AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2010

Keeping Track   

A new initiative to hold California’s gubernatorial candidates accountable for their campaign trail pronouncements.

By Morgan Gibson
Morgan Gibson (mgibson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

California gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown had better watch what they say: Politics Verbatim is listening, and posting.

If Republican Whitman speaks in Los Angeles about her position on legalizing marijuana, Politics Verbatim will post her stance, provide tags to see other posts on the subject and give the visitor a chance to share information on Facebook or retweet it on Twitter.

Same thing happens if Democrat Jerry Brown makes an appearance in Sacramento to discuss the economy; Politics Verbatim is on the job.

California Watch, one of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting's, watchdog journalism projects, launched the Web site June 21, but the center has been collecting material since March.

Curious California voters and political junkies everywhere can search the site for blurbs that include the candidates' positions and statements--just straight quotes or a summary, no analysis. The items tell you who said it, when they said it and the news source where Politics Verbatim found the material. You want to find the candidates' stance on marijuana? Select "marijuana" from the extensive "topics" dropdown on the site's homepage, and up pop statements they've made about whether to legalize the drug (they're both against it).

The site also includes a Google map that tracks the candidates' recent appearances, a schedule of future campaign events and a feature that logs each candidate's tweets. The staff also plans to add a feature that will allow visitors to upload video and audio files from campaign events.

"Politicians love to talk," as Politics Verbatim puts it, so why would this site go through all the effort of sifting through the fluff and focusing on the important things? Two reasons: accountability and transparency.

The important thing to remember is that Politics Verbatim isn't a site that's just designed for the here and now. "The actual accountability factor will come later," says California Watch's Editorial Director Mark Katches. While the politicians keep on talking and Politics Verbatim keeps on posting, a database develops. By the November election, contradictions will be apparent, and if a candidate runs for reelection, well, that candidate will have a big list of positions and statements to answer for.

The concept for the site emerged in the spring when the California Watch team was brainstorming new and more interesting ways to cover the election, California Watch reporter Chase Davis says. "The most simple thing we could do that no one else was doing was write down everything they said," says Davis, who came up with the idea.

The project's birth was quick and easy: Davis pitched the project, the center gave him a little money to hire a freelancer and, after about six weeks, they had a nice working demo. Everyone at California Watch liked it, so Davis got a little more money and hired a Boston design firm called Upstatement, which developed the logo design and most of the page layout.

According to Katches' "Inside the Newsroom" blog on the California Watch Web site, the design firm "did it at a steep discount. I'm told that Davis enticed them with some barbecue and a promise of a Terminator DVD.

"You have got to love this generation of innovators."

Politics Verbatim is run by members of the California Watch team, Davis says, including two interns who spend a couple hours a day working on the site; one of the center's editors, who "plugs things in as he sees them"; and Davis himself.

The California Watch team decided to launch Politics Verbatim during a lull in the campaign-- between the June 8 primary and the November 2 election--so that it could "work out the bugs" before crunch time, Davis says.

Davis stresses that the current incarnation is simply "phase one." Phase two, which will launch in August, will include features making it easier to compare the positions of the rival candidates. One of the new elements will be voter guides that spotlight the candidates' statements on particular issues. Another, which Davis calls "narratives," will attempt to sort out the day-to-day controversies that inevitably erupt during a campaign.

"The idea is to provide different layers of content for different types of users," Davis says. "The searchable statements will appeal to wonks and politicos and people with extremely specific interests. The voters guides and summaries will appeal more to average Californians who want to quickly get up to speed on the issues that matter to them."

Davis says the new initiative hasn't yet received a huge number of hits, but, he adds, it has received positive feedback from the political establishment and political blogs, as well as some suggestions.

CIR Executive Director Robert J. Rosenthal says he's looking for media partners, hoping to make Politics Verbatim a "collaborative" site available to other news organizations that could link to it and add content.

While Politics Verbatim is just tracking one race, Katches hopes for a broader role in the future. "Ideally, we would track other candidates and races. And that will be the eventual goal--hopefully sooner rather than later," he wrote on his blog. "But that takes resources. So for now, we're focusing on the race to become the next chief executive in the nation's most dysfunctional state."

The model clearly isn't limited to California. Davis says media organizations both in California and in other states have shown an interest in developing something similar, but these conversations have been "extremely informal."

"Mostly, people have just gotten in touch with us and said 'Hey, that's cool. How can we do it here?' " Davis says. "We're still a ways from figuring out how best to make that work in practice."