State of the Union: Whitehouse.gov as a media outlet

Every State of the Union can be called “the most technologically advanced State of the Union in history” — at least until the next year’s comes along. And last night’s speech was no exception: Coverage across outlets was an explosion of interactivity that found news sites featuring livestreams, telecasts featuring tweets, and broadcast and online platforms generally collapsing into each other. And among the participants in the extravaganza was the Obama administration itself: On Whitehouse.gov, you could not only watch the speech, but also, in that very Gov 2.0 kind of way, “engage” with it.

That’s nothing new. Whitehouse.gov as its own broadcasting channel has been around since (at least) 2002, when George W. Bush presented the first livestreamed State of the Union. What’s striking about this year’s speech, though, is how far beyond livestreaming the broadcast sensibility has gone. Go to the current SOTU page on whitehouse.gov, and you’ll find, among other features: a video stream (formerly the livestream) of the speech, enhanced with contextual graphics; the text of the speech; links to various Q&As that will take place over the next few days — hosted on Facebook and YouTube and Yahoo — with Robert Gibbs, Joe Biden, Arne Duncan, Kathleen Sebelius, Austan Goolsbee, Denis McDonough, and other representatives of the Obama administration; a link to the download page of the White House’s iPhone app, which features (among other things) blog posts, streaming video, and other speech-related multimedia; a seating chart of the First Lady’s guests; a State of the Union email update signup field; links to the White House’s Facebook and Twitter feeds; Facebook and Twitter sharing buttons; fifteen Fun Facts about the speech’s place in history (“President Harry Truman’s 1947 State of the Union was the first to be broadcast on television,” etc.); and a narrative overview of the State of the Union as a political tradition.

In other words: Minus the “news analysis” columns, the factchecks, the interactive graphics, and the Wordles (oh, the Wordles), the page’s content is remarkably similar to what you might find featured on pretty much any traditional media outlet. The White House’s “Winning the Future” feature, unfortunate title notwithstanding, is essentially Dave Winer’s notion of sources going direct put to action — with the source, in this case, being the Obama administration itself.

And that, for those interested in the future of news, is worth noting. Because the feature is going direct by, essentially, engaging directly. It’s saying, on top of everything else: Stay here. (In other contexts: Don’t touch that dial.) In the past — to generalize very, very broadly, presidential-speech-style — the online components of the SOTU had served a mostly archival purpose: Here’s the text of the speech, for your reference. When livestreaming (and, with it, Gov 2.0 sensibilities) came along, the idea shifted a bit, away from the needs of posterity and toward those of the present. But the point was still, generally, augmentation: If you can’t watch on TV, watch here. As Macon Phillips, the White House’s new media director, put it in a blog post before last year’s speech: “From our live webstream to a free iPhone app, the White House is using technology to make sure the President’s State of the Union Address reaches as many people as possible.”

The stated goal, in other words, was complement rather than competition. Maximizing reach, rather than co-opting it, was the point.

This year, though — in which Whitehouse.gov’s State of the Union page, with all its bells and whistles, both presents the president’s speech and, more importantly, puts it in context — has seen a slight shift. The if you can’t get it elsewhere has been largely excised from the calculus of the communication. If you can’t watch on TV, watch here has become, simply, watch it here. Full stop.

Again, that’s not a huge change — and it’s one that fits pretty seamlessly into the general trend of government’s increasingly direct communication with its constituents — but it’s also one that seems to solidify something that’s been building since that first SOTU livestream in 2002: government acting not just as a media outlet, but as an alternative media outlet. “The media” get their name, after all, for the connective role they’ve played in society and culture. Information has been, you could argue, one means to the end that is the media’s most fundamental trust: to link people who would otherwise be separate. A Whitehouse.gov that’s presenting itself as a destination unto itself — a Whitehouse.gov that is, in other words, cutting out the middleman, denying the need for a connector in the first place — renews an old question: What does it mean for journalism when traditional media coverage becomes an option rather than a given?

Links on Twitter: A stable media ecosystem, a Block by Block manager, a new way to long-form

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How Sam Spratt is finding a niche for illustrations in the text-heavy world of digital journalism

Sam Spratt is a freelance artist, but thanks to journalists, not a starving one. Since graduating from college in July, the illustrator has done hundreds pieces for Gawker Media, three print covers for Game Informer, and a gigantic tour bus for two renowned photographers. He makes commissioned web-res portraits and sells limited-edition posters, too, showing that, even in an online journalism world that seems oriented to text, “artist” doesn’t have to mean “poor.”

Spratt is 22, a newborn cub in journalism years, but runs his own business from a second-floor office in a residential building near San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. It’s corporate-looking: no TV, Wii, foosball, Angry Birds, or beanbag chairs. Only a pair of windows and a couple of desks: One houses Spratt’s 21-inch Wacom Cintiq tablet (the digital canvas he calls his “soul”) and a monitor. The second is filled with scattered sketches and a growing stack of invoices.

