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December 17, 2003

Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative

Dean's success puts pressure on a campaign narrative inherited from the pre-Internet era. There are changes underway that are not the normal evolution from cycle to cycle. More original reporting is needed on the "open" style emerging in politics. Here are some routes in.

For those who buy the premise that something’s happening in campaign 2004, there are hundreds of new stories potentially reportable out there. The campaign system has been de-centered in the open style pioneered by Howard Dean, although it must be added: not completely so, and not always convincingly so, not by Dean alone, and not necessarily to winning effect.

The Dean campaign, most agree, is the most different, taking the biggest departures. This is primarily visible in the influence of the Internet on his entire candidacy, but the influence of the Net is not confined to the Net anymore. That’s a big story, most of which has not been filled in.

Here are nine threads in a revised public narrative. Anyone can follow them to find vital stories that show us there is something happening in presidential politics, but not in the pattern we had grown to expect. And I do mean anyone willing to do such reporting, whether the title is citizen, student, weblogger, journalist, writer, linker, amateur, pro…

Nine Story Lines in a New Campaign Narrative

1.) The Control Revolution
2.) Donating Talent
3.) Distributed Ownership
4.) The Inactive Switch Sides
5.) Campaign as Curriculum
6.) The New Sociability in Politics
7.) The Discovery of Voice
8.) The Self Informing Citizenry
9.) It’s a Two Way World

So these nine items are not so much story ideas, as ideas for generating an arc of stories. You could call them points on a map of shifting terrain in politics. Maybe it is easiest to call them beats, as a newsroom would. But they are beats from beyond the standard master narrative, in which the baseline story of the campaign is winning the campaign.

To be a great reporter is hard and it takes experience. To author a timely report for intelligent use by others is not as hard, and there is no experience required. The reporter’s authority originates in a very simple claim: I was there, you were not, so please let me tell you about it. Citizens can claim that. Webloggers already do. (When they “blog” an event.) And journalists do it for a living. All have the chance to start telling us a different campaign story, which is there to be read as events unfold.

These notes treat only the Dean campaign, which has a head start; but innovation in politics goes well beyond him. Other candidates—and especially the Republican party, when it gets in gear—may well drive things in directions unknown as yet. Dean’s “discoveries,” if that is what they are, will not remain with him.

The Control Revolution: A top down model still operates, but overlaid with another. Give up some control and your supporters will do important work for you. They will add value, and because you don’t have to supervise or control it, the costs won’t mount at headquarters. Wherever control in the campaign is relinquished, even a little, politics is changing because the previous regime had tried to perfect “message control” from the center.

Of course anything can affect message delivery, so control of the message from the top was an attempt to control everything in the campaign— not just the candidate but supporters, the press, the feedback, the background, the mood. A simple document like daily talking points, distributed around so people know what line the campaign is taking, is a perfect summation of the control regime inherited by all players in 2004. The story of its demise, which is only a partial demise, needs careful tracking.

Here’s Zephyr Teachout, Dean’s director of Net organizing, in Ed Cone’s Baseline Magazine account, the fullest we have on the Dean departures.

“We had way too much e-mail to deal with, so we had to empower people in the states, let volunteers handle the e-mail in Oregon. It was very unorthodox.” So the campaign rushed to push away control. “When you build an organization in 17 states, with no money, you give away power as fast as you can,” says Teachout of those cash-strapped early days. “We had to let them have control, let them help the campaign how they wanted to help the campaign.”

Donating Talent: Follow the money is one of the biggest cliches in journalism, post-Watergate. Follow the talent rounds out the picture of who’s donating what to whom. People who donate their intellectual capital to Dean, who think up stuff or solve problems, are their own kind of campaign finance reform. Don’t give cash. Give of your mind, your learning, your problem solving skills, your code.

Who donates this way, why, and to what effect is not going to come from a Federal Election Commission report, so it will have to be reported out by journalists. Follow the story and it leads right to the gift economy, with its different rules for generating winners, and defining self-interest. Who knows what gift economies can do in presidential politics? Someone in tune with them (and willing to do the reporting) could tell us. Here’s Cone:

At one point, for instance, Teachout needed software developers to create a new Web tool that would allow volunteers to set up their own blogs and read news feeds. She used Blog for America to call for programmers who knew PHP, an open-source scripting language. Eighty-five developers responded almost immediately; more than 180 ended up working on the project.

Distributed Ownership:. The campaign is not “in” the same places it used to be because Dean has distributed ownership of it around to more people and networks of people. Important activities go on at the margins, and so the margins are not marginal anymore and the whole chart has to be redrawn. In fact there are now two campaigns, Campaign Out There, and Campaign at Burlington, where the payroll is. They talk.

