OTUS and the golden age of political reporting
At the beginning of the week, ABC News launched OTUS, its political news supermarket with its top political reporters (Jake Tapper, Jonathan Karl, Amy Walter, and George Stephanopoulos) hunkering on the site’s home page. OTUS threatens to dice, grind, sieve, and aerosol the complex business of campaigns and the affairs of the state into inhalable powder.
As Tapper says in this promo, OTUS (short for of the United States as in, POTUS, president of the United States, or SCOTUS, supreme court of the United States) is all about the “power moves, the mini-dramas, the scheming” in politics. Tapper promises that OTUS will flag both the “urgent and the ridiculous,” offer games, display correspondents’ Twitter feeds, and create a stock market-style ticker that assesses the rising and falling worth of candidates with social media.
ABC News has expanded its Web efforts at what is obviously a late date. Salon, Slate, Talking Points Memo, Yahoo Politics, Politico, RealClearPolitics, Red State, Huffington Post Politics, FiveThirtyEight, Mother Jones, National Review Online, Daily Beast, Daily Caller, Roll Call, The Hill, CNN Politics, NBC’s First Read, Time ‘s Swampland, National Journal, specialty sections at the Washington Post, the New York Times, New York magazine, the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and Reuters, as well as numerous other sites already cover the beat, and cover it well.
That ABC News would join the specialists speaks to both the audience’s insatiable appetite for political news and the network’s confidence that nobody owns this market. It’s a good call: Such is the Web audience’s fickleness, the ease with which they can skip pages, that nobody can own the market for news anymore. They can’t even rent it. News organizations can’t own their journalistic stars the way they used to, either. In the old days, the only place for a reporter or editor at a top-tier newspaper or magazine to migrate was another top-tier newspaper or magazine, or maybe a TV network, or maybe a career in books. But not anymore. Reporters now move from the New York Times to the Huffington Post with such regularity that the MTA is thinking of digging a special subway line to accommodate them.
Not to oversell the current scene, but the proliferation of political news sites—and my apologies to those I didn’t name—means we’re living in a bit of a golden age of political reporting. At least when it comes to national politics and national government, there have never been more reporters competing to break news. Not everything on the menu tastes great, but there’s no denying it’s a feast.
If the winners are readers, the losers are the Times, the Post, and the evening news broadcasts, which have lost their quasi-monopoly power over political coverage, and especially the print versions of the newsweeklies, which specialized for so many decades at giving the quanta of political news a narrative context. Ned Martel, who covers politics for the Post, says it wasn’t that long ago that how much you knew about Washington was measured by how many pages in the last issue of the print version National Journal you’d turned. Also taking a hit has been the political press; The New Republic, which went from weekly to fortnightly in 2007, in part because they didn’t have the money to sustain a weekly any more and in part because weekly was no longer frequent enough to stay on top of politics. The job of wrapping politics into comprehensive narratives now belongs to the monthlies like Vanity Fair and the Atlantic or books like Game Change and Renegade.
Other winners include the cable news chat shows and the Sunday morning programs, which gorge on the baitball of Web news like hungry yellowfin tuna. The cycle is completed when the Web news hounds attack the baitbail formed by the chat show chat, and the chat shows eventually dine, somewhat cannibalistically, on the remains.
For political journalists, this is the best of all possible worlds. They’ve gained new leverage over their editors, who in the green-eyeshade days of journalism could use their power of the limited number of column-inches available in print to cut and otherwise simplify their stories. Now, with there being no shortage of space to fill, the writer calls the shots and the editor, fearful that he’ll get the blame if he’s beaten by the competition, is more likely to approve stories he might once have dismissed as too technical, too inside baseball, and too complicated for a news outlet. (“Save it for your book, kid.”)
Thus liberated, the political journalist can write at wire-service speed, even availing himself to tiny microbursts of reporting, while dumping many of the conventions that make wire reporters miserable—such as the inverted news pyramid that puts the most important news at the top so that distant newspaper editors can cut two, three, four, or five paragraphs at the bottom to make it fit their pages.
The newly liberated political journalist need no longer dumb down his story so that everybody can understand it. He can point to explanatory information with a link or skip it all together, figuring that anybody who is reading him already knows what the Federal Reserve Bank is and what it does. (You laugh, but I recall Washington Post stories from the past that paused to define “pinata” and “slam dunk” when it used those phrases metaphorically!) As victors over their beaten-down editors, political writers can now insert humor, opinion, history lesson, minutiae, and policy wonkery in their pieces without having to justify the digressions and elaborations. (Of course, another part of the new culture can be, depending on the outlet, lower salaries and reduced job security. But that’s my problem and that of my colleagues, not yours.)
Not that long ago, Ben Bagdikian was publishing the seventh edition of his book-length argument, The Media Monopoly. Bagdikian’s neverending gripe was that the news business was consolidating into fewer and fewer voices, and that government action was needed to break up newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters. We don’t hear much of that talk anymore–you’re more likely to hear people complaining about too much political news. The current state of our political press ain’t perfect, but when the exemplar of the new order is Ezra Klein and not Joe Klein, how bad can it be?
Welcome, OTUS, you goofy-named little bastard. I hope you have a good 2012.
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