The Internet Beat on the Campaign Trail: 'Political Journalists Are Using Web Sites to Tell Stories They Didn't Have Room to Tell in Their Newspapers'

Article excerpt

After the 2000 presidential election cycle, news organizations and political campaigns learned how to make the Internet play a critical role in their work. From that cycle to this one, no one development has more influenced how campaigns are run and how political journalists work than the Internet.

Strategists for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign found a new way to use the Internet to perform very old campaign routines: raising money, signing up and facilitating discussions with supporters, and organizing a grass-roots community to contact voters and knock on doors.

Political journalists found an easy way to read lots of newspapers and follow political developments in other states by tapping into Web sites that overflowed each day with stories about the campaign. By doing so, many reporters gained a deeper understanding about the potential of their beats.

And in New Hampshire, PoliticsNH.com--an aggressive, fledgling Internet news organization--sprang up with little overhead and demonstrated new ways of reporting and documenting the state's presidential primary process--quickly, comprehensively and accurately. In doing so, it offered political junkies, journalists and campaigns a fresh approach to covering elections.

PoliticsNH.com Is Born

In July 2002, I became PoliticsNH.com's first and only full-time reporter. When I arrived to operate the Web site, one person worked on it, and he did so in his spare time. It had an audience of about 500 people per month. During the next 18 months, our staff grew to include five other full-time reporters and, in time, attracted an average of more than 20,000 unique visitors daily--without spending any money on advertising.

PoliticsNH.com's growth and popularity can largely be explained by a series of factors:

* Our target audience--of leading politicians, opinion makers, political activists, and journalists--is already very connected to the Internet.

* New Hampshire is a small state, and this allows one reporter to easily cover what happens in it.

* The state's political establishment is inclusive, so phone numbers and campaign information are easily shared.

* Besides one dominant TV station, New Hampshire's media are made up of a number of small news outlets with limited resources and a lack of commitment to constantly updating their Web sites.

These realities created the opportunity to fill a breaking political news vacuum. While in Iowa, The Des Moines Register invests the resources to cover politics far beyond what its rivals attempt, in New Hampshire, Manchester's Union Leader is the only paper with a statewide circulation--and it still only reaches 66,000 readers. (The Concord (N.H.) Monitor, known for its political coverage, reaches 22,000, and The Boston Globe has significantly cut its number of New Hampshire reporters.) In the summer of 2002, with the first whiff of campaigns in the air, I sensed there were lot of reporting opportunities to be had and an audience--both in New Hampshire and with political junkies everywhere--waiting to be built.

To succeed, we became different. News organizations--with a responsibility to explain issues and track what candidates say for their readers--geared their coverage to what voters needed to know. PoliticsNH.com would have a different responsibility because the site would attract a different group of readers. Those who came to our site would already be in tune with politics, and most likely they'd know whom they'd be voting for or didn't care who would win. Many were working or advising campaigns or were the journalists covering the campaign.

I could almost see my journalism and political science professors cringing when I was quoted in the Concord Monitor as saying, "I don't care about policy" in the context of what I do for the Web site. But our audience already knew what they wanted to know about issues, so I focused our site's reporting on the inside-baseball game of politics. …