A Study of the Presidential Campaign on the Internet
As is the case with much of the web, numbers only tell part of the story of online political offerings during the 2004 political season. A page's personality and depth-what you get from all those links and stories-can't be captured in a strictly quantitative analysis. So as it did in 2000, the Project asked journalist and PEJ senior associate Dante Chinni to profile each of the sites the study examined. He spent some time poking around at the pages, clicking through them and reading their content. Herewith are his personal thumbnail impressions of the 10 political-election sites studied.
There is no separate "election" page per se on the ABC News website. Instead, the web gurus have decided that the best approach is a slightly expanded version of the regular political page. As a result they have created a good page for journalists and other insiders who know how many delegates are at stake in Guam (it's five) and are looking for some analysis and levity with their news.
ABC's approach presents some shortcomings for those looking for comprehensive information. There is no special link to a calendar of upcoming primaries. The only "issue" coverage here comes from the candidates' "own words," which is nice for the sake of accuracy, but alone it may not be very helpful for voters. Without a real journalistic examination of what's being proposed, all the approaches sound good. For instance, Wesley Clark's plan for creating jobs will "save $2.35 trillion over 10 years to invest in priorities and cut the deficit, creating the conditions for long-term growth and prosperity." Not bad. But Dennis Kucinich will "put Americans back to work" and "increase the quality of life in America, by making highways safer, water cleaner, and schools more conducive to learning." Decisions. Decisions. The bio pages are also not particularly extensive and they are tucked away pretty well. There are some links to candidate ads and some links to speeches. There's basically some of a lot of things, but it feels hit or miss.
In 2004, ABC appears to have made the decision that data aren't going to be their bag. Instead, the page seems more interested in providing a more relaxed approach to the campaign, focusing on a breezy style and what at least seems to be "inside" information. There are not a lot of links here and the ones that are here aren't updated a lot throughout the day. While there are links to ABC video and audio (which you have to pay for, thank you very much) some wire copy and some interesting longer pieces from correspondents traveling with the candidates, these are not the pages' defining characteristics. The franchise and driving personality of the page is "The Note," the granddaddy of the daily political insider memos that have become so popular (CNN and MSNBC also have their own versions of this).
The Note is clever, irreverent and smart. On Tuesday, the day of the New Hampshire Primary, its news summary contained the following: "If you want to play a good drinking game, gin-up every time Freddie 'The Beadle' Barnes or Mort Kondracke on Fox say something like, 'if he doesn't finish above 20 percent, it's over for him …' or 'he needs a third place finish to have any chance.' We're astounded that even the astute Beltway Boys would utter such elitist, voter-disdaining comments. But of course, it's not just a Fox game: every time, for example, Wolf Blitzer asks a candidate's offspring, 'What will your father have to do tomorrow in order to stay in the race?' … . drink up. In fact, if you are in the political press, we have some special suggestions for you - and for us: Try not to talk about the New Hampshire results in terms of whether candidates meet or didn't meet the media's expectations."
Even the political calendar on the page, which appears at the end of the Note, takes on this tone.
As journalist "insider" pages go, this one is a very good read. It's interesting and fun, and who wouldn't want to know when the NHL All-Star Game is? But if you're looking for facts and figures, there are better places to shop.
Ah, remember the promises of the Time Warner-AOL merger. Back in the good old days an age of wonderfully blended and merged content was just around the corner. The new multi-media behemoth would combine the reach and new-media savvy of AOL and the content of Time Warner to create the ultimate web experience. Well, something happened on the way to tomorrow, and judging from AOL's Elections 2004 page, the sunnier future is on hold.
Since the 2000 campaign the Elections page has improved its look. And in terms of sheer volume - there are usually at least 15 story links on this front page - there's a reasonable amount of content here. But those links are either to other big news outlets - the top political stories from the New York Times, USA Today and Time are all here in boxes on the bottom of the front page - or the wires. One might expect to find rich content from other parts of the Time Warner empire here, or better yet original content specifically for the site. But there isn't any, save the links to Time. If not content, how about technical expertise exploiting the web's capabilities? Nope.
