Media Convergence

YouTube logo, via YouTube home page.A superb piece by Gaby Wood in today’s Observer discusses one aspect of the convergence of media and illustrates another.

The piece itself, From the web to the White House, discusses how, with the advent of YouTube, the internet has become the key political battleground in the 2008 presidential election. Three short extracts from a long and interesting piece. First:

During the last presidential election, bloggers were the new digital phenomenon to contend with; now YouTube has taken precedence, and it has the potential for much more dramatic effect.

Given that we have just had an Irish general election in which candidates embraced blogging for the first time, perhaps we can look forward to the impact of YouTube in the next one, rather than in the one just past. Second:

‘You wouldn’t have guessed, would you, that so many interesting controversies turn on video,’ says Michael Kinsley [wikipedia bio], founding editor of the first serious online magazine, Slate. You think a quote’s a quote, he muses, but no: what can be shown has far more impact than what is merely said.’

So obvious now that it almost goes without saying, except in Ireland, until – perhaps – the next election. Third:

The advent of YouTube in the 2008 election is, [Professor Kathleen Hall] Jamieson[, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania] believes, a watershed moment comparable to these because, as she puts it, ‘it changes the structure underlying the political discussion’. Chuck DeFeo, who ran the Bush-Cheney online campaign in 2004 and who describes himself as ‘the old man in this field’, having been involved in online politics for the past 12 years, remembers a time when ‘those of us who were doing this were waiting for the 1960 moment: the moment television became the dominant medium candidates used to communicate to the electorate. We were excited about that, because it was traditionally seen as a positive moment. But the more I look back on that, it was the moment in which broadcast – that one-to-many model – became the dominant way in which campaigns communicated, and that probably wasn’t a healthy thing. Because candidates started to look at the electorate as an audience to talk at, rather than to talk with. Prior to that it was really grassroots effort. That’s how campaigns were run for centuries. And now with the rise of the internet there is the ability to have a true dialogue with the voter.’

This is the serious heart of the article, at once cynical (the coarsening of the democratic system by television) and idealistic (returning the democratic process from spinning politicians to activist citizens), not a million miles away from the theme of Al Gore‘s new book The Assault on Reason ( |

But there is more to this excellent piece than incisive analysis. The online version has a few clickthroughs, an accompanying list of the top ten Presidential candidate YouTube moments (in the traditions of its sister-paper the Guardian‘s weekly viral video chart), and several other links to related content on the GuardianObserver site. This is all to the good; it was trailed in the paper version, which is one of the reasons I checked out the online version.

However, there is still a very long way to go before the power of the online medium can even begin to be exlored, let alone fully exploited, by the more traditional media. The level of linking in the online version of Wood’s article is very light – I added the links in the above quotes, and could have added more. I look forward to the day when, as a matter of course, journalists will write their pieces rich in embedded links (if you’re reading this, you know that word processors can embed links in text), sub-editors will edit the text as usual, and then send not only a non-link version of the text to the print editor but also a linked-up version of the text to the online editor, where it can be published in a link-heavy context familiar to readers of online publications (such as the aforementioned Slate).

Recognising that an online publication is a separate medium with its own advantages and grammar, rather than simply an electronic reproduction of a print publication, is surely the future of the newspaper and the magazine. Indeed, the print version may drive readers to the online version (as happened with me when I read Wood’s article this morning) where the real action, additional (exclusive) content [and, in time, advertising and other revenue streams] may come to be. Moreover, the process can also act the other way: reading John Naughton’s Memex blog online during the week ensures that his column is the first thing I read in the print version of the Observer on a Sunday (last week’s was the wonderfully acerbic Danger: virulent new strain of technolust found in Apple (I’m a sufferer); today’s is the perfectly observed You’ve got mail – all you need is a way to get rid of it (as already trailed on this blog in Is email dying?)).

Many magazines with both online and print existences are there or there abouts, not only in link-rich content, but opening up that content to encourage online engagement in forums, blogs, and so on. Wired, with the convoluted history of its printversusonline editions, and its expansive blog site, may be the leading example. The ubiquity of this kind of symbiosis in the more traditional media can’t be too far away, and the Guardian and the Observer are not only heading in the right direction, but are well on the way to getting there.