Politics and Publishing


The presidential campaign, now well into its second year, is proving to be the news media's perfect storm. Charismatic characters. Seemingly endless storylines. An enraptured audience. Plus one great irony: the story is setting the nation's daily newspapers forward several years.

The audience shift from print to the Internet and cable TV has been unmistakable for more than a decade, with publishers furiously trying to calculate not if but when the transfer of audience and revenue to electronic technology will pass the tipping point. But the '08 campaign - specifically the Obama-Clinton clash - which years ago would have been a boon for daily papers, is actually accelerating the process by providing an extended showcase for alternative technology.

There's no need to dwell on the bleak trends in the newspaper business - circulation down, advertising revenue dropping, and newsroom staffs shrinking. Nor is there any remaining doubt that consumers are increasingly reliant on the Internet for news and information. But what is it about the current political contest that is fueling these trends?

◊ All the campaigns, most notably Obama's, now tailor their messages to the new media. The tempo by which political campaigns used to target news releases and photo-ops to major evening newscasts and deadlines for morning papers is a thing of the past; these campaigns run 24/7.

◊ Millions of younger voters, drawn to national politics for the first time, are core users of the Internet. Logically, when their interest in events rises so does their time on the Net.

◊ Cable television has responded to the story with unprecedented coverage. Several networks have developed entire programs devoted to the campaign, while MSNBC even renamed itself "The Place for Politics." Not since O. J. Simpson's murder trial has cable been so captivated by a single story. But this time it's a story with significance, whose regular viewers include Americans who make the news as well as those fascinated by it.

◊ Absence of major disagreement on key issues between Clinton and Obama makes the story easier for electronic media. Television has a difficult time with large, abstract issues, but it specializes in quick sound bites and relatively inconsequential squabbles.

So clear is the trend that in one 48-hour period this month, key executives of three of the nation's most important newspapers made almost identical observations about the situation. According to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, "Our business is reeling from technological advances that have siphoned off much of our advertising revenue and have loosened our monopoly on the audience and fractured our readership."

Katharine Weymouth, publisher of the Washington Post, wrote to her staff, "Our industry is undergoing a seismic shift as readers face an array of media choices and our traditional advertising and circulation bases decline. The good news is that the appetite for news is as robust as ever.” She said the Post’s online audience “has exploded."

The editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, wrote, "This is a time of reinvention for newspapers." He added that his paper will soon conduct, "a thorough examination of how the Globe should change in today's radically altered media environment."

But while the nation's papers figure how best to profit from the Internet rather than suffer due to its success, most publishers seem to be encouraging readers to abandon the print edition in favor of the Net. Increasingly during the presidential campaign, major dailies are pushing their best content onto the Web, and doing it earlier in the news cycle. Moreover, top reporters and columnists spend so many hours appearing on cable-TV and blogging on the Internet that their print columns seem to be almost after thoughts.

Acclaimed newspaper writers now share cable’s stage with fulltime members of the Internet media – from Politico.com and Slate.com, to name just two – meaning print reporters are validating the competition. Key Web sites – including HuffingtonPost.com and DrudgeReport.com – have become funnels for content, shoving readers in the direction of numerous other Internet outlets. Drudge claims its site gets some 22 million “visits” per day.

The campaign is even giving birth to what is known as “semi-pro journalism,” in which teams of citizen-reporters and professional editors provide nuanced coverage. MTV’s “Street Team ’08,” for example, used a grant from the Knight Foundation to hire what it calls “mobile youth journalists” in all 50 states to cover the election story.

Like the Democrats’ campaign, where perception of momentum often seems more relevant than actual numbers, the biggest problem for conventional daily papers is that despite the excitement of this election, the print product frequently feels stale. And readers’ perceptions will be difficult to redirect, even after the political battle finally ends.

Local and regional papers are somewhat sheltered because of their community focus. But just as in the political campaign, where "change" is the word, all newspapers will have to adapt to the changing media scene, or run the risk of being voted off the doorstep.

© Peter Funt.

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