The Death Of Old Fashioned Convention Coverage?

Posted September 6th, 2012 at 4:57 pm (UTC-4)
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A Creaky Political Tradition Meets A Nimble Digital Media

Doug Bernard | Charlotte NC

Journalists, as a rule, are pretty good complainers. Conventions bring out some of our best.

Come stand in line at the poetically named “Concession Stand” here in the basement of the Charlotte Convention Center for a few minutes and you’ll hear what I mean. “Uhgh, what is it about America and fried food? I’d kill for anything green,” sighs one Francophone reporter to his colleague. “What? No! It’s like a soggy armpit out there!” shouts a young woman into her mobile phone, blocking the soda machine. The impatient man with the media tags behind her rolls his eyes and puts his hand to his face in a pantomime of a cell phone screamer. (To be fair, much of the food here is fried, and Charlotte has been awfully damp.)

Criticism is something that comes naturally to journalism. It’s part of the job. But when it comes to finding ways to explain slow and complex moving processes – like conventions or American politics – we can struggle.

Delegates in Charlotte doing what they do these days (AP)

Every junior reporter knows how easy it can be to report on a house fire: it happened, dramatic footage, sympathetic victims, just the facts, done. (That’s assuming you don’t want to dig deeper.) It’s much harder to report on something like the money chase that politicians must endure if they want to take office, even though that’s arguably a more important story for the public at large.

Which brings us to the slow-moving beast we call the modern political convention.

“What these conventions are, more than anything else, are trade shows,writes Matt Stoler at the blog Naked Capitalsm. “Specifically, they are trade shows for the political class.” He’s far from alone.

“A waste,” barks media critic Jeff Jarvis over at Buzz Machine:

“Note that even while newspapers and news organizations have shrunken drastically, we are sending the same number of journalists to the conventions that we sent in 2008 and 2004. Why? Editorial ego: It’s fun to be there, in the pack. It’s fun for a paper or station to say, ‘We have our man/woman in Tampa/Charlotte.’ Well goody for you.”

There are an estimated 15,000 reporters covering the conventions this year; almost as large a crush as the omnipresent security forces in Tampa and Charlotte. The majority of those journalists are working in the security zone, behind the black riot gates that keep all but the lucky few with credentials out.

But just how many stories can there be at a convention? How much money is being spent to report essentially the same news? How many politicians and delegates can reporters talk to before realizing that there’s not that much there there? Perhaps not that many, and yet editors continue to send armies to conventions cycle after cycle.

The 1960 Democratic convention, when news actually happened on the floor. (AP)

The Broadway choreography of modern conventions has chafed generations of reporters…or at least it should have. Many complain but few actually do anything about it, as in 1996 when ABC anchor Ted Koppel huffed at the GOP convention “Nothing surprising has happened; nothing surprising is anticipated,” before packing up and leaving mid-week. Oh, for the days.

Big media these days are more likely to buy politicians massages and drinks than they are to leave in a snit. “At a time of broad economic distress and retrenchment in many parts of the media,” writes Washington Post media reporter Paul Fahri, “some news organizations have spent considerable sums on parties, freebies and showy extras during the gatherings.”

Journalists have not only become part of the story, some appear to have grown comfortable in that role. “When I think of things that should be in a political convention swag bag, I think colorful t-shirts, buttons, and unnecessary bridge-building projects for my district,” snorts Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan. “The Republicans disappointed. The Democrats are even worse.” Yes, I get that Nolan writes snark. Still, it feels a little dispiriting.

Speaking with GQ‘s Reid Cherlin, former White House press secretary Dana Perino wonders whether the old-fashioned convention has outlived its purpose entirely. “America has moved beyond this,” she tells Cherlin. “The DNC and the RNC, it feels like 1990s. It looks the same; it feels the same. The hall is the same,” says Perino.

Things may be changing. This year both parties lopped a full day of events off from their conventions and seem to have muddled through. If three days works well, why not two, or one? And, as we’ve asked before, why not connect party faithful through the Internet, rather than gathering them together in crowded arenas far from home?

