Campaign media could be so much more exciting

Between my work on NewsJunk and PDF last week, I’ve been mulling over the state of political campaigning and technology. On the Dean campaign, the campaign’s blog – Blog For America – was a critical communications implement. We built a big daily readership and we thought of it like our own cable channel or major newspaper. There was an explicit understanding that it was our media outlet, and that Matt Gross, Zephyr Teachout, and Joe Rospars (among others) were our “reporters on the ground”, covering the campaign – inside the headquarters and out on the road.

Dean desperately needed alternative sources of media. When I joined the campaign, every single news story about the presidential primary started something like: “John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, Joe Leiberman and five other presidential candidates…” Dean never got any press of any kind. But Trippi noticed that the blogs were writing about Dean. There was even an unofficial Dean campaign blog. Now here was a way to get ink, even if it was the virtual, blog kind of ink! Trippi started by posting on the unofficial Dean campaign blog as the campaign manager. And then there was an explicit decision: if the mainstream press isn’t going to write about us, then we’ll cover our campaign ourselves. Our rallying cry became: To the blogs!

Recognizing the power of new media to build our own work-around the “gatekeepers” of the modern political process gave the Dean campaign critical fuel, and the energy of the entire blogosphere was gasoline on the fire of Dean’s growing grassroots momentum. I’ve long thought that the secret sauce of the Dean campaign were the monthly in-person Meetups that Michael Silberman managed, but watching this election unfold I’m realizing that our blog’s end-run around traditional media (with the help of the rest of the blogosphere) was equally important.

All of which leaves me mystified why the campaigns haven’t built their own media operations. And I don’t mean just blogs. Why not a 24-hour newsroom, with anchors and field correspondents and commentators? The technologies needed – and even the distribution – are not expensive any more. You can buy a lot of consecutive time on cable with the kind of budgets we’re seeing this election cycle. Presidential campaigns of either party could attract top talent to create and manage the content. Not to mention the grassroots power of utilizing your supporters to create content.

Feeding NewsJunk over the last few weeks has made me recognize some of the gaps in media coverage – and the opportunities the campaigns are missing. There remains a mysterious and much revered relationship between the political campaigns and the political press corps, but I’m unconvinced that it serves the people well. And in all honesty, I’ve been disappointed by most of the blog coverage and commentary of the election; that’s why on NewsJunk you see mostly mainstream news sources. The blogs seems to mostly repeat items from the mainstream press – not just the news, but the commentary as well.

And it’s not just political news, commentary, and policy debates. Have you ever listened to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell sportscast one of the Eagles’ football games? It’s fun. Give Al Gore a show on how to go green. Who would host “Deal or No Deal” on Obama’s network?

The great challenge of creating a news organization – or if it’s going to be broader than news, let’s call it a media organization – the great challenge is honesty. Campaigns are famous for spin and obscuring the hard questions. Even on our Dean campaign blog, it was hard to find an accurate and serious accounting for our loss in Iowa the morning after. But the radical transparency and honesty of your own media outlet would say volumes about the kind of President you might make, and the opportunities to set the agenda seem enormous.

I noticed that Linda Douglass, a major television journalist for ABC News, joined the Obama campaign as senior staff. [Full disclosure: EchoDitto does unrelated tech work for Linda’s husband, John Phillips.] It’s time to kill the 30-second spot and instead focus on the exciting opportunities and possibilities of the next generation of Fireside Chats. It’ll be fun. I promise.

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