1. Always switched on
  2. It wasn’t always this way
  3. A deeper connection
  4. Victoria votes
  5. Online election coverage, then and now

Blazing a new campaign trail

How social media has changed election coverage

Blazing a new campaign trail
How social media has changed election coverage
Always switched on

It’s Remembrance Day, the 11th of November. But down in Melbourne on the state election campaign trail, a minute of silence is a rare thing.

Premier Denis Napthine holds a lunchtime press conference at the Remembrance Shrine, one of many in today’s fast-paced, endless reel of pressers as the need to be constantly seen and heard becomes more, well, pressing for the candidates.

As it turns out, the silence was a portent of what was to come for the Napthine government 18 days later, as the electorate delivered its verdict.

The campaign is unfolding in a new era of political coverage that has been transformed by technology and – in particular – social media, which has the capacity to change the course of a campaign with a single tweet.

Shane Burke, Herald Sun

In the past, campaigns revolved around morning and evening cycles, with the 6pm TV news bulletins and the morning newspapers the main objectives. Now it is 24/7, with constant news feeds, blogs, video and interactivity as well as the omipresent social media, which is not fettered by conventional deadlines.

Still, according to Herald Sun night editor Shane Burke the basics of the storytelling remain the same. “It’s interviewing people, getting scoops, telling the story that’s going to engage people and get conversations going.”

The difference now is the the battle of ideas is now being fought on a number of platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. “Now, reporters are essentially switched on 24 hours a day,” he says.

Surrounded by a small gaggle of journalists at the Shrine, Premier Napthine expounds the importance of the 11am minute of silence as well as the virtues of the government’s biggest election drawcard, the East-West Link, before rushing to his next engagement at an RSL.

The Age reporter Tom Cowie is here to gauge the premier’s response to the paper’s controversial front page that morning, which estimated the much-hailed project would blow out to almost three times its official costing of around $6 billion.

“He faced some tough questions,” Tom says of Napthine, “but he handled them as he always does – pretty strongly.”

Tom Cowie, The Age

Cowie is one of the new breed of journalists who are always switched on. His only tool on the road – “the key to most of my journalism these days” – is his iPhone.

On it he records sound bites, videos and Vines, makes notes, Tweets and files. “You try and do all that at once – sometimes it doesn’t always work, but that’s the aim,” he grins.

The sooner his material makes it to The Age’s live blog, and the more content he can provide for editors to select, the better, and then it’s back to the election office on Spring Street – just down from State Parliament, the centre of the action.

While elections pre-internet conjure romantic images of journalists aboard a rowdy campaign bus rambling around the countryside, today’s journalists are on the road more than ever, and they are much more active when out there.

“You’ve just got to be there,” Herald Sun head of news Chris Tinkler says.

“Our absolute non-negotiable is that we have somebody with each leader at all times that they’re out and about. Anything can happen."

He offers as an example the visit paid to Labor leader Daniel Andrews by Crown Casino founder Lloyd Williams, who was caught offering James Packer’s support – the first big story of the campaign. “We wouldn’t have got those pictures of him with his arms around [Andrews’] shoulders, which was one of the defining images in the early weeks of the campaign [if we hadn’t been there]. So we’ve got to be out on the road.

“You know there’s a potential for something that’s going to lead the agenda – whether for the next day’s paper or online that afternoon.”

Shane Green, The Age

For reporters, it’s a juggling act, Tinkler says. “There’s a huge desire to be first, whether that’s in the paper, tweeting or on the website.”

The Age associate editor Shane Green agrees. “It means we’re much more active when we’re out there. It’s often a case of divided attentions, so you really have to skill up the best you can.”

For Michelle Griffin, state/justice editor at The Age, the live immediacy of blogging and tweeting is part of “the new transparency of news”.

“You sort of get to show people your notes on the way through – not all of them but some of them.”

It wasn’t always this way

While Julia Gillard’s #sandwichgate, Geoff Shaw’s #tummyeggs and anything Jacquie Lambie says can reverberate around the internet for days, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett says today’s politicians lack the colour and character of yesteryear – and that the 24 hour news cycle could be partly to blame.

“In this day and age everyone’s so politically correct, it’s very hard to identify characters within the political landscape,” Kennett says.

“Politicians come from a range of experiences, they come from private life into public life and if they’ve got any character, invariably what the media will do is try and reduce them to the lowest common denominator.

“It almost stops you saying what you think and behaving as you’d like to behave.”

Jeff Kennett at the barbecue

Jeff Kennett at the barbecue

It has removed a lot of fun out of the profession, according to Kennett, who recalls much closer and more colourful relationships with journalists in his career in the 1990s – but also a stronger line between work and play.

