Digital innovation on election night: a report

From CJR and Tow Center’s “meta newsroom”

About as digital as most Americans get on election night is to operate the channel clicker. But that is steadily becoming less true. The explanatory and informational firepower of emerging online media tools are too alluring to avoid forever. Each election cycle they become more sophisticated yet easier to work, and they draw more readers and viewers.

The people who create and run these tools inside newsrooms are something like hot-rodders from the 1950s. They labor in the garage for weeks—chopping and channeling, installing a four-barrel carburetor, maybe painting a nice red flame on the fender. Election season, and particularly election night, is when they take that baby out on the road to see what it can do.

Last night there was more live-blogging, interactive mapping, digital visualization, and so forth than a human mind could absorb. It could go over the top, as John Oliver suggested in his skit last night on The Daily Show. He read and “analyzed” a tweet via

real time election center media analysis capabilities. Live-monitoring results and opinions, as they happen, through a light speed stream of instantaneous, real-time microblogging.

Then he enlarged the tweet, a pro-Mitt Romney tweet, onscreen, explaining that:

The election center also has full, rescaling capabilities, through a process that we call “cross-screen transmovability,” which allows us to recotextualize our real-time info blog monitorization. Ba-bam, John.

And there were breakdowns.

The beautiful interactive stuff on The New York Times site, for example, couldn’t handle the traffic load it drew, as @andrewphelps noted on Twittter, and was intermittently unavailable. As @Jvogel3 tweeted back to Phelps, a Times editor, “you made all your graphics way too cool.”

Still, many of these hot-rods roared and purred, delivering great caches of information and insight to inquiring minds.

CJR had its own racer on the street, so to speak, in collaboration with Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Working under Liz Cox Barrett and Greg Marx, frontline editors on CJR’s Swing States Project, and the Tow Center’s Anna Codrea-Rado, who valiantly organized this experiment, seven students from Columbia’s J-school divided up the digital realm and took notes. The student reporters were: Max J. Rosenthal, Luke Hammill, Patrice Marie Howard, Henry Gass, Lauren Fedor, Camilo Vargas, and Jacob Kushner. Their analyses ran in real-time, which you can check out here. (The project ran on new liveblogging software called Ocqur, built by three recent British university grads: Joseph Stashko, Andrew Fairbairn, and Jonathan Frost; it ran beautifully).

The idea was to report impressions of digital innovation and integration of social media into reporting as news outlets presented election results.

Among the highlights:

Shortly after 6 pm, as we got rolling, Max Rosenthal commended the “excellent election dashboards” on the sites of both NPR and Daily Beast:

Daily Beast is literally putting called races front and center: their top banner includes a countdown of the states and electoral votes yet to be called by major new organizations. The map below is also tracking which races were recently decided. It’s a smart way to sync their page with TV coverage, where everyone will be obsessed with calls.

NPR is giving their Back Channel tumblr a place right below the results area, so that readers will be able to check out memes as they wait for polls to close….
Can’t say enough good things about NPR’s Big Boards feature: well-designed single pages that give you the situation in every state and the race as a whole in a matter of seconds.

Camilo Vargas kept an eye on foreign news outlets, and early on had good words for, a “visual-rich surprise.” The site’s “real piece de resistance here is their emphasis on campaign financing, or MONEYCRACY, as they call it. They devote two state-of-the-art interactive stories to campaign financing and the money flow in American elections.” But he had kind words, too, for the well designed El Pais: “LeMonde’s coverage may be fresh, fancy and deep, but El Pais in Spain is quicker in delivering the key info: Who’s winning the Presidential race?”

And The Guardian? Henry Gass told us,

The Guardian US kicked off their election day coverage with a graphic novel “America: Elect! The action-packed journey to US election day in graphic novel form” revisiting the past four years in U.S. electoral politics

The novel was fun, and a hit on social media. Five journalists at The Guardian worked on the project for two weeks, Gass reports.

What about Hispanic-oriented media here in the US?

Univision? Not so great. Vargas wrote: “Kudos on all the info, Univision, but it’s too much, too cramped, and too en ingl├ęs!”

As for two recent entries, Fox News Latino and NBCLatino: How do you say “meh” in Spanish? Vargas wrote: “It’s disappointing that these sites didn’t devote more thought and resources to data visualization of the Hispanic vote.”

Yet both Univision and el Nueva Dia got credit for noting a widely overlooked election-night story: Puerto Ricans, in a nonbinding vote, said they preferred US statehood, and by a wide margin.

