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Dec. 20, 2016, 9:10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

At The Atlantic, campaign coverage innovations are finding new life and applications after the election

“The presidential campaign always propels us to try formats that attempt to put the torrent of news into context.”

Regardless of your feelings about its outcome, the 2016 presidential election was unquestionably historic, in large part because how how bizarre and aberrant it often was. This was a reality that become clear to The Atlantic back in May, when longtime writer James Fallows launched “Trump Time Capsule,” an ongoing feature that meant to chronicle in real time how “Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates,” as Fallows wrote at the time.

By its conclusion in November, the 151-part project had become “one of the most valuable documents of the 2016 election,” Atlantic deputy editor Matt Thompson told me. It was also one of the most popular things The Atlantic has ever produced: over 1.3 million unique visitors visited the page in 2015.

For Thompson, the success of the project reflected the overwhelming reader appetite for stories that attempt to cover the election in new ways. Every update to the story brought in a new set of readers. The development of the Trump Time Capsule was also the latest evidence of how much presidential elections have driven innovation at news organizations over the years. “Go back over the past decade and look at the election coverage. Election nights, in particular, are when we put all of our star power and technological force into trying to do something innovative and compelling,” Thompson said. “The presidential campaign always propels us to try formats that attempt to put the torrent of news into context.”

Helping readers make sense of the flood felt particularly necessary during this election, which forced reporters to come up with new, often simple ways to keep track of and inform readers about ongoing stories. Consider, for example, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who relied on pen and paper for his investigation of Trump’s missing charity contributions. At CBS News, Sopan Deb turned heads by relentlessly tweeting out and highlighting sections of transcripts of Trump’s comments at rallies, press conferences, and during interviews. Many news organizations also put a lot of resources into real-time fact checking.

At The Atlantic, the desire to fix the context problem helped give birth to a story format called “Cheat Sheets,” which politics writer David Graham first used to track the politicians who had declared (or were expected to declare) their intentions to run for president. While Graham had considered writing a new story with every new announcement (and did in many cases), The Atlantic ultimately realized that readers would be better served by a single page that included every update. The Atlantic has since used the format to cover Trump’s potential vice president picks, his many scandals, and the Republicans expected to challenge his administration. These formats, like Fallows’s Time Capsule, have also proven to be popular: Of the six most popular stories produced by the Atlantic in 2016, three were Cheat Sheets.

Liveblogs have also worked well for The Atlantic. In September, the magazine revamped its liveblog product so that reporters could more easily use the tool without involvement from developers, who in the past had to manually put liveblogs together. During the election, The Atlantic used the tool to cover the presidential debates and Hurricane Matthew, as well as Election Night itself, when the tool took over The Atlantic’s homepage.

“This format works best for fast-moving news stories that seem to be developing really rapidly, where there’s a lot news spiking in a fairly narrow timeframe,” said Thompson. “After the Access Hollywood tapes leaked, we released the liveblog, which ended up being, for our readers, the very best way of following the rapid drumbeat of information on the subject.”

The Atlantic’s efforts with new story formats are an extension of the thinking that last year gave birth to Notes, a section of its site focused on shorter takes, quick-hit news, and involvement from readers. Notes was meant to combine the ethos of “old-school blogging and a dusting of new-school innovation,” said Thomson. While these formats are not particularly noteworthy technically, they’ve come to show how even small tweaks to existing ideas can make a big difference in how certain stories are covered.

The success of these formats has encouraged The Atlantic to explore their application outside of the election cycle. Fallows has already started work on his follow-up to the original Trump Time Capsule: “Trump Nation,” which tracks Trump’s rise to the presidency. The Atlantic has likewise applied the Cheat Sheet format to its ongoing coverage of the Zika crisis, climate change, hacking, and conflict zones.

“In the U.S., we have these really long election cycles, where news is constantly in our faces every single day for more than a year,” said Thompson, explaining the appeal of formats that help track ongoing developments over an extended period of time. “The audience hunger doesn’t abate; it only grows. It requires us to be imaginative with how we reward and serve people for news on that subject.”

Photo by Colleen P (legos by Robbie), used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 20, 2016, 9:10 a.m.
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