One of the sidebar stories to this year’s conventions seems to be both political party’s embrace of social and digital media. Republicans and Democrats report record levels of website traffic as they stream events, connect supporters with each other, and otherwise sell their candidates to the voting public. Social media firms large and small say the same thing.

Where a decade ago reporting was largely the domain of established media companies with deep pockets, now the convention halls are filled with laptops, mobile phones and cameras small enough to put in a backpack – something unheard of as recently as 1996. Writing in the National Journal, John Aloysius Farrell quotes longtime Los Angeles Times writer Doyle McManus as he describes the 2012 conventions as a mix of traditional TV coverage and a “hyperactive and very intense cocktail of new social media.”

Whether social and digital media will do a better job at explaining American politics than the creaky old journalism giants like CBS News or The New York Times isn’t clear. Both of those organizations (and many others) have considerable resources and on any given day can produce outstanding journalism. A tweet will always and only ever be 140 characters.

Conventions are changing. So are our media, and what we expect of the reporters covering them. But in the end, says the New York TimesMark Leibovich, perhaps the best way to cover conventions is to just let them be what their organizers want them to be, and present it all without any filter at all for the public to do with as they will. In other words: C-SPAN.

“I think that C-SPAN is a national treasure,” Leibovich tells VOA, referring to the cable network where unfiltered is the byword and viewers – not loud TV personalities – are the ones who question politicians:

“I wish there were more networks that provided full, unfiltered coverage of whatever’s going on (even if just for an hour or so a day — on top of their regular programming) Not a lot of bells and whistles. My sense is that the C-SPAN model has been replicated in various forms that have been rewarded: Charlie Rose, for instance, has sort of a C-SPAN style, and also, in a weird sense, the conversational flow of Morning Joe. In my view, the more C-SPAN-like the other networks get — no shouting, organic non-partisanship (as opposed to kabuki partisanship) — the better. Not a lot of special effects, the better. Unclear if the market would sustain it, but I’d watch, and I think the process would be rewarding.”

Sounds a lot like social media to me.

Full disclosure: Dana Perino currently sits on VOA’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Doug Bernard previously worked at C-SPAN for six years, from 1995 to 2000.

Live From Tampa! Sort Of…

Posted August 30th, 2012 at 11:31 am (UTC-4)
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Google Hangouts, Wifi Addiction and Tunnel Vision at the GOP Convention

Doug Bernard | Tampa FL

The VOA workspace in Tampa. Don’t you wish you were here? (Brian Allen/VOA)

A colleague in Washington asked me today: “So, are you getting to see much of Tampa while you’re at the convention?” I’m quite sure they had no idea just how funny that was.

While Republican delegates are whooping it up on the arena floor of the Tampa Times Forum – or spending off hours at swanky restaurants – there are thousands of journalists, bloggers and other malcontents grinding away on the barren concrete floors of the neighboring Tampa Convention Center. (For the record, it will be exactly the same at the Democratic convention next week in Charlotte.)

Covering conventions may be many things, but swank is not among them. In the eight I’ve attended so far, it’s always the same. The hours are grueling, the food is fried, the coffee cold and your feet swollen.

Not that I’m complaining (much.) Or that there aren’t exceptions here and there. Take the Google lounge here in Tampa. Unlike the harsh light and drab surroundings of most working areas, the Google lounge is colorful and cool, brimming with hip displays and tired reporters catching up on the news or with each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Real Conventions In The Cyber Age

Posted August 27th, 2012 at 11:04 am (UTC-4)
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Do Conventions Matter In The Digital Age?

Doug Bernard | Tampa FL

The two delegates from Arkansas looked tired. Tired and wet.

“I was hoping for a coffee maker in my room,” one told the hotel clerk. “I wouldn’t think that was such a big deal.”

The Clarion Hotel clerk apologized and promised a coffee maker would be delivered immediately.  “I hope so,” said the other delegate as they walked off, soggy luggage and all.

Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s a complicated business running a convention. Tens of thousands of attendees have to arrange their travel, lodging, figure out their schedules and, importantly, snag an invite to all the right parties. It’s the organizers job to make sure it all goes off like clockwork and everyone is kept happy.