Even some of the wire copy that appears here - and there is a lot of it - is a bit stale. On the top of the page, the stories concerning the presidential race are fresh and updated regularly throughout the day. But beneath that, in a section called "Race for Congress," the pieces aren't just days old, they are weeks old. On Thursday, January 29, the top story here is "Katherine Harris to Announce Senate Bid" from January 15. And just beneath it is a piece from January 7, "Gary Hart Said to Be Mulling Senate Bid." It also turns out that Dewey didn't really defeat Truman. And the bio pages here are done baseball card style, with only bare essentials appearing in a small box.
Elections 2004 offers some interesting items. Its "President Match Quiz," in which users fill out a questionnaire on issues to find their political soul-mate, is fun, but mostly good for a laugh. The questions here are so simple they ignore any nuance in position. And the site's "Political Spectrum" gives users a chance to hear or read conservative or liberal columnists and their thoughts on politics. Some of the options are interesting. On February 3, for example, one could listen to former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry's thoughts on Trippi leaving the Dean campaign. But the way the choices are presented, liberal voices on the left side of the little "Political Spectrum" box and conservatives on the right, does play into the "choose your side" aspect to politics. Are there columnists who inhabit the middle? And one has to wonder about some of the voices represented here. Do we really need to hear more from Ann Coulter?
There are some other nice features here as well. The "Voter Services" area of the site lists state-by-state primary and caucus dates, explains how each state's system works, gives pool open and closing times and in some cases even allows users to get started on registering to vote. The "Glossary" section explains the meaning of various bits of campaign jargon for the uninitiated. And the page's "The Sideshow" link takes users to some of the best political humor on the web, including clips from the Daily Show and articles from "The Onion."
But in terms of overall content, Elections 2004 is not among the top tier of the sites we looked at. It's not even the best Time Warner election site we site examined. CNN's is better.
CNN's "America Votes 2004" website may be the best kept secret in political coverage, but only because CNN makes it that way. There is no direct way to reach the site from CNN's homepage. The only ways to get there without typing in the address directly are by clicking an election story and then clicking the "America Votes" banner over it, or by going to CNN's "Politics" page and clicking the "America Votes" link which sits on the bottom third of the page. But if one seeks it out they will find an impressive site in terms of layout, data and usability at www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/.
Like other sites, CNN breaks up its political coverage. Those seeking breaking news, opinion and a truckload of story links will find it at the site's "Inside Politics" page, which is easy to access off its front page. There is also video on the "IP" site … if you're willing to pay.
American Votes, however, has a different mission. That is apparent first from the fact that it contained on average the fewest stories of any site we looked at, just 11. Compare that to the 37 on the Washington Post site. There is a small space at the top right, "Campaign Buzz," devoted to the latest stories from the campaign trail, written by CNN staff. And under that sits the "Morning Grind," CNN's daily campaign memo, a news-analysis piece from CNN's political unit that is well-written, mercifully short (some the campaign memos on the web would take a day to read through fully) and has a clever tone. The January 26th piece, "We're Number Three" was an example of the interesting mix of news, insider chatter, and speculation that normally appears here. "For a colorful metaphor explaining Clark's slide in the polls," the Grind reported, "we'll quote CNN's own Dan Lothian, who has covered Clark for several weeks and now, after talking to voters, compares him, respectfully, to a spare tire: 'Clark's like a spare tire that Democrats kept in the trunk in case they got a flat [in Iowa]. They didn't get a flat, so they're probably going to leave Clark in the trunk.'" Respectfully speaking, of course.
The real strength here, however, is the raw information available. The page features snapshots of all the major Democratic candidates, each with links that delve into that candidates bio and positions as well as his financial information - how much each has raised, spent, has on hand and has in debt. The "Morning Grind" section lists the candidates' schedules for the day. Also prominently displayed is a "Primary Explainer" that gives information on how each state's primary or caucus works, a "Calendar" that lists the dates of upcoming votes and an interesting feature called "Timeline" that looks back at significant political dates and stories from this election cycle. And on the page's bottom right there is section called "Campus Vibe" that is devoted to dispatches from college journalists around the country.
