SOJ Insider | J-week 2008 Panel

Journalism Week 2008

J-Week looks at how digital media will help choose the next president

Cover Story

The 2008 presidential election may be known as the “YouTube Election,” with an increasing number of people turning to the Internet to learn about the candidates and become involved in the political campaigns.

This year’s Journalism Week, “New Media. New Democracy,” focused on the impact of online media – blogs, viral video and social networking websites – on the upcoming national election. The main event was the panel, “Digital Media and the 2008 Presidential Election,” co-sponsored by the WVU Festival of Ideas, which drew more than 500 people.

Panelists included Philip de Vellis, senior associate and vice president of new media at Murphy Putnam Media; Ross Douthat, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and blogger for TheAtlantic.com; Terence Samuel, deputy editor of TheRoot.com, an online magazine aimed at black readers published by The Washington Post; Abbi Tatton, Internet reporter for CNN who covers blogs, web video and other new media for “The Situation Room;” and Matthew Yglesias, associate editor of The Atlantic Monthly and blogger for TheAtlantic.com.

The moderator was Michael Tomasky (BSJ, 1982), editor of GuardianAmerica.com, the U.S.-based website of The Guardian newspaper of England. In his introduction, Tomasky described the current election as a landmark in media coverage, comparing it to the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

“It was the first time people were getting their information from television and not newspapers,” said Tomasky. “It was the first race where this new medium really asserted itself. There is reason to think, in some number of years, we’ll look at this race as the first YouTube race, the first new media race.”

Tatton says that the Internet first demonstrated its influence in the previous presidential race.

“It really grew out of the 2004 election . . . when political blogs had really become a force,” said Tatton. “They were breaking news, covering news. They were talking about stories that maybe we in cable news weren’t. There was a real gap there – a real lack.”

Douthat, a conservative blogger, says the first wave of influential bloggers represented the political right.

“When the first blogs appeared . . . you had a liberal media establishment that was biased against conservatives,” said Douthat. “It made sense that initially the blogosphere would become a center for conservative opposition, in a sense to what bloggers are required by law to call the ‘MSM,’ the mainstream media.”

Since then, Douthat said, the pendulum has swung the other way, particularly as the Barack Obama campaign has reached out to younger, Internet-savvy voters.

“What liberals figured out very quickly,” said Douthat, “is that blogs are enormously effective tools for political organization and money raising. And that, I think, is where conservatives and Republicans are still light-years behind.”

According to the panelists, another change has been the influence of videos produced for the Internet by ordinary citizens and political operatives.

While working as a consultant on the Obama campaign, de Vellis independently produced a video in which he mashed up clips from Clinton’s web chats with Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl advertisement. The video, showing Hillary Clinton as an Orwellian “big brother” figure, has generated more than 5 million hits on YouTube and cost de Vellis his job.

“I thought it was clever, but I didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal,” said de Vellis. “It took me one afternoon sitting at my dining room table. Little did I know that within 24 hours it started getting spread around.”

While new media is having an impact on the current election, the panelists agreed that most people still rely on traditional media sources. However, they say new media has accelerated the news cycle and is helping to set the news agenda.

“The real influence of new media is the influence it has on old media at this point,” said Samuel. “Now The New York Times has ‘The Caucus,’ and The Washington Post has ‘The Trail.’ Everyone has a blog.”

“What you’re ultimately probably going to see is not new media taking over from old media, but old media and new media sort of collapsing into each other,” said Douthat. “As the population changes and more and more people are getting their news online, you’ll just see more and more of that.”

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