Now add to that all that comes with a national political convention. Tens of thousands of journalists prowling for anything that smells like a juicy story. Secret service check points and barricades that block off entire sections of a city. Protestors of every stripe converging to complain about nearly everything. Throw in a splash of tropical weather, and you have some sense of what it is to organize the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Tropical storm Isaac not only cancelled the first of four days of the Republican’s quadrennial convention. It’s forced to the surface a question that some have been asking for years: in this digital era, what’s the purpose of a convention? Read the rest of this entry »

The Limits of Speech In Oman

Posted August 23rd, 2012 at 2:22 pm (UTC-4)
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And Mars Finds A New, Sarcastic Voice On Twitter

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Periodically we like to share a few of the stories and posts from across the web that caught our eye. There are no editorial threads implied connecting these items together, other than being interesting.

 Several of our colleagues have been covering interesting angles on the Internet lately, and we wanted to take a moment to highlight some of their work.

#1: Dark Days In Oman. First, VOA’s Frances Alonzo has been exploring the recent crackdown on Internet expression in Oman. As reported first by Reuters, earlier this month an Omani court convicted eight citizens of “incitement” against the government for material they had written and posted online. Each of the eight were fined around $2,600 dollars US, and face up to a year in prison. The writers wrote critically on a number of issues, including the faltering economy, freedom of speech, and the performance of the Sultan of Oman, itself considered a serious offense.

In her podcast “Women Rising Francis spoke with several Omani analysts about the reasons for the recent crackdown, as well as a woman who says she was forced to turn her sister over to Omani officials for Internet crimes.  It’s a compelling interview and well worth a listen. Read the rest of this entry »

The Largest Social Network You’ve Never Heard Of

Posted August 20th, 2012 at 2:37 pm (UTC-4)

The story of a tech giant overlooked by the West raises questions about streaming video, virtual currency, the digital divide, and how people use the Internet in other countries.

Ross Slutsky | Washington DC 


Screen capture from

310 million registered users. Up to 8.45 million people using the site concurrently. 421 billion minutes of voice transferred in 2011. The potential for one video to be seen by millions of viewers.

Impressive stats for a sophisticated, video-enabled digital social network. The question is: which site could it be? YouTube? Facebook? Skype? Google Hangouts?


These are the accomplishments of Chinese social network, which takes virtual currency and streaming video to heights not yet reached by Western social networks. On YY, users can play games, talk to their friends, or use virtual coins for social deals à la Groupon.

But what really makes YY standout is the fact that it has a built in system that enables site users to earn real profit. Top karaoke singers regularly make $20,000 per month off of virtual gifts, with one college student reportedly earning an astonishing $188,000 per month by using the site to give Photoshop lessons. All by trading roses. Read the rest of this entry »

Digital Rights and Online Privacy

Posted July 25th, 2012 at 9:06 am (UTC-4)
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computer privacy

Is your online privacy in peril?


Ross Slutsky | Washington DC

Over the past few months, many tech observers have become wary of the direction that online privacy and digital rights seem to be headed.

During the debates surrounding the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), many worried about the new information the National Security Agency (NSA) would be able to access and about what safeguards would be in place to assure that the information accessed was appropriate.  Earlier this month, various news outlets reported that police in the United States requested the phone data from over 1.3 million cellphone users in 2011.

Earlier this year, in oral arguments for United States v. Jones, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito gave an eloquent description of the privacy issues we collectively face: “[i]n the pre-computer, pre-Internet age, much of the privacy… that people enjoyed was not the result of legal protections or constitutional protections; it was the result simply of the difficulty of traveling around and gathering up information.” Read the rest of this entry »

China’s Internet Slap Fight

Posted July 23rd, 2012 at 11:37 pm (UTC-4)

How A 50 Cent Debate Lead To Blows

Ross Slutsky | Washington DC

An ongoing Internet argument that recently came to physical blows in China still has many around the world scratching their heads in confusion.

On one side of the fight: Zhou Yan, a crusading journalist with a fondness for dissidents and a little boat-rocking. On the other, Wu Danhong, a leading Chinese legal scholar and vocal defender of the regime. And starring in a bizarre cameo, Ai Weiwei, one of contemporary China’s most famous artists.

Let’s back up a bit.

