Old-line media companies are scrambling to partner with Web companies in their efforts to cover the 2012 election.
In Iowa, Fox News unveiled an exclusive partnership with Google. NBC News and Facebook have expanded a partnership to cover political polling. The Daily Beast is also working in cahoots with NBC.
Partnerships between media companies are nothing new: print publications have a long history of partnering with broadcast outlets on political polls and other news coverage. The question for these new media partnerships is who benefits? Viewers and readers, to an an extent, will always benefit from broader coverage, but in this case it may be the Web companies that are getting a bigger boost.
Part of the Facebook-NBC deal includes online polls targeted at users in primary states. It's a neat gimmick seeing a poll pop up based on your age and location, but the results are not likely to be all that telling: there is a big difference between clicking off a vote in an online poll and making it to your voting place on primary day. Beyond that, primaries this go-around are for the registered Republicans - chances are a lot of Democrats and Independents are responding to polls for primaries they can't even vote in.
Facebook's deal with NBC probably doesn't add a lot of depth of coverage, but it does increase viewer interaction. The co-sponsorship of last Sunday's Republican candidates debate helped stodgy, old NBC News connect with younger viewers, while Facebook gets more exposure with a national television audience.
The Google-Fox News alliance is more about news gathering: in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Google fed search data and YouTube video from candidates' appearances to Fox News, and the network's reporters gained exclusive access to broadcast from Google's data center during the Iowa caucus.
But there is also a touch of cross-promotion similar to the Facebook-NBC deal (or older, more established partnerships like CBS-New York Times and ABC-Washington Post). In a September debate co-sponsored by Fox and Google, Google helped field more than 18,000 questions for candidates.
In one sense, initiatives like that are cool: they help restore a feeling of connectivity between voters and candidates in an age of slick, national campaigns, and take some of the power away from professional pundits who, frankly, often get too caught up in the horse-race nature of a presidential election.
But they should also make old-line media companies somewhat nervous: last year Facebook followed Google in setting up a political action committee, and both companies have taken strong stances on things like the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Acts (Facebook's PAC is so new that it has yet to report to the Federal Election Commission, but OpenSecrets.org has data on how Google's PAC has been spending its money).
That makes it difficult to determine whether Google and Facebook are playing the role of objective, news-gathering operation or politically-influential Web players flexing their clout. In that instance, the losers may very well be viewers, readers and, most importantly, voters.