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FEATURE STORY

The D.C. Digerati

Washington is awash in information. How do the professionals cope with it?

FEATURE STORYTurned On, Tuned In -- Do They Ever Drop Out?Some D.C. insiders long for the quiet of Kurdistan.Nick Allard, co-chairman of Patton Boggs's public policy and administrative law department, recalls only one instance when his BlackBerry was shut off -- and it happened by accident. Allard was at a baseball game, and as he leaped up to catch a foul ball, his phone fell into his martini. "That's when it turns itself off -- permanently," he said. [more...]

Dawn breaks over the Capitol, and in the city all around it, the bits and pixels, and the frequency-modulated waves and the amplitude-modulated waves, and the cable-delivered electrons, and the growls and pings of alerts and e-mails, and the arcs of tossed newspapers all converge -- on you!

Another day, another deluge.

 

Washington insiders are contending with flash floods of information the likes of which the world has never seen before -- let loose by new technology, but tamed, by the savvy among us, with that same technology. It's a hard day's work, but information is Washington's raw material and currency of exchange and finished product, all rolled into one.

Pat Cleary devotes 80 percent of his day to e-mail traffic. "It is work," says Cleary, who is the senior vice president for digital public affairs at Fleishman-Hillard. "But I don't make steel all day, and I have to keep up with my e-mail. My e-mail is my work."

In Washington, it's important to learn stuff, and it's important to inform others of stuff -- for the sake of power, credibility, and favors in the bank. Everyone is a nexus. A new survey of Washington professionals by National Journal Group shows that everyone (or nearly everyone) is scrambling to keep on top of the proliferating tools of information. A social device such as Facebook becomes a useful advocacy platform. Twitter, although slow to catch on (140 characters? In Washington? You've got to be kidding!) has totally won over those pioneers who have mastered its power to spread the word.

 

The survey found that 71 percent of Washington insiders regularly use one or more of the following new-media tools to share and receive information: text messaging, social networking, instant messaging, Twitter, or a personal blog. (The research arm of National Journal Group asked Capitol Hill staffers, executive branch managers, and private-sector communications and government-affairs specialists to take part in the Web-based survey; nearly 1,000 did so.)

"It's a five- or six-dimensional world out there," says Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit group that advocates for stricter gun control.

"This business has just totally, totally, totally changed," Kyle Downey, communications director for the Senate's Republican Policy Committee, sums up. "It's so radically different."

 

Downey begins his day the way that so many others do. Checks his e-mail on his BlackBerry. Sits down with a bowl of cereal and skims Politico's Playbook, The Washington Post's The Fix (by Chris Cillizza), and National Journal's Earlybird on his computer. Drives to work with -- wait for it! -- music on his sound system ranging from punk to classical. "I just listen to music to get my head right," he says.

At the office, Downey grabs a stack of newspapers and newsletters (the ink-on-paper kind). The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Roll Call, CongressDaily, CQ Today. Also, USA Today -- "to see what folks outside the bubble are reading."

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Some days he spends up to four hours of his morning just reading. "You've got to strike a balance between staying informed and getting your work done," he says. "But half of my job is staying informed."

Throughout the day Downey gets breaking news alerts by e-mail. He has a bank of televisions tuned to cable news. "I'm constantly reading my BlackBerry. But sometimes I'll go a couple of hours without checking it, which, I think, puts me in the minority." Naturally, he keeps tabs on it at home during the evening. In fact, the survey's respondents are about twice as likely as the rest of the country to report working at home after hours.

But when does it get to be too much? Cleary says that because of his paying clients he has to stay in touch during just about every waking hour. Downey went deer hunting in Wisconsin last week; he felt pangs of withdrawal for the first day or two and then settled in comfortably. But he still scanned his BlackBerry three or four times a day. "Do you ever totally check out?" his brother asked him. "I just shook my head. A really sad expression." (For more, see "Turned On, Tuned In," p. 44.)

Don Stewart, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spends his days much the way that Downey does, except that he rises at 4:45 a.m. to check the latest news, and he cruises the websites of newspapers back in Kentucky at midnight to see what they're reporting in the next day's editions. He says that walking through the Senate gallery to glean tidbits from reporters is useful -- oddly old-fashioned in a shoe-leather way, but useful. One more thing: Stewart listens to National Public Radio or WTOP news on his car radio while commuting. "I feel guilty if I listen to music," he admits.

