Watching The Washington Post

On primary night, a glimpse of the print-digital future

On Tuesday, I didn’t watch the Virginia returns on cable or broadcast. I watched The Washington Post on my computer. You see, The Washington Post Company assembled a team drawing on its multiple outlets—Newsweek, Slate, the dead tree Post, and it’s dot com partner—rounded up a bunch of video cameras and let them go at it.

It’s nothing new (well, nothing too new) for a newspaper to offer online video. But to go head to head with the networks and provide live coverage and commentary of an election is something new. And after watching much of the Post’s efforts on Tuesday, and on Super Tuesday, I’m wondering if I saw the future right in front of my eyes, the birth of a print-digital-video hybrid to rival television.

Here’s an organization with an impressive roster of journalism pros, people who cover beats day in and day out. Bring all that to bear on an election night, and you can see how it might be the start of something special. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that this future looked rather old. I was seeing a newspaper ape a newscast.

Don’t get me wrong, there were special things, refreshing angles, and interesting voices. On Super Tuesday, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham played host. He sat directly in front of the cameras with no desk between, and the night had a sort journalists’ salon feel to it.

“As one of the world’s great reporters,” he asked Bob Woodward, “what should a voter report out about a candidate?” (Woodward’s advice: “character matters, and character is action.”)

Just before sign-off, Meacham told viewers that “for better or worse” they’d wanted to try bring us “into the conversations that we have around our water coolers.” Getting to watch that discussion, and hear the comments of other journalists—like local columnist Marc Fisher, religion writer Sally Quinn, political reporter Dan Balz, or Slate’s Jacob Weisberg—was a somewhat novel, transparency-flavored treat for news junkies. (And who else, exactly, would bother tuning this in?)

Meacham and his temporary sidekicks sat in the offices, among a sea of paper coffee cups, loose papers, and flickering computer screens. Cutaways showed a jury-rigged control board just behind the cameras. It looked more like a high school AV club set up than a broadcast newsroom. Indeed, technical problems were part of the charm, an element of suspense that left me rooting for these print journalists marooned in a novel format.

Posties appeared on camera, remotely, from their office. The camera’s view would be familiar to anyone who’s seen a Washington Post reporter speaking on MSNBC, say. But on the night of the Potamac Primary the shot could be blurry, like someone had rubbed grease on the lens. Other times it would be interrupted with black and white fuzz, like a VHS tape being fast-forwarded. Chris Cilliza, a blogger, would sometimes take out his earpiece or rise from his chair before the camera cut away.

My favorite mistake came when Jeff Jarvis, the new media apostle, was invited on to speak about how the election was playing out online and how print journalists fit into the equation. But before he could speak, there was a hiccup with the phone connection. Meacham assumed they’d lost Jarvis and started to move on.

Suddenly a disembodied voice rose from the ether: “There is no such thing as print journalism any more.”

“Oh, that was Jarvis,” said Meacham, instantly recognizing him by his opinion, if not his voice.

And the night’s exercise was perfect evidence for Jarvis’s case. Here, one of the nation’s most powerful and respected print organizations, was lending its imprimatur and staff to a brave new world, one where giants like Jon Meacham and Len Downie saw it fit to conduct a genteel interview seen by god-knows-how-few Internet viewers.

Where the Post on the Web strayed, it seemed to do so more for lack of experience or resources than by aesthetic or journalistic choice. Surrogates did their spinning via phone, not expensive satellite trucks. Ed O’Keefe, a bespectacled employee, turned his back to the viewer when explaining state calls and exit poll data; the best the camera could do was zoom in on his washed-out computer screen.

Another thing missing was advertisements. Yes, the whole exercise was, in a way, an advertisement for The Washington Post Company, and yes the video stream was embedded next to the site’s standard Web ads. But there were no commercial interruptions.

With more and more homes getting broadband everyday, there’s not much of technical distinction between cable and Internet, especially in the wealthy households most favored by media owners. Soon we’ll all be watching TV on our computers, and watching the Internet on our TV. As that day grows closer, what’s stopping The Washington Post from keeping a camera running full time, and cycling their talent through to debrief stories and dump stray notebook items that didn’t make the cut?

Alas, Washingtonians know that the paper recently tried something like this with Washington Post Radio, and from the perspective of the journalists and the money counters, it didn’t work out. But the Internet is different—cheaper, unregulated, and so far not parceled up into constraining time slots. Their presentation will get smoother. They’ll build a decent looking desk. They’ll get some on screen graphics. And they’ll be back.

CORRECTION: Meacham broadcast from the newsroom, not the Newsweek offices. The article has been change to reflect this.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.