Mobile phone image from the Chaoyang Park conflict

The most recent battle lines appear to have been drawn over a controversial copper and molybdenum mine that Beijing wants to build. Wu, blogging under the pseudonym Wu Fatian came out strongly in support of the mine. Zhou opposes the mine, and the two began an exchange of opinions on the popular micro-blogging site Weibo.

Behind the mine debate, however, are long-simmering accusations about Wu’s affiliations with something called the “50 Cent party. As Foreign Policy‘s Joshua Keating relates, the 50 Cent Party “is a nickname for the undercover pro-government Internet commentors who are allegedly paid that much per comment.” Though he denies the charge, many have accused Wu of being a 50 Cent man.

This being a disagreement that has largely played out online, Zhou and Wu agreed to settle their differences in Chaoyang Park in an open forum. What ensued was less a stuffy debate between public intellectuals and, as ample video recordings show, more of a melee. Read the rest of this entry »

Digitally Distracted

Posted July 20th, 2012 at 7:13 pm (UTC-4)
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Are We Controlling Our Gadgets, Or Do They Control Us?

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Think for a quick moment, assuming you can put down your mobile phone for that long.  How many texts did you send today? Ten? 100?

Or this one: how many emails did you read and respond to? Tweets? Facebook updates and Hulu video views? In short, how many hours today and every day of your week are you wandering somewhere in the digital landscape?

Chances are it’s a lot more than you realize…and perhaps more than is good for you.

“Frequent mobile phone use was a prospective risk factor for reporting sleep disturbances in the men and symptoms of depression in both sexes,” writes the University of Gothenberg’s Sara Thomee in a just released study:

“Intensive computer use (“intensive” in terms of duration of use or continuous use without breaks) was a prospective risk factor for reporting sleep disturbances in the men and stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression in the women. Combined intensive computer and mobile phone use enhanced associations with mental health symptoms.”

That’s academic speak for “Our gadgets are driving us crazy.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Coming Of The Mahdi Virus

Posted July 19th, 2012 at 3:03 pm (UTC-4)
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A New Computer Worm Hits Iran And The Mideast

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Computer networks across the Middle East once again are being hit by a nasty computer worm that seems intent on stealing as much information about users as possible, all under a cloak of hidden digital code.

Digital security analysts this week identified the malware as the “Mahdi” virus, so-named after key malicious folders and files installed on infected computers, labeled in Persian as “madi.” In the Shiite tradition of Islam, the Mahdi is the 12th Imam of Islam, a messiah-like figure whose prophesied return will “redeem” or “cleanse” Islamic tradition and custom.

The discovery of the new malware was jointly announced by the computer security firms Seculert and Kaspersky Labs, the same firms that first uncovered the “Flame” virus earlier this year.

Graphic of claimed “Mahdi” virus hotspot infections, prepared by Seculert

Like Flame, Seculert’s Aviv Raff says Mahdi is actually a trojan horse, engineered to secretly record all manner of data on infected computers, sending copies of emails, text documents, screen shots and even audio recordings to unidentified command servers. “The aim was to create a document containing information [and send it out to a remote user], which was to be used for [an unknown] future mission,” Raff told the Jerusalem Post.  In short, Madhi – much like Flame – is a spy. Read the rest of this entry »

YouTube Becomes NewsTube

Posted July 16th, 2012 at 6:40 pm (UTC-4)
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Changing Viewing Habits Mean Changing The News

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Here’s a statistic to make your eyes roll: every minute of every day, more than 72 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. That’s 180 days – nearly half a year’s worth of video – posted on one website every 24 hours.

With numbers like that, it’s nearly impossible to speak accurately about just what’s ending up on YouTube. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of it is cats riding Roombas, blurry vacation footage, homemade music videos and various embarrassing acts caught on mobile phones.

But according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, a growing percentage of that video is serious news. And whether it’s topical or historic, professionally produced or filmed on the fly, more and more people are turning to YouTube as a source for news and current events. Moreover, much of that amateur video is now finding its way back into the more traditional stories produced by established journalism organizations like this one.

In short, YouTube is becoming one of the world’s most influential news organizations without even a single reporter on staff. Read the rest of this entry »

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What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

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