The media trailed Kennett on country trips where “we’d stop at 6 or 7 o’clock, we’d all sit down and have dinner together, have a few drinks and a few laughs, and nothing that was said at those functions were ever reported,” he recalls.

“There was a respect between the media and the politicians that we work hard but we play hard. I don’t think that exists today.

“That’s why everyone’s becoming so politically correct – they’re scared to let their guard down for half an hour and have dinner with some friends,” he says, “scared that someone there is going to record or photograph it and embarrass you.”

Jeff Kennett - On dealing with the media

At the opening ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of Melbourne’s CityLink project, Kennett famously tossed a spadeful of sand at journalists and cameraman – a playful gesture, he insists.

Jeff Kennett flicks sand at the media at a ceremony opening construction of Melbourne's CityLink in 1996

“Everyone laughed except the journalists … which just proves they’ve got no sense of humour at all,” Kennett says. “Life’s about having fun. Journalists have double standards.” 

How would a character like Kennett – who earned a reputation for being outspoken, controversial and prickly with the media – fare in today’s 24-hour news cycle?

He says he’d behave much the same as he did back then – but he’d certainly need a team to handle the social media side of things.

Shane Burke says journalists need contacts in politics today more than ever, and laments what he calls “shiny-arse journalists” – “the ones who sit behind their desks waiting for the call or waiting for the tweet,” he explains.

“The best journalists get out and talk to people and listen.

“I remember when I was covering state politics when Joan Kirner was the premier and she cried at a cabinet meeting. A source who was a witness to that told me this and at the time, didn’t necessarily think it was a story – [they] thought it was an extraordinary thing to happen.

Jeff Kennett and Joan Kirner, 1992

Jeff Kennett and Joan Kirner, 1992

“But from my perspective, the leader of the state – crying because the problems were so bad – was a really big story, and it became a big story at the time.”

Burke is also a champion of hard news over the plethora of thinkpieces that flood the internet now.

“A lot of journalism these days seems to be commentary,” he says.

“Comment pieces are great, it’s all a part of the mix, but you’ve got to get out there and listen to contacts, establishing relationships. You need to talk to the left and the right and the greens and the democrats and see how their process works.

Jeff Kennett - "Journalists have no sense of humour"

“Once you understand their process, they respect you more because you’re investing in what you’re covering .That experience comes through in your writing as well.”

Union organisations and political parties are far savvier with online nowadays, especially since the Obama campaign, he adds. “That [campaign] was the game changer for a lot of political parties – it’s forcing them to think of better ways to campaign,” Burke says. “So we have to understand that and the only way to understand that is to launch yourself into it, immerse yourself in it.”

A deeper connection

While some of the methods may have changed, newspapers are still responsible for setting the agenda at election time and acting as a barometer for public opinion more than ever.

The People’s Forum debate between Premier Denis Napthine and Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews was conducted by the Herald Sun in conjunction with Sky News before 100 undecided voters. Both leaders promised no new or increased taxes and charges during the next term of government. The main issues were jobs, child protection, education and infrastructure. At the end of the contest, the voters could barely split the pair, with 39 judging Andrews the victor over 38 for Napthine. However, 23 voters said they were still undecided.

Chris Tinkler described the forum as a proven and popular way to stimulate the agenda – and control it, with the evening timeslot meaning the results would lead in the morning paper and then bounce through radio and TV bulletins.

The Sunday Herald Sun supported the re-election of the Napthine Coalition government in its editorial this week, as did the Herald Sun on Friday. “There is one important question voters must ask themselves before giving their support to [Labor leader Daniel] Andrews: can he and his closest allies be trusted?," the Sunday Herald Sun asked. "There is much to suggest the answer to this question is no. The Sunday Herald Sun believes the government deserves the opportunity to deliver on the projects – most notably the East West Link – that will hold our state in good stead for generations to come.” 

The Sunday Age backed Labor,, but with a distinct lack of gusto. “With little enthusiasm, and much reservation, The Sunday Age believes Labor is better able to lead Victoria,” it says. “Has the Coalition done anything monstrously wrong to be kicked out? No. Labor, however, if it buries its arrogance, is offering a slightly broader vision in areas that this paper believes need to be addressed.”

Surprisingly, The Age went the other way, on Friday, opting for the Coalition with no equivocation. “Victorians deserve strong, visionary leadership. On the basis of the policies presented in this campaign, The Age believes Denis Napthine deserves to be elected to serve a full term in his own right,” it says.

Michelle Griffin, The Age

However, the digital revolution has injected the landscape with plenty of colour. The Age’s Michelle Griffin takes great joy from feeding readers news as it happens and benefiting from what they have to say in response.