"What happens on Capitol Hill is that people race to be the first one to know the latest news," says Melissa Skolfield, who used to work there and is now vice president for communications at the Brookings Institution. Being on top of things is important at a think tank, but the premium isn't so much on the minute-by-minute. Nonetheless, Skolfield is a big fan of Yahoo News, and she gets a stream of news updates on her home page. Sean Gibbons, communications director at the centrist think tank Third Way, likes to follow the "most e-mailed" and "most read" boxes on the New York Times website. "It's like real-time polling," he says.

Rise of the Social Networks

Facebook and, to a lesser extent, LinkedIn are becoming enormously popular in Washington as means of receiving and disseminating targeted information. Downey gave in and signed up for Facebook two months ago, and he is already hooked. "I see it as much more of a professional tool than a social-networking site," he says. "It's a one-stop shop."

The NJ Group survey found that 52 percent of Hill staffers visit a social-networking site at least once a day; a majority of those drop in several times daily. Nationally, just 37 percent of adults who use a networking site bother to visit it daily, according to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And Washington insiders are much more likely to use such sites for news-related information.

Twitter, newer than Facebook, hasn't penetrated as deeply in Washington, but insiders are beginning to discover that when properly filtered, it can be a real help. Cleary first used Twitter while lobbying for the homebuyer's tax credit, and now he is a convert. "It was unbelievable," he says. "The traffic to the site was enormous." When Congress approved the credit, he tweeted, "Don't forget to say thanks," and the result was 30,000 notes to Capitol Hill, Cleary says. "It was, like, zero effort. No one broke a sweat. It's free and easy."

Stewart first learned through a tweet that Obama had dipped below a 50 percent approval rating in the Gallup Poll. "You get a heads-up," he says. "If you don't filter, you can blow your mind. And I don't use it for family and personal things. I don't care what my third cousin is doing at the beach. I do care what's going on on the Senate floor."

A tweet alerted Gibbons to the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June. He always has a couple of televisions on in his office, but when something happens, a cable news channel can only post a bulletin until it gets a camera to the scene. Meanwhile, someone nearby is inevitably going to start tweeting, and those tweets quickly get passed on to others who know where to look. "Pretty soon, there's a cacophony of voices centering on an event," Gibbons says. Those voices may not be the most reliable, but they do offer firsthand accounts. (The unrest in Iran last summer showed off Twitter's possibilities among those who followed it.)

"How does this intersect with the business we do?" Gibbons asks. "This is not the Situation Room at the White House. But we do try to be very, very mindful of what's going on."

Smart Friends, Old Friends

In seemingly every Washington office are TVs tuned to the cable news channels, typically CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, in addition to the obligatory C-SPAN. "It's like a sentry, a phased-array radar system," says Lee Rainie, who is director of Pew's Internet project. Gibbons explains, "I use the televisions almost the way I use Twitter. When all three cables are on one story, I guess I need to pay attention." Considering that national daytime ratings for cable news are minuscule -- about 2 million viewers across all the channels -- it's not too much of a stretch to say that cable is essentially talking to D.C. Except when a "Balloon Boy" pops up.

Cable news is Washington's wallpaper. It's there just to be there when people need to notice it. A generation ago, when only three analog TV networks and a handful of serious newspapers and news magazines held center stage, information was all "push," as Cleary puts it. The press pushed its information out to its audience. That model began to break down as long ago as the late 1970s, according to research by the Roper organization (since taken over by United Business Media), and the trend accelerated in the 1990s. People turned more and more to friends and colleagues, both to learn news and to seek an assessment of its importance. In Washington, of all places, this habit dovetailed with the city's political culture.

That process continues, and today's digital tools make virtual networks much larger. " 'Smart friends' are very important now, and in the new environment, you can find more of them," Rainie says.

Stewart mentions a man in South Bend, Ind., who regularly sends him interesting links.

If, in the old days, the editor of The New York Times chose what was important, Skolfield says, "today it's different, where your friends are doing the editorial work for you. Something could appear in the Akron Beacon Journal that gets picked up and goes around."

The scandal swirling around the nonprofit group ACORN, Stewart says, bubbled along for weeks on Andrew Breitbart's website, in local newspapers, and on Fox News before it erupted onto the main stage. That breakthrough might not have happened in the past.

The digital tools also give strong, highly directed search power to every user. Information becomes more of a "pull" than a "push." You pull out what you want.

