For the first major election since NPR Digital Services introduced digital publishing software designed to bolster stations’ online news operations, developers in the Boston-based unit built a platform for local outlets to share and spotlight each other's election night coverage.
Battleground, a live blog that aggregated Election Day tweets and news reports from 11 stations in nine states, was barely promoted on NPR.org, but 33 stations plugged it into on their own websites — often adjacent to their local news blogs.
Live blogging commenced on Battleground at 4:00 p.m. EST Nov. 6 and wound down shortly after midnight. The 144 posts took a variety of media formats: live tweets from the headquarters of Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a YouTube video interview with retiring Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank and audio of a robocall falsely instructing Florida voters that they could wait to cast their ballots the next day.
During its eight hours as a live blog, Battleground received a total of more than 22,000 unique page views.
The Digital Services team conceived Battleground as a platform for featuring local stations’ content, and developed and implemented its design and aggregation mechanics in a month, according to Todd Mundt, editorial director of NPR Digital Services, and Will Snyder, digital news specialist.
“What we were realizing is that we were offering stations stuff that NPR was doing, and that we weren’t providing anything that showed what stations were doing,” Snyder said.
“Election night was just such the perfect scenario for everything, because it is local stories at a national event,” he said. “A lot of these member stations know their neighborhoods inside and out. They know it better than we do from a national perspective, so let’s give them a platform where they can add that content to the dialogue.”
Since Battleground was an experiment that launched in a very short time period, Mundt said, he invited stations with strong digital newsgathering capacity to participate. Each had to employ a digital news specialist and reporters who are active on Twitter. Participants also had to be located in a state where issues of national interest were on the ballot. An exception was WAMU in Washington, D.C., chosen for its newsgathering capacity and proximity to the swing state of Virginia.
“I think that sometimes the nature of experiment and sometimes the nature of human frailty is that we were spinning this up relatively quickly, trying to figure out who we knew and who might go for this,” Mundt said. “We could go back and maybe discover that there’s a strong news operation that we forgot.”
As a pilot station for NPR’s Core Publisher news blogging platform, Colorado’s KUNC was among the stations that were ready and willing to contribute to Battleground. The station, located in Greeley, also has a journalist who works full time on digital news.
Jim Hill, KUNC digital media manager, met Snyder during the first presidential debate, in Denver Oct. 3. Hill managed KUNC’s live blog during the debate, and some of his posts were worked into NPR’s national coverage. He is the only member of the KUNC news team who produces live online coverage. During election night and other major events, KUNC reporters and hosts send him tidbits of news from the field, and he converts them into blog posts and tweets.
“Content-wise I thought it was excellent,” Hill said of Battleground. The blog presented multiple reports on the top stories of election night, and tied them all together in “a really important way,” he said. Considering that the technology behind Battleground was experimental, “I think it was more a test of the concept,” he said.
KUNC was among the stations whose digital reports got the most traction on Battleground, according to Mundt and Snyder. The blog’s biggest traffic gains came from coverage of state ballot referendums, including measures to legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington State. Both KUNC and Seattle’s KPLU, another Battleground station, reported on the measures throughout the night.
In addition, one of Battleground’s last tweets of the 2012 election, an AP report announcing approval of Maine’s ballot to legalize same-sex marriage, accounted for nearly 40 percent of the project’s 2,400 total retweets.
PBS NewsHour also amped up its digital reporting on election night, and the response from web users was beyond the capacity of its servers. So many people clicked on its live stream and live blog coverage that the servers crashed, preventing NewsHour from tracking usage stats, according to spokesperson Anne Bell. But the program’s feed on live streaming website Ustream.tv had more than 500,000 total views.
NewsHour’s election night special also hit the mark with traditional TV ratings. More than 6 million viewers tuned into the live coverage, topping audiences for NewsHour’s election night specials from both 2008 and 2004.