Today is the last day of the 2012 political conventions in the United States, which means that President Barack Obama will make a speech accepting the Democratic nomination, and news organizations will take their last mouthfuls of Niçoise salad before striking their pop-up television sets, packing up their hanging nap hammocks, and heading home.
At both the Republican Convention in Tampa last week and the Democrat Convention that is wrapping up in Charlotte today, media outlets old and new appeared to throw caution to tropical winds and pooh-pooh their financial woes as they offered “gluten-free chicken chile verde” and seared tuna to convention-goers (Huffington Post and Bloomberg), and hosted parties featuring hermit crab petting zoos and live penguins in Plexiglas (BuzzFeed).
As The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters puts it, “Convention coverage has come a long way from the days when the ‘boys on the bus’ … set the pace for political reporting more than a generation ago armed with little more than a pen, a pad and a wicked hangover.”
But what could possibly be the point of spending so much time and money— two of today’s news organizations’ scarcest commodities— on these mostly-dull affairs, where journalists outnumbered delegates three to one, and whose dramatic potential was cramped by the fact that audience knew the outcome in advance?
Three explanations have emerged. But first, here are five examples of bang-up gimmicks that were on display this week and last, brought to you by the news media.
Five lavish RNC/DNC attractions (in ascending order of unconventionality):
Politico offered free cocktails (from a Ketel One Martini bar), snacks and nocturnal lounging at the “Hubs” it established near each of the conventions, which, according to The Washington Post, were “‘presented by’ BAE Systems, Coca-Cola, Diageo and Inten, four companies with a big stake in Washington’s policy debates.” Presumably in response to a question about potential conflicts of interest, Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris told The Washington Post that accepting money from advertising sponsors to build the Hub was no different from supporting a newsroom partially through advertising, and that the same principles of keeping business and editorial separate applied in both scenarios.
CNN spent a reported $2 million at the RNC alone, setting up a CNN Grill complete with news set, eight-foot touchscreen tablet, and restaurant “serving local Florida fare.” “The idea is that people talk politics over meals,” explained CNN’s Political Director Sam Feist to The Washington Post. “Politics and food and drinks naturally mix in America.”
Bloomberg’s “Link lounge” at the RNC featured breakfast buffets (that’s right, plural), a TV studio with a view of the Tampa Bay, a bathroom loaded with Kiehls products, a freezer filled with frozen grapes, a virtual fish tank (confusing), as well as white leather couches for lounging upon, pulsing New Age music, and the aforementioned Niçoise with seared tuna (hopefully not from the virtual tank). The web-based outlet also printed a daily magazine during the convention, and the price tag apparently came to $1 million.
The Huffington Post solidified its reputation as the most chilled out outlet by establishing an “Oasis” at each convention. Picture flower-filled, candle-lit living rooms; full-fledged yoga studio offering free classes; a menu of gratis spa treatments (Dana Milibank from the Burlington Free Press describes a deltoid massage followed by a foaming pore cleanser and mask); vegan-friendly food… even sleep pods at the RNC and “hanging cocoons” at the DNC for meditative naps.
A relative newcomer on the scene, the popular and “scrappy” BuzzFeed, whose talent lies in combining political coverage with images of cute and disgruntled animals, yoked the two concepts together once again with its highly unconventional “Political Animals” soirées. At the RNC this involved live penguins on wagons (complete with minders warning guests that they bite) and human females dressed as mermaids “undulating in full fin alongside fish in a glass tank”). At the DNC it meant, much less glamorously, a “touch tank” filled with strokeable sea urchins and hermit crabs, an iguana named Liz, and a turtle with a camera fixed to its shell. Reported cost, $20,000 each.
Possible explanations for such behaviour are as follows:
To revel in the limelight. For news organisations seeking to boost audience figures, attention itself is a commodity worth grabbing. Yours, mine, each other's, that of advertisers, and, of course, that of politicians. They are companies, after all, and political conventions can be seen as high-profile marketing opportunities. Besides, with thrice as many journalists (~15,000) in attendance as there were delegates, it was important for news organisation to stand out from the crowd. “We want people to know who we are and what we’re up to,” said BuzzFeeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith to the Washington Post. “This is all about branding and marketing.”
To define their brands. The days in which clear divisions existed between newspapers and television stations are far behind us. Now, everyone is stepping on everyone else’s toes, with live-video streaming front and centre on websites from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, and former digital-only brands such as the Huffington Post and Politico leaping into print. Political conventions bring a significant portion of the U.S. news machine into the same physical local for six full days, so it is natural that should be a time for carving out brand identity. Some worked together, such as C-Span and Politico or Yahoo and CBS. Others demonstrated what sets them apart. For example, contrast BuzzFeed’s penguins and fried mac n’ cheese with Huff Post’s vegan corn chowder and catnaps. Sleep advocate Arianna Huffington said that the oases had been “incredibly successful” in raising awareness about the coverage that falls under the website’s Healthy Living vertical.
The golden content. Besides the fact that Michelle Obama's speech was rousing, and of course needed to be live-streamed from as many skyboxes as possible, the Huffington Post managed to get an entire slideshow of people passed out in suits. What could be better than that?