“Blogging an election campaign is a terrific experience because you get to throw everything in, try things and talk to people on the blog,” she says, adding that Twitter and Facebook are also powerful tools for finding stories.

“I was watching the Channel Ten show Party Tricks last night which actually showed a political reporter sitting on the couch at home watching the results unfold on telly, having filed for the day and that’s just not what happens now at all,” she says.

“The idea that you have one hit and then you come back and think about it the next day is completely gone.”

Griffin sees this election as one that plays to The Age’s strengths, such as its education coverage and its close following and breaking stories around the conflict surrounding the East West Link, and has influenced the agenda with its own research.

“We got a real impact when we calculated where the greatest youth unemployment was by electorate across the state and discovered it was the Premier’s own electorate, down in Warrnambool,” she says. “We felt that that should be one of the key campaign issues and it has become so.

 “We’ve invested a lot of time through our own research and polling and our own experience [as to] what the issues are that matter.  We’ve developed a lot of stories and research around those issues that we roll out at times we control as well. They can have video and they can have debate and discussion with readers, stories and video pointers, graphics and data display.

“There can be 10 ways to tell a story.”

The Age has deployed interactive features that invite readers to enter their own details in Does your vote count? and What's in it for you?, guess facts in a True or False quiz, and view a breakdown of each marginal electorate, seat by seat.

Chris Tinkler, Herald Sun

The Herald Sun injects its political coverage with pieces like the Matchmaker Quiz, a “light-hearted” 20 questions which suggests to readers who they might vote for based on their policy concerns, and a weekly video wrap by Chel and Jimmy – state politics reporters Michelle Ainsworth and James Campbell – which is unafraid to be cheeky and colloquial.

Head of news Chris Tinkler says accessibility and a sense of fun serve as a point of difference for the News Corp Australia title.

 State political editor for The Age, Josh Gordon, heads up the Spring Street team and is constantly weighing up what kinds of news will inform their audience and get clicks.

Elections, Gordon says, are a different ball game to everyday political reporting. “Everything becomes more intense.

“The rhetoric gets a lot stronger, and the potential for disaster also increases. You get kids throwing sandwiches…It’s an adventure every day.”

Balancing sandwich stories with the meatier issues is a challenge, he says.

“You’ve got to provide the entertaining sides to election campaigns – the gaffs, the stuff-ups, seemingly petty things but things that people might click on and quite enjoy online.

“But then as a newspaper, and as quite a serious masthead, we’ve also got to provide scrutiny and detailed coverage of policies. It’s a balancing act.”

Social media is becoming ever more important, with Twitter an increasingly valuable way of obtaining information about what’s happening, Gordon says.

Josh Gordon, The Age

“You take it with a grain of salt – there’s a lot of scuttlebutt on Twitter as well, so you’ve got to be careful about how you use it – but it’s also a very good way for us to disseminate information as well,” he says. “We tweet our stories, we tweet each other’s stories and talk to each other.”

The polls suggest that Labor is ahead, so “the government is coming out swinging”, Gordon says. “They’ll fight to the bitter death and we’ll see what happens.”

Tom Cowie sees plenty of reader interaction and outrage flowing through the live blog and the #springst and #vicvotes hashtags – as much of it directed to the parties and their policies as the journalism, he says.

“We ask them to tell us what they’re thinking – what policies they’d like to see, whether we’re not seeing enough policy, we’re just seeing a lot of stunts; a lot of people complain about that – but that’s the way the cycle works these days," he explains, as Napthine moves on to the RSL appearance. "There’s a lot of announcements, stuff happening all the time.”

It keeps the journalists switched on – but can sometimes lead the readers to switch off.

“It’s our job to keep them engaged and listening.”

Victoria votes

Epilogue: after the elections

As all polls predicted, Labor’s Daniel Andrews will form the 58th Parliament of Victoria, with a likely majority of around six seats – although the outcome in some electorates will take some time to determine. The Australia Greens polled strongly in the inner-city, with the party picking up its first Victorian lower house seat in the electorate of Melbourne, and close fought contests in two other seats.

The swing to Labor was around 3.5 per cent, which gave it roughly 52 per cent of the two-party vote. With an independent winning the seat of Shepparton, Labor claimed 47 seats in the 88-seat Parliament. “Tonight you have changed our party, you have changed the government; now, we will change our state,’’ Mr Andrews told supporters on Saturday night.

Former Premier Denis Napthine stepped down as Liberal Party leader shortly after 10pm as he conceded defeat. “It is time for renewal, it is time for change,” he said. Dr Napthine’s deputy, Louise Asher also stepped down.

It was the end of a long and relatively “beige” campaign, according to Shane Burke.

“If you put both leaders side by side, they both had the same kind of vision – they were both campaigning on transport, one was going for public transport, the other going more roads.

