News Mines the 'Net

The 2006 elections include several tight, high-profile contests and could bring a major shift of power in Congress. Across the country, local broadcasters, blessed with mountains of video footage of their candidates, are turning to the Internet to connect with their viewers and compete in a changing video news environment.
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WASHINGTON

The 2006 elections include several tight, high-profile contests and could bring a major shift of power in Congress. Across the country, local broadcasters, blessed with mountains of video footage of their candidates, are turning to the Internet to connect with their viewers and compete in a changing video news environment.

Gone are the days when local broadcaster Web sites were sorry echoes of the local news. With Internet video no longer just for geeks, stations are putting video where engaged citizens can find it.

"We're really trying to think about viewer, how they use the site," said Candy Altman, vice president of news for Hearst-Argyle.

With regard to the elections, she said, "Now what I think is different is that certain elements are specifically designed for the Web."

Altman said improvements in Flash technology as well as the spread of broadband access are helping bring more video and viewers to Web sites.

"It's a matter of really trying to take the advances in the technology, and our ability to produce content, and marrying the two," she said.

Hearst has a brand for its election efforts, "Commitment 2006," which builds on previous efforts. Across the 25-station Hearst group, Altman said station Web sites are not just generating hits; they're making money with ads, even if the ads and the news are still ongoing experiments.

The company doesn't want to necessarily place candidate ads right next to related stories, lest it seem like a newspaper endorsement, and Altman described "a fine line" between providing ad space and covering up the page with clutter.

For ambitious stations, Web coverage through Nov. 7 means on-demand footage of debates, candidates' answers to questions and other resources; new interactive features beyond the old unscientific Internet polling; and a wealth of reporting on the many elections in a viewing area-even the small, local elections that might not get time on the evening news.

TOP LOCAL SITES

The stations are typically teaming up with their media neighbors, such as the local newspapers, and developing local Internet news juggernauts that even make money for their owners.

"It seems like every election, we come up with a new way to reach people," said Aysu Basaran, who has overseen coverage for several elections as executive producer of special projects with WBNS in Columbus, Ohio.

WBNS joins its sister newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, as well as the cable Ohio News Network and a local weekly paper on its election site, www.ohioelects.com.

Back in 2002, the station launched a program called "CandidateMatch" on its Web site, whereby one could answer questions on issues and get matched with the gubernatorial candidate whose responses matched most closely. In 2004, the project attracted more than 237,000 unique visitors. Now, the station has convinced the candidates for U.S. House and Senate to take the Match test as well.

The Web site is also offering content from a weekly political talk show, "Issues and Answers," plus a Web-exclusive production-a "VODcast"-of commentary by local political pundits, which Basaran promises will have some edgy content that you can't put on television.

At WEWS in Cleveland, a Scripps station, News Director Steve Hyvonen said the coverage on his Web page is as aggressive as on the air. But in addition, the station has an "elite strike force" of reporters who are assigned solely to major candidates and will track them nearly continuously.

"You need to follow the candidates' lives inside and out," Hyvonen said. In 2004, when Hyvonen was a producer at MSNBC, reporters following presidential candidates using small cameras and laptops to get news up as quickly as possible.

"They literally went everywhere the candidates went," he said. "That's kind of where this business is going."

NEW TYPE OF COVERAGE

Scripps, like many station groups, has given a brand-"Democracy 2006"-to its election coverage, in which most of the company's 10 stations are participating.

"News coverage will be developed through an interactive process with local citizens and citizen groups," Scripps pledged without claiming to make any special investment in resources or technology.

Similarly, Journal Broadcast Group calls its initiative "2006 Red, White and Blue," an update of earlier electoral runs, and spokesman Jim Thomas describes the 11-station group's sites as aggregators of existing news coverage.

"Our stations are gradually increasing the presence of voter information on the Web sites," he said, warning against the urge of stations to just dump all their content online. "It comes around to, what are the right things to put on the Web."

Some local cable news operators are using the special features of that medium-such as channels reserved for on-demand programming-to bring debates and other features to voters right on their TV sets, not just online. In New York, News12, which operates bureaus around the metro area, for the first time is making available every area debate-more than 50 in Long Island alone-on VOD, with complete VCR functionality.

"They'll really have it in their control," said Debbie Koller-Feeney, News12's director of marketing and promotions.

Down in Florida, Tampa Bay cable newser BayNews9 has polls and other features, including its own on-demand channel on the local cable system, showing candidate highlights such as clips from a weekly local political show produced with The St. Petersburg Times. Breaking news such as election night concession speeches, should they be made this time in Florida, will be quickly made available on VOD.

Also on election night, BayNews9 will aggressively drive viewers to their Web site for coverage of the many local races.

"Where the Web really helps us is, we cover every race," said BayNews9 vice president and general manager Elliott Wiser. "The Web site allows us to put all the results on."

In high-stakes states like Florida and Ohio (where even "The Daily Show" is setting up shop just before the elections), stations understand that unprecedented circumstances and national headlines could pop up at any time, and the Web, they figure, can help them adjust.

"If we can handle a hurricane," Wiser said. "We can handle an election."