Not that there aren't flat spots. On February 2, the latest polling data here was from January 22. While no one is advocating too much focus on the horse race news of the day, reporting on last month's track results isn't particularly helpful either. And there isn't a lot of cutting edge content here. There are no links to video or campaign commercials or transcripts. Still, this is a solid entry. It may not be edgiest sight in campaign land or the most advanced, but it is a useful workhorse.
If one were to write a book about MSNBC.com's Political page, where its campaign coverage resides, it might be called "The Site that Loved Content Too Much." It isn't really the front page itself that is overwhelming, though there is a lot of information at . The problem lies more in the features themselves. They are LONG and sometimes in need of editorial shaping.
The main story on the page continues the MSNBC tradition of growing as the day goes on, adding in bits of reporting here and there, until after a half a day it almost needs to be measured by the yard. This presents opportunities and challenges. It allows for regular updating and gives the page the ability to weave the breaking stories of the day into a longer narrative that hits on one or two themes. Sometimes though, that theme-making can be a stretch. On the morning of February 2, for example, the headline on the lead MSNBC story was "Edwards, Clark see gains in new poll," but some of the pieces internal subheads were "Kerry Ripped Over Special Interests" and "Medicare & President Bush." In addition, if you click by MSNBC more than once during the day and notice the story was just updated, you have to scan through a bunch of stuff you've already read to get the new nuggets.
MSNBC's morning political memo "First Read" is also long - the Tuesday of the New Hampshire Primary it was a full nine pages of cut and paste. But length isn't the real problem. There is not a lot of over-arching thought or analysis holding it together. And there is little of the pithy punch of ABC's The Note. It is more a list of links to the political stories of the day attached to brief synopses - a service that many sites offer now - with nothing making it special.
The rest of the story content on MSNBC's Politics page is done cafeteria style. It is a mix of a lot of wire copy along with some original reporting and features from the Washington Post, Newsweek, even Slate - if you're wondering, yes, they are all in some way affiliated with MSNBC. But the net effect is really just a laundry list of story links all done in the same point size and font and put together in no sensible fashion. Some fall under "More From Decision 2004" and some are under "More Politics Coverage" though it's not really clear what the difference is between the two headings. A section devoted to pieces by MSNBC National Affairs Writer Tom Curry Reports gives the site something it desperately needs, analysis. But it's not enough.
There are some helpful links on other pages. There is a kind of Nomination Process for Dummies animated presentation that walks users through the entire process from Iowa to the convention, including discussions of strategy and Super Delegates. And an interactive map that shows when caucuses and primaries are held and how many delegates are at stake - though it didn't always function properly for us. Links to the Washington Post and Open Secrets.com provide data on individual candidates and their finances, respectively. But in all the aggregating one can't help but wonder where the NBC news-gathering muscle has gone. What happened to providing original content? There is some here from the "campaign embeds" (perhaps one of the most unfortunate phrasings in the history of journalism) but their access doesn't yield inside dope as much as arm chair analysis. Take this bit from John Kerry's embed on Saturday January 31: "In addition to the get out the vote effort, Senator Kerry's veterans events reinforce his connection to the military." It takes an embedded reporter to get scoops like that.
This page's bigger problem is its focus on the horserace of the campaign. This focus is apparent from the way it plays polls (the top right of the page on February 2), its emphasis on its own poll (the highly controversial Zogby poll at that), its lack of issue reporting (which it leaves to the Washington Post) and its other claim to fame (or infamy, depending on how you see it), the "Demo Derby." The concept behind the Derby is simple. If you are tired of reading all the stories, polls and tea leaves, the editors of MSNBC have made it easy to figure who's doing well and who isn't by putting oversized heads on little bodies riding red white and blue donkeys. You can figure out who's in front by looking at … who's in front. The idea is to cut through all the headlines and get straight to the horserace aspect of the season. Some may like the feature's graphic simplicity, but others may want to bash their computer screens with the jawbone of an ass.
