During last year's closely fought mayoral runoff campaign in San Francisco, I did my best to learn more about the candidates. I read their Web sites. I went to see them speak. I even met underdog candidate Matt Gonzalez.
But when my wife and I sat down and watched raw video of both candidates being interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board -- run in bite-sized chunks online at SFGate -- we both felt it was the best way to see the candidates talk at length about major issues.
The video was divided up by issues, so we could hear what Gonzalez planned to do about homelessness, or see Gavin Newsom talk about cronyism at City Hall. A side effect of this low-fi multimedia was that we could be a fly on the wall, and see Chronicle board members sitting around in their boardroom, poking and prodding at political candidates just as we imagined doing ourselves.
That peek into the board's inner workings is part of a nascent trend of newspapers using their Web sites to help demystify the work of their boards. The New York Times on the Web ran video recently of Sen. John Edwards and Sen. John Kerry meeting separately with the Times board the week before Super Tuesday primaries. And the Dallas Morning News and Sacramento Bee have gone even further, with group Weblogs run by boards spilling their guts on hot-button topics online.
"I think it's a good idea, because journalists should be more transparent about what they're doing because of all the public mistrust out there," said Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media Program at the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California at Berkeley. "It will get rid of some of the misunderstandings [and] a lot of what people chalk up as biases and prejudices; letting people know what we're thinking and what we're doing would help a little to alleviate suspicions."
Though Weblogs and online video have been around for years, most boards have not used these techniques to let readers into their world. Many editorial page editors like the idea in theory, but find it hard to give board members or online crews more work to do. Others are not thrilled with opening up sensitive meetings to a video audience, especially when many powwows with political candidates include off-the-record comments.
Paul Gigot, editor of the editorial page at The Wall Street Journal, was one of those who was skeptical of the video idea. "Regarding video sessions of the editorial board, I'd never say never," he told me via e-mail. "But so much of the value of these things comes from what people will share off the record or on background, so I wouldn't want to turn them into congressional hearings or 'Meet the Press.'"
Video that beats debates
The sites that have aired video from their board meetings with candidates have been cognizant of the potential intrusiveness of video and made sure to use an unobtrusive setup that kept politicians from grandstanding. The low-tech, homey feel to the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times video feeds -- with Edwards on NYTimes.com often facing away from the camera or even veering off-screen -- made the encounters that much more real than a TV appearance.
One limiting factor was the time needed for online staff to edit videos into sections. Robert Cauthorn, vice president of digital media at the Chronicle and general manager of SFGate.com, said that cutting the video up made it easier for an online audience to digest.
"There are so many different interest groups in San Francisco," he told me. "So if you care about homeless issues, you could drill down to that. Good video [online] beyond things like 9/11 is not viewed that heavily, because people like to feel like they're in control online. But in this case, they were in control."
Initially, the Chronicle only had video up from its meeting with Newsom, but eventually got Gonzalez to agree to the video as well -- making a journalistically successful project a big hit with readers online. While Newsom's video drew about 10,000 page views during Thanksgiving week, the dueling videos drew about 35,000 page views in the three days after video with Gonzalez was posted, according to SFGate's logs.
"The beauty of it is that we have a mayoral candidate on the record with his positions well in advance of him taking office," Cauthorn said. "That's a powerful thing. And people can see the way an editorial board makes its deliberations. I would argue that the presentation of the video that we did with our editorial board was of greater value to the public, in terms of understanding where these candidates stood on their positions, than any televised debate."
John Diaz, the Chronicle's editorial page editor, wrote an explanatory editorial about the board's endorsement process, and noted that meetings with candidates are on the record and open to news reporters to attend.
The Chronicle's editorial board considered the experiment a success, and now Cauthorn is even hoping to include video from the board's later deliberations about the candidates.
Len Apcar, editor in chief of NYTimes.com, believes that might be going too far. He told me the Times is happy to explain the procedures of the board, but that certain internal meetings of the newspaper should be off-limits. "The Page 1 meeting where selections are made on stories, and the editorial board -- on selections of positions to take, endorsements -- you have to say, 'Let them do their work without kleig lights,'" Apcar said. "There is an editorial process that's not much of a spectator sport."
As for the candidate videos, Apcar said the Times' board gave no resistance to the idea, and ground rules were set down for off-the-record comments (the video was turned off) and unobtrusiveness (the camera was unmanned). Apcar himself screened the Edwards video and found it "fresh and interesting" and worth putting online the night after it was shot.
The Edwards video was viewed by 12,000 unique visitors during the week it went live, while the Kerry video was viewed by 13,000 visitors, according to Times spokeswoman Christine Mohan.
Although the video was far from broadcast quality, not one person complained about poor video or told the Times to boost the production value. Instead, people responded with positive feedback, according to Apcar, giving the Times kudos on the questions asked, and saying the video helped them choose a candidate more than anything they had seen on TV.
