The punditocracy is unanimous on one point: Barack Obama's campaign set a new standard, both in strategy and execution. While he goes off to the even-tougher business of governing, let's look at what the press, journalism as we know it, can learn from the Obama's barrier-busting two-year journey:
1. Civic engagement doesn't depend on newspapers. For decades, journalists have told themselves that you could track the direct relationship between the civic engagement decline (often measured in voter turnout) and newspaper circulation. Well, newspaper print circulation is still plummeting -- 50 years of decline and counting -- and we've seen the highest voter turnout since 1908, when newspapers were selling for a penny. But voter turnout is just part of the civic engagement puzzle, which leads to...
2. The Obama campaign embraced the wisdom of crowds. All you had to do was visit any Obama campaign HQ. Like Silicon Valley workplaces, they depended on a high level of self-organization and trust. Show up, get a 10-minute training, use your cell phone and connect with voters. Yes, there were few people with clipboards, lightly keeping things in order, but for the most part, the beehives organized themselves. For local media companies, there is a lesson here about going beyond licensing software (Pluck, The Port, Topix and others) and tapping into people who can be organizing forces for the betterment of their communities. The Obama campaign turned the attempted pejorative of "community organizer" into a major positive, merging the old Chicago techniques of Saul Alinksy with those of modern technology, created a new community grid.
3. Millions of people will open their checkbooks when they see a public service opportunity that benefits them and the wider society. Community organizing is one thing, but a war chest is still another, the yin and yang of the campaign. Small donors ponied up fives, tens and hundreds because they perceived public good. For local news media, the gap grows daily, that gap between what the declining ad business will bring in and the level of experienced, knowledgeable reporting all communities need. For-profit companies -- and we increasingly have to call them profit-seeking companies -- have a hard time putting out a tin cup. But the non-profits like MinnPost -- terrific coverage of the Minnesota election, btw -- understand that community donation/journalism model. MinnPost now has more than 1000 member/donors. Readers will help bridge this gap -- but they do need to be asked and served.
4. The two-side paradigm isn't the only one out there. From his 2004 convention speech to last night's Grant Park celebration, Obama has rejected a dichomitized view of the world. "No blue and red" is his shorthand. Clearly, that sentiment has resonance, though applying it to governing will be hard. He's clearly right, conceptually: Life isn't one big happy, non-contentious place, but it is much more nuanced than two sides on every issue, and the less we reinforce that belief, the more we learn things. One reason the blogosphere's been ascendant and the old media descendant is old media's kneejerk left/right, liberal/conservative, on one hand/and on the other approach to the world. It's tired, it doesn't represent real life and readers are going to places that get beyond. Sure many of them just reinforce view points, but the best of the newest journalism is contrarian -- and passionate.
5. Female journalists caught the public's imagination. Sure Sarah Palin's candidacy captured the attention, but it was journalists like Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow and Campbell Brown that proved to be the new face of the campaign in different ways. They broke the clutter of politspeak, both challenging and clearer in their reporting. Rebecca Traister lays it out well here in Salon. How many local and regional newspapers can point to high-profile women in their pages and cross-promotable on TV?
6. Gizmos count: Think of the advance of interactive election tools. CNN's John King's Magic Board -- mocked wonderfully by Fred Armisen on this SNL Weekend Update. How many times did you play with the Real Clear Politics blue state/red state map? CNN's 35-race election tally "Your Races" tool, when it didn't succumb to too-much-traffic delays, was helpful. And the New York Times' one-word Election Day "What One Word Describes Your Current State of Mind," was inspired, and a smart echo of the the "Moveable Type" installation in its new HQ's lobby. Charts are good, and advance of many newspaper sites, but interactivity is what we all love.
7. Aggregation counts. Look at the breakout success of HuffPost, quadrupling in unique visitors. Consider the power of Real Clear Politics aggregation of polls, to forge a daily must-view. A later entrant, the Washington Post's Political Browser acted on the understanding that readers want their local sites to be pointers to the best, as well as reporters of the local.
8. Cross promotion counts. The Politico slingshotted itself into a major player, on the strength of great cross-promotion. You seemingly couldn't turn to a cable talkfest without seeing a Politico contributor. Other winners here: The Post's Chris Cillizza ("The Fix") and Gene Robinson, Salon's Joan Walsh.
9. It's a different country...and a different readership. The new multicultural America is not just the story of the 2008 election; it's the trend line going forward. The press has made, and too often congratulated itself on, progress in diversifying itself. But just like an Obama campaign that promised to "look like America," the winning media of tomorrow will look more and more like America. After all, Barack Obama isn't African-American; he's biracial, a nuance that his campaign decided was over the head of way too many voters. But it's not about white and black anymore, or even white, black, yellow and brown. It's about the unprecedented mixing and matching of cultures, viewpoints and relationships.
As Frank Bruni pointed out, in the Sunday New York Times, in his sum-up of the contest:
.... while Mr. Clinton’s victory marked the ascension of baby boomers, Mr. Obama’s election would be emblematic of something more profound: that the multicultural, postracial society so often discussed in the news media but so seldom affirmed in public life was now, literally, the face of our nation. Mr. Clinton was Fleetwood Mac. Mr. Obama is India.Arie.
For all media, getting their heads about what that means in coverage is job one going forward.
10. Steady Eddie wins the race. As news companies have been buffeted by perfect storms of challenges, they've often erratically moved from tactic to tactic -- emphasizing and then pulling back from community, pushing newsrooms to change and them allowing them not to, embracing new ad methods and then inadequately funding or staffing them. Obama laid out a path, and stayed on it. Keeping journalism vibrant going forward requires a similar steadiness, a stick-to-itiveness that knows the challenges will be many, but that they can -- and must -- be surmounted.