Lost in Internet Alley

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Aug. 4 2000 11:30 PM

Lost in Internet Alley

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

PHILADELPHIA—Fifty-five Internet news organizations went to a trade show this week, and a political convention broke out. That's what it felt like walking through the media pavilion known as "Internet Alley" at the Republican National Convention, where many of the Web sites covering the convention set up shop. Online reporters, editors, and producers—trailed by print and TV reporters covering the coverage—put on a technological demonstration as politicians participated in Webcasts and online chats. After a week of coverage filled with terms like "quantum leap," "sea change," and "defining moment," it's time to ask: What, if anything, did we learn? Did the Net have a discernible impact on the convention or on political coverage of the convention?

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First, it's important to point out that the term "Internet media" is something of a misnomer. As I exited Internet Alley Thursday, a California delegate approached me and said, "You look like a print guy." (I thought this was a reference to my notebook, but it turns out it was the suit.) When I told her, no, I worked for Slate, she replied, "Oh, the online print guys." That's a useful distinction. The elaborate TV studio in Internet Alley set up for Sam and Cokie at ABCNEWS.com had virtually nothing in common with Salon's booth, where the only sign of technology amid empty coffee cups and soda bottles was a power strip. The space used by the Internet radio station Policast.com would have fit more comfortably in nearby "Radio Row" than next to the political "action portal" SpeakOut.com. Much Internet media are conventional-type media that use the Internet as a means of dissemination.

Here's a quick overview of the coverage:

Print

It's clear that the Internet has allowed print publications to adapt to a 24-hour news cycle. The daily convention publications put out by National Journal and the Weekly Standard were available online to a national audience. The New Republic published a daily convention diary online, in addition to the coverage in its weekly print edition. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post published, in effect, afternoon and evening editions online filled with convention news. Ultimately, the Web allows print to compete with the immediacy of television. Anchors and pundits break down convention speeches as they happen for the benefit of a national audience. Now writers do, too. That may be the most impressive contribution made by the Web to political journalism thus far.

Webcasts

It's also clear that Webcasts aren't ready for prime time. Pseudo.com offered 360-degree cameras 24 hours a day that users could use to direct their own viewing of the convention, to, say, the Wyoming delegation, while they chatted with other users. If you were on a connection fast enough to get the video to work, you discovered that this is a complete waste of time. C-SPAN.org allowed users to pick one of four camera angles. America Online also provided extensive coverage, though you had to be an AOL subscriber to witness it. Although these broadcasts were novel, they added no real value to the coverage available on television. Indeed, they subtract value. 

Quality Webcasts do exist. The New York Times/ABC "Political Points" program, which airs daily at 1:30 p.m., is the best of the bunch. However, Webcasts have an extremely small number of "viewsers" as they've been called. That's because the "user experience" of watching talking heads on a computer screen is still largely miserable. Compounding the problem this week was the fact that much of the potential audience of political junkies, reporters, and political pros were inside the convention hall itself.

Other novelty items fell far short of their hype. SpeakOut.com and MSNBC partnered for a "Internet Instant Response Survey," a second-by-second version of the notoriously inaccurate practice of online polling. The much-hyped Voter.com served only as a glorified political portal, with a smattering of original editorial content of mixed quality.

Many of the lessons taught by this convention were already known by Internet users and political Web-watchers: The Web has an advantage over traditional media by virtue of its immediacy and interactivity, but the technology required for the effective use of video and audio hasn't arrived yet. And when you add the copy filed by Internet media to the mix of newspapers, magazines, broadcast networks, and cable TV, the problem of journalistic overkill—too many reporters chasing too few stories—becomes even more severe. Web coverage of the convention mainly added to an already unpleasant level of noise.

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