Unconventional Coverage

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Here come the dot-com political conventions. But will constituents follow?

At the Republican National Convention--opening July 31 in Philadelphia--and at next month's Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Web sites are poised to show the most dramatic demonstration yet of the convergence of print, broadcast and Web media.

At least a dozen commercial Web ventures will offer video of the conventions on their sites. Both America Online and Pseudo.com will have convention skyboxes, a la the broadcast TV networks, with Pseudo.com Webcasting each convention live 12 hours a day.

That doesn't count non-commercial sites that will broadcast, including the political parties' sites.

Many newspapers are doing Web TV shows or sites, as are magazines, broadcast networks, cable channels, Web portals and political Web sites.


All of this will happen despite some media executives' admission that the public's interest in the conventions may be slipping and that the possibility for generating profits from convention Web coverage may not be great. Major broadcast TV networks have cut back coverage, but there will be at least four cable networks airing the conventions--raising doubts that people will go online to watch convention video at all.

"The fad is technology, but the reality is that more people will read our print edition than will ever look at the dot-coms," said John Fox Sullivan, publisher of the weekly National Journal, which will publish 40-page dailies during both the GOP event and the Democratic National Convention, which opens Aug. 14.

Still, media are investing heavily in the Web.

"It's well worth the investment," said Steve Capus, executive producer of MSNBC's "The News With Brian Williams" and of the cable network's convention coverage (some of which will be on the MSNBC.com Web site). "There are [some] people who [can view] it on the Internet now, but the proportion will change, and we are laying the groundwork."

Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, now exec VP at Voter.com, sees the convention as the true test of a political Web site.

"It is part of building our brand and reputation as doing the best job of being a political Web site," he said. "If we fulfill [users' needs] in a really interesting and first-rate way, then that should build our site."


Media have long used conventions to showcase technological capabilities. TV networks, for instance, used the occasion to debut the latest in handheld cameras.

Newspapers and magazines have also stuffed the convention-coverage ballot box, offering everything from special editions to publicity-driven parties with political insiders.

That's happening this time, too.

In addition to the National Journal, the Weekly Standard and The Washington Post will offer convention dailies, just as they did four years ago. The National Journal will deliver a 20,000-circulation, 40-page daily to the hotel doors of delegates and the media.

The Post will print a 10,000-circulation, 20-page convention edition each day and is selling combined Post and convention edition ads.

The Weekly Standard will print its regular weekly edition and three special 12-to-16-page daily editions.

Newspapers in Philadelphia and Los Angeles will do special sections.

George and Playboy, as well as The Los Angeles Times, are hosting parties or benefits at convention time.


On TV, cable's growth as the home of convention coverage continues as Fox News Channel joins CNN and MSNBC. Comcast, the cable company based in Philadelphia that owns the GOP convention site, also will cover the convention for its CN8 news channel; that coverage will be carried by other cable providers.

In the "gee whiz" technology role, Congressional Quarterly is working with Aether Systems and Metrocall to provide remote access to CQ and Washington-Post.com via two-way e-mail pagers.

But the conventions' technology du jour is clearly the Web. The change from four years ago is dramatic. Last time, several companies--including CNN, America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy and MSNBC.com--offered convention coverage. This year, virtually every media company offers major Web coverage.

"We are building a TV studio in our work space for the first time," said Mark Stencel, editor of The Washington Post's OnPolitics.com, in a refrain repeated by other media companies. "The Web is pushing us in new directions."


Traditional print publications such as the Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times will offer video reports or programs on their Web sites, along with the latest print stories.

The Los Angeles Times, recently bought by Tribune Co., is joining with other Tribune and former Times-Mirror papers in a convention TV segment.

"The idea was, instead of talking about synergism, to really synergize by doing a Web broadcast featuring political reporters from all the publications getting together each day," said Dirk Mathison, political editor of latimes.com, adding that links to the segment will be on all Tribune Co. newspaper sites.

The Los Angeles Times also will offer audio analysis by Times reporters, pictures from a live 360-degree convention camera and the ability to search and view convention speeches after the fact.

The New York Times' site will offer a joint 15-minute Webcast with abcnews.com called "Political Points" twice a night.

Broadcast and cable networks are using their Web sites for extensive coverage to highlight their regular channels' coverage and to offer specially tailored content.

"We are looking to break some new ground," said Bernie Gershon, senior VP and general manager of ABCNews.com. "There are a lot of political junkies going online."

The abcnews.com site--partly sponsored by Real Networks, a Web content-streaming company--will have streaming video and rich text, and will give Web surfers the choice of seeing every speech, commentary or interview. In addition to the joint program with The New York Times' online arm, ABCNews.com will take Sam Donaldson's program and Ann Compton's current Web programs to the convention and will add a 9 p.m. Webcast.


At MSNBC.com, the site will have hourly video updates produced with National Journal's Hotline, a second edition of its "Politics Only" show and live coverage of the convention.

"We will have the best collaboration, the top people from NBC News, plus National Journal plus Newsweek," said Mike Silberman, executive editor. "We understand how to do converged coverage better than anyone out there."

CNN's allpolitics.com site will have live coverage and archived pieces, along with news and graphics.

"Our mission has not changed; what has changed is the growth of CNN interactive, the number of people who can access us, the capability for video," said Carin Dessauer, executive editor of CNN interactive.

Fox News channel will have a site featuring news, video and interactive features.

Web portals and online political sites also are offering extensive coverage.

America Online's coverage (much of which will be carried on the company's other services, including CompuServe) will feature a live 24-hour Webcam, a "pre-game" streamed Web show, chats, delegate diaries and, for those with high-speed connections, live feeds of convention speeches.

Voter.com's site will include a one-hour program featuring Mr. Bernstein, Ben Stein, Jack Germond, P.J. O'Rourke and Tucker Carlson.

Pseudo Program's Pseudo.com is using the convention to highlight its relaunch as a live broadband video network. Starting with a one-hour show produced with George and featuring Editor in Chief Frank Lalli at each convention, Pseudo will go live for 12 hours each day. Visitors to the Pseudo.com site will get a choice of seven to eight video and audio feeds, as well as live hosted coverage running from noon to midnight on the days of the convention.

"It's like the difference between watching TV and going to a Super Bowl party," said Jeanne Meyer, senior VP. "This is a high-profile event that is drawing a lot of attention. We see it as an opportunity to expose a whole new audience."

Is there really that much interest in the conventions? Even some media companies have doubts. But they say their sites are unique, and it is the other guys' sites that may not be necessary.


"There will be people looking for a trusted source," said OnPolitics' Mr. Stencel.

"We already have a substantial user base," said ABCNews.com's Mr. Gershon. "If you are going to spend a large portion of your budget on a Web site with no association with a major broadcasting network, it may not be cost-effective."

"If you were George Bush and wanted to do an interview, who would you rather go to--NBC, where you could be on NBC, MSNBC and MSNBC.com, or Pseudo.com?" asks Mike Silberman, executive editor of MSNBC.com


Voter.com's Mr. Bernstein said looking at the convention coverage in terms of total hits may not be fair.

"It seems to me to get into a ratings war is to totally misunderstand what the Web is about," Mr. Bernstein said. "It is about finding your audience and providing the information it needs. What we have over the Post and The New York Times is that they are limited because, despite the unquestioned excellence of their coverage, they put on the stories of no other news sites. We can put on all the best from all the news organizations."

Pseudo.com's Ms. Meyer admits her site's extensive use of video may be premature.

"We are a little too early, but next election is a little too late," she said. "It is important to get into the game now, to show the capability of what the new medium can do, and the media world will watch."

Copyright July 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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