“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.