newscasts that day.
The Web Publications’ Impact
What the daily political Web publications have in common is an element of original reporting and analysis. They’ve become outlets for the small—and once in awhile, big—pieces of political news and analysis that we report but don’t find time to broadcast. First Read also incorporates the reporting of MSNBC’s campaign embeds—young producers hired as freelancers or from within the network—who are constantly on the trail with each of the presidential candidates. Equipped with digital cameras, these embeds serve as the network’s around-the-clock eyes and ears. (Not only is their reporting used in First Read and their footage on MSNBC, but the embeds and their video also occasionally are featured on NBC Nightly News.) By using the embeds’ and other sources’ information to shape our Web publications, we add layers of reporting rather than just recycling what has already been reported. The online newsletter The Hotline, which is distributed by National Journal, also in recent years has been folding original reporting and analysis into its compilation.
Because we forage far and wide for political news, First Read gives prominence to local and alternative media reporting that the national press might otherwise ignore and adds an outside-the-Beltway context to ongoing stories. This is a benefit a site like ours offers. But along with this ability comes a concern—expressed by some media observers—that by packaging political reporting, these publications reinforce the insularity and groupthink of the press pack. The opposite argument also can be made—that by knitting together various observations and pieces of news, we lay out a broader, cohesive picture that extends from within Washington to outside of it.
What is clear to us are the ways in which campaigns change their routines in response to these Web publications. Not long after The Note’s online debut at ABC News, advance texts for speeches and other bits of news and spin started arriving by e-mail overnight. Some press secretaries made us part of a new regular morning rotation. With a deadline of roughly 9 a.m., we find our cell (or office) phones ringing at 8:00, 7:00, even 6:30 a.m., as campaigns work to get us information and offer their responses to stories in the morning papers before we send out our message summarizing them.
Our network Web publications are now an appendix to the morning news cycle. We hear from campaigns about how we spooled out this angle or that, as well as about our original reporting. And those reporters whose efforts we include also get back to us about how we worked their material into the ongoing picture.
This new role we have assumed at the network is why executives, even in an era of squeezed budgets and diminished numbers of employees, allow news division staffers like me to dedicate eight, 10, even 12 hours each day to these publications. What they see is that this investment of time yields original content, and that adds cachet to the Web site. For those of us doing this work, it’s a remarkable way to connect with valuable news sources. For political journalists, who loom large in our readership, the Web publications provide a lightning-quick, high-value target for news and spin that technology makes possible.
Elizabeth Wilner is political director of NBC News and a coauthor of First Read, the political Web publication that appears weekday mornings at www.firstread.MSNBC.com.