Both the conduct and coverage of politics took to the Internet during the 2000 elections. While major media organizations created massive online products, smaller U.S. newspapers also sought to cover the campaign effectively through their Web sites. As the political bandwagon rolled through each state, a national story became a local one for these papers.
The first newspapers forced to figure out what they could or should do online were those in Iowa, site of the caucus that kicks off the presidential campaign. Five Iowa dailies established online sections devoted to political or caucus coverage. Their challenge was to take advantage of the medium's attributes to offer more than the print product contained--thereby setting a benchmark for their small and mid-sized counterparts around the nation.
By 2000, 75 million Americans were online, (1) and the Internet had become a major source of political information. (2) Its interactive capabilities are especially intriguing to scholars. (3) The medium seems to offer a way to reinvigorate community involvement in general and political involvement in particular--an electronic version of the "public sphere," (4) where opinion is formed through discourse among individuals who come together to create a public. The Internet's inherent interactivity and potential for lateral communication contribute to what could be a "new frontier of direct democracy." (5) Yet in reality, it has not been widely used in this way. (6)
Newspapers have struggled with a potential transition from their role as guardians of what enters the public sphere to builders of a virtual commons. As recently as 1998, interactive offerings by online newspapers were relatively few and token in nature, with smaller papers especially reluctant to provide them. (7) Today, newspapers display a growing range of online features that are not a part of their print products. (8)
This exploratory study looks at how editors' views of the political role of online papers shaped local coverage of the first major event of the 2000 presidential campaign. Interactive and non-interactive features are examined, and editors are interrogated about their sites. Are editors beginning to interpret their online role as facilitating citizen engagement, or do they continue to see themselves mainly as providers of information that citizens can apply to political decisions?
The focus of this study was on newspapers for which the caucus was a community event. All five Iowa dailies that devoted a portion of their Web site specifically to caucus coverage were included. They are the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Des Moines Register, Sioux City Journal and Waterloo Courier, along with IowaPulse; the latter, a joint project of several Lee Enterprises papers, was produced primarily by the Quad City Times in Davenport.
The researcher recorded the type of content each of the sites contained on each of six Mondays: four preceding the caucus, caucus day itself (24 January 2000), and the Monday after the caucus. This study is not a formal content analysis but rather an attempt to categorize the nature of online offerings as interactive (incorporating input from users) or non-interactive (offering "one-way" information). Participation in polls or discussion groups also was recorded.
The editor of each site subsequently was interviewed about the caucus coverage. Editors were asked what they saw as their newspaper's online role in the political arena and what they believed they had learned from their 2000 coverage. The interviews especially sought to elicit discussion about interactive aspects of their sites.
All five online newspapers provided caucus "shovelware," or stories that also appeared in print, (9) including an enhanced-value version in the form of free archives of previous stories. …