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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Jan. 26, 2011, 1 p.m.

State of the Union: Whitehouse.gov as a media outlet

Every State of the Union can be called “the most technologically advanced State of the Union in history” — at least until the next year’s comes along. And last night’s speech was no exception: Coverage across outlets was an explosion of interactivity that found news sites featuring livestreams, telecasts featuring tweets, and broadcast and online platforms generally collapsing into each other. And among the participants in the extravaganza was the Obama administration itself: On Whitehouse.gov, you could not only watch the speech, but also, in that very Gov 2.0 kind of way, “engage” with it.

That’s nothing new. Whitehouse.gov as its own broadcasting channel has been around since (at least) 2002, when George W. Bush presented the first livestreamed State of the Union. What’s striking about this year’s speech, though, is how far beyond livestreaming the broadcast sensibility has gone. Go to the current SOTU page on whitehouse.gov, and you’ll find, among other features: a video stream (formerly the livestream) of the speech, enhanced with contextual graphics; the text of the speech; links to various Q&As that will take place over the next few days — hosted on Facebook and YouTube and Yahoo — with Robert Gibbs, Joe Biden, Arne Duncan, Kathleen Sebelius, Austan Goolsbee, Denis McDonough, and other representatives of the Obama administration; a link to the download page of the White House’s iPhone app, which features (among other things) blog posts, streaming video, and other speech-related multimedia; a seating chart of the First Lady’s guests; a State of the Union email update signup field; links to the White House’s Facebook and Twitter feeds; Facebook and Twitter sharing buttons; fifteen Fun Facts about the speech’s place in history (“President Harry Truman’s 1947 State of the Union was the first to be broadcast on television,” etc.); and a narrative overview of the State of the Union as a political tradition.

In other words: Minus the “news analysis” columns, the factchecks, the interactive graphics, and the Wordles (oh, the Wordles), the page’s content is remarkably similar to what you might find featured on pretty much any traditional media outlet. The White House’s “Winning the Future” feature, unfortunate title notwithstanding, is essentially Dave Winer’s notion of sources going direct put to action — with the source, in this case, being the Obama administration itself.

And that, for those interested in the future of news, is worth noting. Because the feature is going direct by, essentially, engaging directly. It’s saying, on top of everything else: Stay here. (In other contexts: Don’t touch that dial.) In the past — to generalize very, very broadly, presidential-speech-style — the online components of the SOTU had served a mostly archival purpose: Here’s the text of the speech, for your reference. When livestreaming (and, with it, Gov 2.0 sensibilities) came along, the idea shifted a bit, away from the needs of posterity and toward those of the present. But the point was still, generally, augmentation: If you can’t watch on TV, watch here. As Macon Phillips, the White House’s new media director, put it in a blog post before last year’s speech: “From our live webstream to a free iPhone app, the White House is using technology to make sure the President’s State of the Union Address reaches as many people as possible.”

The stated goal, in other words, was complement rather than competition. Maximizing reach, rather than co-opting it, was the point.

This year, though — in which Whitehouse.gov’s State of the Union page, with all its bells and whistles, both presents the president’s speech and, more importantly, puts it in context — has seen a slight shift. The if you can’t get it elsewhere has been largely excised from the calculus of the communication. If you can’t watch on TV, watch here has become, simply, watch it here. Full stop.

Again, that’s not a huge change — and it’s one that fits pretty seamlessly into the general trend of government’s increasingly direct communication with its constituents — but it’s also one that seems to solidify something that’s been building since that first SOTU livestream in 2002: government acting not just as a media outlet, but as an alternative media outlet. “The media” get their name, after all, for the connective role they’ve played in society and culture. Information has been, you could argue, one means to the end that is the media’s most fundamental trust: to link people who would otherwise be separate. A Whitehouse.gov that’s presenting itself as a destination unto itself — a Whitehouse.gov that is, in other words, cutting out the middleman, denying the need for a connector in the first place — renews an old question: What does it mean for journalism when traditional media coverage becomes an option rather than a given?

POSTED     Jan. 26, 2011, 1 p.m.
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