Who has the best political reporting on the Web? Is it:
National news organizations, with their broad perspective?
Local news media, because all politics is local?
Web-native newcomers, including bloggers, with their independent perspectives?
International news organizations, with their nonprovincial perspectives?
The reality of the Web, where voters can access political coverage from any news site or blog on the planet, is that no single source can claim to have the best political coverage. For a single political story or event, sure. But for any one news organization to have the last, best word on everything, every time, is a Herculean task for the ever-shrinking newsroom.
So, who has the best political reporting on the Web?
The Web itself. This enormous network of content has, in aggregate, the best political coverage. But the Web's cup runneth over.
On the evening of Hillary Clinton's upset victory in the New Hampshire primary, Google News was displaying no fewer than 6,828 stories covering the event. While many of these were duplicates of wire stories, the count did not include most of the bloggers and independent voices weighing in. And the Web's abundance is not just traditional political reporting and blogging (and the latter's spectrum of partisan rants, echo chambers, and disinformation). The New York Times reported that during the days following Barack Obama's speech about race on March 18, 2008, his words became the most popular item posted to Facebook. But it was not a link to any particular journalist's coverage of the speech that was being passed around — rather the sharing was happening with the unedited transcript and video of the speech.
Web savvy news consumers are increasingly bypassing the journalist filter and going straight to the source. Whether they choose to share source material, traditional political coverage, blog posts, or any other political content, news consumers are increasingly becoming their own filters, as online media offer an ever-expanding number of tools for sharing content — e-mail, instant messaging, online social networks (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), and social news sites (e.g. Digg, StumbleUpon, del.icio.us), to name but a few.
Photographers use a snowbank to gain height as they photograph Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee as he goes running at Gray’s Lake in Des Moines, Iowa. December 2007. Photo by Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Tribune.
Presenting What's Best
Given the dynamics of the Web — overabundance of content, consumers creating their own distribution networks — how do news organizations and journalists best serve political news consumers? Clearly, there is no substitute for original political reporting, which can shed new light on candidates, policies, platforms, political promises, and partisan attacks. Fact gathering is still the foundation of political journalism. But on the Web, journalists and news organizations now have a responsibility that goes beyond their original reporting — they have a responsibility to help news consumers navigate this sea of political content to find the pieces that can best inform, educate and engage them.
This is not just a responsibility, it's an opportunity, for when journalists select the best of the Web's political coverage, they are able to uphold their standards of verifying and validating information. When newsrooms distribute what they find on the Web, they can maintain their relevance as a destination for people interested in politics by becoming a gateway to the best of all political coverage, not just their own.
Fortunately, there is already a simple, powerful mechanism for filtering content on the Web — the hyperlink. Bloggers pioneered the practice of using links to highlight interesting and noteworthy content on the Web. While many do so with an overt political agenda, some bloggers link with journalistic aims. For example, here's how The New York Times described the work of George Polk Award-winning blogger Joshua Micah Marshall:
His work differs, though, from big newspaper or network political reporters. It often involves synthesizing the work of other news outlets with his staff's original reporting and tips from a highly involved readership. In the case of the United States attorneys, Talking Points Memo linked to many local articles about federal prosecutors being forced from office and drew a national picture for readers.
This type of "link journalism" leverages the reporting, source information, and commentary already being published on the Web to tell a coherent story and, in Marshall's case, advance the public's understanding. Link journalism is a way for journalists and editors to act as filters in a way that complements their original reporting by linking to interesting, relevant and verifiable news and information from other sources on the Web.
The news media record the sights and sounds as Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson walks through Manchester, New Hampshire. September 2007. Photo by Kari Collins/Concord Monitor.
The Tennessee Experiment
Jack Lail, the managing editor/multimedia for the Knoxville News Sentinel, undertook an experiment in link journalism on the day of the Tennessee primary, which fell on February 5th, on which numerous other primary contests were being waged. Lail and knoxnews.com journalist and blogger Mike Silence, together with a group of Tennessee political bloggers, set about to link to the most interesting and relevant primary election news on the Web as a complement to the Knoxville News Sentinel's original reporting. As Lail boldly declared of his collection of links, "Here's the best Tennessee election coverage that can be found on the Internet."
The technology behind knoxnews.com's experiment in collaborative linking is Publish2, an online tool designed and built specifically for journalists, editors and newsrooms to easily organize and syndicate relevant news links. [See author's note.] Using this linking tool, knoxnews.com's team of journalists and bloggers selected political stories with a click of a button in their Web browsers. They then added brief comments to explain why the stories were worth reading. Lail published a feed of those chosen links and comments on knoxnews.com.
The knoxnews.com political link journalism effort was part of a larger collaborative experiment called the Publish2 Election News Network. The idea was to go a step beyond collaborative link gathering within one news organization and share links across news organizations. By filtering the sea of election reporting and commentary, many newsrooms can cover a lot more ground together than a single newsroom working by itself.
What was the result of this collaboration within, across and beyond newsrooms?
Each Web site that published election news links — and that night, this effort involved six of them — received a steady feed of content to complement their original reporting. And each was able to supplement the links generated for their Web site with those submitted to other newsrooms. The flow of election news links was like a dynamic wire service, but it was created by the combined editorial judgment of all of the contributors.
In fact, one newsroom, the Herald News in New Jersey, saw the potential for a new form of content distribution. In addition to adding these links to third-party news to the network feed, they started adding links to their own stories. They did this unprompted and, when I asked them why, they said they realized that other newsrooms could pick up the links to their pieces and "publish" them as part of their election news aggregations.
There appears to be a huge potential for link journalism networks to influence how newsroom content is distributed on the Web — through enabling the links to one newsroom's content to appear on other newsrooms' Web sites. While such collaborative link-driven distribution seems radical on the face of it, there is precedence in traditional wire services and in some bold new experiments, such as the Ohio News Organization, where Ohio newspapers publish each other's best stories.
Publish2 is creating this news aggregation network based on journalistic standards and working with only journalists, editors and freelancers who work for news organizations. Just as knoxnews.com assigned trusted local bloggers, newsrooms can expand the Publish2 network to include a range of contributors. Our online tools are designed specifically to integrate seamlessly into the editorial workflow by taking proven technologies, i.e. Web-based bookmarking and news aggregation, and customizing them for the practice of link journalism. Publish2 also has profile pages for journalists to showcase their professional experience, links to their best work, and recommended links. As a social network, journalists can connect with others around the world who cover the same beats or share common interests.
We are exploring further the potential of the Election News Network during the conventions this summer and continuing through the general election in the fall. We are also creating link journalism networks for other topics. The Web is, after all, a network, and journalism can best serve news consumers by leveraging that network. Younger news consumers are already making use of its network capacity in how they share information in their social networking groups. There is no reason why journalists and newsrooms and newspaper Web sites should not figure out how to do the same. The benefit for everyone will come in making it easier to find high quality journalism on the Web.
Scott Karp is the cofounder and CEO of Publish2 (www.publish2.com), a platform for link journalism and networked news. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.