YouTube: The Flattening of Politics: As Online Video Reshapes Political Coverage, News Organizations Ignore It 'At Their Own Peril.'

By Grove, Steve | Nieman Reports, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

YouTube: The Flattening of Politics: As Online Video Reshapes Political Coverage, News Organizations Ignore It 'At Their Own Peril.'


Grove, Steve, Nieman Reports


For a little over a year, I've served as YouTube's news and political director--perhaps a perplexing title in the eyes of many journalists. Such wonderment might be expected since YouTube gained its early notoriety as a place with videos of dogs on skateboards or kids falling off of trampolines. But these days, in the 10 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day (yes--every minute of every day), an increasing amount of the content is news and political video. And with YouTube's global reach and ease of use, it's changing the way that politics--and its coverage--is happening.

Each of the 16 one-time presidential candidates had YouTube channels; seven announced their candidacies on YouTube. Their staffs uploaded thousands of videos that were viewed tens of millions of times. By early March of this year, the Obama campaign was uploading two to three videos to YouTube every day. And thousands of advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations use YouTube to get their election messages into the conversation. For us, the most exciting aspect is that ordinary people continue to use YouTube to distribute their own political content; these range from "gotcha" videos they've taken at campaign rallies to questions for the candidates, from homemade political commercials to video mash-ups of mainstream media coverage.

What this means is that average citizens are able to fuel a new meritocracy for political coverage, one unburdened by the gatekeeping "middleman." Another way of putting it is that YouTube is now the world's largest town hall for political discussion, where voters connect with candidates--and the news media--in ways that were never before possible.

In this new media environment, politics is no longer bound by traditional barriers of time and space. It doesn't matter what time it is, or where someone is located--as long as they have the means to connect through the Web, they can engage in the discussion. This was highlighted in a pair of presidential debates we produced with CNN during this election cycle during which voters asked questions of the candidates via YouTube videos they'd submitted online. In many ways, those events simply brought to the attention of a wider audience the sort of exchanges that take place on YouTube all the time. Here are a few examples:

* Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's campaign asked supporters to make political commercials for his campaign. What he got was hundreds of free online ads after they were put on the Web.

* Hundreds of thousands of voters responded to Senator Clinton's request for them to vote for her campaign theme song on YouTube.

* Senator Barack Obama reached almost five million voters on YouTube with a 37-minute clip of his speech on race in America, shattering the notion that only short, lowbrow clips bubble to the top of the Internet's political ecosystem.

News Organizations and YouTube

Just because candidates and voters find all sorts of ways to connect directly on YouTube does not mean there isn't room for the mainstream media, too. In fact, many news organizations have launched YouTube channels, including The Associated Press, The New York Times, the BBC, CBS, and The Wall Street Journal.

Why would a mainstream media company upload their news content to YouTube?

Simply put, it's where eyeballs are going. Research from the Pew Internet & American Life project found that 37 percent of adult Internet users have watched online video news, and well over half of online adults have used the Internet to watch video of any kind. Each day on YouTube hundreds of millions of videos are viewed at the same time that television viewership is decreasing in many markets. If a mainstream news organization wants its political reporting seen, YouTube offers visibility without a cost. The ones that have been doing this for a while rely on a strategy of building audiences on YouTube and then trying to drive viewers back to their Web sites for a deeper dive into the content. …

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