Friday, August 11, 2006

Content Nation in Connecticut: The Real Story Behind the Lieberman Loss

The wires are abuzz with stories about U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman's loss to an upstart in the State of Connecticut's primary election this week with analysis from major media outlets on what various parties did to bring about this rare event. Time magazine weighs in on the importance of politically oriented weblogs in backing Lieberman's opponent Ned Lamont in building interest and momentum that lead to the defeat of the three-term Senator.

You can go to the political weblog of your choice to judge for yourself as to what this is all about from a political perspective, but perhaps the most significant aspect of this event from a publishing perspective is how weblog endorsements of Ned Lamont in the early phases of this campaign seemed to have a significant impact in forming public opinion, as opposed to the usual practice of newspaper editors offering their selections in a race a few days before an election. In this instance most papers in Connecticut backed the loser, but more to the point they seemed to be bystanders in a dialog between voters and online opinion-leaders who were acting as both persuaders and facts-gatherers throughout this election. The only real advantage that major media outlets seemed to have was on election night itself, when underpowered weblogs and campaign sites were locking up with enormous surges of traffic while newspaper sites were well-scaled to handle the additional traffic.

The role of newspapers seems to be shifting as opinion-making moves into community-driven weblog publications that are delivering opinion, community feedback, facts and links to facts in one unified stream of content. User-generated media offers a truly interactive brawl of ideas which, while oftentimes a stranger to objectivity, allows the public to wrestle with facts and opinions communally in the ways that democracies were meant to provide open consideration of all matters. I liken them in my own mind to the public hearings that we have in our town on key matters: you get leaders, cranks, drama-seekers and just plain citizens listening and sometimes standing in front of a microphone to speak their mind. Facts get tweaked along the way but when both sides have a chance to duke it out as a community somehow the truth that's best for the public tends to surface.

By contrast traditional news media is a story-telling media, backed oftentimes by enormous production assets that can provide compelling content to support marketing efforts, but ultimately a bystander in public conversations. Now that they no longer have a monopoly on making the public aware of news, news outlets are faced with the question of how to develop news as public conversations that absorb facts and opinions from wherever they may arise. The Connecticut primary demonstrates that news organizations are in danger of becoming after-the-fact polishers of stories and opinions that have already made the rounds to the opinion-forming public. That may not be a bad thing in some ways - with less of a role in the "spin cycle," journalism may be able to focus more effectively on getting to the bottom of more stories on a factual basis to support public opinion-making. We can only hope.
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