Obama’s data machine and the future of political campaigns

A lot has been said about how data was used to predict the result of the 2012 US election.

A lot has also been made of the Obama campaign’s ability to use raw data (and online platforms) to its advantage.

This article, however, is the first time I’ve seen some real detail on exactly what that data machine looked like and what it achieved.

It’s a long piece – and it spends a lot of time looking at the personalities behind the programming – but for some really eye-opening stats skip down to the ‘what they actually built’ section on page 2.

Some choice facts and figures from there -

  • 30,000 Reddit users registered to vote through Obama’s site after he did an AMA there
  • The campaign used data from DVR boxes (akin to a Sky+ box) to target ads at viewers who had watched certain things, for example the TV debates
  • They designed a Twitter tool that could calculate a user’s influence, cross-reference it with other data (like if they were in a battleground state) and target DMs accordingly
  • Facebook fans were told if friends certain hadn’t voted and encouraged to get them to do so
  • The campaign created a ‘quick donate’ function similar to make repeat donations as easy as buying from Amazon or iTunes

Cleaning up my act

A fair while ago this site got hacked and, long story short, there was a nice bit of malware injected into the site’s code as a result.

I’ve been trying on and off – with my limited coding abilities – to clean this up since the turn of the new year and I think I’ve finally gotten it all sorted. Most importantly Google seems to think so too.

This attack will at least partially explain why things have been so quiet around here lately. For a start the dodgy code seemed to break wordpress, meaning it was hard if not impossible to post anything even if I wanted. However I was also reluctant to do anything that might encourage readers to come to the site and, as a result, get some kind of virus on their computer.

That’s not the only reason, of course. Thankfully I’ve also been quite busy with “real” work, most significantly in the past month, and so things like this tend to get overlooked in favour of the instant satisfaction that Twitter brings.

I do hope to get back into the habit of posting here, though, even if it is just once or twice a week.

To start with I’ll put up some of the more interesting things that have kept me busy in the last few weeks. Expect that in the next day or so.

The integrated newsroom

The Press Gazette yesterday published an interesting although somewhat vague article on The Guardian’s moves to the ‘integrated newsroom’, a term that is sure to become the buzz-word of the mainstream media in the coming months and years.

The Guardian’s mission, headed up by editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, is to merge the editorial operations of The Guardian newspaper, its Sunday sister-title The Observer newspaper and its news website guardian.co.uk. Such a merger comes on the back of similar moves in the US and has many logical advantages – it also creates many serious hurdles.

In Ireland the leader of this particular pack appears to be The Irish Times, which has recently been moving to bring together its print and online operations. Unlike The Guardian, The Irish Times Ltd. does not have a Sunday newspaper to complicate matters further, however it is safe to assume that the majority of its print staff are far less “net-friendly” than their counterparts at The Guardian have been in recent years.

The most obvious step in merging operations like this is the physical aspect. While the editorial staff may all share a building regardless of the medium they work for, in most (if not all) cases in Ireland their offices would be totally separate from one another.

The next step is to create a parity across the newly merged workplace and this has been one of the issues raised in The Irish Times’ plans. At present the Ireland.com journalists get paid less than The Irish Times journalists but if they are expected to be working together and across formats this distinction will have to go.

However, physical and financial aspects of a merger are arguably the least important factors in such a move – it is the editorial changes that make a merger beneficial and logical.

This, of course, is where the real hurdles arise. In a fully-merged newsroom the meaning of the word deadline will change, for example, from being the final point at which copy can be submitted to being the final point at which copy can be changed. In other words journalists may well be expected to write copy early in the day and then adapt and develop it online over the following hours – the final version of this may then make it into print.

This would be a major culture shift for traditional print journalists and could increase their workload significantly – alternatively it could lead to further specialisation for individual journalists with staff being expected to focus on one or two stories throughout the day, chasing it and evolving it as new information arises rather than writing it once and sending it off for print.

One cannot see the veteran or high-profile journalists making this change willingly, though, so if this is how integration develops it may be something that has to be introduced in a more long-term, ground-up style.

One of the interesting things mentioned in the Press Gazette article is the idea that a journalist might now write a story and self-publish it on the newspaper’s website, rather than having to run it by an editor for approval. This could be a huge step towards allowing smaller stories to make it online at least, even if they do not make it to print, however it does raise the question of quality control specifically from a legal and grammatical point of view. Some may see a newspaper’s editorial system as bureaucratic however there’s no question that there would be far more journalists with red faces (and hefty lawsuits) if it did not exist.

The idea of the integrated newsroom is not something that’s going to be easy to develop – but likewise it’s not something that’s going to go away; there’s no doubt that newspapers in the UK and Ireland are certain to be monitoring The Guardian’s experiment to see how it pans out.

In essence integration is about responding to the demands of an increasingly internet-based news media but it is something that has been coming anyway, given the challenges posed by rolling-news on TV and radio. Newspapers and media outlets can no longer think in terms of shifts and deadlines and must now give serious consideration to catering for a constant flow of news rather than the stop/start attitude that the old world of newspapers and fixed news bulletins featured.

There’s a lot to gain, from the editor’s, proprietor’s and readers’ points of view, and most media companies in Ireland could certainly benefit from making the change, if it’s proven to be practical, and it’s not just print media.

RTÉ, with enough work, could eventually merge its TV, radio and online newsrooms into one central operation (which is what the BBC is doing), which would allow for far more cross-pollination of media than currently exists there. At the very least such a change might put an end to the illogical tendency for the broadcaster to have two or even three separate crews covering one story at the same time. Even if it didn’t become the norm for one reporter and crew to file for TV, radio and online, you could even have a situation where three reporters from each aspect of the newsroom share facilities where possible, rather than each having their own fully-fledged team with overlapping tasks and equipment.

The only news outlet that might have trouble merging its newsrooms is Thomas Crosbie Holdings. Unlike most other news organisations its problems would be largely physical rather than anything else. After all, The Examiner‘s main offices are in Cork while The Sunday Business Post is based in Dublin – therefore a proper merger of the two would require a geographical shift East or West for one or the other.

Bí­ ullamh, iriseoiri Óg

I was a member of a scout group for most of my childhood and all of my teenage years, only leaving when I had to travel to England for study. You can learn a lot there on a practical and social level but one thing that’s easy to forget is the lesson that’s at the core (indeed it’s the motto) of scouting – be prepared.

When I left college I was under no illusion about what I was facing in terms of career progression – staff jobs in Irish journalism are hard to come by and most young journalists freelance at first – something which involves dealing with a lot of rejection. I willingly undertook the freelancers path and did so knowing enough about the process to get by but not knowing nearly enough about the nitty-gritty to be truly prepared.

Following my comment on Shane’s post yesterday I thought I might talk about what I feel a freelance journalist should be prepared for to make the early months and years of their career as easy as possible. Many of them are things I’ve still not mastered having only identified them in the midst of the process rather than from the outset – maybe putting it all up here will help someone else coming into the field and will save them a bit of time in the process.

Just to be clear, the following paints a dreary picture of freelancing, and it can be dreary, but it’s something I enjoy, don’t regret doing and wouldn’t stop doing for another career path (and I say that as someone who is just doing this until something permanent comes along). All I’m doing here is listing some of the more negative sides so that people can be prepared for them and more able to minimise their impact. Also, I’m no expert on freelancing or journalism and am only able to give advice on my own limited and ongoing experience – perhaps other freelancers could leave comments with their own tips, advice, suggestions and warnings and I can add them to the list:

Continue reading →