They may be scripted down to the last fist pump but, if nothing else, the 2012 Democratic and Republican national conventions should be remembered as a turning point for the news business. That’s because the numbers, and the buzz, make a pretty convincing case that social media took the mantle from traditional media in covering the Charlotte and Tampa confabs. Using hashtags in place of actual words and names may, God help us, finally be warranted—at least in the case of #DNC2012 and #RNC2012.
Before we even get to the numbers that make that case, it’s worth noting that many media pundits have cheered this development as if it’s media evolution at its best. The knock on the conventions is that they don’t really produce anything newsworthy but continue to devour now-precious news industry resources. With 15,000 press passes issued at each convention—a number that has held mysteriously steady despite other signs of decline—the best an enterprising reporter can hope for is getting to know future pols before they’re media stars or finding some interesting fringe characters outside the convention hall.
The argument in favor of passing the baton to social media goes something like this: the conventions are so stage-managed and the attendees so media savvy that what the audience requires isn’t wise interpretation or skillful narrative but direct, unfettered, real-time access that allows the audience to zoom in or out from granular to big-picture depending on their level of engagement. Whether you agree with this focus-on-your-strengths mantra or liken it to giving away your crown jewels, it appears to be happening.
The changes in media coverage between 2008 and 2012 couldn’t be more stark and the rise of social media over the last four years looks to be at least as big a factor as the decline of traditional media in that same timeframe. The headline figure is broadcast coverage and TV ratings. This year the big three networks cut their primetime coverage of the conventions from three hours a night to one while Nielsen released figures showing a 23% drop in viewership between John McCain’s speech in 2008 and Mitt Romney’s in 2012 (the drop from Palin to Ryan was a whopping 41%.) All of which is in line with declining viewership over recent years (2008 appears to be the anomaly).
Other traditional media have pulled back as the audience for their brand of coverage has declined, too. The Associated Press had 90 staffers on the ground for each event in 2008; this year the wire service sent just third of that number. Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations, blamed the lack of news, not financial strains, for cutbacks on the conventions. “They’re now scripted affairs. In terms of there being any unforegone conclusions, that seems unlikely,” he told Ebyline.
The more interesting trend to document, however, is the stunning transformation of social media from its usual role as auxiliary platform into perhaps the biggest pipe feeding information. And it’s not just the audience numbers that matter, it’s the increasingly visible and essential role that Silicon Valley is playing. Facebook, Twitter and Google sent their own representatives to the conventions to encourage convention speakers to actively use their social media platforms. The conventions themselves shifted much of their media strategy to YouTube, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Pinterest, Flickr and Instagram. CNN and Facebook partnered on an app that parses the latter’s data to track mentions and trends on the candidates while Foursquare and TIME got together to provide “political animal” badges and interactive maps, which allow users to find out about convention events and track down friends. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one side of these partnerships was essential and one was a brand name that lent added credibility but probably could have been swapped out for a competitor.
And then there are the numbers. During the Republican convention—from Aug. 27 to 30–there were more than 4 million tweets related to the event, and during peak moments, there were around 15,000 tweets a minute. (Ironically, it was President Barack Obama’s response on Twitter to Clint Eastwood’s presentation that received the most re-tweets during the Republican event.) Compare that to just 360,000 tweets in total between the Democratic and Republican conventions in 2008, according to Adam Sharp, the head of Twitter’s government, news and social innovation team. The YouTube channel of the Republican event drew 2.8 million viewers while Google says that 300,000 hours of live-streaming were viewed.
So is there still a real role for traditional media beyond getting to know the next Marco Rubio? Consider that even with far fewer viewers than in the past, Romney’s speech still garnered 30 million people. Like the Olympics, there’s so much going on that people want to digest it in little bits, socially, as they see fit but when something big happens they want to be watching it with everyone else. And while Twitter’s much-buzzed political index can be used by anyone, Google stats show that it turns up most frequently in news searches indicating that a great many people would rather let a journalist or blogger summarize their findings than learn to use it themselves. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LA Times sent around 30, 19 and 12 staffers to each event, respectively, and managed to produce meaningful copy. The trick for the news business is to adapt and provide something of added value—maybe just don’t spend $60 million doing it.