The site's strengths and weaknesses might be epitomized in one fact: it is was the only general news site studied that did not offer a single link from its front political page that would tell users where the a candidate stood on the issues.
Four years ago we reported that NRO was "not your father's National Review." Since then little has changed, and that is probably just fine. Like Salon, it too seems to have grown up a bit. There are no references to "bitch-slapping" this time around from the nation's favorite conservative gangstas - and considering the changes at Salon one wonders if this is about the medium maturing. Still, for sheer entertainment value, National Review Online is, as it was then, a good read. Even if you're not a conservative you have to admire the breezy, informed tone of its writing.
Warning: Do not come to this site for data. If you do you'll be disappointed. In fact, this site may be less interactive than four years ago. The reader forums that were here in 2000 seem gone. There are no candidate profiles or calendars. There are no interactive maps or slick video or audio, no candidate-by-candidate issue analyses. What you will find here, on the front page and everywhere else, is copy, lots and lots of copy, plus, of course, the chance to buy books from Anne Coulter and Sean Hannity and Ronald Reagan t-shirts. But most of the writing here is well-done and refreshed regularly. The day after New Hampshire, editor Rich Lowry gave his assessment of Howard Dean candidacy. "Despite the recent NR cover urging the nomination of Howard Dean, I always thought it was wrong for conservatives to root for Dean. His nomination in itself would shift American politics to the left and, once nominated, there would always be some outside chance that he could win. But now that his chances of winning the nomination have sunk toward the vanishing point, it has become safe to root for Dean. Get me an orange ski cap and a weblog. I want to be an honorary Deaniac."
The site does at times let its ideological preferences get in the way to the point where is seems it is huffing and puffing - that metaphysical certitude that often creeps into writing from true believers on the political right and the left. "It occurred to me while watching Howard Dean's victory (?) speech in New Hampshire that the Democrats are running a campaign to return America to the 1960s," wrote contributor Michael Graham the day after New Hampshire. Maybe. Or maybe, seeing as they are Democrats who are unhappy with the president, they are simply doing what all candidates do in primary campaigns, energizing their base. Overall though, the tone of the stuff here is intelligent and entertaining.
To their credit, the editors of National Review Online do an excellent job of keeping their site fresh. This is obviously easier for NRO than a reporting-based site - coming up with opinions at an opinion magazine may not be the hardest thing in the world. But the editors deserve some credit for the sheer workload they take on. In the space of one week, Lowry wrote four pieces that appeared on the site. White House correspondent Byron York wrote three over the same period. One can only hope they have insurance to cover the carpal-tunnel problems they are bound to have by November.
For all that output, however, NRO's greatest fault may be its lack of reporting. Even for the reddest red-state voter, it seems destined to be a secondary site for news. While many praise the Internet's ability give people access to unfiltered information, this site is pure filter. It is all, to use a nasty word, spin. And while spin can be fun, without context it is dizzying.
The New York Times has seen the future of political coverage on the web and it is broadband. Ironically it is the Times, the old-guard keeper of journalistic tradition, that seems most interested in delving into the high-bandwidth multi-media possibilities of the web on its Campaign 2004 website. But recent additions have improved this site and despite some gimmickry, the Times still hasn't abandoned people looking for good old-fashioned data.
Campaign 2004 loves reporter-narrated picture slide shows, a lot. And whether you like this approach or not may well depend on if you are logging onto the site through a dialup connection or a cable/dsl line. Then again, it may depend on how much you want to see a picture of the actress Glenn Close kneeling at an Edwards rally, while correspondent Todd Purdum tells you that … Glenn Close was kneeling at an Edwards rally-- as the site did in its "Closing Moments" slideshow on Monday, January 26. It's certainly nifty, but one has to wonder if there isn't a better way to use all those resources.
That's not all that's here, of course. The lead story is usually the paper's lead political story, and you can get the entire day's campaign coverage from the paper. Stories are updated throughout the day as news breaks. And there is some nice bonus coverage here. The site recently introduced "Times on the Trail," a "continuously updated report" from the campaign with entries labeled with the hour and minute they were uploaded- though sometimes reports come in a flurry with nothing following for quite some time. And yes, even the venerable Times now has a Hotline-esque listing of links to important political stories of the day by other news organizations down the right-hand column of the "Trail" page plus links to other good political sites and press releases and schedules. These new additions to the site are an upgrade.
