August 24, 2012
A new eBook about the presidential campaign this week shows just how quickly the journalism game is changing.
Its juicy bits about dissension within the Obama reelection campaign and how the President really feels about Mitt Romney prompted extensive media coverage, and the book quickly leaped to Number One on the Kindle Singles best-seller list.
Obama’s Last Stand reminds me of Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, a dishy account of the 2008 Presidential campaign that was turned into an HBO movie. But a key difference is that the anonymous sources for Game Change knew that their comments would not go public until after the election.
“It was a very challenging project from a reporting perspective,” Thrush said of his book in an interview this week, “because the people I was interviewing knew that their perspectives on things would appear prior to the election.”
In fact, the author did not have tremendously high hopes that the experiment would succeed. When he began the reporting for the book, he wasn’t sure he would find people willing to talk about the Obama campaign, even on background.
He needn’t have worried.
“Campaigns are, fortunately for me, fairly chatty enterprises,” Thrush said.
I wonder if there might have been another reason he succeeded in getting lots of newsworthy anecdotes for the book. His sources might have thought this was going to be “only” an eBook, so how much harm could it do?
If that was a factor, future campaign-chronicling eBook authors may find their sources will be more cautious, given the coverage Thrush’s book received this week everywhere from The New Yorker and USA Today.
You can tell this is a new form of journalism by how the pioneering author himself was not entirely certain of its possibilities.
When I asked Thrush if he had found parts of the book that he would like to amend, he said yes, based on comments from a couple of players who had not returned phone calls or emails during his due-diligence work but did contact him once the book was published, to give him their perspectives.
He said he would not be averse to going back into the book and adding some nuance based on such feedback, but he didn’t seem to realize how easy it would be to make minor changes to the digital file and resubmit it.
When I pointed out that this would be a trivial task, Thrush replied: “That is something I’d be eager to explore, absolutely.”
The eBook-only publication posed a challenge for some of Thrush’s over-50 peers. In fact, he found himself helping a friend download the Kindle app in order to read it on a computer.
“I never thought that would be part of the whole e-author process,” he said. “I don’t think Teddy White ever had to do that.”
Which is a good way to emphasize how far we’ve come. When Theodore H. White wrote his Making of the President series of campaign books, beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, reporters were hauling portable typewriters along the campaign trail and stuffing their pockets with dimes to call in stories from pay phones.
With each change in journalism’s technology and professional standards, there is an impact on our democracy. I was glad to hear Glenn Thrush express sensitivity on that point. He noted that a deep-background book about an incumbent president running for reelection, released in real time during the campaign, cannot easily be replicated by reporters following the opponent.
“Reporters covering the Romney campaign don’t have the benefit of having lived basically in the same building with their subject, as I have,” he said. “The challenger has an advantage in terms of the opacity. They are the merry pirate band.”
That makes the challenger’s campaign more difficult to penetrate for reporters, which raises a concern about balance in Thrush’s mind.
“I’m not covering sports,” he said. “I’m covering politics because I care about it. I think it would be really cool if somebody could do something similar on the Romney side.”
For his part, Thrush spent at least a quarter of his two months of work on the book going back to the principals in the story, checking drafts for accuracy. This makes sense when you realize he works in a small circle of players. If someone feels that you unfairly described their role, you might get a buzz-worthy blog post or eBook out of it, but not much in the future.
For political junkies, the arrival of longform coverage in the middle of a campaign is like industrial-strength catnip. Obama’s Last Stand is about 25,000 words, and it took me two or three hours to finish, partly by text-to-speech on my Kindle Fire as I was driving from Harpswell, Maine, back to Ocean Park.
By comparison, Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article, “Schmooze or Lose,” about the Obama campaign’s conflicted courting of large donors, totaled only 7,000 words. Game Change, the traditionally sized book published more than a year after the 2008 election, clocked in at approximately 165,000 words.
So this mid-length, fast-to-publication account of a political campaign is something brand new, and I’m sure we will see more of it.
The fourth and last book in Politico’s Playbook 2012 series will cover the rest of the campaign, and will probably be available on your Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo or other eReader soon after the first Tuesday in November.