For every U.S. presidential election since 1984, Newsweek dispatched a team of reporters to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the American electoral process. Known internally as “the project,” these reporters were given greater access to candidates and their staffs provided the reporting they gleaned would not be published until after the election. Each time, Newsweek published the material days after the election. The material from the 2008 election was expanded further for the book Game Change, which went on to be a best-seller.
Last year, Newsweek canceled “the project” citing two reasons: inflating costs of covering presidential elections and the increasing speed of the news cycle. In essence, Newsweek argued any scoop or piece of news it got, it had to publish or paying for the coverage was no longer worth it.
Does social media mean we’ll see the end of books like Game Change? Only in the sense that the analysis provided will only be delivered in paper form after the election.
If newspapers were truly the first draft of history then it can be argued that social media has surpassed it as such. But like the first draft of anything, there’s a lot that’s left incomplete in coverage that’s dependent on – or driven by – social media:
Temporary redaction: As we saw this week, even the New York Times is unable to prevent campaign sources from exacting more control over the way their quotes are used by reporters. Just as the Game Change screenwriters found that sources for the book were more likely to talk after time had passed, so to might these sources be more willing to let their original quotes stand after the potential for gaffe reporting has passed.
Separating the wheat from the gaffe chaff: The smallest of details are exposed, discussed, and analyzed in the echo chamber of social media. Yet their meaning seems clear only in retrospect. What seems crucial and “driving the conversation” that week may seem unimportant the next.
Digging through the trash: Friday used to be “Take Out The Trash Day” in political circles. If you wanted news to get ignored, you’d announce it on a Friday afternoon, it might appear in a less-read edition of the Saturday paper and by Monday be largely forgotten. While the always-on, social-media-fueled news cycle doesn’t allow for news to be completely ignored, it’s also allows campaigns to more easily distract as well. (The Drudge Report’s Condoleezza Rice-as-VP story didn’t happen in a vacuum.)
Even as Newsweek was shuttering “the project,” the New York Times noted Politico would cover the election in a series of four e-books under the name Playbook 2012. The first two have already been released. Iterative long-form analysis will likely be the new normal. And the authors of Game Change still have a book deal for a 2012 version.
Social media is still the best way to discover up-to-the-minute news. But to discern its meaning still requires analysis and the best of that only comes with time.
Scott Smith is the Director of Digital Strategy and Development for Chicago magazine. He’s also written and edited for a variety of publications including Time Out Chicago, Chicagoist and Playboy.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ourmaninchicago.