Dot-Com Journalists: This Year's "Men From Mars"

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Aug. 1 2000 9:00 PM

Dot-Com Journalists: This Year's "Men From Mars"

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

With all the hype surrounding the role of the Internet at this year's political conventions, it's hard to remember that television was once the brand-new technology sweeping America. Television had its own coming-out party at the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1948 and 1952.

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This year, the continued invasion of the dot-coms is expected to be all the rage in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Their influence on convention coverage is likely to provide a quantum leap from what Walter Cronkite described in his memoir as the "man-from-Mars" equipment worn by television reporters in 1952.

Going into the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, technology advocates are raving over how the Web is going to make everything that is old about political conventions new again. It will end the dominance of television, they proclaim, and excite the electorate about the process once again.

Not since television's presence displaced radio as the primary source of information at the 1952 conventions in Chicago (both parties held their gatherings there that year) has there been the potential for such a sea change in the way Americans experience political conventions. Technology could actually become the main story line out of the 2000 conventions, since the parties are not expected to make any real political news at the two highly choreographed events.

The tried and true traditions of convention coverage are changing. The days of viewers turning on the television to gain the insights of network heavyweights such as Cronkite and David Brinkley may seem "old school" after this year. Talking heads from the networks will be replaced by Web wanderers darting around with digital handycams, looking to provide new ways to get the story out. Web sites are planning to provide their users with panoramic, 360-degree views of the convention hall almost 24 hours a day. Transcripts of speeches will be available on many news sites almost immediately after a speaker steps off the podium. Most important, the ability of the Internet to archive its coverage will give users the freedom to log on and watch what they want, when they want.

"Nobody is going to watch the conventions on the Internet like they watch television—but they don't need to," said Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University's Democracy Online Project in Washington, D.C., "People now know they can watch at their own convenience."

But the key question for Web sites is whether dwindling TV coverage and audiences will translate into a surge of Internet users. In a recent Pew poll, only 6 percent of political junkies said they use the Internet as their primary source of campaign news.

"There's not much drama left to it," said Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Center for Government Studies, in a recent interview with washingtonpost.com. "They [the parties] have squeezed every drop out of the conventions. There's nothing left. Why go?"

Two competing factors will determine whether Internet coverage breaks new ground this year, as television did in 1952. First, the apparent abandonment of convention coverage by the networks could work to the benefit of most news Web sites. The networks' displeasure at the manipulation of the conventions into made-for-TV events was highlighted in 1996 when ABC's Ted Koppel packed up and left in protest. The result this year is a drastic cutback in TV coverage. The unhappiness of TV journalists seems to be equally matched by the enthusiasm of the dot-commies—who seem more than willing to fill the vacuum with whiz-bang ideas and gadgets.

"It's impossible to know right now whether the traffic will be there—or even how we should be counting. But dozens upon dozens of Web organizations will be there," said Cornfield. "There is going to be a burst of creativity. Before everyone knows the most profitable way to do things, there will be lots of experiments."

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