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Nov. 9, 2012, 10:11 a.m.
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This Week in Review: Twitter vs. TV on election night, and the significance of Nate Silver

Plus: Sandy and the power of Instagram’s images, Google News’ showdown with newspapers, and the rest of the week’s media and tech news and commentary.

Twitter vs. TV on election night: Just like virtually every other point in the campaign that led up to it, this week’s U.S. election brought record levels of engagement on social media — Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. Twitter celebrated enduring the day without an outage, though Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz was less than impressed.

The other center of activity on Tuesday night was the television, where CNN dominated the competition in ratings and insight. Fox News provided the most memorable moment when Republican strategist and Fox analyst Karl Rove questioned the network’s call of Ohio for Obama based on his conversation with Romney staff. The episode led to questions about the role at Fox for Rove, who played a significant role in Romney’s campaign.

Observers disagreed about each medium’s usefulness for following big events like the election. At ReadWrite, Dan Frommer argued that Twitter is now the way to follow politics live, though BuzzFeed’s John Herrman said huge events simply overwhelm even the best-curated feeds. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo contrasted the speed and depth of TV with Twitter’s cacophony, observing that “the Web was full of what one usually finds on cable news: pointless bloviating peppered with unsubstantiated rumor.” Time’s James Poniewozik also made the case for TV’s continued political relevance.

Traditional news orgs showed a somewhat uncharacteristic amount of restraint in reporting election results: The TV networks agreed not to report early exit poll data in an attempt to wall themselves off from online web chatter, and The New York Times called the election for Obama nearly an hour after Obama himself did, a decision approved of by public editor Margaret Sullivan. The New York Times also dropped its paywall for the election, along with The Wall Street Journal. And in a pair of posts, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman highlighted the most interesting innovations in election coverage.

There were a few insightful big-picture retrospectives on the campaign’s media angles, as well. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman called it “the nerdiest election ever,” and The Guardian’s Dan Gillmor said this campaign was marked by big media’s failure to hold the candidates accountable. The New York Times’ David Carr argued that the media certainly tried to call out campaigns on their factual inaccuracies, but the campaigns still managed to skate through with their falsehoods anyway. PolitiFact’s Bill Adair countered that Carr had unrealistic expectations for the fact-checking movement, saying, “Our mission is to inform readers, not change the behavior of politicians.”

Micah Sifry at Tech President wrote a smart analysis of the surprisingly lackluster role social media played in the campaign, though media prof Deen Freelon pulled together some fascinating large-scale data on the activity on Obama and Romney’s Facebook pages, from which The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen pulled out some initial nuggets. And here at the Lab, Ken Doctor looked at election results to draw some lessons from the Republican Party’s demographic decline for the future of the newspaper industry.

Is Silver punditry’s death knell?: Over the last week of the campaign, it sometimes seemed like this election was as much about Nate Silver and his statistically based brand of political predictions as it was about the candidates themselves. After weeks of critiques, defenses, and off-the-charts traffic, Silver, who writes The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, was emphatically vindicated by correctly predicting the outcome of all 50 state votes in the presidential race.

The big question that was on many people’s minds was whether Silver’s breakthrough constituted some sort of death knell for traditional political punditry. Forbes’ John McQuaid stated that political punditry must now be redefined, and former New York Times designer Khoi Vinh and PandoDaily’s Hamish McKenzie saw Silver as a potentially momentous disruptor of punditry whose success could expose its futility. British j-prof Paul Bradshaw called the election a wake-up call for data-illiterate journalists everywhere, and Amy Gahran of the Knight Digital Media Center suggested some ways to get up to speed.

The Guardian’s Emily Bell saw in Silver evidence that journalism developed through trading access with sources is under threat. Paul Krugman of The New York Times further defined the nature of that threat: If statistical methods become the way to analyze elections, journalists’ life work cultivating contacts is the casualty.

Others weren’t so convinced that punditry’s days are numbered. Alex Pareene of Salon said pundits can get away with getting things wrong over and over because there’s still a market for their work, and Gregory Ferenstein of TechCrunch said Silver’s style of analysis still doesn’t fit television well. Taking an example from baseball, former Wall Street Journal writer Jason Fry posited that we could see the two methods working side by side, and The Daily Beast’s Trevor Butterworth suggested that the polls on which Silver relies may someday be made obsolete by more sophisticated methods.

