The Swiss journal is reinventing election coverage by sending its reporters to stay at candidates' homes. Plus, you can follow their travels on Google Earth
Journalistic coverage of election campaigns is in need of reinvention. In many countries, it has turned into a festival of sound bites, an endless exegesis of what a candidate says in speeches, position papers, and televised debates rather than who she is or what he does, which are better predictors of future behavior and policy.
A Swiss news magazine has started exploring a new route by sending its reporters to sleep at the candidates' homes, having them blog about it, and connecting it all with an innovative Google Earth extension.
The magazine is L'Hebdo, a French-language weekly published in Lausanne that became known last year for sending all its reporters in rotation to live in a troubled French suburb. The experiment gave birth to one of the most amazing examples of citizen journalism to date, the BondyBlog, now run by a group of young locals.
Mapping a Country's Political Face
Over the past three months, L'Hebdo has applied the same formula to its coverage of the Swiss parliamentary election campaigns. Every week, one of the editors, reporters, or contributors to the magazine, regardless of assigned beat, packs a bag of tech gear (laptop with GSM/UMTS/Wi-Fi wireless connectivity; still and video cameras; cell phone) and travels to a different region to follow candidates around, to stay at their houses—and to tell all on a Web site called Blog & Breakfast.
With the Oct. 21 elections still more than a month away, the Hebdo journalists have already spent more than 110 nights in as many candidates' homes. The blog has texts, pictures, videos, and a particularly neat feature (technically a mash-up): Articles and videos are geo-tagged and can be viewed in Google Maps or Google Earth. Switzerland being a place of beautiful landscapes, of mountains and forests and lakeside cities, this allows readers to "navigate" the country visually, following the reporters via maps and aerial pictures and clicking on red Hebdo logos to call up the corresponding article within its geographical context.
Earlier this year, the editors at L'Hebdo (disclosure: I contribute to the magazine but am not involved in this initiative) sat down to discuss their upcoming campaign coverage of reports, investigations, interviews, analysis—the usual magazine fare. Then they started talking about doing something different, an online diary, getting closer to the candidates—the famous ones, as well as the totally unknown or those who don't stand any chance of being elected—to explore their ambitions, talents, characters, doubts.
At a certain point, one editor suggested the best way to learn about a country is to ask the locals for hospitality. Hence, the Hebdo reporters should sleep at the candidates' homes.
On the Campaign Trail
The way Titus Plattner, the editor in charge of Blog & Breakfast, recounts it, first the suggestion triggered laughter (with one wag offering "Embedded" as a name for the blog, a reference to the "embedding" of reporters with U.S. military units in Iraq), then worry ("people will misread that for sleeping with the candidates"), then a serious discussion about the boundaries of political journalism. Some feared losing independence and credibility by getting so close to the politicians. Others warned against the people-ization of politics and the downward spiral of gossip and minutiae. But most defended the idea as an original way to tell the story of politics and to help bridge the growing chasm between citizens and politicians by offering ground-floor descriptions of their days, their lives, their houses, their motivation.
It must be explained that here in Switzerland, elective positions, with very few exceptions (such as the federal president and ministers), aren't jobs. They are part-time mandates carried out alongside a person's regular employment. Some expenses are covered, and a basic salary is paid, but politics is still very much a question of personal motivation and conviction, of public service, and of juggling professional and political commitments. Odd as this may sound to an American ear, Swiss politics is characterized by the normalcy of (most) politicians.
So, mid-May, off went the reporters, working on a weekly rotation. Every day they post several stories and pictures; a video in which the candidate they "shadowed" that day expresses one idea in one minute; and a photo of the guest room or the couch where they stayed the previous night. They tell of tagging along with the candidates at meetings with party members, about discussions with designers on campaign logos, or what it's like being at the office to check the day's work. They describe having dinner with families, driving up mountain valleys to participate in local events (and getting to shake hands), or chasing SUVs with young urban environmental activists. It's sociopolitical reportage in the purest form.
Of course, when asked to participate, some candidates say no. But as Blog & Breakfast has become more well known and election day nears, others are calling up offering hospitality.
Not Just Voyeurism
Blog & Breakfast "is as much a collective portrait of the Swiss political personnel as it is a journey into the political process," says Alain Jeannet, L'Hebdo's editor-in-chief. In other words, what do politics mean today in a country of advanced direct democracy such as Switzerland? How does it work? What's the life of an idea? What motivates people to run for (unpaid) office? How does a novice candidate negotiate the smooth party platforms?
The mandate of the reporters/bloggers is not to find flaws in the politicians' position papers, nor to immediately seek the reaction of the other political side: It's to observe, listen, and describe. Despite the proximity, they respect the candidates' privacy, except when private stories are relevant to the campaign coverage. "It's clear for us that sleeping at the candidates' is not voyeurism; it's a way to open a different discussion space," says Plattner.
On the trail, ideas emerge, such as the controversial concept voiced by a young candidate from Zurich of giving citizens voting rights at birth, with parents voting on behalf of the child up to a certain age. This provides a way, argued the candidate, of giving more weight to young families in an aging society. Great personal stories are told. Anecdotes are plentiful. Misunderstandings, too: When a female reporter asked a Swiss-German candidate for hospitality, he appeared confused and replied "but…I'm married!"
The New Journalism?
The ability to read the blog within online maps and aerial pictures offers an additional layer of information, pinning people to places and visually expressing the country's geographical diversity. Plattner believes in the near future all news will be geo-tagged, carrying not only the location and date, but the hour the story broke or was filed, and the corresponding GPS coordinates. "It's a way to improve transparency and make the personalization of news easier," he says.
For now, his and his colleagues' efforts are providing an unusual, highly original, and insightful portrait of both the noble and the prosaic aspects of contemporary Swiss politics. The experience is also turning into a living lab for a magazine that, like every other print publication, is searching for its online future, and for a newsroom where many journalists are still anxious about the new tools. "With a little training, everybody mastered the wireless, the blogging, and the video," says Plattner.
And mostly, they found the guest rooms austere, but clean and comfortable.
Like Swiss politics.