“Everything” has changed: Ormiston on election coverage

Susan_OrmistonSusan Ormiston is a correspondent on CBC’s The National. As well as reporting from many parts of the world, Ormiston has been involved in nearly every CBC election reporting team since 1984. She was also host of Inside Media on CBC Newsworld for two years.

These days, she is heading up Ormiston Online on CBC.ca, which is an election portal dedicated to being a “guide to the election on the web.” For this project, Ormiston and her team are following everything “from blogs to online videos to tweets” to “watch how this election evolves” online.

As a part of the J-Source Election ’08 Coverage series, we asked Susan Ormiston a few questions about online coverage of elections, what’s changed and how all the new technology really affects the quality of journalism produced.

Q: What has changed in terms of online coverage since previous elections?

S.O.: Everything. It’s only two years since the last Canadian federal
election but an eternity in web years. The U.S led the way, particularly
with the American primaries and now the U.S. election. Obama’s team has
been the arguable leader on internet campaign strategies. Canada lags
behind. But in terms of coverage we have many new features. Reporters
on the trail ‘blog’ election bytes which are posted in real time on
Canada Votes on cbc.ca. We have election features online like Reality
Check, The Spin and Daily Doodles. We’re using Skype for our Your Turn
features nightly. We encourage voters to upload their pictures and
videos of the campaign. And, of course, we developed a brand new full
service feature to cover the internet on Ormiston Online.

Q: In your opinion, are the changes
for the better? Is it only the technology that has changed or do all
these new tools substantially change the face of journalism?

Yes, I think in the main, the changes are positive. Much more than
technological change, the Internet in an election has forced open the
gatekeepers’ doors. As I said before, the parties can’t control the
messaging as they might want to and the conventional media has to give
space to the online media who’s demanding a say in what’s covered,
what’s important and what isn’t. It’s fascinating. On the negative side
there is potential for lies to become perceived truths online. Think the swiftboat campaign in a previous U.S. election.

Q: The Internet is certainly changing
campaigning from a political perspective, but how is all this online
activity changing the journalism that comes out of an election?

S.O.: It’s evolving. It’s a young medium in the political life of
Canada. On the positive side, it identifies stories that haven’t
previously made the cut on more conventional media. And it has
revealed much about campaign tactics; staged events, negative web
platforms, questionable candidates. On the negative side, it gives
oxygen to political moments that don’t deserve coverage. And it can
inflate mistruths, which are then difficult to refute. The beauty of
online activity, though, is that, in the heated  climate of an election,
it can self-correct. Bloggers’ postings are under even more scrutiny by
the online community and by us.

Q: This election comes at a time when news organizations are stretched financially. Will this election get the kind of in-depth coverage it deserves?

S.O.: Yes. News budgets have been shrinking for more than a decade. We’ve had many elections. CBC News throws a big net over election coverage; it’s one of the things we are known for and do exceptionally well.

Q: How did the Ormiston Online project develop? What was the reasoning behind it?

S.O.: Reasoning? You think projects are rational? Kidding. It began as a simple challenge: How can we cover the election on the Internet? That is, beyond putting our product on the Internet, how do we cover what happens ON THE INTERNET. We predicted that the Internet campaign would be more of a factor than ever before and we were right.

Q: What did it take to pull it off?

S.O.: Perseverance. The design part of the project took a lot of planning. When Ormiston Online went live the day of the election call we had to work out a lot of bugs at the same time as promoting the brand. We were attempting something new, a bridge between conventional and online media. The site isn’t a blog and isn’t text based. It’s a vlog really. Its central window for content is video. It was like we were starting a whole new channel, online. Originally there were three of us marshalling the project along; at the start of the election campaign we added several more with various skills for the five week campaign.The team runs a live website, with two or three video reports daily; a YouTube channel, Facebook page,Twitter page, comments, and emails. We also prepare separate researched reports daily for CBC Radio programming, CBC TV’s The National, CBC News Sunday and CBC Newsworld.  It’s a pretty full day, every day.

Q: Ormiston Online has partnered with Ryerson University’s Infoscape Research Lab. How did a university research lab get involved with a mainstream media project? What are the goals of the partnership?

S.O.: We called them. We knew from research that Infoscape was one of the few places in Canada specifically looking at the internet and politics. In the previous Ontario election they were doing useful analysis of trends. We decided early on we needed analytical content for the masses of online information on the Canadian election and social networking. Infoscape Lab was a perfect fit. They have the knowledge and ability to track trends that we couldn’t. We developed a partnership which benefitted us both.

Q: You are covering this election in a way that’s never been done before. What are you learning from this project?

S.O.: What am I learning? Tonnes! 

