Why the Public Still Needs Both the Media and the Conventions

The two supposedly irrelevant institutions both got an awful lot of attention over the past few weeks.


Nothing better illustrates how today's media ecosystem works than the 2012 political conventions. Remember them? Despite the downgrading of the once-preeminent broadcast networks (NBC shamelessly skipped Bill Clinton's bravura oration in favor of the NFL season opener, and lost the night's ratings contest), there was far more of the conventions and surrounding activities available to the public this year than ever before. For all the griping about the campaigns and the corrosive impact of unlimited money, there is still something inspiring about the array of choices the electorate has for how, where, and when to observe the dramatics and even to join the fray. There were as many as 13 television channels broadcasting at least some portion of the conventions, while Internet streaming -- live and virtually around the clock -- reached unprecedented levels. And the phenomenon of social media, still in its relatively early stages in 2008, added significantly this year to the engagement potential for audiences.

"Click around and you can find everything from floor 'action' to policy briefings, panel discussions and delegate interviews," a rundown in USA Today reported, listing multiple websites that featured all kinds of material, including hours of analysis and commentary from virtually every major news organization. On television, the indomitable C-SPAN showed complete coverage of the convention sessions and many surrounding activities, and there was even more provided on its website. The two parties also offered live streaming feeds. According to an early count from the Associated Press, the Republicans' YouTube channel received 2.8 million video views.

While reliable and precise figures for people siphoned off to the Internet are hard to come by, the numbers of television viewers were impressive. Both parties had audiences (the Democrats had the overall edge) comparable in size to 2008, when excitement about the historic candidacy of Barack Obama and curiosity about Sarah Palin produced record audiences for their speeches. Nielsen Media Research reported there were 25.1 million people watching Clinton between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., while only 20 million tuned in to the second half of the Dallas Cowboys' victory over the New York Giants. Nielsen said Obama's acceptance speech, the largest audience of the conventions, was watched by an average of 35.7 million viewers, down only 7 percent from 2008.

This year's highlights can be measured in Twitter numbers. President Obama's acceptance speech drew 52,757 tweets per minute, while the rate for Mitt Romney reached 14,289 tweets per minute at its crescendo. The total of tweets soared into the multiple millions, which means that a substantial proportion of the audiences for the events cared enough about them to send off 140-character missives. In a blog post that night, Twitter noted: "Today alone, there were more than 4 million Tweets written specifically about the convention. For context, there were only 1.8 million total Tweets sent globally about all topics on Election Day in 2008."

Another major aspect of the convention story was the scale of media presence. Alana Semuels in the Los Angeles Times wrote that an estimated 15,000 media personnel were on hand in Charlotte, out of the 35,000 people that the local visitors authority estimated would be in the city for the convention. "To put that in some perspective," she calculated, "there are only 5,556 delegates and 407 alternates, meaning that there are 2.5 media members per every potential delegate." Global interest in the American election certainly drew some of that crowd, with crews on hand from every continent but Antarctica, convention organizers told Semuels. Considering the parlous financial state of so many media organizations, the willingness to devote these resources to events where the outcome -- who will be nominated -- is already known is striking.

One explanation is the proliferation of media platforms, particularly the arrival of extensive live streaming. James Davis, communications director for the Republicans, told USA Today that in past years, booking appearances for surrogates was relatively simple: "Now, it's like you ask them if this is for TV or if this for their Twitter feed or if this is for a live streaming partnership that they have." Citing ABC and Yahoo and Politico and C-SPAN, Davis said, "there's all these partnerships for this streaming content and that creates more of a need for content news coverage." In other words, all that available time and the inevitable competition to attract viewers drives staff on hand to rustle up the news and get it distributed.

As the Democratic convention got under way, there was a spate of stories reflecting frustration and fatigue among even the hardiest of campaign regulars. The sentiment is unsurprising given today's demand for an incessant flow of updates across multiple outlets through what is a 24/7, 18-month contest, and in which the conventions are an especially crowded scrum. Dylan Byers in Politico put it especially well: "Because of the pace established by Twitter and the Internet, the latest 'gotcha' moment snowballs faster than ever. For a reporter pressed to be ahead of the cycle, assuming conscientious-objector status would be suicide. Once one credible journalist takes the bait, everyone takes the bait." While all that scrambling clearly takes a toll on the journalists -- and the political staffers who stand guard to protect against the smallest of slips -- the question that ultimately arises, earnest as it may seem, is whether the electorate is truly being served. Does all the hubbub and repetitive speechifying provide usable policy insights that can frame judgments on polling day?

There are pundits galore with opinions on that score. Here is mine: As the conventions recede and the three October debates loom as conclusive pre-election spectaculars, any voter with a will to become informed about the candidates and their positions has ample means to do so in this digital age. "Even a scripted convention can still be compelling," wrote James Poniewozik, Time magazine's television critic. Watching at least some of the conventions on air and online in all the ways now possible was well worth the time that tens of millions of Americans devoted to them.