Innovation: What the election taught us about the future of news

At the Web 2.0 Summit last week, the most timely panel may have been “The Web and Politics.” Moderated by John Heilemann of New York Magazine, the panel discussion included Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post; Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco; and Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean and John Edwards.

The discussion covered the role that social networks and the Web played in the victory by Barack Obama and whether that’s permanently changed how elections will be run. The group also discussed how this election signaled a change in the way the press covers campaigns, how voters get their information, and what that means going forward.

Arianna Huffington, Gavin Newsom, and Joe Trippi join John Heilemann on stage at Web 2.0 Summit 2008 in San Francisco. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.

For Trippi, who pioneered the use of the Internet in Dean’s campaign four years ago, this election represented a tremendous leap forward for the Internet’s role in campaigns. He said the tools available that allow people to connect and organize online have evolved dramatically since the Dean campaign four years ago.

Beyond the election, Trippi argues the vast network created by Obama is going to be a powerful force in the way policy is made over the next four years. He pointed to the creation of Change.gov as a good, first step toward harnessing the power of Obama’s campaign network to use in building support for his policies as president. At the site, people can register and submit their “vision” for the country.

Trippi believes that Obama will be able to use his network to become a powerful president. When he chooses to tap that network, he’ll be able to use it to demonstrate grassroots support for policies, and if necessary, target people in the districts of members of Congress who oppose him. Used wisely, Obama’s network should help him execute an ambitious agenda.

“What will be the power of that network when he puts forward his agenda?” Trippi said. “He can raise money. He can target districts. He can use this network to drive his agenda in an independent way.”

“It’s about the president and people connecting in ways they never have, and actually passing an agenda on health care and energy,” Trippi said. “It’s not an appeal to partisanship. We’re about to see a White House with more power than Congress. Congress is going to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Because now there’s the president and this network.

“They use to say, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Now, ‘It’s the network, stupid.”

In terms of the media coverage, Trippi said the rise of the blogosphere and its influence has been positive in terms of the quality of information about the campaigns.

“The mainstream media do ‘He said, she said,’ ” Trippi said. “They let the Republicans say the glass is half full. And they let the Democrats say, ‘No, the glass is half empty.’ What the mainstream media never does is say, ‘Look at the glass.’ The blogosphere says, ‘Look at the glass.’ “

Trippi also argued that when it comes to the Web, “This medium demands authenticity. TV allows you to be fake. You can fool anyone for 30 seconds.”

Not surprisingly, Huffington concurred with a lot of Trippi’s analysis (note to conference hosts, get at least one Republican on the panel next time!). Both she and Trippi felt that the role of citizen journalists and non-traditional media such as YouTube had led to much greater transparency.

The Huffington Post was part of an effort called “Off The Bus” which organized thousands of citizen journalists to cover the campaign while remaining outside the big press gaggles, which are prone to group think and developing conventional wisdom from hanging out continuously with a small group of reporters for long periods of time. One of those “Off The Bus” journalists, Mayhill Fowler, famously caught Obama’s remark at a San Francisco fundraiser about people who “cling to guns or religion.” The report cause a stir, in part because in theory, this was an off-the-record fundraiser.

But Huffington said such conventions were relics of the mainstream media. When a candidate is speaking to a large group, its silly of the press to give them a pass on what they say, Huffington argued.

“There is no off-the-record fundraiser,” Huffington said. “How was there ever an off-the-record fundraiser?”

Huffington said she is now trying to push her site’s analysis past the traditional notions of “left vs. right.” In fact, she’s banned the use of such terms in the discussions she has with her reporters.

“When we have calls with our own reporters, we can’t use left vs. right,” Huffington said. “These are forbidden words. Talking about right vs. left is how to do nothing important.”

While Huffington and Trippi argued that all this scrutiny would make for more authenticity and transparency, Newsom was, not surprisingly, a bit unsure whether this was good for democracy or not.

“We’re all for more authenticity,” Newsom said. “Unless it’s the kind of authenticity we don’t like.”

On the one hand, he thinks some politicians are going to rush out and try to emulate the Obama campaign because they’re excited by its powerful ability to raise money. Newsom noted that he had about 11,000 friends now on his Facebook page.

But this new era also means that politicians have to be on guard around the clock about everything they say or do. Every foible is likely to be captured by someone on video. And those moments can define someone forever, Newsom said.

“I have to watch myself sing, ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ ” Newsom said. “I want it to go away. I really want it to go away. But now its like we’re living in a reality TV series.”

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