Innovation and Presidential Campaign
Coverage by U.S. Newspaper Websites
in the Digital Age
on Online Journalism
Jane B. Singer, City University London
What this study is about
Longitudinal study of presidential campaign
coverage in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012 by major
online U.S. newspapers.
… To explore how editors incorporated changing
technologies and user capabilities.
The answer: Innovations were adopted each year.
But what mattered most to online editors remained
their own expanding capability to provide
traditional political information in new ways.
Journalists’ view of democracy
The journalist as a guardian of democracy,
through the ability to reliably inform citizens, has
become a nearly transcendent self-perception in
the face of ongoing changes, including the advent
• Experiments with ‘converged’ newsrooms.
• Blogs and ‘j-blogs’.
• ‘User-generated content’ of various kinds.
• Social media.
… to name just a few.
RQ1: To what extent did online editors of leading
U.S. newspapers incorporate new journalistic
capabilities in their campaign / election coverage
over the first four election cycles of the 2000s?
RQ2: To what extent did that incorporate new
audience capabilities during this time?
RQ3: How, if at all, did these capabilities shape
their own content choices?
Electronically distributed questionnaires.
Open- and closed-ended questions, the latter
including goals and sources of pride.
Online editors of largest-circulation newspaper
in each state (plus DC), as well as additional
papers with print circulations over 250,000.
Response rate of 71% in 2000 … but downhill fast
since then. Still, sufficient data to suggest trends.
2000 election at a glance
Goals involved informing
users. Editors stressed
timeliness and ability to
provide details (addressing
criticisms about superficiality).
Potential to stimulate political
discourse among citizens / users was on the radar for
only a few – but those few were eloquent about the benefits.
Overall, traditional information-oriented roles remained
central. The Internet enabled journalists to do old things in
(somewhat) new ways.
2004 election at a glance
Providing credible information,
quickly and in detail, remained
a crucial goal and source of pride.
But in a blog era, editors placed
more emphasis on participatory
options than they had in 2000.
They seemed more open to the then-innovative idea that
audiences could make valuable contributions to election
coverage … a move toward perhaps re-envisioning the
traditional journalistic role in an open, interactive space.
2008 election at a glance
In an election year when
social media came on strong,
editors largely echoed their
2000 views, stressing speed,
volume and the capability for detail in what the
It’s not that users weren’t able to contribute to these
newspaper sites. They were, extensively. But editors thought
that was cool mainly because of its potential to strengthen
their own coverage.
2012 election: Content, goals
Use of social media, mobile,
live blogs and other innovations
was extensive and creative.
They also indicated increasing
platform sophistication, seeing
different strengths for print, mobile and website info delivery.
As for their goals, respondents were unanimous: The main
one was to help the public make educated choices. ‘We’ve
got the drill down.’
2012 election: User input
There also were lots of opportunities for user
contributions, from user Twitter feeds to visual
content to crowd-sourced coverage of events.
But this abundance of user-generated riches
typically played no role in their own coverage.
Editors did, however, rather like the ability to turn
users into content promoters, for instance by
personalizing and sharing info. Website traffic was
very much on their minds. Go figure.
2012 election: Sources of pride
Overwhelmingly, editors highlighted political content
that fulfilled their own traditional role as providers of
thorough, timely information.
They loved their voter guides. They loved their
Election Night returns. They especially loved the
fact that traffic figures were high. ‘We killed it.’
Citizen engagement? Twitter is kind of fun. So are
interactive graphics. Beyond that … see above.
RQ1: Journalistic capabilities
Online newspapers displayed an impressive
amount of innovation in election coverage across
these four years of the digital age.
By 2012, they were live-streaming candidate
interviews, thoroughly integrating video in their
coverage, delivering multi-platform content … and
despite proliferating competition for online attention,
generating enough traffic to make their efforts
financially as well as civically worthwhile.
RQ2: User capabilities
U.S. newspapers indeed created space online for
user input. By 2012, there were myriad
opportunities for users to contribute their own
content and personalize what the paper provided.
But editors expressed little enthusiasm for the
value of this material. Few mentioned it as a source
of pride or as a component of their goals for their
website. And only rarely (and then minimally) was it
incorporated into newsroom output.
RQ3: Impact on coverage
There was virtually no indication that what users
said or did shaped journalists’ choices about the
form or content of their campaign coverage.
So options for users to contribute to political
coverage are widely available. But despite a bit of
buzz about blogs in 2004, there does not seem to
have been an abiding increase in editors’
willingness to foreground these capabilities. Simply
put, journalists see what they themselves do as
far more civically valuable than what users do.
Journalists clearly are willing and able, maybe even
eager, to be innovative in their own practices
(particularly those that can boost traffic figures).
They are far less willing to accommodate
challenges to what they see as their occupational
turf. Pride of place still goes to journalistic
contributions to the democratic process. The
information that citizens really need to be free and
self-governing, they seem to be saying, if the
information we and we alone provide.