Sarah Palin has taken a commanding lead in blog coverage of the GOP 2012 primary, according to a new New York Times report, with Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann following distantly behind her. Traditional media, by contrast, tend to cover a slightly more staid and perhaps more plausible set of potential candidates. I wonder if this divergence isn’t in part a reflection of how the never-ending search for Web traffic is affecting coverage of the race. Call it the blog primary, or perhaps the SEO primary.
The Times’s Nate Silver had an interesting post yesterday afternoon looking at the differences in how blogs and newspapers are covering the nascent Republican presidential primary field over the last month. According to Silver’s statistic, which he generated using Google News and Google Blog Search, there’s a real split in the coverage. Traditional media is focusing, Silver reports, on Gingrich, Palin, Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour, and Tim Pawlenty. Blogs on the other hand are giving a lions share of their attention to Palin, Trump, Gingrich, Paul, and Bachmann, and with startlingly skewed results.
The five most-covered in newspapers range from Gingrich getting 14.7 percent of the news coverage to Pawlenty and Barbour getting 9.7 percent--a reasonably tight grouping. Among blogs, on the other hand, Palin has gotten a whopping 30.2 percent share. Trump trails with 9.9 percent, followed by Paul (8.6 percent), Gingrich (7.6 percent), and Bachmann (6.7 percent). Silver writes:
One feature of this year’s coverage, which was not so apparent in the 2008 election cycle, is that the candidates who are receiving the most attention in blogs are also those who would probably have the most difficult time in a general election against Barack Obama.
Or to put it another way, blogs are focusing on the most, ahem, colorful and controversial candidates. Trump’s share is no doubt being driven by his recent foray into Birther-land, for example. Gingrich, after years of emphasizing the political intellectual side of his image has unleashed Newt the blundering bomb-thrower, flip-flopping on Libya, ascribing his past marital infidelities to his passion for country, and most recently fretting that his grandchildren would live in an America that was simultaneously secular-atheist and radically Muslim. (Maybe these Muslims would be so radical as to renounce Allah and be atheists?) Bachmann and Palin are cut from the same fire-starting rhetorical cloth and Paul has a devoted following around the country.
And to some extent this points up a difference between traditional media culture and the new online ethos. Even today newspapers fundamentally operate more from a point of view of giving readers they need even if it’s not necessarily news they want. So their coverage leans toward candidates that polls and/or conventional wisdom deem to have the greatest chance of earning the Republican nomination. Blogs, I suspect, tend to be driven more directly by a search for Web traffic, so their coverage tends to focus on the more, ahem again, interesting candidates because they are more likely to be searched for online. If you doubt it, spend some time over at Google insights, a Google tool which compares search volume for different terms over; punch in Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Tim Pawlenty, and see who people have been searching for in the last 30 days. [See photos of Palin and her family.]
Bloggers will tend to go where the page views are. And then they’ll aim to use "search engine optimization," or SEO, to snag those page views. That means, very basically, getting the terms people are looking for into your headline (like, for example, having "Sarah Palin," "Donald Trump," "GOP" and "2012" in a headline) and article in the hopes that Google will spit that article out for those search terms.
So the question is (again): Is the news you want also the news you need?