The Times also has an arrangement that allows it to present links to columns and pieces from each week's Congressional Quarterly, though those pieces obviously get dated pretty quickly. On the right side of the page there is a "Campaign Calendar" that shows the most recent primaries and links to the full list of upcoming votes. And there are candidate pages that feature their positions, the Times newspaper profile pieces of them as well as links to all of the paper's coverage of them. Be advised, however, any stories older than two weeks require the reader to pay. Just above those candidate links there are interactive profiles that feature - surprise - two-to-three-minute photo slide-shows with correspondent voiceovers as well as candidate timelines that give a more graphic approach to summarizing a candidate's accomplishments.
There is, without question, some cool stuff here and the site is well-designed and easy to get around. There is something nice about hearing the extreme Reader's Digest bio of a candidate read by the reporter that is spending some time with him, and the stream of pictures does make it all the more powerful. But there are other places where this site seems to be missing opportunities. For instance, debate transcripts might be nice. And considering all the interest in broadband here maybe there should be a way to view ads, as there is on the Washington Post site. Convergence may be the next big thing for the Internet and the news media in general, but it may not be all its cracked up to be if it comes at the expense of the Internet's greatest strength, depth and availability of information. This site's strength is some innovative features and easy navigability. But, until the recent addition of more outside material, the Times site, ironically, lacked some of the depth one might have expected. The fact that it is improving as the election season goes on is a positive sign. There may be more to come.
Between the 2000 campaign and this one Salon has gone through some changes. It is now a pay site, with much of the content only available to subscribers. Its staff and budgets have been cut and, as always seems the case in the world of the web, some of its better-known reporters have moved on. All told, Salon.com and its political page is a leaner animal than it was in 2000. Its staff, which numbered 175 at the start of last election cycle, is down to the mid double-digits today. And its feature stories that once used to occupy its highlighted middle column for sometimes hours in 2000 now sit there for days. This site is more like a conventional magazine in 2004 than it was in 2000.
In some ways it is also a more grown up. Some of the attitude that used to appear on these web pages has gone, along with Jake Tapper, now with ABC, who could always be counted on for adding a little fun into his insights. And there are a lot more straight, reported pieces - emphasis on that last point. This is not really an online opinion journal. By and large this site still believes in reporting, which makes it stands out among the non-newspaper sites we studied - most others rely wholly on wire or opinion pieces. On Thursday, the 29th, the lead on Salon was a well-done, straightforward account of Joe Trippi quitting Howard Dean's campaign as news broke that the campaign had burned through its record contributions a little too quickly. "Joe Trippi, the iconic architect of Howard Dean's Internet-driven campaign, is gone," the piece began. "And so are the millions of dollars that Dean raised from legions of grass-roots supporters over the last year." The story was balanced and polished but it was a lot like similar stories that appeared on a host of other sites, which raises a problem with Salon's approach: Why pay to read the story on Salon when you can read the same thing on the New York Times' or Washington Post's site?
There is opinion here as well, but in the political section at least, it was all supplied on the seven days we studied by one person, liberal columnist Joe Conason in his "Journal." Conason's pieces are also intelligent and well-considered. "Having long felt that Kerry possesses qualities and experience that recommend him," Conason wrote on the 29th "-- despite his defects as a retail politician -- I hope he understands the problems and perils he will confront." He goes on to discuss the things Kerry needs to be prepared for and the things he should change in the coming months. Some of Conason's insights are valid, such as the danger Kerry might face if his "electable" tag leads him to retreat into a defensive crouch. Others, however, sound more like wishful thinking. Conason writes that, "Nearly every poll ever taken about George W. Bush shows [voters] know he isn't that leader." Actually, whether Democrats like it or not, poll after poll shows voters find Bush to be a "strong leader," but one can dream.
