Winter 2000

While TV Blundered on Election Night, the Internet Gained Users

In the next election cycle, look for greater integration of TV and Internet coverage.

By Hugh Carter Donahue, Steven Schneider, and Kirsten Foot
A review of Election Day reporting on Internet news sites reveals a lot of information about consumer demand, news site performance, the prevalence of corporate linkage, and the strategies used to attract viewers and display the news. Indeed, while broadcast journalists were reeling from two wrong calls on Florida, Web news sites were better able to publish and refresh accurate information. It was not so much that Web news sites got it all right while TV journalists got it all wrong. Each relied on flawed data and both posted wrong calls. The crucial difference is that the news sites on the Internet made election data easier to find and digest and kept it updated in a more timely fashion.

Throughout Election Day and into the evening, demand was greater than expected. CNN.com scored 98 million page views on Election Day and 156 million page views the following day. It posted 120 million page views on the second day out. On Election Day, the CNN Web sites (CNN.com, allpolitics.com, CNNFN.com, CNNSI.com) broke the previous record of volume by 150 percent. Users sought streaming video and video on demand, again breaking records for video at CNN.com. USAToday.com posted 13.6 million page views on Election Day and 15.8 million page views the next day. The larger than expected demand affected the sites’ performance. Information seekers overwhelmed MSNBC.com periodically through election night. The Drudge Report, which advertised that it would publish exit poll results earlier than others, found its site bogged down. Many people could not log on.

Performance featured all of the Internet’s synergies and collaborations. Networks’ streaming video capability on NBC.com and ABC.com enabled broadcast video to be integrated onto each site. CBS.com featured video clips of Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush casting their votes. CBS.com updated its Electoral College map every minute and a half. Yahoo.com, MSNBC.com, CNN.com and washingtonpost.com featured real-time reports and demographic analysis of voting trends, enabled visitors to track projections from the broadcast networks on the Electoral College vote, and created pull-down menus that people could use to track state races. The Associated Press linked to real-time election results and state outcomes. Yahoo!’s streaming media capacities supported live video from broadcasters for state and local races; Yahoo! also featured Reuters video reports and audio from National Public Radio among various methods of communication.

Coordination was at the heart of online news performance. “Constant integration and coordination with CNN news group is standard practice,” remarks Carin Dessauer, executive editor/Washington and election director, CNN Interactive. “For election coverage, this approach included on-air analysts contributing through chats, writing, question and answer sessions, and ongoing coordination of incoming video.”

Corporate linking was discernible. For example, anyone seeking political news at MTV.com was immediately shunted to CBS.com, indicating the consolidation of Viacom and CBS operations.

The unexpected demand on the Web sites required adaptability. Lightening the load of pages, either by stripping out information like graphics or placing that information on other pages at news Web sites, became standard practice at surge times immediately after poll closings.

The Look of Things to Come

Hyperlinks will loom much larger in online election news reporting. Through the use of hyperlinks, the Web empowers users to mount their own, idiosyncratic co-consumption or co-production of various Web sites. These links then take on a narrative thread and energy of their own making. Users will increasingly seek to develop these editorial and expressive capacities with higher broadband speeds and the diffusion of easy ways to hyperlink content.

News organizations will win competitive advantage in the marketplace by publishing stories with embedded links. These will provide users with the flexibility and appearance of participation that they desire. Indeed, news organizations would be shrewd to begin implementing more interactive features and capacities, including more robust spaces on news sites that feature ongoing, real-time hyperlinked content contributed by users. These mechanisms would help to build and sustain market share.

News organizations should be ever attentive to disintermediation; that is, to being bypassed by new entrants, which employ current information technology more capably to provide election results as well as other news and information.

Surely, some of the synergies that took place among news organizations in the 2000 election will serve as models for future collaborations to cope with such new entrants. These collaborations constitute successful efforts by news organizations to brand Election Day news.

News organizations would be wise to understand the implications of election results as a commodity. The huge number of hits on the Florida Division of Elections site is but a portent of what is to come. As more and more secretary of state sites and election division sites become able to post real-time election returns and as the Internet reaches more people at faster speeds, news seekers can readily go to a site that simply links to or aggregates the voting returns and thus bypasses print, broadcast, cable and Internet news sites entirely. This could easily take place as secretaries of states and election division authorities increasingly move toward common standards for Internet distribution of reporting electoral outcomes.

News organizations might well consider forming a consortium, this one Internet-based and focused on vote returns posted to official secretary of state or election division sites, to aggregate voting returns. Doing so would anticipate competition from new entrants for this time-sensitive and newsworthy data.

The emergence of at-home Internet voting will pose fresh challenges to the abilities of Internet news organizations to accurately report election results on the basis of exit polls. One potential strategy for news organizations is to develop techniques to sample the preferences and demographics of at-home voters.

In summary, the Internet creates many new opportunities for print, broadcast, cable and satellite news organizations to add value to their content and to reach more readers and views with election news and results. Sensible, targeted, efficient collaborations between—and synergies among—these organizations will enable greater accuracy of election news reporting at faster speeds, thereby realizing twin objectives of news reporting: getting the news out first and accurately.

Hugh Carter Donahue is associate director, Information and Society Program, Annenberg Public Policy Center; Steven Schneider is editor of NetElection.org, and Kirsten Foot is a communications scholar at the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia. The authors wish to acknowledge Elena Larsen, Masaki Hidaka, and Frances Mesa for their research.

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