Covering the campaign “out there” means finding key points where ownership of some project arguably important to Dean’s chances lies not with Dean or his paid advisors, but with supporters whose original work it is. They own it. What kind of “work” does the Campaign Out There actually do? What are the advantages of a distributed campaign for president and how far can they be pushed? That story line awaits its developers. From Samantha Shapiro’s cover piece in the New York Times magazine, Dec. 7, 2003 (now behind a pay wall):

A number of campaign staffers are in regular contact with Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, 14, who lives in Sitka, Alaska. Growing up on a remote Alaskan island, Kreiss-Tomkins has become especially adept at finding pen pals and online friends, and he now uses that skill on behalf of the Dean campaign, recruiting supporters through the Internet and then sending lists of e-mail addresses to the campaign.

The Inactive Switch Sides: Any time people are drawn into politics from inactivity there is a potential story. But the open style has unique advantages in calling out to those who once kept their distance from politics at the presidential level— or felt shut out. Some are switching sides— from spectator to engaged participant.

When people capable of being effective and entrepreneurial switch from totally inactive before to involved as a factor in the campaign today, the game has changed and the circle of knowledge has been expanded. New forms of intelligence are available to politics, but they endanger the old, and there is where the story line starts. This is Sterling Newberry from BOP (The Blogging of the President), a site where I am a co-editor.

The people who Dean and Trippi identified—and the Clark Movement found—are, in one sense, ordinary citizens. They are consumers, individuals you meet. Most are professionals, but in this age, almost everyone is. One cannot be a telephone worker without having training in a level of symbolic thinking that would have gotten you a degree in 1932. These people are used to being heard. They are used to fighting city hall, and winning, on a variety of issues— or they are young and still willing to fight. They push back on their management, or start their own companies. They are articulate, and they read widely. They buy books disproportionately to the population as a whole.

Many people who have turned out to be effective political actors, are not insiders, but people who took a wealth of experience from their careers and applied them to politics. The professionalization of society bears fruit: we make a living by relearning our own trades constantly, hence learning a new one is not alien.

Campaign as Curriculum: Much of what happens in and around the Dean movement seems to be about teaching and learning. One of the insights the Governor and his advisors had is: don’t organize to win when it’s not clear how you can win. Instead, organize to learn, and from that the way to win emerges. Internally, this meant Dean operatives had to recognize and work with concepts unfamiliar in politics, often taken over from the open source movement, Silicon Valley, and other haunts of the educated classes. Cone:

Almost from the start, the doctor made such information system concepts as “distributed intelligence” and “self-organizing networks” part of the basic philosophy and structure of his quest for the White House.

In the campaign “out there” the Dean curriculum is to teach people how to be active citizens again— including the most basic things in citizenship: post a flyer, run a meeting, attend a rally, have an argument, write a response, and recruit others to do all this with you, because you’re interested, it seems to matter, and there are places like weblogs where it is easily done. In all this activity, people are receiving an education. There’s a curriculum. But what are they learning? A good education writer could tell politics a new story. Cone again:

Blog for America readers, for instance, police themselves in terms of the tone and content of comments. When “trolls” blog jargon for hostile commenters looking to make trouble — come in with negative or provocative remarks, pro-Dean commenters react by pledging donations for each negative comment, which creates a disincentive for the trolls. After this idea was posted on the blog, the number of trolls diminished to almost zero.

The New Sociability in Politics: If there are new ways of gathering for the purpose of “doing” politics (and the meetups and smart mobs are that) then people do more than politics at those gatherings because that is what a human gathering is: always a big social event. It’s not that there’s “time to socialize” at a political meet-up. Rather, people are there for the sociability (they feel the desire to meet) which is perhaps suffused with politics— a subtler story to follow. Novelists, fiction writers who aspire, take note. Your skills needed here.

In 2004, the social “story” is graduating from sidebar status to a position closer to parity with the classic dispatch from inside the process. Coming from outside the process has as many narrative advantages now as inside baseball did during the era of command and control in presidential striving. Shapiro of the Times explains:

Dean supporters do not drive 200 miles through 10 inches of snow — as John Crabtree, 39, and Craig Fleming, 41, did to attend the November Dean meet-up in Fargo, N.D. — to see a political candidate or a representative of his staff. They drive that far to see each other…

People at all levels of the Dean campaign will tell you that its purpose is not just to elect Howard Dean president. Just as significant, they say, the point is to give people something to believe in, and to connect those people to one another. The point is to get them out of their houses and bring them together at barbecues, rallies and voting booths.

The Discovery of Voice: People never stopped talking about politics as the campaign grew to its over-controlled state. But they did stop talking about it as something they owned and could operate. By drastically multiplying the opportunities for speakers and actors, the style of campaign favored by Dean opens another story line in politics, which is all the discoveries people make about the conditions in which they were held voice-less (or inert) before. Inertia spills its secrets the moment you reverse and commit yourself to politics as an actor. Slow that film down and you have a story, maybe.