The site is easy to navigate largely because there aren't a lot of links here. There are no maps or interactive calendars, but, like National Review Online, that's seemingly not why users come here. What they get here is well-written and edited pieces with a liberal slant - but less and less pointedly than four years ago.
It's all very good and responsible. In fact in 2004 Salon feels much less like a website than a magazine and that's good and bad. Much of the not-ready-for-prime-time scratches have been buffed away making for a better-edited product that often reads better and seems more professional than it did in 2000. But one can't help but miss the old Salon as well - the one that pushed boundaries and looked like it was sometimes produced on the fly. It feels like that one friend you have who once played a little too close to the edge and has reigned himself in and now the party just isn't as fun as it used to be.
If you are worried that the press is becoming too opinionated or biased, USA Today's campaign page may be the cure for what ails you.
The page is a lot like the newspaper. It's comprehensive. It's straightforward. And it's not particularly grabbing. That's not to say there's nothing here. Its politics page has all that day's coverage from the paper and stories going back to the previous days. There are also wire stories, not just thrown on the page, but selectively chosen. Overall, the site seems to place a high premium on evenhandedness. Analysis exists here, but it isn't trumpeted. The paper's columnists are played at the bottom of the page.
Don't expect a whole lot of analysis or edge. The overwhelming majority of the stories here are always wire copy and they are straight what-happened-yesterday accounts. By noon the day after the New Hampshire Primary, the two lead stories, "Kerry wins hotly contested N.H. primary" and "Kerry calls N.H. victory 'huge turnaround'" were both from the AP. There was an analysis piece from Jill Lawrence and Susan Page, "Kerry, Dean return to familiar roles," but it was clearly marked as such and is set as the third option for visitors. Despite its heavy dependence on wire copy, however, USA Today doesn't just update for update's sake. Sometimes one wonders if they do it enough. On Monday, February 2, the top story of the day, "Dean Admits Strategic Failures," a roundup of what was said on the Sunday talk shows, stayed the top story through the day and into the night.
Even the "Issues" section of the site is remarkably short of analysis and explanation. Most of the time, positions on issues as complicated as trade, gay rights and education are characterized in statements that are at the most four or five lines long. This, of course, has the advantage of brevity, but nuance is often lost in the process. For instance, on the issue of abortion, the site poses the question, "Do you support abortion rights?" And Wesley Clark's position boils down to one word, "Yes." Wow, can I quote you on that? It's not exactly an exhaustive examination of the question.
The site features the usual fare. There are the profiles of the candidates. There is a calendar of upcoming votes. And there is a link to polling data, USA Today's and others. What is surprising here, however, is the limited interactivity and the limited depth of information. Gannett, a powerful media company with its hands in many different forms of communication, does not do much with the web's potential. There is a link to each campaign's financial data, but there are no transcripts here and no ways to watch ads.
All of which makes using the page a bit like driving a Chevy. It gets you from here to there, but you can't help but look at all the Cadillacs go by.
The Washington Post's election page is a bit like a Jackson Pollack painting. There's a little too much going on, but when you step back and take it all in you can appreciate it if you don't get overwhelmed. This is a very deep page offering basically everything one could hope to expect from a site - audio, video, text, interactive maps, transcripts. If it has a weakness, it's that it is trying to offer much more than a normal newspaper site, while at the same time sticking to the "traditional" newspaper web-design. The effect is a cluttered-looking page where some great content can be missed. On the other hand, it comes as close to any site studied for being a one-stop-shop to learn what you need about the race.
As with many newspaper pages, the main content on "Elections 2004" is the stories from that day's paper. The links to those pieces occupy the center column and stretch down into the campaign coverage from the past few days. Again, this is the kind of accepted norm for newspaper sites and it gives the Post's franchise, its newspaper content, top billing.
