Behind the making of POLITICO’s 2012 Live

2012-map-screenshot

It’s well over a month since we launched POLITICO’s “2012 Live” section, the project that brought me to POLITICO last summer.

The theory behind the section from the start was to appeal to insiders by providing highly granular and specific information about the likely 2012 GOP presidential candidates.

That information includes:

  • Where the candidate is today, where they have been over the past 2 years, and where they are schedule to be in the future.
  • Who is working for the candidate.
  • Who has endorsed the candidate.
  • How much money does the candidate have.
  • What is being reported about the candidate.

To provide each of these information channels in real-time about a field of potential candidates numbering well over a dozen … well, that took some development time and a heck of a lot of staff and intern research.

Let’s take them one by one:

Candidate Schedules: We wanted to map this on the theory that a visual representation of a candidate’s travel would be more powerful (and, perhaps, telling) than a simple list. But we quickly ran into a major difficulty – when dealing with nearly two-dozen candidates, how do you create a user interface that’s intuitive?

I don’t think we succeeded entirely. The UI involves a set of check boxes that a user can select to turn a candidate “on” or “off” on the map.  The problem is that with so many candidates, it can take way too long to click all the buttons. Not very helpful for web-shortened attention spans.

The other UI challenge was date ranges. Again, I think we fell short. The first idea was a slider at the bottom of the map that allowed users to select specific date ranges.  Not terribly intuitive. To improve it, we added quick links to one day, one week and one month views.

There’s also a traditional calendar display, which can be sorted to list just a particular candidate or state.

Candidate Staff and Advisers:  Who is working for the candidate? It’s not terribly important to average readers this early in a presidential cycle, but to POLITICO’s insider audience, it’s critical information. We offer a fairly simple product that allows us to list staff/advisers and provide a brief description of them. We can move staff from one candidate to another as the campaign progresses and the inevitable shakeout occurs.  My original plan called for associating dates of service with staff members, so that a reader could see that Staffer X spent 6 months on one campaign before moving to another.  But in the inevitable horse trading that goes on when getting a project through the development team, that fell to the cutting floor.

Endorsements: The goal all along was to focus on the key people in the four early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – who will be pursued by the GOP candidates. These are local politicians, party volunteers, wealthy contributors, community leaders etc.  In this case, we map names to one of the early states, provide a description of who they are, and link them to a candidate (or no candidate).  We then track the endorsements in a fever-chart scoreboard which, as time goes on, should show which GOP candidates are locking down the most support.

Fundraising:  In the long run, we’d like to provide detailed campaign finance information. The data is easy to access, at least for federal campaigns. And there are existing APIs we could license and integrate into POLITCO – specifically, the OpenSecrets.org product. Again, we decided to defer building or integrating a robust database in favor of doing something simpler – but also more unique. Dan Hirschhorn, deputy editor of the 2012 page, researched each candidate’s web of state and national campaign organizations, generating a grand total number for cash on hand for each. 

This was (and is) a big undertaking, as it requires Dan to track campaign finance reporting deadlines in numerous states, not to mention FEC filings. The information is displayed atop each candidate’s index page — see Haley Barbour for an example. And here’s the detailed explainer Dan wrote up.

Aggregation: From the start, we wanted POLITICO’s 2012 section to be the “go to” place for finding information of all sizes about the candidates.  In addition to our own reporting, we are aggregating other news organizations’ content on to our candidate and early state pages. Also included are links to important blog posts from around the web.

The most visible presentation of this aggregation is on the 2012 main page on the right of the screen – and area we call the “candidate hub.”  Each candidate we are tracking is there, with recent headlines listed (up to ten) and a one-line status text telling readers what a candidate is doing on a particular day.  Editors can “reshuffle the deck,” and put a particularly active candidate at the top, then move him or her down lower on the page.

We are using Delicious.com as the tool to power aggregation. This is not ideal, in retrospect, with Yahoo reportedly considering a sale of the service (or, theories have it, discontinuing it altogether).  What Delicious does for us isn’t terribly sophisticated – it gives us a tool to associate headlines and links with candidates and/or states. Delicious outputs an RSS feed with information the POLITICO CMS can then ingest and then publish out on our pages.

The ideal solution, I suppose, would be to build some sort of in-house aggregation tool. But it seems silly to do that when Delicious (and its many, many clones) already exists. The downside is that it’s difficult to customize headline outputs to meet all the use cases we have in mind.  A work in progress, to be sure.

Granular information: One thing I’m most proud about is the county profiles we wrote for the four early states. Again, the point is to serve the small-but-influential POLITICO audience that cares deeply about the GOP presidential field. We provide short write-ups of every county in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the three key counties in Nevada. It’s good stuff that we hope to update throughout the primary cycle.

Speaking of granular information about the states, we were thrilled to partner with major newspapers in all four of the early states. The partners — the Des Moines Register, the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Charleston Post and Courier and the Las Vegas Sun — will share stories with us (and vice versa), and we hope to conduct joint editorial projects with them as the primary race heats up later in the year.

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