Change-o-meter: Another Online Tool To Measure Obama’s Promises

The “Yes We Might” meme seems to have infected another online host. Slate.com has rolled out an irreverent and  informative daily roundup of the amount of progress Obama made in changing Washington called the Change-O-Meter.

change-o-meter

As you can see, this slightly ironic take on the Obameter idea is a typical Slate offering, and nothing like the idea suggested by yours truly to build a collaborative online platform for activism around Obama’s agenda. However, Slate’s offering actually has arguably more accountability than the Obameter, in the form of a chat that explains the criteria for the daily rating. Also, the witty roundup of political news from a critical perspective is more likely to gain an audience than the dry presentation of promises by the Obameter.

I’ll give the Slate guys an A for doing well for what they were trying to do, but it’s still not the full hover car.

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Clark Kent Has A New Boss

This post is a follow up to the previous post, and the first in what I hope will be a series of blogs investigating the future of political communications (the topic of my ongoing undergrad thesis).

Investigative reporting can be thought of as a public good that is undervalued by most individuals, in that most people don’t recognize the value of investigative reporting to their well being. Under the previous price regime, the supply of the public good was below the socially optimal level as a result of the high cost of information gathering by journalists and the high cost of distributing information. The result was local monopolies (newspapers, radio stations, network TV) on information gathering and distribution that supplied the surplus profits to pay for the public good.

Clark Kent Has New Boss

He Works for Pro Publica Now

Online, the economy of information functions much differently and we shouldn’t fear a new constellation of political communication. Fewer firms can produce more investigative reporting, as the price of gathering and distributing information diminish signifigantly. Local monopolies fall on the basis of diminished profits, but the level of provision of the public good actually increases as a result of increased productivity and lower barriers to entry. A citizen in Cincinnati is better off using Craigslist and relying on ProPublica to investigate public officials than it would be to pay for their local paper to maintain a DC branch, or simply pass along AP reporting.

Whether or not that citizen becomes aware of the information produced by Propublica’s investigations is a seperate, but not unrelated question that has serious implications for the future of political communication. On this front, I think the internet poses a more serious challenge to current forms of democratic practice. However, as I mentioned in a previous post on partisanship and media organization, informational cocoons entail some trade-off between deliberation and participation. Perhaps our John Doe from Cincinnati doesn’t encounter the political news as a result of his no longer buying the local paper; his neighber Jane Doe down the street is able to participate in lots of new ways using online technology and is more likely to participate as a result.

This points to an interesting and underresearched empirical question: does selective exposure to political news increase or decrease political knowledge by the median voter.

Cool Ideas I Wish I Had Thought of No. 1

Via new poster David Platzer, I came across a crazy little web platform called LittleSis. LittleSis is an interesting collaborative effort, a sort of involuntary facebook for the political and media elite. It’s like Sourcewatch combined with Wikipedia.

LittleSis = The Public's Equivalent of Big Brother

LittleSis = The Public's Equivalent of Big Brother

Not sure it’s the kind of thing I’ll use regularly (or ever), but these kinds of online resources are interesting because of how they can be used for basic research in the early stages of stories by investigative journalists and bloggers. Hypothetically, they also make for distributed reporting, although I believe such platforms are best utilized by leaders within communities. They are cool tools that work best when you have people who are going to use them. Also, such platforms make for rad mash-ups. Check out the Sunshine Foundation for more information on similar kinds of initiatives.

These kinds of nonprofit pro-transparency initiatives, along with ProPublica are broadening the definition of political journalism in the US. Frankly, such nonprofit investigative reporting institutions make me less concerned with the declining influence of the newspaper in American political communications.

“Obameter”: Close, but No Hover Car

Politifact, a next-gen online journalism project from the St. Petersberg Times put together an online resource that tracks the 510 campaign promises Obama made during the course of the election called the Obameter. It’s a clever start. The site isn’t perfect, but it shows my idea of creating a platform to hold Obama accountable to his campaign promises has caught on elsewhere under a different guise. Unfortunately, I think the Obameter lacks the potential of a more activist, participatory platform, because there is no method to use the facts presented to place pressure on Obama. It is a list – not a network. The data represented on the site could be easily tweaked to create a community that would take action to pressure Obama to fulfill his agenda. Even without an activist component, the platform would be more interesting if it had a more open interface.

The Obameter allows you to track campaign promises by subject, or by the amount of progress (or lack there of) made on each promise. It isn’t clear how the changes tracked by Politifact researchers are made, or if there is a way of generating feedback from readers. Politifact is a useful innovation for the Times, and they should be commended for pursuing a new method of journalistic investigation – comprehensive online information tracking resources on specific topics are a natural step in adapting journalistic practice to the online environment. Legacy journalism institutions have a potential niche in the age of free content if they can find a way to provide a seal of approval that verifies aggregated sources while making use of the communities engagement with the story.

Unfortunately, this project has no participatory element, and the work of the researchers can’t be assisted (or challenged) by laypeople. Even an innovative, interesting next gen journalism project like the Obameter demonstrates the newspaper industry’s inability to connect reporters with the communities that they serve. A more open interface, that solicited user feedback, showed a more finely granulated degree of information on each promise, and aggregated news stories and blog posts in a more comprehensive manner (and wasn’t limited to official sources), would be more engaging and would give users a reason to stay at the site. Readers would have more interest in the information and could actually make some use of it. It would be a much more valuable resource to many more people.

In the new media environment journalists shouldn’t cease to be professionals, but the nature of profession will have to change. They should consider themselves leaders, guiding communities towards knowledgeable exchange instead of the source of factual authority. Even in projects where aggregation is the goal, legacy journalistic institutions see themselves as the arbiters of the validity of information, as opposed to a resource that facilitates conversation amongst engaged readers.