How did our legacy media do? Slate almost qualifies, and Slate’s Twitter commentary was “its usual blend of news, insight, and humor,” Luke Hammill reported. Lauren Fedor noted that The Washington Post was giving readers an opportunity to create virtual “I Voted” buttons, tailed for each candidate (Obama voters created more, by a landslide). And the Los Angeles Times, Henry Gass reported, had a winning set of maps, attractively designed in the “less is more” mode.

Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal, Luke Hammill reported, was running:

a very respectable live online newscast right now. The show started at 8 p.m., and the Journal got through its first half-hour without any significant hiccups. Anchor Alan Murray, the paper’s managing editor, seemed relatively comfortable, and transitions between correspondents were smooth, save for a few times when Murray was openly asking his producer questions. (OK, so this crew isn’t quite cable-ready yet.)

Elsewhere, mistakes were made, as Hammill reported:

The Daily Intel (New York Magazine’s news blog), Slate, and Ezra Klein were just some who prematurely tweeted that Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren had won a Massachusetts Senate seat.

Apologies were made, but minutes later, the Warren win was confirmed, and all the same offenders re-posted (for real this time) that she had defeated Scott Brown.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was quick to poke fun, tweeting: “Unconfirmed: @ScottBrownMA’s truck voted for Elizabeth Warren,” a reference to the widespread response to Scott Brown’s comments about his truck.

Lauren Fedor gave high marks to Quartz, Atlantic Media’s new entry, for sheer simplicity and clean design.

And in the jungle of liveblogs, Max J. Rosenthal wrote that he had crowned a king—from The New Republic:

Election Night is also Liveblog Overload Night, with seemingly every outlet in the country providing minute-by-minute updates even as they pull from the same data sources and Twitter accounts. So while frequent updates and tons of information are valuable, finding a niche in coverage—especially as readers double- and triple-task across platforms—is even more useful.

That’s why I’m calling this race for Nate Cohn. His blog is providing consistent, insightful posts on the minutiae of the election results, focusing on areas that most other outlets are glossing over. It’s a blog for election addicts, but Cohn’s posts complement other media coverage to perfection, providing some calm context to the constant “major” updates and auto-loading maps. There’s no data-viz or interactive innovation here, but it’s a great example of the kind of the coverage than can add substance to a reader’s night rather than just piling on the information.

The New York Times is a close runner-up. Its product is beautiful, with lots of photos and clear graphics. Importantly, most of the posts are coming from reporters and not retweets or wires, meaning the quality stays high. For a lot of people, this will be the undisputed favorite. But it’s also conventional, reading like a mirror of TV coverage or a preview of tomorrow’s paper.

HuffPost, unsurprisingly, is the king of volume, but quality fluctuates wildly. When reporters are filing dispatches and analytical posts, it’s one of the best; when it devolves into long strings of one-sentence AP bulletins, it gets old quickly. It’s a great place if you want to drink from the firehose. The Daily Beast is running a mix of Twitter and short reporter check-ins that feels fun but not really vital. Others, like NPR, TPM and Salon, seem mostly to be going through the latest-news motions.

Some of the most interesting liveblogs came from the most competitive state: Ohio. As Henry Gass wrote:

No less than four liveblogs running tonight, from legacy media like The Columbus Dispatch and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to foreign news organizations like the New Statesman and younger ones like PolicyMic….

None stand out as an undisputed champion, but to my eye Ohio legacy media are clearly behind younger news organizations in terms of making the blogs digestible and interesting, with multimedia elements and posts infused with personality. In the two-horse race between New Statesman and PolicyMic, I’d have to give the nod to the Brits. Not only is the New Statesman blog more enjoyable, it makes good use of multimedia while also giving you all the important data.

By midnight the big election was over, as was our meta newsroom experiment. The pizza was gone and major networks had called it for Obama. As Lauren Fedor reported, Twittter announced that the president’s own tweet from earlier in the evening was the most re-tweeted in the site’s history. It said simply, “Four more years.”

You cannot argue that mastering these wonderful digital tools is in any way easy. Yet elections, in a way— with their readymade data, strict timeline, and familiar maps—are easy targets for them.

The president—and the country—face daunting challenges, and deadlines are approaching. It would be great to see more of the best of these digital journalistic tools, combined with rigorous reporting and clear analysis, brought to bear on the messy and complex issues that lie ahead.

Earlier versions of this story included a couple of misspellings: It is Henry Gass (not Glass) and Luke Hammill (not Hamill). CJR regrets the errors.

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Mike Hoyt was CJR's executive editor from 2001 to 2013, teaches at Columbia's Journalism School and is the editor of The Big Roundtable, a startup that is a home for narrative writing. Tags: , ,