Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Press Releases: Dumped by text

Published in the Portland Phoenix

He might not like this comparison, but Barack Obama has pulled a Britney. He told his supporters — or at least those who signed up on his Web site — his vice-presidential nominee choice before granting an interview to a major daily paper or even holding a made-for-TV press conference.

Yes, Obama dumped the newspapers and the TV folks the same way the Mouseketeer-run-amok ditched K-Fed in 2006: by text message.

Some mainstream media outlets have tried to claim they had the news first, saying they had beaten the campaign to the punch by telling readers and viewers (mostly on their Web sites) that US Senator Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, was the “likely” choice throughout the day last Friday. But none of them could get rid of that troublesome word “likely,” and the only official-type comment was an outright denial from Biden, who said, “I’m not the guy.” So their efforts were pretty transparently speculation, however right they have turned out to be.

(As one possible exception, CNN has been claiming its reporting apparently influenced the timing of the text message — at 3 am Saturday rather than 8 am, as the campaign had originally planned.)

But the guessing game that makes up much of mainstream political journalism these days didn’t gain much traction among the general public. Americans were waiting for the word from Obama himself — not on TV, and not in the newspaper, but in their text-message inboxes.

The old-media train was already headed off a cliff, but Obama’s move has accelerated the derailment, highlighting the shortcomings of the traditional news sources and, simultaneously, the practicality of a new form of mass communication.

Of course, the newspapers made it easy to see where they missed the boat — witness the massive headlines on Sunday morning, more than 24 hours after the text went out, saying Biden was the pick. By then, the only people not in the know were — you guessed it — people who only get their news from the daily paper (if any such people still exist).

“Yesterday’s news tomorrow” never seemed so apt a slogan for the daily-newspaper industry. Even the TV newscasts were reduced to telling a huge portion of viewers something they already knew.

Obama’s text also showcased a new way that news consumers can get information. While many news organizations have started to “go mobile,” with “mobile-accessible” Web sites readable on Internet-enabled cell phones, and text-message alerts about breaking news, this is the first time a non-news organization has been invited by so many people (hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions — the campaign’s cagey about the numbers) right into their purses and pockets.

If digerati philosopher Esther Dyson is correct — and all signs are that she is — then the most precious commodity of this century will be people’s attention. That makes the second-most-precious commodity the ability to get their attention — that is, the cell phone.

The Obama campaign’s success at getting immediate and direct access to large numbers of Americans could have a major effect on the outcome of the election. Most important, the campaign can send its supporters reminders to vote on Election Day — and receiving a reminder has been shown to significantly increase a person’s likelihood of actually casting a ballot.

But it’s also a hedge against the mainstream media, a warning shot across the bow of those talking heads and political horsetraders who ignored the real problems facing our country and instead spent massive amounts of air-time and ink speculating about whether Obama was secretly a Muslim, whether the pastor of the Christian church he attended was anti-American, whether the editors of The New Yorker had crossed some sort of ethical line, and a hundred other things that are pretty insignificant to average Americans struggling to buy groceries and heat the house.

With that one text message, the Obama campaign has signaled that not only can it make the daily-grind newshounds irrelevant, but also that whenever the need arises, it will.

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