By CASEY LABRACK
Not everyone agrees on who won the first CNN/YouTube presidential debate, but many feel that the standout performance came from a falsetto-voiced snowman.
A gimmick for a global warming question posed to the Democratic candidates via a YouTube video, Billiam the snowman came to represent a debate noted more for its format than its political content. Wednesday’s YouTube-inspired debate, the second such event held this year, reflects the Internet’s rising popularity as a political news source, despite many traditional news outlets’ ambivalence toward it.
Pew Internet & American Life Project data released early this year indicated that 21 million Americans have already turned to the Internet to watch political videos in 2007, a non-election year. Around this time last year, 26 million had logged on for 2006 mid-term election news, according to Pew research.
“It’s taken a long time to recognize that this transition was coming,” said Jeanne Cummings, a political reporter for Politico, a Washington-based multimedia outlet that started in January. “We’re starting to see some experimentation, but no one [at traditional media outlets] has locked onto a winning combination.”
As the 2008 presidential primaries approach, the Internet’s popularity with news consumers appears to come in part at the expense of old media.
In August, Pew reported that Internet news consumers, typically younger and better-educated than the general public, tend to be more critical of newspapers and television. Among people who get their news primarily from the Internet, about 38 percent said they have an unfavorable opinion of cable news channels compared to 25 percent of the public.
Yet many of the most popular online sources of political news are the Web sites of popular off line sources, like CNN and The Washington Post. The main challenge for these media outlets is often not to attract readers, but to make the same coverage as profitable online as offline.
“The threat is that online advertising still hasn’t come up to meet the money lost from fewer print ads,” Cummings said.
Another trend emerging this election season is the drive to specialize, because political publications can face a nearly infinite amount of competition for the same news angles on the Internet.
“We’re just trying to compete for a small piece of the pie,” Cummings said. “People check in to ESPN.com all day for coverage of sports, and we’re just trying to be the ESPN of the Capitol Hill and lobbying communities.”
The competition also drives the need to publish quickly and update frequently, imposing more strain on old media operations.
“The real pressure is time,” said Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. “It takes a lot of time to gain expertise, and the constantly moving online environment makes the time element even fiercer.”
News consumers say they enjoy the convenience of online political news.
“I obviously can’t be sitting at my desk reading a newspaper at work,” said Casey Jacobs, 32, a graduate student at American University. “I get a lot more information online when I’m in a time crunch.”
The Internet also lets readers customize political coverage by setting up online news alerts for certain subjects, allowing for easy jumps to certain news topics or to outlets with particular views.
“I can look at what I want when I want to look at it,” said Katie Suchman, 20, an American University undergraduate. “I don’t have to wait for a news program to go through the different segments before we get to the one I want.”
The variety of online news sites — many of which, like Politico, focus exclusively on specific subjects — allows news consumers to mix and match different types of coverage from different voices.
“I remember they said ten years ago that people will cobble together different papers, getting each section from a different paper,” Cummings said. “In fact, the way people scan things online, they can have that on the Internet.”
While Jacobs gets her political news from CNN.com, her entertainment news and general news comes from different sites, she said.
Some media watchers are concerned that the ability to customize political news will lead readers to seek out only stories that reinforce their existing views. Countless blogs filter news items through the perspective of the author, and many of the most popular Internet-only sites, like The Huffington Post, cater to particular ideologies.
“There’s the problem of political news on the Internet going into two different ‘silos’ — conservatives only talking to conservatives and liberals only talking to other liberals,” Hoyt said. “It can become an echo chamber.”
The first CNN/YouTube debate averaged 2.6 million viewers, competitive with other debates that aired on cable TV. Although traditional media outlets still struggle to capitalize on the Internet’s potential, the injection of online populism into the debate suggests that political coverage itself might be getting more democratic.