Spratt has a few strong sells. The first is that he’s an artistic powerhouse, and can provide clients with more visual creativity than they can provide themselves. Consider the tour bus, which features a Spratt mural commissioned by Strobist’s David Hobby and fellow photog Joe McNally. Hobby spent two decades as a newspaper photographer, including one at The Baltimore Sun, and McNally has been everywhere — Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Life, Chevy ads — over the past 20 years. Hobby’s nearly five-year-old tutorial blog attracts more than a quarter-million readers, and the Manhattan-based McNally recently pulled a 700-person audience in Singapore as part of a speaking tour. Both are expert visual creators, but turned to Spratt for visual promotion. (They paid Spratt a lump sum — he’s mum on the specifics — and expect his work to get a million views while they’re on the road.)

“Ten years from now, we’ll be able to say, ‘Sam Spratt did that illustration before many people had ever heard of him,’” Hobby says.

Enthralled by the way artists use light, and inspired by painters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio, Spratt’s subjects feel as if they’re being captured from a natural scene. For Game Informer’s December issue, Spratt painted a triptych depicting 30 of what you could call the baddest video game characters of the decade. They’re hanging out under the dim light of a saloon, which makes the scene resonate with a life-like glow. The scene was split into thirds and wrapped around Game Informer’s last issue of 2010. Then, this week, Spratt sold 30 limited-edition prints for $300 a piece.

Journalism’s taste for impressionism

Spratt is surprised to find such a comfortable home with the gadget crowd, but he shouldn’t be. Modern video games and digital technology are increasingly beautiful, complex, and reminiscent of real life or real-life mythologies. What was Andy McNamara, Game Informer’s editor-in-chief, supposed to do for the issue: Hire costumed actors to pose for a picture? As Walt Disney said, “Animation can explain whatever the mind can conceive.” The entire digital world is conception, and Spratt’s ability to make that world lifelike — check out the cracks in the canvas — would mean steady income even if Spratt hadn’t landed a plumb job with Gawker Media.

Spratt is a contributing illustrator for Gizmodo (we wrote about the site’s use of illustrators earlier this month) — a retainer position that puts him on call during the days and leaves him open to pursue projects on the side. Virtually every visual on Gizmodo is manipulated in some way, and the more original, the more interesting. (When Jesus Diaz, the site’s art director, wrote about Apple’s as-yet-unreleased tablet in 2009, he made up for the lack of photos of the device by simply whipping up what turned out to be a very realistic depiction of what he imagined the tool would look like.) In that environment, Spratt’s work fits right in. When Gizmodo reporter Sam Biddle wrote a post this summer entitled “The Long Unglamorous History of the Toilet,” Spratt created a wonderful cartoon showing a cavewoman scolding a caveman for leaving the seat up despite a wall filled with cave-drawn instructions.

Spratt is “in high demand” with Gizmodo staff, Biddle says. Over Thanksgiving, Spratt tweaked Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting to fit Biddle’s piece about how odd it is that his whole family is suddenly fluent in Apple products. Spratt re-imagined the painting again for Gawker’s Thanksgiving Horror Stories contest. “He’s everyone’s best friend because his work is something that really makes an article — regardless of length — stand out,” Biddle says. Last month, Biddle was writing an obit on the reclusive inventor of the neutron bomb and needed art. There wasn’t a lot out there, and The New York Times ran only a simple photo. So Spratt used the photo for inspiration, drawing Sam Cohen’s face disappearing into the ether much like a neutron bomb allegedly would have done to its victims. A Biddle puts it: “He captured the whole feel of what I was going for.”

Gizmodo pays Spratt per illustration. And although Spratt declines to give specifics, there’s clearly a payoff for him — and for Gizmodo. “I’ve had plenty of stories without original art at the beginning,” Diaz notes. “They were going flat, and after changing to custom art with an editorial message, they skyrocket. Using a generic image will just not give us any edge.”

The value of speed

Outside of contests, Spratt collaborates on every piece. Diaz will send him a concept or sketch an idea, or a writer will directly request art. When Spratt’s done, he sends it out; if Diaz doesn’t like it, he sends it back. It took some time to adjust to teamwork and, especially, rejection, Spratt notes; he’s an artist used to working solo and within the comfortable confines of the Savannah College of Art and Design. “I felt like I was at the top of my game, I could do no wrong,” he says. “The moment I left college and got to Gizmodo, I realized how absurd that is.”

After the first few rejections ate him up, Spratt loosened his ego when he started to realize that Diaz and Gizmodo readers (through their comments) had essentially the same taste in illustrations. Then he started working on what mattered: complementing site text and doing it quickly. As guest artist Wendy MacNaughton says, “In Gizmodo Land, there’s no sitting around thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m going to do 12 different directions and then discuss with the editor.’”

During his first week at Gizmodo, the staff hazed Spratt by sending him an assignment, giving him half an hour, and saying “Go!” He bumped off a drawing of Adrian Lamo in 50 minutes, but when he painted a woman’s mouth with an iTunes LSD tab in 20 minutes, he felt like it was his right of passage. “More so than any other skill in the world, being able to do [work] quickly is the most important factor,” he says. Diaz agrees, saying he’s worked with many illustrators who are undependable and slow.

