Journalistic coverage of election campaigns is in need of reinvention. In many countries it has turned into a festival of soundbites, an endless exegesis of what a candidate says (speeches, position papers, televised debates) rather than who she is or what he does -- which are better predictors of future behavior and policy.
A Swiss newsmagazine has started exploring a new route: by sending its reporters to sleep at the candidates' homes.
The magazine is L'Hebdo, a French-language weekly published in Lausanne which became known last year for sending all of its journalists, on a rotation, to live in a troubled French banlieue -- an experiment that gave birth to one of the most amazing experiences in citizen journalism to date, the BondyBlog, now run by a group of young locals (read these previous posts for more on it).
For the last three months, L'Hebdo has adapted the same formula to the coverage of the campaign for the Swiss parliamentary elections (scheduled for October 21): on a weekly rotation, all the editors, reporters and contributors to the magazine, regardless of their beat, pick up a backpack filled with tech gear (laptop with GSM/UMTS/WiFi wireless connectivity; photo and video cameras; cell phone; a maze of cables and adapters) and travel, mostly by public transport, to a different region of Switzerland, follow candidates around, and sleep in their guest rooms or on their couches -- telling all on a website called Blog&Breakfast.
As I write, the Hebdo journalists have already spent 100 nights in as many candidates' homes -- and clicking on the "night" category on the blog brings up the guest rooms' pictures (one, randomly chosen, at right).
(A word of disclosure: I produce the Hebdo's annual conference and contribute to the magazine, but I'm not involved in the Blog&Breakfast initiative).
The blog has texts, pictures, videos, and a neat original feature (technically, a mash-up): every article is geo-tagged and can be read 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 on maps and aerial pictures and clicking on red Hebdo logos to call up the corresponding article within its geographical context.
More on the blog and Swiss politics after the images. Here is the standard, reverse-chronology blog interface:
This is the Google Maps navigation:
Or you can choose to read the blog (and look at Switzerland from above) in Google Earth:
Earlier this year, the editors at L'Hebdo sat down to discuss their campaign coverage: 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, those who don't stand any chance of being elected -- to explore their ambitions, talents, characters, doubts.
At a certain point, one suggested that the best way to learn about a country, is to ask the locals for hospitality. Hence, the Hebdo reporters should sleep at the candidates'.
The way Titus Plattner, the editor in charge of the B&B, recounts it, the suggestion triggered first laughter (with one offering "embedded" as a name for the blog), then a 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 differently and help bridge the growing chasm between citizens and politicians by offering ground-floor descriptions of their days, their lives, their houses, their motivation. "Reporters and politicians are always proximate, but we do so openly", says Plattner. "And while the physical distance vanishes, a different distance appears when the blog is kept by our non-political writers."
It must be explained here that in Switzerland, with very few exceptions (the federal president and minister, the cantonal executive bodies, and some mayors and city councilpeople) all elective positions aren't jobs. They are part-time unpaid mandates that are carried out along a person's job. Some expenses are covered, but politics is still very much a question of personal motivation and conviction, of public service, and of juggling professional and political commitments. Swiss politics is characterized by the normalcy of (most) politicians.
So, off went the reporters. All of those in the newsroom, political experts and cultural columnists, business correspondents and lifestyle writers, plus some regular contributors, on a weekly rotation. Every day they post several stories and pictures; a video where one candidate expresses one idea in one minute (careful about clicking on this link: the page has 100+ videos); and a picture of the guest room or the couch where they spent last night (proof of presence: the orange backpack appears in every picture). They tell about tagging along with the candidates at meetings with party members, discussions with designers on campaign logos, or at the office to check the day's work; about having dinner with their families, driving up mountain valleys to participate in local events (and getting to shake hands), or chasing SUVs with young green urban activists; about participating in signature-gatherings for a referendum or being drafted to help prepare the table for a supporters' banquet. It's socio-political reportage in the purest form.
"It's physically taxing, you are on the move all the time, Sundays included, often discuss with the candidates late into the night, and you still have to write and post and edit the video an write stories for the magazine -- a selection of the blog ends up in the print version -- and figure out where you will sleep tomorrow", says Plattner summarizing his and his colleagues' experience so far. "But it creates a very different atmosphere. After a while, you come to a moment when you've exhausted your questions -- and that's when it gets interesting".
In a way, the reporters accompany the readers into the candidates' real life, transparently. By doing so, they put themselves in an unusual imbalance, showing how they approach their subjects and how they discuss with them. On the blog, readers can react and comment. Of course, when asked for hospitality some candidates say "no". But others, as the B&B becomes known and election day nears, are calling up offering hospitality.
The 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, the Hebdo top editor: what does it mean to make politics in Switzerland -- a country of advanced direct democracy -- today? How does it work? What's the life of an idea? What motivates people? How does a novice candidate wrestle with the smooth party platforms?
The reporters/bloggers do respect the candidates' privacy, avoiding for example the publication of family details, except when they're relevant for the campaign coverage. "It's clear for us that sleeping at the candidates' is not voyeurism: it's a way to open a different discussions space". Their mandate is not to find flaws in the politicians' position papers, or to immediately seek the reaction of the other political side: it's to observe, listen, and describe.
Ideas emerge, such as that -- controversial -- of giving citizens voting rights at birth, with the parents voting on behalf of the child up to a certain age: a way, in an aging society, to give a bigger weight to young families in elections. Great personal stories emerge. 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 wife of another candidate had misread the B&B approach and remained hostile to the journalist all evening.
The possibility 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 that in the near future all news will be geo-tagged, carrying not only the location and date, but the hour 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 unusal, 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 publications, 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 both the wireless, the blogging, and the video", says Plattner.
And mostly, they found the guest rooms austere, but clean and comfortable. Like Swiss politics.