The Times' board also meets with ambassadors, foreign dignitaries, CEOs and many others. Apcar wouldn't rule out showing video from future meetings, as long as the subject is "close to the news and top of mind."
Inside the heads of board members
While occasional video in board meetings might be one small step toward transparency, the group Weblog by the Dallas Morning News' board was one giant leap toward openness. The blog was launched last July with the prodding of editorial page editor and vice president Keven Ann Willey, who had the backing of top execs to help overcome initial skepticism by some board members.
Reading the blog on a daily basis is like viewing the entrails of a cow before eating the beef: messy but educational. You see up close that the process of writing one of those unsigned newspaper editorials takes a lot of vein-popping debate -- and in this case, readers chime in, too. Each board member must post an average of three times per day, including selected e-mail comments from readers, rather than posting public comments, which would be too time-consumng to monitor, Willey said. Posts disappear completely after a week.
"[The blog] shows the reader how we reach our decisions," Willey told me. "We argue about things and we arm-wrestle and we dispute one another. [Readers] like to see that what appears in the paper is the result of an exercise. We get enormously positive reader feedback. Even in instances where people disagree with our point of view, they say, 'We like your openness, it helps us understand how you reach your point of view, it helps us understand that you're not a bunch of ivory tower people.'"
Blog entries, which are not pre-edited, have included links to Internet rumors about Sen. John Kerry's alleged affair, as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry denying reports of infidelity -- but only after these rumors had made it to mainstream consciousness, according to Willey. "It's an entirely different platform, and an entirely different audience [than the newspaper], and therefore has to be guided by entirely different principles," she said. "But I don't think we should be gossip mongers."
Willey admits that some board members were resistant to the idea of doing the blog, saying they were overworked or didn't want to reveal personal opinions and break the "institutional voice" of the paper. Some have become advocates of the medium, while readers find they can trust the editorial process now that they can see exactly how it works.
Last September, the Sacramento Bee decided to become the second major newspaper with an editorial board Weblog, but its "Fly on the Wall" blog only lasted until January, losing steam after the California recall election. Mark Paul, who was deputy editor of the Bee's editorial pages at the time (he's gone on to work for California State Treasurer Phil Angelides), told me that it wasn't the ideal situation.
"We were short on people," he said. "We went in California from the recall election immediately into the primary. Some people didn't feel comfortable with the technology. Editorial writers tend to use an institutional voice, and some weren't comfortable with the more personal voice of Weblogs. To do it well, people have to really be in the spirit of the thing."
Paul said the Bee ran audio excerpts online from board meetings with candidates back in 2000 and 2002, but was reluctant to air video this election cycle. The board did more than 150 interviews with candidates for the 2002 election, and Paul said it would not be practical to put video from many of these sessions online -- though he did see more potential in statewide races.
Trend or anomoly?
Though most of these initial forays into increased transparency were journalistic -- and even popular -- successes, other newspapers are taking a wait-and-see approach. What will it take to get them to commit resources and energy to making their boards more open to readers online?
Ed Williams, editor of the editorial pages at the Charlotte Observer, said his staff has to choose wisely how it uses its time.
"We do a lot of special pages, we run an annual limerick contest, we do an annual evaluation of the state of the Carolinas' environment," Williams told me via e-mail. "We're not technophobes. At some point we may get into blogs. But in order to do something new we have to stop doing something else. At present I think we use our time best by developing more and better ways to serve people who pay real cash money to buy the newspaper."
But Williams later thanked me for spurring his thinking on the subject of interactive projects. His Knight Ridder colleague, David Yarnold, editor and senior vice president at the San Jose Mercury News, also said the subject was under discussion at "the newspaper of Silicon Valley." Yarnold said there were no technological barriers, only a question of what's useful for readers.
"Now that the Web has helped the world become more accustomed to seeing sausage being made, a number of opportunities arise," Yarnold told me via e-mail. "I'm not sure that a blog that describes the thinking behind the thinking offers much in the way of insight. I think readers would watch [video interviews] if the races are hot or if you're talking about presidential candidates. Otherwise, I think your audience would be the same as the one that watches C-SPAN 2. The question is whether you can create compelling content to broaden that audience."
Other sites have taken small steps toward opening up their boards online. The Chicago Tribune's site includes colorful first-person profiles of all its editorial board members. And the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat has been using an opinion panel that reflects an almost demographically accurate cross section of its community to help gauge readership views on hot topics.
As newspapers fight for readership and relevance in an increasingly segmented media audience, the time is right for editorial boards to make deeper connections to the readers they serve. It will take effort, it will take evangelism from print folks and online staff, but the payoff will be an informed citizenry and an engaged Web audience.