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The YouTube Election

Frank Ahrens

By now, you've probably watched Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) "I'm in" presidential campaign announcement video.

It's a conversation-starter for a number of reasons.

First, based on its setting and what she says, Clinton sounds less like she's running for president and more like she's auditioning for a host spot on "The View."

In the old days, presidential candidates told you what they were going to do. Clinton tells viewers she wants to engage in a "dialogue." She even uses the word "chat."

Here's the larger issue, however: Clinton is taking her message directly to voters. One could call this a "traditional media bypass strategy." Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) did the same thing a week earlier. Former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards has a blog on his Web site, as does his wife, Elizabeth.

My colleague, op-ed columnist Gene Robinson, takes a run at the Web presence of these candidates in a column today.

And here are my colleagues Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz on the role of Web video in the 2008 presidential election.

I look at all of this through the lens of someone who covers the newspaper and media industry.

In my industry, just like Clinton, we are trying to engage in dialogues with readers, chat with you and be what you want us to be.

We have lost readers over the past two decades, at least partly because of our lack of interactivity. If you didn't like an article in the paper, you could write a letter to the editor. And good luck with that.

Now, if you don't like what I write, you can instantly go to the bottom of this blog and post a comment. Or if you don't like something I write in the newspaper, you can go to the story on our Web site, click on my byline and send me an e-mail right away.

Newspapers elsewhere are desperate to be part of the community conversation, as they say. They are hosting discussion forums and posting content on their Web site that would not be traditionally called journalism. They are even giving readers access to newspaper Web sites so they can post their own content for everyone to see, like pictures of their kids in the snow or a firehouse bake sale.

Is it working? You tell us.

By Frank Ahrens  |  January 23, 2007; 2:07 PM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Is it working? Sometimes.

I read several newspapers online every day, in addition to political blogs and news magazines. I am encouraged by the efforts of news media to become more interactive. However, I feel traditional media faces a major challenge in engaging digital media: understanding what "interactive" means.

Interaction necessarily implies an exchange, which means that an author must be willing to engage the reader as an equal, or at least as one deserving of respect. I feel that most reporters who post blogs, or invite comments on their articles, are less than willing to take our comments or criticisms seriously. We online readers expect transparent, factual representation. When we ask for corrections, updates, or explanations, we expect our comments to be considered. Those of us that take the time to read an article expect the author not to denigrate us or call us names when we disagree. Specifically, when a reader points out a factual error in a report, it is responsible journalism to fix the error and apologise for the mistake. It is not responsible journalism to call the reader a "wingnut" who "didn't like" the article.

More generally, those of us who regularly read and write blogs often find our portrayal in traditional media to be unfavorable. We want interaction with reporters and news media because we want them to do their jobs better. We want stories without factual errors. We want honest, up-to-date corrections should errors occur. We want claims substantiated by data, not by anecdotes representing what "some people" are thinking. We want the truth, not rumors, to be told. We as readers deserve to get those things, and to get them without being insulted or trivialised.

Posted by: Mary | January 23, 2007 6:08 PM

It's the factuality, stupid.

Snark aside, there has been a growing and massive problem with basic factuality in the mainstream media.

Polls repeatedly show the American population uninformed and misinformed about everything of any importance. The hard measurements prove that the mainstream information systems of the United States are failures in the role that our framers insisted was absolutely essential for their system to function.

The problem is a little more fundamental than interactivity.

Posted by: gooserock | January 23, 2007 8:46 PM

You know, I have often thought that the best thing for the washingtonpost (or any newspaper) would be to emulate

Slashdot (or /.) is a total user driven community based around technology. It has user commentary, users post the articles and discuss. Discussion is user moderated. Articles are tagged and searchable, users have a home for managing their slashdot self, and slashdot is known for singlehandedly driving so much traffic to unsuspecting websites that it brings them down (known as the "slashdot effect"). Also, products can benefit from "slashvertising". The site uses modern website design -- CSS and XML as well as RSS. They even recently held a competition for a redesign of the website -- the winner got a new laptop and lots of geek fame.

The washingtonpost needs to model itself on slashdot. Constantly changing, cuttting edge. And, for god sake, ditch the image ads; they are trivial to block, take up lots of bandwidth and are annoying

Posted by: Christian Bongiorno | January 24, 2007 1:25 PM

You talk about community but your previous about browsers shows a shocking lack of knowledge about the subject. Did you try talking to your fellow staff members Rob Pegoraro or Brian Krebs before posting the article?

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