What I mean by voice is speaking in public, about issues and problems, to a community of some kind that is engaged in politics, and may react. (Therefore there is always some risk involved.) Webloggers for Dean are voices for Dean in this sense. If Dean’s success depends on others gaining voice, this poses all sorts of novel problems in listening, culling, feedback and encouragement. And the first time there is a big split in the Dean camp, or between Campaign Out There and Campaign at Burlington, the discovery of voice will take another fateful step. Cone:

A key way of carrying on a campaign-wide conversation is the comment area on Blog for America. More than 100,000 comments have appeared on the weblog since June 10, with as many as 2,200 coming in a single day. Gross assumes that about 5 percent of visitors actually read the comments, and maybe 1 percent make comments of their own. Many visitors have never heard the word “blog” before they come, says Gross, yet many commenters end up thinking of themselves as bloggers, too. That’s part of the conversation that informs the campaign.

The Self Informing Citizenry: Involvement is informative. Activity instructs. Writing a weblog makes you seek out information to write about. E-mailing people about politics distributes facts about politics. You learn from the people you talk with. Lose an argument and you will come back with more knowledge. In all these ways people are self-informing.

But add to that the Web, where even casual users are active searchers. More and more, and in slow enough fashion to get overlooked, publics of various size and spread are becoming self-informing, meaning: members stay informed, but without the expected reliance on the media. What they do daily informs them, but they don’t get it from an information pipe. Nearly all the media’s tools for reaching citizens are coming within reach of those citizens, and this too changes the balance of power. Here is a story line journalists especially need to track. Ed Cone at his weblog:

The Dean Media routes around the conventional press, but also piggybacks on it, feeds off it, critiques it. The mainstream media is still very important. But the Dean campaign doesn’t have to rely on it. Dean Media has its own newspaper — the weblog — that updates in real time and lets anyone contribute. It has online audio and video capability. It uses multiple electronic channels, from email to social software, to communicate with its troops, giving them marching orders and allowing them to organize themselves. Everyone gets a weblog. And the DeanSpace environment links it all together.

It’s a Two Way World: The era of message sending from a knowledge point “inside” the operation, where both candidate and campaign were tightly controlled, (and when controls failed things went to crisis) gave birth to the inside baseball style in journalism, which is itself message sending— from the press to us. Both tried to assure us that the professionals are in charge, their knowledge is sound, they understand all variables.

This is not a sustainable illusion in a two-way and de-centered world where the tools of communication are coming into public hands. And so politics in the open style is here and there being de-controlled. Listening, of all things, becomes a vital talent at the center. But another way to put this is: the system to survive must become more two way. Command and control yields to “markets are conversations” (Weinberger and Searls), “news is conversation” (Jeff Jarvis) and the era of “correspondence” between the campaign out there and the full timers at headquarters (Teachout). This is from Shapiro:

”What’s happening is an unusual and unprecedented correspondence between the campaign and us,” [Teachout] says. It takes me a moment before I realize that when she says ”the campaign,” she doesn’t mean the people running the headquarters in Burlington. She means the people she’s going to visit in her Airstream.

The two way world can be reported on, of course. And it’s an intriguing story. But sooner or later journalism will be asking itself how it can become two way, and that will be an even bigger story.

Doc Searls: “there is no demand for messages. You don’t turn on your TV or open your paper and say “Hey, I wonder what message _______ is sending me this morning.’…”

Dave Weinberger, in “What People Still Don’t Get About the Dean Campaign,” says: “The Dean campaign hasn’t merely inverted the broadcast pyramid so now the bottom is ‘messaging’ to the top. It’s done away with it to a large extent, relentlessly focusing on giving up control of its message in favor of enabling supporters to organize themselves.”

Britt Blaser: “As far as I can tell from close up and personal, there’s no limit to what role you can play in the campaign, as long as you provide an end-to-end solution and don’t call on the paid staff for resources of time, attention or money. Essentially, Joe Trippi’s mantra is, ‘Talk among yourselves and everything will work out.’”

For getting up to speed on the open style in presidential campaigning, also see:

Ed Cone in Baseline magazine: The Marketing of a President.

The New Republic: Joe Trippi Reinvents Campaigning.

Ann Weathersby in Fast Company: Joe Trippi’s Killer App

See these related entries from PressThink:

The Master Narrative in Journalism.

Politics in a Different Key.

A Politics That is Dumber than Spam.

Important if True: Online and Offline Meet Up to Change Politics.

Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press.

Private Life, Public Happiness and the Howard Dean Connection.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 17, 2003 1:03 AM