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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inauguration let old media show a world audience some news tricks

(Vickey Williams)

Last week's U.S. presidential inauguration provided the perfect venue for digital technology to power a level of news coverage heretofore unimaginable. A world audience awaited the efforts of those traditional media outlets smart enough to plan ahead and try something new.

Legacy news organizations apparently are working through their long-held suspicion of user-generated content. Online coverage of Barack Obama's swearing in and the rest of the day's events were highlighted by a number of remarkable pro-am partnerships that spelled innovation for National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the New York Times and others.

Some were event-specific projects, others the result of longer-term collaborations. Some played off what we've been told is the digital native generation's desire to use technology to create. Another type of interactive experience could be had via new tools that let people on the Internet peek over the shoulders of fellow users to see who else was watching what and when.

A number of news organizations have been working for a couple of years to take reporting to a more granular level - exploiting local databases, linking with Google maps and otherwise going hyper-local. Some of the inauguration coverage took this to full blossom.

If you owned a camera and were in Washington - or in some cases even if you weren't - it's likely your favorite news outlet wanted to hear from you.

In CNN's The Moment project, the network collected hundreds of still photos from D.C. visitors taken at the precise moment Obama raised his hand for the oath of office. It ran the images through Microsoft's Photosynth technology to power amazing three-dimensional, interactive images.


I almost overlooked the most poignant of the three versions CNN posted - two built from photos taken by the crowds attending the inaugural and another built from 267 shots sent in by people who watched from home or at work. Alongside screens showing the same frozen image, people submitted photos of infants in bassinets, seniors in their housecoats and students in classrooms. Subjects toasted with champagne, or were arm in arm with work colleagues, or were mid-flight on an airplane.

The Washington Post created a mosaic built from hundreds of inaugural images taken by its own staff, photographers for the Associated Press and submitted by the public. The New York Times capitalized on the audience it's built through a presence on Facebook.

Washington Post

National Public Radio - in partnership with American University and CBS News - went full-bore multimedia by hosting an inauguration feed that invited submissions and links via Twitter, iPhone, Google Phone, Flickr or YouTube.


The top digital traffic of the day, however, was aimed at sites that had promised streaming video. Overwhelming volume caused some disappointments but on the whole, technology effectively generated a host of new user experiences.

Consider this visualization based on Twitter tweets mentioning Obama or the inauguration beginning the day before the inauguration and continuing through Wednesday morning. Stick with it for the fireworks that start on Tuesday about 7 a.m. and continue to light up a world map through the day.

Tracy Boyer, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, writes a blog on interactive multimedia and cited other examples here. Megan Taylor, who writes at MediaShift, produced a nice roundup of other interesting ways the inauguration was covered online, though I was sorry to see her raise the query "but is it journalism?" Studies on how people say they want to receive news and other information they care about would indicate that would only be beating a dead horse.

A survey conducted late last year and just released by the University of Southern California Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center and global PR agency Ketchum, looks further into the melding of media channels and functionality. For example, people who visit shopping sites also look to reader comments and reviews found there, the study's authors note, as consumers increasingly want to know the experiences of their online peers.

An ideal tool for that is Hot Trends. It serves up a list, updated about every hour, of the top 100 Google searches. When I plugged into it at 2:30 p.m. on inauguration day here's some of what I found:

People were checking out every factoid related to the events, as they heard them reported by mainstream media. For example, American composer John Williams, who arranged the piece Air and Simple Gifts played just before the swearing in, performed by a quartet including Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman made the list. So did Aretha Franklin and the song she performed, My Country 'Tis of Thee. You get the idea.

The top search among the list of 100 was for "inauguration day 2009 streaming" and similar searches for "inauguration on the web," "live feed" and such took up another 10 slots.

As for traditional media, eight searches were for people trying to get to CNN or some portion of its Web site; six were for MSNBC; four for NBC; six for CBS; five for NPR; five for ABC; three for CSPAN; two for FOX; and one for CBS. In the snapshot I captured, no newspaper made the list. We could hope it was because those sites are captured in favorites lists and didn't require a fresh search.

It's an interesting time, when the Web sites of legacy media companies try to take on the functions of social networks, and a social network like MySpace launches a project you'd more likely expect to see on reality TV.

Jerry Swerling, founder and director of the USC Annenberg SPR Center, notes that one impact of newer media formats, such as blogs and news feeds, has been that they've given people additional channels through which to access established sources. New opportunities arise with the iteration of all of those channels being able to link with one another, Swerling said, "allowing more collaboration and participation than ever."

He also noted that online audiences still put a premium on accuracy and credibility. In this regard, newspapers should have a leg up. As Readership Institute research has shown, and previous posts here emphasized, newspapers should be well-served by their strong brands, which could be extended in new ways.

By Vickey Williams (
Vickey Williams is director of the Media Management Center's Digital Workforce Initiative.

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