"I aggregate in my head," Stewart says.

"I find I do rely on my friends' passing me information, or I depend on my habits," Gibbons explains. "I am my own editor. My filter, I've developed on my own."

The old hierarchy of information-gathering? "It's more flat," Skolfield says, consciously invoking a favorite phrase of Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist -- and thus in a subtle sense undercutting her own point a little. To wit: When National Journal Group asked Washington professionals to name the opinion makers they most regularly turn to, respondents gave very many answers, but the top 10 were all newspaper columnists. Paul Krugman came in first, named by 18.5 percent. Friedman was second, with 12.4 percent.

"Boy, that makes a lot of sense," Rainie says. "For all the changes, the mainstream media still have a lot of power. The power laws of influence still hold up in this new environment."

The Brady Campaign's Hamm agrees. "As long as there are newspapers to look at, I'm still going to read a newspaper in the morning." You couldn't follow the health care debate, he argues, without the newspapers' congressional coverage.

Breaking news may flood in from all points of the compass all the time, but to figure out what to make of the deluge, many still turn to the old reliables. According to the survey, 63 percent of Washington insiders rely on print newspapers for analysis and opinion. Two-thirds of the respondents say they turn to websites for analysis and opinion.

Bogged Down In Blogs

Blogs -- which seemed so new and promising just a few years ago -- get only a 20 percent score on the analysis question. They are still popular for other reasons, but blogs don't seem to have gained the defining function they might aspire to. A similar National Journal Group survey in 2007 found that the most frequently mentioned reason to look at blogs was entertainment. This year, insiders said they use them to check the tenor of the debate over a particular issue -- especially the tenor on the other side.

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Cleary begins his day with RedState, but he makes sure to look at The Huffington Post, too. "People who limit themselves to conservative blogs or liberal blogs do so at their own peril," Stewart says.

"I love to keep an eye on the opposition's blogs," Hamm says. "If you want to know what the gun nuts are saying they're nervous about, you've got to read the blogs. And when I say 'gun nuts,' I mean that as a term of endearment. The ones I watch are the ones that are sophisticated, that are intelligent. They can be a tremendous source of information."

The value of blogs, notes Jessica Clark, research director at American University's Center for Social Media, "is just to see what people are freaking out about." A positive thing, she says, is that the blogs have allowed new voices -- of women, of minorities -- "to creep into the system from outside."

Everyone seems to agree, though, that reading blogs requires discipline. An addiction to blogs "is distracting; it overloads your brain; it does weird things to your memory," Clark cautions. Comment threads? "I generally stay away from that," Stewart says. "That's too much."

Andrew Schwartz, vice president for external relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tries to limit himself to blogs that have editorial oversight: RealClearPolitics and DoD Buzz, as well as those sponsored by Foreign Policy, Politico, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic (owned by the same company that owns National Journal).

But when does it get to be too much? Cleary says that because of his paying clients he has to stay in touch during just about every waking hour. Downey went deer hunting in Wisconsin last week; he felt pangs of withdrawal for the first day or two and then settled in comfortably. But he still scanned his BlackBerry three or four times a day. "Do you ever totally check out?" his brother asked him. "I just shook my head. A really sad expression." (For more, see "Turned On, Tuned In.")

Yet the opposite of too much turns out to be -- unthinkable. The Virginia Tech shootings, in which 32 people died, happened in April 2007 (a long time ago, technologically speaking). For all the horror and sorrow of that day, it was natural that the Brady Campaign would swing into action in its quest for tighter gun control laws. But the group's Web server went down, so it had no Internet and no e-mail. Hamm says that someone finally dug up an IBM Selectric typewriter in the office -- he is still surprised he figured out how to use it -- and he typed out a statement on the shootings. Then, he had to call PR Newswire and beg it to accept -- a fax. It was like 1985 all over again. Eventually, the staff abandoned the office and set up shop at a Fedex Kinko's with a Gmail account.

Today, with BlackBerrys and iPhones ubiquitous, any disaster is even less likely to go unremarked. The messages pile up. TweetDeck sends cascades of pings. ("It's a free application, and it can drive you nuts," Cleary says.) News alerts flash on your screen. The cables keep talking. Facebook beckons.

"My old boss [former Sen.] Phil Gramm [R-Texas] used to say, 'Never be ruled by your in-box,' " Stewart says. "And it's good advice." It's just hard to put it into practice.

This article appears in the December 5, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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