Politics and technology

When blogging plays Hardball

It’s that time of year again. Elections are gearing up. Mudslinging ads are the same but come with the tagline “I’m (so and so) and I approve this message.” Political strategists and analysts get raging hard-ons big enough to knock out hanging chads.

In these times of debate and billion-plus dollar spending on campaigns, I find myself hooked on political coverage. Seriously — this stuff is the pure crack of our governmental process. When politics and technology mix, well, let’s just say it’s a mindblowing experience.

So feel free to check out the MSNBC Hardblogging web site at your own leisure. In short, it’s NBC correspondents blogging about the upcoming election and political party conventions. Sure, plenty of people are blogging about politics right now. However, most TV audiences and certainly these NBC folks are not acquainted with blogging. You can read some of the comments by authors and emailers as evidence of this. I suppose that’s why it feels more like a diary-type blog than any other.

I see Hardblogging as evidence of a change in the media’s understanding of their own business and the Internet. Without digressing about the politics of Fox News, their opinionated hosts no doubt are a large reason why people are attracted to their shows. I would love to see evidence of how the news world reacted to Fox News by inspecting the programming of CNN, MSNBC, and others before and after Fox went on the air.

What I mean is that news propagates at an insanely fast speed thanks to the Internet, cable news stations, cell phones, news choppers. and telegraphs; every news station will report on breaking news at about the same time with about the same information. The result is that news stations have to find other ways to differentiate themselves from their competition and increase their ratings. Fox obviously has its own way of drawing viewers. ABC News has promised their “ABC News Now” or something like that, trying to blitz people across all mediums — Internet, cell phone, TV, semaphore. CNN got the aid of Technorati in their blogging creation and monitoring efforts, but CNN’s blogs appear to be written by web site staffers rather than their TV personalities. BBC News is blogging from Boston. There was even a bloggers breakfast at the convention.

Is blogging the answer to the news media’s uniqueness problem? No. Besides the diary blog entries, the others are already very much like the “daily emails” you can get if you sign on to these news personalities’ web sites, or maybe an op-ed piece in a newspaper. Blogging doesn’t draws viewers the same way that opinionated news personalities do.

The question then is this — what viewers are the media trying to get by blogging? Younger audiences (think 18-35 yr. olds) are now using the Internet as a primary news source rather than TV and print. Certainly they’re the ones most familiar with blogging. Even though news organizations are playing catch-up, they still can recapture those people if they wisely pay attention to the news consumption habits of that demographic. Older audiences seem intrigued by blogging as well. Could this be the indoctrination they need to become part of the blogging culture? Remember that blogging and creative uses of the Internet were a large part of Howard Dean’s formula for success in the Democratic primaries.

Speaking of demographics, I would love to find out more about the kind of people accessing the Hardblogger site. Average age? Previous experience with blogs? What drew them to the site? How does the blogging experience differ from getting news via plain old broadcasting or newspaper? Are there TV watchers who would like to see the web site but can’t?

Regardless, the problem here isn’t with the news media trying to break into new formats or get new audiences. Rather it’s their lack of understanding about how people consume news and other information and, more important, how people want to consume their news. There are times we want it hard and fast, and others deep and long. However, we aren’t given that choice by most news outlets; they present it superficial and at a 7th grade level except in extreme occasions (like election coverage or September 11th).

This perhaps explains the rise and popularity of news blogging. We’re tired of the dried-up, half hour versions we get at various times during the day. We’re also tired of all news, all the time — which is really just the same news over and over again every hour. And in both cases, they still talk down to you as if you’re a baby.

In better news, I think we’re finally past the point of expecting our news to be unbiased and impartial. Viewers perceive the media as generally liberal, whether it’s true or not. Maybe there are journalists out there who try to be objective, but in our post-modern times we’re aware of and try to see through the spin. Even the media themselves, in a recent Pew Institute study, labeled themselves largely independant but with more liberal than conservative reporters (emphasis on labeled themselves). I would go further to say people are actually interested in getting opinions as part of a deeper analysis of their news (see Fox News above). How many times have you turned on the O’Reilly Factor just to get angry or enjoy what he says? The popularity of opinionated news blogs could also be evidence of this.

To all of you blogging-watching types out there, keep your eyes on this example. This will not be the first break-out of blogging into a new audience, and there certainly will be bigger experiments to come, but election time blogging is unique enough to warrant special attention.

Also, keep an eye on how the news outlets adopt the Internet and its related technologies. They’ve been very conservative as of yet in their approach to the Internet; a news web site reads similarly to a newspaper. With blogging, faster speeds (think video and audio streaming), messaging and forums, and more advents to come, it’s about time they realized that the Internet can be more than a reproduction of the TV (or newspaper or whatever) arm of a news network. There’s still room for a traditional Internet face, but they will flourish once they realize the value of their archives, backstage activity, and opinions made available through the Internet. The real revlolution will come when the news media can activate their valuable audience — getting them involved in presenting, discussing, and debating the current events of the day. What better way is there to capture an audience than to make them part of the show? And maybe that best of all explains the media’s interest in blogging.

For now, take joy in the electoral process since it is the culmination of our democracy. Oh yeah, give Hardblogger a few hits and watch it unfold. I only wish they would wise up and offer an RSS…

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