“It was hard for voters to split the two,” he said.

The front page of the Sunday Herald Sun, November 30, 2014

The front page of the Sunday Herald Sun, November 30, 2014

There were still some surprises, including the rise of the Greens in Melbourne as well as minority parties in the upper house.

The result in Victoria’s upper house may cause Mr Andrews to feel some sympathy for Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with micro-parties taking up to six seats from the Coalition and Labor falling short of a majority.

The outcome in the 40-seat Legislative Council emerged in December with Labor on 14, Liberals 14, Nationals 2, Greens 5, Shooters Party 2, the DLP, Vote 1 Local Jobs and the Sex Party one apiece.

“There seems to be an appetite in Victoria for diversity of opinions and candidates,” Burke said. “We had an independent candidate in Shepparton knock off the National party and that was a good local solicitor who’s quite popular. The Nationals never saw it coming.”

Reflecting on a campaign, it’s always easiest to see where it went wrong for the losing side – with three telling factors that signalled the death knell for the Libs, Burke said. Despite polls showing people supported the East West link, that was not enough to turn the vote in the Coalition’s favour.

Firstly, Napthine faced the challenge of forging a trail after an “underwhelming” two years of leadership by Ted Baillieu – and failed, he said. Then there was the unpopularity of Tony Abbott, in a state which is a strong Labor bastion, particularly with Victorian Bill Shorten as federal opposition leader, and the rise of the Greens across the state and splintering of options for voters.

“The government was never able to get any kind of traction.”

Front page of the Sunday Age, November 30, 2014

Front page of the Sunday Age, November 30, 2014

According to Michelle Griffin, the cracks began to show in the Liberal campaign early on – such as when Tony Abbott visited Melbourne to announce a joint strike force against unions. The move backfired when the PM embraced Denis Napthine, only for Napthine to flinch, Griffin said. Labor exploited the mood of widespread disapproval of Abbott with their campaign declaring “With the Liberal party, you’re on your own.”

Other turning points included the Coalition’s launch in Ballarat, which cemented the city’s role as the election focused strongly on regional areas, and the push in the final week by ambulance and health workers to end the conflict between the government and the board of Ambulance Victoria, which Daniel Andrews said he would sack if he was elected.

The win by Labor signals the start of a long battle of over the future of the East West Link, which was one of the central issues of the election after Mr Andrews pledged his government, would take court action to prevent the road from being built.

On Sunday, Mr Andrews reiterated Labor would not build the toll road.

“The road is not going to be built and the contract is not worth the paper it's written on,” he told the ABC.

“I have a very clear mandate to release all the documentation, the business case, the contract and the side deal. We'll be getting advice from the bureaucracy later today about making good on our commitment to release all of those documents.”

Griffin said that the paper’s investigative reporting remained impartial from its editorial direction.

“While we editorialised in favour of the East West project, we have also prosecuted and investigated the project quite extensively,” she said, “which goes to show that there is a clear and independent divide between our editorials and our leaders, and our reporting, which is not directed by a point of view from the editor.”

Twitter analytics indicated that Age reporters were the most influential on the #vicvotes hashtag in terms of retweets and reach, while Facebook was “the newsmaker in the campaign”, Griffin said, as it rendered not only potential candidates but people campaigning for them – staffers, young Libs –fair game for “dirt units”.

“Lots of people were sprung for views they had expressed on Facebook – that’s how the Deakin young Liberal who had a Neo Nazi past was revealed, and how a couple of Lib candidates in Bendigo ended up resigning due to what was found on their Facebook,” she said.

“So it’s not just about the immediate social media, but also about what people have expressed on social media in the past that has made a difference.”

Social media was an important tool to engage with people and to listen throughout the campaign, according to Burke. “The Herald Sun brand is more than just a newspaper,” he said.

“There was a lot of direct communication from voters this time around, which we publish online and in the newspaper.”

In all, there will be a rich tapestry to be woven by the media as the dust settles, with the Napthine government becoming the first one-term administration in more than 60 years. 

For Shane Burke, it is time for “relocking and reloading – getting back to reporting, keeping the new government accountable and watching to make sure it delivers on its promises.”

Online election coverage, then and now


Herald Sun website

Herald Sun website

2014 election, screenshot from November 25


The Age website

The Age website

2014 election, screenshot from November 25


Herald Sun

Herald Sun

2010 election, screenshot from November 25 

The Age

The Age

2010 election, screenshot from November 24

The Age

The Age

2006 election, screenshot from December 5

Herald Sun

Herald Sun

2002 election, screenshot from November 25

The Age

The Age

2002 election, screenshot from December 8

Photos supplied by The Age and Herald Sun archives.

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