Election Night From a New Seat

Despite all the gadgetry and gizmology, the pomp and the pundits, there’s still one thing missing from the horse race coverage of a night like tonight: Perspective.  There are glimmers of it (NBC’s Brian Williams noted as I write that there haven’t been this few Democrats in the House in 60 years, for example), but we journalists should strive for more.

NYT's Tracking Twitter Traffic

I have, for the first time in many, many years, a different perspective this election night.  I’m not at a campaign “headquarters” with a sideline coach’s headset messing up my hair.  I’m not in a newsroom frantically checking the latest wires and cuing talent.  And I haven’t spent the day ferrying a campaigning family member around his district.

I’ve gotten to arm chair quarterback this whole thing, and it gives me the ability to say things like this:  This year interactive data and collaboration were the real winners.

There are countless examples of what’s worked.  Here are a few:

  • The New York Times, always a visual favorite, tracked Twitter chatter based on candidates.  Check out the weeks leading up to the election, and more importantly, the day itself.  Twitter helped propel some small races into big name stories.
  • Also, NYT exit polling data through the years serves to take the pulse of voters every few years.  Remarkable is not just the first setting (“size bars uniformly”), but rather the second setting (“size bars according to population of group”).  Graphics don’t need to be flashy (or Flashy), just useful.

    Patchwork Nation and WNYC team up to show how different communities voted.
  • WNYC Public Radio in New York teamed up with Patchwork Nation to demonstrate how different categories of neighborhoods voted across the state.  Patchwork parses communities into categories such as industrial metropolises, emptying nests, military bastions, and boom towns.  What results adds another dimension to data.
  • And an online only operation run by the
    Sunlight Live's dashboard

    nonprofit, non-partisan Sunlight Foundation offered a dream come true for financial disclosure fanatics, with its Sunlight Live experience, which will soon available open-sourced.  It brought together a live video stream (thanks, viewers like you!), live chat with its reporters, a Twitter feed and a real-time data dashboard, all at the same time on the same screen.  If you’re one of the people who wants to know everything and can handle multiple streams of information hitting your forehead simultaneously, this was built for you.  (By the way, kudos to Sunlight for opening their doors for a results viewing party. Others would do well to take note!)

Finally, there’s one type of tool that has great promise and I was pleased to see them used this cycle: Story-telling tools.  The Washington Post and TBD were two of many using sites like Storify (a segment worthy of their own post to come) to bring together other reportage and cull tweets into a solid storyline.  Rather than a straight AP-style write-thru, this gives the reader a way to skim a page and jump in and out as they like.

This gets to my ultimate point: There are more opportunities now than ever before for newsrooms to connect with users in engaging ways.  You don’t need a highly-skilled (and highly-paid) team of data visualizers.  If you’re in a local newsroom, why spend your time creating graphics for big national races outside of your coverage area? After all, you are sandwiched between national reports that have holographics and magic boards that make Hollywood special effects artists jealous.  You should be getting set for battle in the interactive space.

Elections are, for many news organizations, a gift handed to them every few years.  This is our chance (to butcher a political phrase here) to prove not what journalism can do for you, but what you can do for journalism.

(Disclosure: My employer has awarded many of these organizations through the years for innovation in the field.  I think their work still stands on its own.)


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