If there's one thing we probably don't need more of, it's endless discussions of politics from Washington reporters. On the other hand, if there's one thing we probably do need more of, it's reasonable and informed discussion between "experts" and the rest of us.
While the general pattern in media -- new and old -- is to figure out what has worked for others and then try to do the same thing more cheaply, more quickly or on a bigger scale. True innovation is rare.
WaPo, as it's known to many of its online followers, is frequently and fairly pilloried for seeing just about everything through the prism of politics -- interpreting the effects of hurricanes, mass murders and jobless data on the fates of political incumbents and challengers.
It thus comes as little surprise that the Post has announced plans for a new "online video channel" (catchy name, no?) that will provide at least 30 hours of programming each month, beginning this summer.
Video is popular with advertisers, the Post noted hopefully.
Gaffes and banality
The idea landed with a thud on the desk of Patrick B. Pexton, the Post's ombudsman -- the poor soul charged with representing the interests of the Post's readers.
"One of the problems of American journalism broadly is that stories about government have retreated while stories on politics and personality have skyrocketed," Pexton wrote last week. Washington coverage increasingly means just the White House, Congress and all politics all the time: the polls, the gaffes, who’s up, who’s down, who’s raising the most money. This coverage increases the banality of U.S. politics, where issues are never discussed beyond sound bites."
It's not as though there's any shortage of politics on the Web and TV, other critics noted. Sometimes, watching the endless jabbering of political reporters and other pundits on Fox, CNN, MSN, et al, one is left to wonder if anybody is out there doing any actual reporting.
And, as Paxton notes, it's not as though these endless discussions of politics actually do anything to inform American voters about the inner workings of government, which are actually a great deal more interesting and significant than the sorry dog-and-pony spectacles that pass for campaigns.
A little bit different
A fresher approach comes from the Huffington Post, a frequent target of old-school scribes who accuse it of being superficial and unoriginal. These are the same scribes who used to complain about TV news until budget cutbacks in TV news departments led to an increasing need for balding, overweight newspaper reporters to fill time cheaply.
Huffpost's take on video streaming is live.huffingtonpost.com. From 10 a.m. through 10 p.m. Eastern time weekdays, HuffPost Live features lengthy conversations that rotate from visting experts and pundits to viewers sitting in front of their laptops, thus doing as much programming in three days as the Post hopes to do in a month. Viewed on a computer, the screen is divided between the video feed and text comments submitted by viewers. On iPads and other devices, it works a little differently but the idea is the same.
It's really more like a town hall meeting or symposium than the usual shouting match or flash-cards-for-idiots format we've come to expect from broadcast and cable. We have to admit a slight bias here, since ConsumerAffairs got its start 15 years ago thinking that citizen collaboration could be a consumer protection tool almost as powerful as that mounted by government agencies and stodgy non-profits.
Curious about how HuffPost Live came about, we spoke a few weeks ago with HuffPo's founding editor Roy Sekoff, who is now president and co-creator of HuffPost Live, in this lightly-edited interview.
CA: Where did the idea for this originate?
"After we joined AOL, we started thinking about what we could do with that kind of guns, money and steel. I started thinking everything's happening in video, that's where advertisers want to be.
"That was basically the idea behind what we did but as we got into it, we realized that engagement would the differentiation. [On Huffpo[, we just passed our 200 millionth comment, which is insane. We moderate everything, so it's not spamming, trolls, etc.
"As I got deeper, I found out that 70% of all comments on Huffpo are in response to another comment. So I thought, what if we took those conversations and put them front and center on the streaming network. Once we made that decision, all the tumblers clicked into place – to put community front and center, make engagement the differentiator.
CA: Just like that, eh?
"Things have changed a little. We started out with a big screen up top. But when we decided to make engagement the key, that changed everything. At the end of the day, you're not tuning in for the visuals, it's engagement. So we shrunk the video, made room for the social stream and at the same time, we thought – OK, if our users are going to be part of the community, we want them to be as informed as possible. So we created a “resource well” under the video. So if you click on that, it shows you all the things we're using to plan that segment.
"You can come in there and read it, and when you come on the show, you can be as informed as any expert. So then, we said, that's cool. What if you could do that not just for the live segment, but for the one thats coming up. So we created “green rooms” – sort of an interactive program guide. You can scroll through anything for the next day. Click on that and you become immersed in that segment.
"It's really working. People are going there ahead of time, becoming engaged in the topic and getting ahead of the game – put your hand up to be a guest and say, hey, I have something to contribute to this segment.
"So that's how we came to this platform."
CA: Pretty brave, betting on substantive content
"Yes, well, the question is, do people want to do that? Will they want to do this on Huffpost and join us on air? Will they be any good at it? My premise was, I don't think it's that big a leap. Because of where we are with social technology, people are doing many of the things that we were hoping they would do.
"I was a little concerned that we were going to get a lot of bloviating without any depth of opinion. But the thing I find most rewarding is how good the community has been – the articulateness, the insight, the ability to have real conversations instead of just TV talk.
"We let our segments be longer. We wanted to avoid the a-b-a-b. You can sort of see it happening. Even people who are used to being on TV sort of relax when they see they're not going to get rushed out. It feels a little bit more natural and unrushed.
"It's transmedia. Everybody has been talking about the second-screen experience. Now we're doing the two-screen experience on one screen and we've found it really powerful, – people do want to do that. They form a community, they get to know each other. We do 12 hours of live programming and then repeat highlights and even then we get a tremendous amount of comments.
"It took on a new twist during the presidential debates. We got the rights to carry the debates, so we thought why don't we just run them? This is sort of like all the tweets – you're watching and commenting in real time. We ended up creating four different “rooms” – one for political junkies, one for comedy reaction, one for young voters and one for women. It was fun to see how people selected which room they wanted to be in.
"It's sort of created the 24-second news cycle – something fun about the fact that if you're not hip to binders full of women, you're sort of out of the conversation."
CA: Anybody else doing this?
"A lot of people are trying to get into streaming. WSJ Live, The New York Times, Politico TV. They're all kind of trying but for me the differentiator is the engagement and community.
"I kind of have a different view. People have asked me, why do I care about the ordinary person? I sort of have a different definition of expert – if you have skin in the game, then you're an expert. As consumers, we have data coming out of our ears. We don't really need some expert coming on.
"At the end of the day, I'm more interested in narrative, story-telling, putting flesh and blood on the data. Use story-telling and narrative and personal connections to things to put flesh and blood on the data. I think it works even better in some ways when you can actually see the person.
"We had a woman on the other day and it was really powerful. She's homeless but not that long ago had a $100,000 a year job, worked in media and then she got divorced and then got sick. Then she was in the hospital, couldn't work and then had a car accident. Those are the kinds of stories that's what were trying to do.
"Story telling makes for great journalism. Impactful journalism."