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Election 2004 ... online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 3, 2004
(Issue 2249, That's For Me To Know)

The Internet as a medium of dispensing the news is a frequent topic in this space – due undoubtedly to my own role as assistant online editor at the North County Times and adjunct journalism prof at Point Loma Nazarene University.

In fact, I rather regret that my Electronic Journalism course is offered in the spring and not the fall, because a presidential election probably does more to illustrate the relative strengths and weaknesses of print, broadcast and online news media better than any other event.

In the past few years, we've reviewed each election cycle and how it was covered online, as well as how the candidates have utilized the Internet as part of their campaigns.

This election, of course, the 'Net played the most prominent role yet – from Howard Dean's upstart campaign in the Democratic primary to's unsuccessful efforts to oust President Bush from office and influence local races.

Starting with coverage

But before looking back over the campaigns, it's illuminating to see how online news coverage has continued to evolve.

At the North County Times newsroom, putting out the next day's issue following an election is a frantic, stressful (and yet oddly fun) endeavor – as it is at any daily newspaper. The senior editors are in for the duration, pizza and sodas are provided for the staff, and everyone is busily trying to get the latest numbers from the local registrar of voters and state elections staff. The presses have to run by a certain time to get the papers on folks' doorsteps the next morning, and there is a cut-off for updating a story that you don't have in broadcast or online.

As I work on the NCT's Web site, my frenzy was less focused on a single deadline and simply more frantic throughout the evening. A Web site allows a newspaper to compete with TV and radio stations in being able to offer timely updates – something we couldn't do in the past.

And so as the reporters made phone calls, logged into Web sites and otherwise sought out the information they needed to write their stories, I was busy trying to assemble as complete a national, state and local package of coverage as I could.

What I found in tracking the presidential and congressional races was that the 'Net held several distinct advantages over the TV networks' broadcast reports – ironic in that the Web sites I and the other editors were relying on were, for the most part, operated by those same networks.

Using the Netscape browser, I could have multiple "tabs," or window panels, open at the same time – and I used this feature to have,,, and all open at the same time. I was thus able to follow the tally of electoral votes throughout the night. (Interestingly, after the experience of the 2000 election – in which the major networks all proclaimed Al Gore had won Florida, then reversed course and awarded it to George Bush, and finally admitted it was going to be a long time before anyone knew, none of the networks wanted to be the one to call Floriday, even though Bush had a lead of several hundred thousand votes with more than 90 percent of the precincts reporting!)

While the broadcast reports provided frequent updates, getting your news from a broadcast source remains a passive activity – you sit there and take what they hand you in the order they hand it to you, when they hand it to you.

The Web sites, however, are a viewer-controlled experience – you decide what stories to read (or view, if you're watching online video), in what order, and when.

And since the above Web sites were apparently all plugged into the various states' electronic data feeds, I could – again, apparently in real time – watch the results from Ohio come in. This actually was a more timely way of watching the returns than on TV – as mentioned, the Web sites allowed me to simply watch one set of returns rather than wait for the broadcast anchors to give updated results.

Campaigning online

Two Web sites had a much greater impact online than other groups, and in fact changed the way politicking gets done in this country.

Last year, during the early campaigning before the primary season, Howard Dean's team utilized a then-little-known site known as to help them organize local groups of supporters without having to spend a lot of money on phone bills, mailers, etc. Dean was front-runner in the Democratic primary at one point, and his prominence came almost entirely from using to build a national base of support.

The other that changed the dynamics of how campaigns operate online was, a liberal/leftists site dedicated to ousting Bush and as many congressional Republicans as possible. briefly got caught up in the confusing mesh of campaign finance laws, but still managed to give collective voice to those who disliked the Bush administration.

Despite the voters' rejection of its message,'s ultimate impact on elections can be seen and felt in the multiple copy cat Web sites that sprang up across the political spectrum, and also in the fact that established political activist groups ranging from the NRA to the ACLU began putting more emphasis in online fund-raising and recruitment.