A booming community and parallel market

David Hobby says Spratt’s relationship with Gizmodo reminds him of the one between Annie Leibovitz and Rolling Stone in the 1970s. Leibovitz was still in college when Jan Wenner discovered her in San Francisco and gave the young photographer distribution, exposure, marketing, and a conduit to bigger, more lucrative projects. Gizmodo gives Spratt a similar platform, and along with his steady work, promotes his Facebook page and website. In turn, his 4,500 fans alert him to new jobs, purchase limited-edition prints, commission web-res portraits, and act as ombudsmen for his work. When Spratt created his Lady Gaga painting at CES 2011, her eyes were imbalanced. Someone in his community let him know — and he fixed it.

With an ever-present public eye, Spratt feels more compelled to put extra time into his work. He works on weaknesses by asking the community whom they’d like to see depicted in his illustrations. Zach Galifianakis? Sure. Adriana Lima? Why not? “I don’t really care about the hippy-dippy concepts that come along with art,” Spratt says. “That’s not what I love about what I do. It’s about being able to create what works with writing and with the clients’ needs.”

Popular on Twitter: An EZ-Pass for leakers, a new ad unit for Facebook, a brief history of social media

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    Why Tyler Cowen’s new book will be on Kindles, not bookstore shelves

    It’s the kind of quick turnaround the book industry usually saves for sports championships and quickie clip-jobs on royal weddings: Tyler Cowen’s new book was announced last Wednesday and is available for purchase today. Of course, that kind of turnaround is a lot easier when your goal is downloads to Kindle & Nook rather than the shelves of Barnes & Noble.

    Cowen is a noted libertarian economist at George Mason University who writes for The New York Times and other esteemed publications — but he’s probably best known as the coauthor, with Alex Tabarrok, of Marginal Revolution, the very popular economics blog they’ve run for approaching a decade.

    Cowen had something he wanted to say about ongoing debates over the slowing rate of American income growth. But, as it turned out, he had about 15,000 words to say — too long for a blog post, not structured like a magazine article, and not long enough for a hardcover to earn its space on Borders bookshelves. So instead, he’s publishing The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better as an ebook, priced at $4.

    For someone with a number of solid physical-book sellers on his CV, it’s an interesting move to publish in a format akin to a Kindle Single. “I believe [ebooks] will be one piece of our new publishing future and here is your chance, as a reader, to try it out,” he told Marginal Revolution readers.

    Via email, I asked Cowen a few questions about why he went the ebook route and how it fit his project. His answers — which, to my knowledge, feature the world’s first direct comparison between a libertarian economist and ambient techno musician Aphex Twin — are below.

    Joshua Benton: What made you want to publish The Great Stagnation in ebook form? Was it difficult to convince your publisher, Dutton, to go along with the idea? Did you consider publishing it directly, without a publisher?

    Tyler Cowen: Dutton was all for the idea. Today, I still think that publishing with a major company makes a book a much more focal event. Maybe it won’t be that way forever, but it is for now. Plus they made it easy for me. So why not do it?

    JB: If the ebook platform didn’t exist, what do you think you would have done with the book’s content? Chop it down to a magazine piece? Turn it into a series of blog posts? Inflate it up to 250-page hardcover length? Would it have found a useful life otherwise?

    TC: No ebook format, no book. At least in this case. I may try the format again, of course. I don’t like to stretch ideas to excessive length and magazines often want everything to be driven by the anecdote, which doesn’t really fit here.

    JB: You give away the product of lots of your thinking every day on Marginal Revolution, and it seems to have been very good for your career. Do you worry that putting good Cowen material into a format that relatively fewer people will have access to might not maximize its value to you? Do you think publishing as an ebook will limit the work’s influence among policy makers, journalists, economists, and such?

    TC: I don’t worry much about influence in any case. I am more concerned with figuring out the problems for myself. Most of all, I wish to influence me! And I don’t have a grand plan either. I’ve noticed the musical careers of Richard D. James and now also James Blake. They put out a lot of work, in a lot of different formats. In the case of James, it is often under a different name (Aphex Twin, Polygon Window, etc.). I suspect no one has it all and I doubt if either of them worries about that fact or has a systematic plan. It’s simply another way to think about one’s output — not a worse approach — and who reads all of my stuff anyway?

    JB: Given that you’re writing about a topic tied to the current economic moment, how important was it to be able to avoid the usual months between manuscript submission and the actual arrival of physical books in stores?

    TC: Critical. It would have taken too long to get a physical book out, plus it would have taken much longer to fill out a 250-page format. To me that was a major attraction.

    JB: Thanks to Marginal Revolution, you bring a large, pre-assembled potential audience to this experiment. How important will that sort of independently earned audience be to the success of ebook publishing going forward — given that the traditional gatekeeping and promotional roles of publishers and bookstores would seem to be marginalized in an ebook environment?

    TC: Without MR, or something comparable, this publishing experiment could not have happened. That’s one reason why so many people are starting or maintaining blogs, to have influence with their other projects.

    JB: You mentioned the other day that John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century is “the best book on the economics of contemporary publishing.” What lessons or ideas did you take from it?

    TC: That I already knew a lot about the world of publishing. Still, it is an excellent work.

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