More than any other national political convention before it (and presumably the upcoming Republican National Convention won’t be much different), the just completed Democratic National Convention was the first full on new media convention.
The speeches from the podium were broadcast live online with what seemed like some very powerful bandwidth, bloggers were everywhere, clips rained down on YouTube and other video sites, and no sooner had someone finished speaking than the news cycle kicked into gear on whatever it was they said. I had to laugh when, after watching former President Clinton speak via the webcast, I clicked over to Yahoo! and there was already a reaction story posted on their news site. The writer was clearly writing as Clinton was speaking and the site’s producers must have had their fingers poised over the “send” key, just waiting for him to say “Thank you” at the end.
I’m sure my colleagues in political science can tell you a lot about how all of this intermediation of politics is changing the political landscape. To be perfectly honest, I’m much more interested in the changes all of this media innovation is having on the collecting and dissemination of information about the process, largely for personal reasons.
Many, many years ago, my original career plan was to be a political journalist. During the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a summer program on political reporting at the Journalism School at Columbia University. The culminating event of that four week program was working as a reporter at the Democratic National Convention in New York.
I was assigned to be the convention correspondent for the LaCrosse Tribune, for which I wrote half a dozen or so front page stories on the convention and on the Wisconsin delegation.
Of course, since 1960 at least, American political conventions had been first and foremost television events, with the two national committees planning each day of the convention to coincide with prime time and making as sure as they could that what the viewers saw on the nightly network news was carefully scripted.
But the conventional newspaper still had a lot to do with shaping the stories coming out of the conventions. Those of us wearing out our shoes in and around Madison Square Garden that summer worked on deadlines that were a bit more forgiving than those faced by the tele-journalists. We could wait until 11:00 pm (in my case anyway) to file our stories, so we had a chance to really get it right. Even if we didn’t manage to, we had a better chance than they did. And we all knew that those working for the networks were all voracious newspaper readers and so the odds were good that something we wrote overnight would reappear as a question in tomorrow’s on-camera interview.
These days, the pressure to be able to hit “send” first is so great that the new deadline is five seconds ago, not before the press has to start running or before the 11:00 newscast. What does this immediacy do to the quality of reporting? What does it mean for the way the public interacts with that information? Does the first take become the take? These are all questions historians of politics will be asking themselves in the coming decades.
Ironically, it was my experiences in this summer program that convinced me that I didn’t want to become a serious political reporter. Why? I’ll admit that I loved everything about the reporting and the writing. Chasing the story and then writing it up was exciting and fulfilling. So why did I turn away from it all? My answer speaks volumes about why students should have internship opportunities regardless of major.
I met many of the most prominent and successful political journalists in the United States during my four weeks at Columbia and at the convention. When it was all over and I had a chance to reflect on my experiences I realized that almost to a man (and they were all men in 1980), they were overweight, unhealthy, divorced (some several times) and/or hardly knew their children. In what was, for me, an unusually mature moment at that age, I realized that I loved the work they did, but didn’t want the life they had. And so I did something else and now here I am.