Ever since the Clinton-Gore campaign used a primitive version of the Internet to keep in contact with staff members in 1992, it seems that every successive election gets labeled as a “net election” that will change the nature of politicking.

Indeed, the Internet has been responsible for many changes and innovations since that 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. Candidates began establishing web presences as early as the 1994 mid-term elections.

“The efforts were crude compared with applications emerging in e-commerce and online gaming, yet they produced enough excitement so that by 1996 nearly all major candidates for office hosted a web site dedicated to their campaign,” Danielle R. Wiese and Bruce E. Gronbeck wrote in Campaign 2004 Developments in Cyberpolitics.

By 2000 candidates had moved beyond web pages and were using the Internet to recruit volunteers, raise money and mobilize supporters. As the 2004 campaign began, Howard Dean, through the efforts of his campaign manager Joe Trippi, introduced a set of new dynamics and innovations to American campaigns, among them news-pegged fundraising appeals, “meetups” and other Internet-organized local gatherings, and online referenda that allowed supporters to become part of the decision-making process.

“Indeed this campaign cycle was a turning point, because the web and E-mail became a dominant medium for both candidates seeking to communicate with the electorate and the public who tuned to the internet as an information source,” Andrew Paul Williams wrote in The Main Frame: Assessing the Role of the Internet in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Contest.

Now with the 2008 presidential campaign already well under way, candidates of both parties are making even more extensive use of the Internet — and so are newspapers. Newspapers are placing greater emphasis on their online versions, and readers are turning to their online counterparts more and more each day.

“Just as cable changed the way people watch television by the revolutionary multiple-channel technology, electronic newspapers must redefine news by providing what traditional media fail to serve,” Hsiang Iris Chyi and George Sylvie argued in a Journal of Media Economics article.

Here in New Jersey on Election Day, the state’s daily newspapers showed the value of their online versions. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection had the ability to follow the election results online — and to keep up with new developments at about the same pace as television and radio were reporting the news.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the Asbury Park Press posted a story indicating that early results showed Republican Jennifer Beck leading Democrat Ellen Karcher in the hotly contested 12th District State Senate race. At 9:35 p.m., a Star-Ledger posting reported that Senate President Dick Codey was conceding Karcher’s defeat. Details from Karcher’s concession speech and Beck’s victory speech also appeared online shortly after the candidates spoke.

In South Jersey, where the 1st and 2nd District campaigns were among the most competitive in the state, the Atlantic City Press reported at 9:35 p.m. that Democratic Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew had declared victory in the 1st District state Senate race, followed a few minutes later with a posting that Republican James “Sonny” McCullough had conceded the 2nd Senate contest.

Likewise, newspaper websites were quick to report the unexpected news that two of the public questions on the ballot were headed for defeat, with the Asbury Park Press posting updates every 30 minutes.

One advantage of following the election online is the ability to select and focus on the races of one’s choosing. Live in Monmouth County, stay logged onto to the Asbury Park Press online. Interested in Cape May and Atlantic counties, check the Atlantic City Press site for updates. Want to know how the statewide picture is taking shape, then the Star-Ledger and nj.com are places to look.

Hamilton Township residents following the community’s mayoral race on the Trenton Times website learned at 9:48 p.m. that Republican John Bencivengo had pulled off a surprising victory over incumbent Glen Gilmore. Because the contest had little statewide significance, the results didn’t make it on to New Jersey Network until later in the evening.

Most New Jersey newspaper websites, even those that did not post news stories during the evening, included links to actual vote totals as they were being tallied. So even if a race wasn’t newsworthy enough to merit its own story, the newspapers’ online versions still provided a means for New Jerseyans to keep up with the latest numbers.

While there were plenty of positives about newspapers’ online coverage this Election Day, there is still room for growth and improvement. “The transition to this new medium has not been simple,” Wendy Dibean of the University of Miami warned in a presentation at the University of Luton (U.K.) Creativity and Consumption Conference. “Many critics pointed out that newspapers are not using this new technology to its potential.”

Dibean and other media scholars have been critical of “shovelware,” a term for newspapers that simply take their print versions and place them online to establish a web presence.

Although most New Jersey dailies are not fully guilty of this practice, efforts to expand features that encourage interaction with readers and make greater use of multimedia content would be a most welcome addition.

As Michael Cornfield concluded in The Internet And Campaign 2004: A Look Back at the Campaigners:

“The more citizens use the internet, the more they might expect from campaigners and political journalists: rapid responses to information searches; a multiplicity of perspectives available on controversies; short and visually arresting promotional messages; drill-down capacities into referenced databases; more transparency from, and access to, institutions and players. Meanwhile, on the supply side of the political equation, candidates, groups, and parties now have models for how to use the internet to raise money, mobilize voters, and create public buzz. The new benchmarks established in 2004 could well be matched and surpassed in 2008.”

Richard Lee, a former reporter and writer for various New Jersey-based publications, is now communications director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey. The Trenton-based Hall Institute (www.hallnj.org) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization focussed on public policy issues.

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References

Chyi, H., and Sylvie, G. (1998). Competing With Whom? Where? And How? A Structural Analysis of the Electronic Newspaper Market, The Journal of Media Economics, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 1-18.

Cornfield, M. ().The Internet and Campaign 2004: A Look Back at the Campaigners

DiBean, Wendy. (1999). How U.S. Newspapers Are Using Their Internet Counterparts, paper presented at the University of Luton Creativity and Consumption Conference.

Wiese, D., and Gronbeck, B. (2005). Campaign 2004 Developments in Cyberpolitics in The 2004 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Williams, A. (2005). The Main Frame: Assessing the Role of the Internet in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Contest in The 2004 Presidential Campaign: A Communication Perspective. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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