Carnival of Journalism

Can newspapers learn anything from the Obama campaign?

obamaThis is my entry in the November Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Adam Tinworth.

The election is over, and it’s a while before the governing begins, so political pundits and reporters have begun their deconstruction of Barack Obama‘s winning presidential campaign.

Like many, I’ve been amazed at the efficiency and determination of the campaign in all its facets – fundraising, organizing, technology, message-discipline. It is doubtless to be the subject of countless political science dissertations in coming years, and politicians of all stripes will envy it and wish to replicate it.

And while it’s dangerous to draw parallels between a political campaign and a business plan, today I’m wondering what newspaper companies could learn from Obama’s historic campaign. Here are a few take-aways I’ll throw out for discussion:

Excel at leadership: Whatever you think of his politics, Obama led his campaign with poise and calm. While John McCain “suspended” his campaign to deal with the financial crisis, Obama maintained a calm head and famously said “a president should be able to do two things at one time.” Obama’s top advisers, too, kept cool heads – Axelrod, Plouffe, Gibbs – were cool heads in the midst of a tempestuous campaign.

Newspaper leadership doesn’t seem too calm right now. They chase quarterly profit margins by laying off hundreds of workers, producing short-term gains with long-term harmful consequences for their products. In this way, their actions are more in line with the McCain campaign’s “news cycle” approach to the election.

Embrace technology: Hillary Clinton and John McCain both failed to adequately appreciate the power of the Internet to mobilize people and spread their message. McCain’s web site urged people to earn “points” by writing blog posts and commenting on liberal sites. Obama’s team used the Internet to pull in millions of small-dollar donors and organize them to drive up participation.

Empower your people: Daniel Bachhuber of CoPress mentioned this. “they will allow you to do your job better.” Obama’s team created “Camp Obama,” a two-day training session that gave volunteers the tools they needed to go out and do their campaign jobs. (see this NPR story for more info). They then relied on those volunteers to do the jobs. Can newspaper journalists do something similar? Retreat from a top-down management model to a more decentralized structure? Invest more in training?

Energize your community: Obama’s web site looks a lot like other campaign web sites, but the key ingredient was the my.barackobama.com part of the site. It allowed eager supporters to connect with others in their area, who shared their interests, and it also built up a reliable database of contacts. Some news organizations have had success with creating similar social networks among their readers. More needs to be done in this arena. I’m not talking about citizen journalism, but something more to connect readers to each other and to the news web site.

Enhance your brand: The Obama Campaign’s branding was forward-thinking, yet relied on traditional red, white and blue color schemes. How many news sites can say their logo is forward-thinking?  Perhaps it’s time to jettison the staid Old English font on the web site and think in terms of visuals. Think about the Apple logo, the WordPress logo, or other examples. Move beyond type and create a brand/logo for the future that will stick in people’s minds.

Thoughts? Other suggestions.

Jack Lail has a great compendium of links to others who have written about “lessons” from the Obama campaign.

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