Monday, April 25, 2005

The virtual election

[Keyword: ]. Here's an article I wrote for Journalism.co.uk in its pre-edited form. Click here for the edited version, which makes the wise decision to hang it on the recent Murdoch speech...

The virtual election

Forget the fight for Number 10. The real fight in this election season is between the news organisations - and it seems that when it comes to online journalisma clear gap is emerging between the switched-on, and the switched-off.

As always the BBC, which had promised "the first truly interactive election coverage", backs that up with a whole section devoted to engaged, imaginative user experience. An animated Peter Snow hosts a raft of interactive tools including a quiz, a seat calculator, and a poll tracker, while the real Peter Snow provides video instructions on how to use the interactive swingometer.

Channel 4 News online goes for the hard-hitting angle, launching the FactCheck site to "test the veracity of claim and counter claim", while it also gets brownie points for its co-opting of Photoshop Battles.

The Guardian's online arm continues to impress with a simple but effective policy comparer and - for those who want to watch that Mingella soft-focus over and over again - a page of party political broadcast videos.

After Murdoch's speech last week on the need for papers to take online journalism seriously, it was interesting to see how News Corp's websites would respond. The Sun is alone in the tabloids in having a devoted election section, with an 'e-poll' and an election tracker which allows you to search by country, postcode, constituency, party targets and candidate - although for the latter searches for Blair, Howard and Kennedy failed to yield any results.

But The Times's online election coverage is even more impressive, with an array of bells and whistles that includes audio reports and an interactive Q&A with John Sergeant. Most impressive is a visually engaging slideshow illustrating the change in Britain political landscape over the last four elections, and a Flash game - Quote Unquote - which engages the user by asking you to match quotes in key areas to the leader responsible.

Finally, The Daily Mail may not be known for technological literacy of its audience, but has some imaginative use of the web with live chats with politicians, polls, an election messageboard and, best of all, an election quiz which proposes to reveal you who you're likely to vote for.

Common Features

There are some features that seem to be more or less standard. Specific election email alerts are offered by The Guardian and the BBC, where you can also download a desktop alert service. And Channel 4 offers an SMS alert "when the election is won", conjuring up images of being woken at five in the morning by a strange beepingsound.

RSS junkies, meanwhile, can subscribe to specific election feeds at Sky News,
The Daily Mail
, The Guardian, and the BBC (both election and blog), and you can find interactive election maps at The Guardian, Channel 4, Sky News and The Times, although many don't promise to show anything until the results start to come in.

The now-ubiquitous blog has been taken up by a number of sites, including the BBC, The Daily Mail and The Times. The Guardian has an election blog and a candidates' diaries blog, and incorporates a "folksonomic zeitgeist" to show what the current talking points are. But biggest of all is Channel 4, which has a whopping eight election blogs written by both presenters and MPs.

Finally, having spent your day immersed in MP-speak and the vagaries of the election system, you could be forgiven for forgetting the journalism and getting your own back by clicking on a leader and starting Radio 1's cathartic mud slinger game. Who gets your vote?

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