  • That so many Canadians want a way in which to influence and comment on Canadian politics 
  • That political parties are having to give up some control of their
    message in the online world, and so do conventional media
  • That the news cycle is even quicker online
  • That the internet is an effective tool for protest, i.e.the Green Party
    debate, and a good forum to discuss issues that aren’t necessarily
    ballot box questions
  • That there is a lot of creativity amongst Canadians – videos, cartoons, poems

Q: User-generated content, once the sole territory of alternative, citizen journalism sites, is making its way into mainstream media outlets. Is this a positive step? How does it change, if at all, the role of a journalist?

S.O.: We love UGC. We’d like to see more. It adds potentially millions more eyes to our reporting. It’s also incredibly creative and often funny. Check out  the UGC videos that have emerged from this election. We post some on Ormiston Online and then there’s this other little channel called YouTube However, we’ve found that Canadians have been slow to catch on to UGC in general. It’s not showing up in a significant way on our websites. Canadians are big on social networking, but less so at this stage on citizen journalism. As for journalists, our role should be still, a filter. Searching for balance, fairness and facts. Like always.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion in the U.S. about the importance of bloggers and the star treatment they were given at the U.S. conventions. From your work covering the campaigns online, how important are individual bloggers (those not affiliated with a media outlet) to the news coming out of this campaign?

S.O.: Bloggers have had an important role in this campaign. While there are about 750 listed as political bloggers on ‘Blogging Tories’, ‘Liblogs’,  ‘Dippers’, and the like, we’ve found that only 10 per cent are generating 20 per cent of the linkages.That tells us there is an ‘elite’ group of active political bloggers; meaning those who are posting regularly and researching unique stories. They are mostly partisan, but there are active checks and balances on that. They often reveal tips, which need checking out, but start the ball of yarn rolling. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes not.  Bloggers also showcase what’s being talked about that isn’t yet a headline from the campaign trail. For example, we saw the online arts community building steam long before it emerged in conventional media. Bloggers have told us they’re frustrated with a lack of debate over the Afghan mission during this election, even though party leaders don’t want to talk about it.

Q: Can you speak to the challenges of covering 5 parties? With only two in the U.S., in depth knowledge, and therefore coverage, is surely much easier, but here in Canada with the Greens, the Bloc and the NDP plus the two main parties, so much more is required. How well are media outlets meeting this challenge?

S.O.: We have covered multiple parties in this country for a long time. I’m not sure that a two party U.S. system is easier to cover than ours. The danger is to assume that Americans fall neatly into those two groups which they don’t. You could argue more parties offers a wider menu from which Canadians can choose. It does mean CBC and others add more reporters to regular party coverage, which is a good thing. The challenge is providing balanced coverage on the main news programs, which have limited time. 24/7 programming at Newsworld opens up space and then there is the Internet.

Q: How important are social networking tools in a journalist’s toolbox these days?

S.O.: Invaluable for finding people who are passionate about certain issues. Good for getting an overview of what’s attracting attention. The Canadian Internet Project (CIP) confirms for us that social networking is transforming the online experience. Fifty per cent of Internet users under 30 have visited a social networking site, a quarter of young adults go there once a day and amazingly, one in five Canadians over 60 have also visited them. Again, I think conventional media is catching up to online tools and we’ll see a lot more use of them in the future.  

Q: Hard news hits the web first. Has this improved the quality of the work produced for newspapers and nightly newscasts, as they are forced to use these for more in-depth stories and coverage? Or, is the reverse true, with the hard news already covered on the web, do the later editions suffer? Are they watered down?

S.O.: 24/7 news in whatever format has dramatically changed scheduled news programs like The National and newspapers. The real challenge is to provide value added coverage at night or in the morning paper. There is much merit in reflective and investigative journalism, even though it seems we barely have time for it. I’ve been persuaded many times in my career that gathering up all the facts, and comments and characters in a thoughtful piece can provide more than the daily deluge of information moment to moment. People need a guide even more. What is important? What should I focus on? What does todays news mean in the overall picture? Who should I care about and why?

Q: What kind of innovative or unique types of coverage have you found this year that were not present in previous elections?

S.O.: Mostly ways to troll people’s opinion or comment. So things I’ve mentioned above; user generated content. Skype questions and answers. Reporters campaign blogging. Blackberries rule.

Q: Is user/reader/viewer/listener fatigue more of a concern these days for news outlets with the onslaught of online coverage?

S.O.: Well you might think so. But according to the Canadian Internet Project (CIP), while the Internet has bit into conventional media use, “the 2007 study shows online activities appear to supplement rather than displace traditional media use.” The study’s director, Professor Charles Zamaria at Ryerson University, said: “In general we found that Internet users are not finding time to be online by taking away from their traditional media diet. In many ways, media activity just begets more media activity.” However, by the end of this campaign, I will be fatigued, trying to keep pace with the onslaught of the election on the internet.