Kelly McBride of Poynter concluded that Silver’s success teaches us that consumers “want political analysis rooted not in political desire, but in knowable facts,” and sociology prof Zeynep Tufekci offered a defense of the type of statistical analysis Silver does.

Silver wasn’t the only data-related triumph in this election — Time’s Michael Scherer told the story of how Obama’s campaign used advanced statistical methods to direct resources. Reuters’ Felix Salmon pinpointed the common thread between the success of the campaign and Silver’s work: Both married statistical analysis with the richness of narrative. “They used their databases to tell stories. Or, more to the point, their databases and models were used so that Americans could tell stories to each other, he wrote.

Sandy, images, and Instagram: Before the election and our preoccupation with Nate Silver, we were focused on Sandy and her aftermath in the Northeast. Much of the focus in the retrospectives on Sandy coverage was on the role of images: American Photo talked to Nick Cope about shooting one of the first Sandy photos to go viral, focusing on issues of copyright (some news orgs asked for permission; most bloggers didn’t) and pay (zilch). One of the most iconic images of the storm’s aftermath came from Dutch architecture photographer Iwan Baan, who shot Manhattan’s power outage from the air for New York magazine. New York and Poynter both had the story behind the shot.

On a broader scale, Instagram emerged as the central platform for sharing images from Sandy, as the storm became the most documented event in Instagram’s history. Jeff Bercovici of Forbes reported on how Time magazine made Instagram its primary outlet for visual storm coverage, sending out five photographers to shoot for its Instagram feed. But Sam Biddle of Gizmodo decried the use of Instagram to document disasters because of its automatic faux-artsy filters, concluding, “Reality is enough. Instagramming is a fine but thoughtless hobby.”

Meanwhile, Instagram also took a big step toward looking like its parent company, Facebook, by adding web profiles. All Things Digital’s Mike Isaac gave a good overview of what’s in play here, including putting more into users’ digital identities, integration with Facebook, and advertising opportunities. Matt Buchanan of BuzzFeed argued that what Instagram is losing here is the illusion of privacy and security that users had when it was a mobile-only platform.

MG Siegler of TechCrunch argued that Instagram’s ascendance is an indicator that the power of the visual image has never been greater, and Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell said that makes photojournalists more valuable than ever as well.

The Google News/newspaper war: The New York Times’ David Carr highlighted the building momentum for newspaper publishers in various countries to go after Google for aggregating their stories on Google News without compensation. Many of Brazil’s newspapers have boycotted listing their stories in Google News, and France and Germany have legislation in the works. Emily Chertoff of The Atlantic saw this trend as a real threat not just to Google News, but also to its search as a whole.

Frederic Filloux, a digital exec at the French financial paper Les Echos, went the opposite direction, pointing out how minor newspapers are to Google’s big picture. The harsh reality, he said, is that “in lifting the veil on things that mean much for society, or in propagating new ideas, when it come to data, news media compete in the junior leagues.” Malcolm Coles, digital head of Britain’s Trinity Mirror newspapers, countered that newspapers are better than Filloux gives them credit for in doing effective search engine optimization. Forbes’ Tim Worstall came down on Filloux’s side, questioning the French newspaper industry’s sanity.

Reading roundup: A few other stories and pieces that might have gotten lost in the election-week shuffle:

— In the BBC’s Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, the lawsuits — against Savile’s estate, hospitals, and the BBC — are beginning to pile up. The New York Times produced a strong report on the warning signs ignored by its new CEO, Mark Thompson, in his role as the BBC’s director-general. The Times was praised for its coverage, and its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was praised by the Guardian’s Michael Wolff in part for her call for the paper to cover the story aggressively.

— Pearson was reported to be exploring a sale of its British financial newspaper the Financial Times, though it denied the report. Reuters’ Felix Salmon analyzed the FT’s situation, concluding that it belongs at a media company, rather than an educational book publisher like Pearson.

— Finally, Editor & Publisher’s Alan Mutter reiterated a often-repeated but still-damning critique of newspapers — that they aren’t using the power of the web to link outside their own borders and bring in a more diverse audience with strong aggregation.

Photo of Nate Silver by JD Lasica used under a Creative Commons license. Instagram photo by aarmita.

POSTED     Nov. 9, 2012, 10:11 a.m.
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