What can news publishers learn from the Obama campaign?

Congratulations to everyone who worked late into the night yesterday this morning covering the U.S. elections. Barack Obama’s victory in the Presidential race made history, but not simply for his becoming America’s first black president. The Obama campaign rewrote the roadmap on how to win an election, something that journalists ought to note not just for its importance to politics, but for its soon-to-be-certain influence on any effort to win public support.

Such as, oh, say, building readership for a news website.

What can news publishers learn from the Obama campaign? Lots.

Republicans mocked Obama’s experience as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. But Obama’s community organizing skills defined his campaign. I think that the single best piece of political journalism this fall came from Zack Exley at the Huffington Post, with this examination of Barack Obama’s volunteer-driven ground campaign.

I think that this will be the new roadmap for election campaigns: do not rely on ads and news coverage to convince people to vote your way on election day. Instead, recruit volunteers throughout your community and use the power of their personal relationships to build a network of loyal supporters that expresses its support through publishing, demonstrating, organizing, recruiting and, ultimately, voting. Then send those volunteers into new communities, to build new personal relationships that can extend your campaign into fresh territory.

You can sell a lot more than a presidential campaign this way, too.

The Obama victory marks more than a change in American eras on race relations. It marks a change in American eras for public relations, as well. No longer can we consider public relations primarily a function of media relations. In the Obama campaign, public relations was even more a function of community organizing (or, to use the more online-appropriate term, social networking).

According to Politico, more than 130 million people turned out to vote yesterday, shattering the U.S. record. Here in Los Angeles County, the county clerk yesterday estimated the local voter turn-out at 82 percent. The era of “voter apathy” is done, dead and buried. The number of people engaged in their civic life, in the most fundamental way, is rising. That tells me that the market for civic engagement is growing. That ought to be thrilling news for publishers, and potential publishers.

So why is circulation dropping at so many newspapers? So why are so many online start-ups struggling? There are as many specific reasons as there are publishers, I suspect. But allow me to suggest that if all you are doing is reporting, writing grant applications and taking whatever advertising falls your way, you probably are not building the personal relationship network that could allow you to develop readers and advertisers the way the Obama campaign developed its voters.

Here’s my suggestion, whether you work at a newspaper or a hyperlocal start-up: Read Exley’ story. Then find a few local Obama campaign leaders and take ’em out for coffee or lunch. Tell them what you are doing and ask about how they built their connections within the community. Learn how you can build a passionate loyal following among new (and newly energized) voters, as well as among local businesses.

Friday, I’ll continue these thoughts with some comments from Markos Moulitsas about how he built a hugely influential multi-million dollar website network from scratch (including his flagship DailyKos), using some of these same social networking ideas.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Also interesting:
    Obama’s Seven Lessons for Radical Innovators
    Harvard Business Publishing

    Mark Potts, Recovering Journalist
    What newsrooms can learn from Obama

    MoJo DoJo: more Obama lessons

    Ken Doctor’s Content Bridges
    10 Truths the Press Can Learn from the Campaign

    Michelle Nicolosi
    AME, SeattlePI.com

  2. Thanks a lot for this info! We are two partners interested in journalism (from Turkey but wanna work in U.S.). As two youngsters we hope this site will guide us through a lot.