Amid 2008 Campaign Cacophony on the Web, Print Reverts to Hobbesian State

“And it’s not just us,” said Mr. Keller. “The Washington Post did an impressive review of Cindy McCain’s drug addiction the other day, and I didn’t hear an echo. I could go on, and so could you. This kind of rigorous, intricate reporting is a major contribution to the public debate, and it certainly gets read. (Our Sunday Palin piece is still number one on the most e-mailed list.) But this kind of work doesn’t dominate the discussion the way it might have in elections past.”

That Palin piece, as of Tuesday morning, was still the second most e-mailed story on the Times Web site, and it had more than 1,050 comments.

Doesn’t 1,050 comments mean something? Doesn’t that suggest an even more meaningful impact than in the old days?

“The answer is no,” said Michael Powell, one of the three authors of The Times’ Palin piece. “It doesn’t get picked up the same way.”

That is, it gets picked up, but only by people who seem to refuse to break the tie between the journalism coming from The New York Times, the spin coming from the campaign trail, and the white noise of punditry and Web-ready opinionizing.

Despite its popularity, the Palin piece appears ready for the inevitable lifetime of a print story these days: It’s hot one second, gone and forgotten the next.

“I say this from a cultural point of view, not a political point of view or journalistic point of view—but bubble gum music just fades and leaves no trace,” said Mr. Rich. “We’re in a laboratory right now and we don’t know what’s really landing with voters.”

There is, of course, good old television.

Keith Olbermann isn’t sitting in his office with the morning papers weighing which lead-all from which major paper will drive the news for the night—in a way that, say, Uncle Walter would do before the CBS Evening News. Instead, you might get a nice anecdote from an Adam Nagourney story in The Times, a response from the McCain camp—and then it’s up to you, the viewer, to break the tie! If you can.

“Everybody knows that if it takes more than five seconds to explain the story, it’s not going to make a lot of noise on the campaign trail,” said Matt Taibbi, a columnist for Rolling Stone.

Mr. Keller, for his part, said that television “seems to shy away from complicated stories, and these big stories tend to be complicated.

“The simple-minded silliness of lipstick-on-a-pig filled at least one cable news cycle, but the question of what kind of executive Sarah Palin has been as mayor and governor didn’t lend itself to the bite-sized format of the nightly news or the constant low-grade babble of cable,” he continued.

In addition to the increased competition from blogs and electronic media, major print news outfits are, of course, indulging in all that the modern-day media environment offers: quick items, videocasts, online chats.

And, if you talk to the dinosaurs, it doesn’t help any.

“The big change for all of us is that we’re all multimedia players now and it means that we’re much busier writing and being on TV or Webcasts, and that can often leave less time for reporting,” said Mr. Alter. “That’s the real problem.”

“I think what’s changed mostly is that we are working every day in three or four dimensions—plotting stories for the Web today, the magazine tomorrow and long investigative pieces three or four weeks from now,” said Mr. Duffy, an editor at Time. “Maybe there’s a fourth dimension, too, and folks are blogging stuff every hour.”

“There’s so much content to fill,” said Mr. Taibbi. “People who write for news magazines like Newsweek and Time, in the old days, they’d be writing one feature a week. Now they have to file every single day for Web sites, and do video hits, appear on TV shows, and that’s in addition to writing their features. The same people are doing four and five times as much work and, obviously, they’re not going to have a great deal of depth on any subject.”

“Hobbes talked about the war of all against all,” said Mr. Alter. “Now it’s the punditry of all against all.”

jkoblin@observer.com