November 27, 2006

Election Night 2006

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

For the blogosphere, a fairly smooth election night made things something of a disappointment. For top newspaper Web sites, finding the balance between speed and offering a rich narrative still has to be reconciled. For television, slow results and a lack of prepared material tilted coverage toward chatter, especially for the cable networks.

Perhaps the destinations best suited to Election Night 2006 were the Web sites of TV news operations, plus one aggregator. They offered a combination of quick access to results plus the ability of users—largely through access to exit poll data or Associated Press material—to plumb a wealth of statistical information on their own.

These conclusions—plus five lessons about the media—are among the findings of a widespread review of media outlets on Election Night 2006.

If the mid-term election of 2006 marked a transition in American political life—the loss by the Republicans of both the House and the Senate—the campaign also marked a transition in the rapidly changing landscape of the news media covering it.

For the first time in a quarter century, new anchors hosted the coverage on all three broadcast networks. The three cable news channels, while still trailing in Election Night viewers, now dominate the evening in their dedication of time and resources. The number and categories of Web sites covering the evening has exploded. The traditional news media have now generally come to recognize the Web as the platform of the future, and election night as a moment when old media like newspapers can compete. And after emerging in 2004, the blogosphere represented a cohort of the media spectrum this year significant enough that one of the cable channels gathered up a group of bloggers to put on TV—a plan that would prove vulnerable to technical failure.

If a citizen were to plan to figure out how to penetrate the election, where should he or she go for what kind of information? Do some media sectors excel at certain things but not others? What relationship do older media, such as broadcast or cable, have with their sibling Internet sites?

To find answers, The Project for Excellence in Journalism assembled a team to survey the performance of 32 different news outlet–18 Web sites, 6 stand-alone blogs, four broadcast networks, three cable channels, and NPR, from 2 p.m. through 11 p.m. and beyond if it took that long to call the House.

The study, descriptive or “qualitative” in nature, tracked the character of the reporting or blog posts, including the frequency of updating, the type of sourcing, and the topics covered.

From that review, five lessons emerge:

1. The two most valuable things the news media offers on these fast-moving election nights now is a quick summary of key results for those wanting the headlines and deep veins of data that users can mine on their own. That may explain why TV Web sites fared well.

2. In contrast, rich narrative story telling and snap punditry, the long suit of the morning newspaper and the TV telecast, may be less valuable—at least as the numbers are rolling in on the first night.

3. Most news organizations are still finding their way in this new multi-media environment. Often they are trying to do too many things and lack the resources and flexibility to adjust to the speed of the news. They need to make clearer choices.

4. The Exit Poll may be more important today, not less, since users are probing that information directly, functioning as their own editors–going state by state, looking for demographic information, late deciders, and more. This is not just the purview of experts and academicians anymore.

5. When the system works—voting occurs without widespread problems and the media establishment isn’t faltering—citizen sentinels, bloggers, and other observers, while potentially important watchdogs, have a more restricted role.

There are also clear distinctions medium by medium.

The Aggregator Sites: Aggregators such as Google and Yahoo!, might seem ideal destinations for such evenings, as they can assemble a good deal of information quickly. But some sites are grappling with this opportunity far better than others in getting beyond the grab bag nature of aggregation. The recipe for success may involve something not everyone is offering—a combination of human editors and the judgment to leave things out. This night, that probably described Yahoo! most of all.

The Blogosphere: Despite the intrigue they brought to the problems and media mishaps of the 2004 election, bloggers were caught somewhat empty handed by the relatively error-free election of 2006. Some, such as Wonkette, got downright cranky that no one was leaking examples of fraud and abuse. Others just got nasty about who was winning and losing. The blogs, in the end leaned toward opinion this night than information.

Newspaper Web sites: Newspapers online appear to be a medium in transition. They are still struggling with the possibilities and risks of real-time news, something television has more experience with. The ones that did better at getting the news out quickly, especially the Washington Post, relied on the Associated Press and others for much real time news to the Associated Press or others, for much of their real-time news, using their own brand-name reporters for features like live discussions with users or working on stories that would appear the next day or beyond.

The Broadcast Networks: The three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, have so reduced their hours and trimmed their ranks, that their anchors play an ironically bigger role in their abbreviated programs. This accentuated the scarcity of experienced reporters who know politics from the ground, where it is really practiced.

The Cable Channels: Despite the time they have to fill, the three main cable news channels continue to organize themselves largely to produce live programs dependent on fast moving events. Their programs this night represented the place to go on television for up-to-the-minute news—and they seemed more reserved than in the past—but their reliance on being live, and their seeming resistance to offering reported, edited background pieces left them leaning heavily on panels of familiar celebrity spin doctors to fill the time between election calls.

he Television Web sites, in contrast, may have offered the best combination. While they varied in design and ease of use, the sites set up by some TV news operations represented some of the strongest destinations of the night, coupling speed, organization and depth. It may be that they have finally found a platform through which they can deliver the heavy volume of information they had always collected but had never felt they could offer viewers on television. Consider the fact that the Drudge Report by evening’s end mostly offered readers links to several TV sites.

The election of 2006 was ultimately a good story for the news media, at least on two fronts. The news business escaped without major disaster, be it a breakdown of the exit polls, leaks of partial data, or false projections on the air that had to be recalled. That alone distinguished this from the three previous election cycles.

The election of 2006 was also an exciting story, just as 2000 and 2004 were, this time with a plot line about a shift in power in the House and Senate. Sometimes politics really is a horse race, one driven by policy and a clear message from voters about things like corruption. When elections send coherent messages, it tends to make for better journalism.

Yet there is also a sense in monitoring the media this night that the news industry is still finding its footing as it begins to wander uneasily into the era of the Internet. So is the citizen media that now accompanies it. Some of the newer media categories are vulnerable because they lack staffing. At the same time, the older traditional major news organizations now have so many different roles they can play, and audiences to play to, they have not sorted out their election night franchises.