But with a page as deep and rich as "Elections 2004," that approach means nearly everything else is crammed into right column. And there is a lot of it. On February 2, in a section where you can pick your own video to watch, there was "Video from New Hampshire," "More on New Hampshire," "Video from Iowa," "More on Iowa," "Debate Transcripts," "Conversation with Candidates" and "Ad Watch." Below that, there is a section for dispatches from correspondent Terry Neal, an interactive primary calendar (by date and by state) links to pages on each of the candidates, an interactive map of Senate races and a section for online chats and the latest wire reports. Some of these features are very nice and well-designed, but they have been shoe-horned into such small spaces they are easily lost. One of the site's best offerings, "Comparing the Candidates" is crammed like an afterthought between two larger features.
"Comparing the Candidates" lets voters click on different names and look at their positions on various issues in two parallel columns. Yes, now shopping for a candidate is as easy as shopping for a dishwasher at Best Buy, which offers a similar feature for appliances. One can, for instance, click on John Kerry and Al Sharpton and compare them on energy policy by finding out where they stand on the same four core issues - ANWR, Alternative Forms/Sources, Mideast Oil and Electricity Infrastructure.
Yet as rich as this page is, it's not completely clear what the Post thinks of it. There is no way to get to the elections page from the front page of Washington Post.com. And stories that are updated throughout the day on front page and even on the Post's "Politics" page aren't always added to "Elections 2004." In fact, the Politics page has a lot of the same material available on the elections page. Which makes one think that in the end, the page's design may have more to do with its place on the Washington Post's site than anything else. The paper seems to see "Elections 2004" as kind of an attic - a place to throw any and all election coverage - while its Politics page is the tidy, well-kept living room. And, appearances aside, there is a lot here worth foraging for. The real concern is will it be so crowded in May we won't be able to move.
Yahoo's election site has come a ways since 2000. Then it was a simply a place where wire stories went to die. But in 2004 the site has learned the value of one of the Internet's most endearing traits, wholesale theft - and we mean that as a compliment. Yahoo's Election 2004 site doesn't just recycle wire copy anymore, it has become a one-stop shopping spot for campaign coverage featuring news outlets from throughout the country and world. Monday, January 26, for example, along with wire copy that had been updated recently, there were pieces from the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Boston Herald, LA Times, BBC, Chicago Tribune, Manchester Union-Leader and Business Week - along with audio from NPR. Four years ago, we found that "almost all the news on Yahoo!'s page is provided by Reuters," along with a little NPR. Not so anymore.
Yahoo is still obsessive about updating. It's a rare occasion that you go by this site when the newest stories in its "Off the Wires" column are older than 30 minutes. This need to be fresh can still lead to some strange story choices. At one point on January 26, the top story was "With Arkansas Swing, Bush Targets Democratic Rivals," a story with some bearing on the presidential race. But minutes later the top story was "The Personal Side: Candidates on Food" which contained such important items as the fact that both Howard Dean and John Kerry like chocolate chip cookies. Wesley Clark doesn't touch sushi. And Dennis Kucinich has many food no-nos, "I'm a vegan; that covers a lot." Indeed.
Overall, though, Yahoo has done a better job of boxing this fast-changing, often less important aspect of its coverage in one small area. The stories from newspapers are more static and heavier. In fact, to get a quick morning look at what campaign stories major outlets are covering, you could do a lot worse than Yahoo.
Beyond aggregation, however, Yahoo, which was born of the Internet, takes less advantage of pursuing the opportunities the technology offers. There is some video and audio from other places, but little depth to its content. Links to candidate profiles and issue stands are listed so far down the page they are easy to miss. The profiles themselves, which come from a website called Congress.org, are only two or three paragraphs long. And the candidates' stances on the issues come from the candidates themselves, not a disinterested third party. The 2004 Elections Calendar, while comprehensive, offers little extra info. There are no results for votes that have passed and no explanations of how the different primaries and caucuses work.
Yahoo does, however, offer one special feature on this page, the Yahoo Buzz Index. The Index keeps score of which candidates are being searched the most. Does it actually mean anything? The day before New Hampshire, the Buzz Index showed Howard Dean had climbed from third to first in the previous 24 hours, passing John Kerry and John Edwards. And indeed the next night Dean did see something of a surge, though not nearly enough to catch Kerry. Then again it's hard to say what those users were searching for on Yahoo. They may just have been looking for the "I Have A Scream" remix.