Web's 'big bang' realigning media universe

At Democrats' confab in Denver, much musing on how 'new media' are changing politics – and everything else.


Denver – The personal e-mail from Joe Biden arrived at my inbox Sunday at 12:10 p.m., precisely one minute after a missive about needed podcasts and blogging from one of my pesky editors.

"Alexandra," read the Biden e-mail. "I'd like to thank you for the warm welcome I've received as the newest member of this campaign. What you and Barack have accomplished over the past 19 months is incredible, and it's an honor to be part of it…."

Wow, who knew? Barack and I did that much? And now our new friend Joe is gonna help?

Of course, I’m not a part of the campaign, but rather a journalistic voyeur watching how it operates. One thing that stands out is the ease with which the Obama camp is making the political very personal and compelling via the Internet. It has created an online political community, one that operates at lightning velocity with a human touch – one that's amplified by millions of supporters who simply hit the "Forward" button to pass the message on to friends and family.

And like everything else connected with the Internet – the press, politics, and yes, even our understanding of the world we thought we knew – the ramifications of that campaign are in flux and the outcome uncertain.

The speed, egalitarianism, and global reach of the Internet have always been both unsettling and exciting. But a Sunday morning gathering of mostly "old media" types at the Democratic National Convention in Denver gave a sweeping perspective of just how revolutionary the Information Age is.

"It’s the second big bang," says Tom Brokaw, former NBC "Nightly News" anchor and now moderator of NBC’s "Meet the Press." "We're in the seminal stages of this exceptional revolution in information technology – how we disseminate it, how we receive it around the world – and we’re still working our way through it.”

Mr. Brokaw, not one prone to hyperbole, made his comment as part of panel discussion among the networks' Sunday morning talk-show moderators, an event sponsored by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Brokaw was joined in the discussion by CBS’s Bob Schieffer of "Face the Nation" and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos of "This Week." Each was equally in awe of the historic nature of this moment.

"When people look back at this campaign, one of the headlines will definitely be that this was one of the first truly Internet campaigns, both for the press and the candidates," says Mr. Stephanopoulos. "If you look at what Senator Obama has done – fundraising, organizing across the Web – this is something that we've never seen in the past. And the coverage on the Web has really driven much of the political conversation for the last year – that’s the first time it's done that."

Sometimes that conversation is one that, in the past, would seldom have made it into print. Mr. Schieffer noted that when he was a young newspaper reporter in Fort Worth, Texas, “about 10 days out from every election” someone always seemed to “whisper that the candidate had a girlfriend that lived out on the East Side.” (For some reason, he noted, girlfriends always lived on the East Side....) So he and his colleagues would go through the business of checking it out. If the rumor didn’t pan out, it didn’t make it into print. Now "that stuff," true or not, ends up on a blog somewhere, Schieffer notes.

"The Web has changed everything. It may be even harder for the politicians, just as it’s put new pressure on the press," he says. "The Web is the only conveyor of news on a national and international scale that has no editor."

That prompted ABC’s Stephanopoulos to sum up the challenge faced by most traditional major media outlets.

"We have to both learn to live in that universe and report in that universe, but also take a step back from it because so much of the way news is made across the Web tends to have a more partisan cast," he says. "Part of our job is to still maintain a kind of national conversation where all sides can get heard. Sometimes it can get uncomfortable for us, because we hear from each side when they're not happy."

So while the "old journalist" types in the much-maligned mainstream media try to figure out a way to navigate a path in this new universe, I’ve got to decide what to do. Should I hit "reply" to my new friend Joe and confess that I’m nothing more than a nosy reporter? Or should I respond to my editor and let her know I’d be delighted to write a blog for the website and do a podcast for tomorrow?

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