Last night, BuzzFeed News political editor Katherine Miller talked over the finer points of Alabama politics with Brandon Finnigan as green and red hearts ghosted up the side of the screen.
Comment bubbles began popping up.
“Who’s winning?” asked one.
“Be nice to each other,” implored another.
“Lunch,” said another commenter, nonsensically.
Miller and Finnigan were live on Periscope to provide coverage of the Republican primary in Alabama, which sent former Supreme Court justice Roy Moore and Sen. Luther Strange to a September runoff. Even though it was election night at BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters, the broadcast had none of the trappings of traditional elections on cable news: gleaming desks, surrogates bickering back-and-forth and three-dimensional holograms of correspondents.
That’s by design. Finnigan, founder of the election data startup Decision Desk HQ, would rather BuzzFeed’s vote tallies be transparent, quick and accurate than larded with space-age graphics. Which is just as well, because he’s going to be calling a lot more races for BuzzFeed.
This morning, BuzzFeed News announced a partnership with Decision Desk HQ to provide live coverage of elections across America through 2018. The six-figure deal, which also provides BuzzFeed News with access to election data, will see Decision Desk HQ and BuzzFeed News team up for special elections, gubernatorial races and every House and Senate race, Finnigan said.
“BuzzFeed has become the first media company to sign a contract with us for election data for next year,” Finnigan said. “In addition to that, they’re doing these election night broadcasts, which I’ll be hosting, which will include numbers from my team.”
The agreement comes at a time of heightened political energy on the left, with every election of national import receiving intense scrutiny from observers on both sides of the aisle. Tuesday’s livestream of Alabama’s primary boasted more than 124,000 viewers, according to Periscope; BuzzFeed News’ June livestream of the House race in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District drew nearly 650,000 viewers, according to Periscope. Seven-and-a-half million unique viewers tuned into BuzzFeed News and Twitter’s Election Night special, according to BuzzFeed.
The partnership with Decision Desk HQ is aligned with the ethos of BuzzFeed News, said BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who profiled Finnigan in 2014.
“DDHQ is the real thing: An internet-native startup, born on Twitter, with the same transparency and sophistication that we seek to bring to news,” Smith said in a statement emailed to Poynter. “We’re thrilled to continue to work with Brandon and the team at Decision Desk HQ to change the way elections are reported and understood to fit a contemporary audience.”
As part of the deal, Finnigan will appear on BuzzFeed News’ election night broadcasts to interpret election data as it comes in, according to a BuzzFeed spokesperson, which bills Decision Desk HQ as an “accurate alternative to the television network’s single set of election data.”
Finnigan, a former truck dispatcher who presides over a network of several dozen election data volunteers, belongs to a vanguard of number crunchers changing the way that Americans discover who won elections. It used to be that calling races was the dominion of two groups: Somber newscasters on election night and the Associated Press. Finnigan, who has his roots in the right-wing blogosphere, is changing that.
“In a country as large as the United States and with a population that has become increasingly suspicious as the press, the idea that something as critical as reporting election results is only done by one group?” Finnigan said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Finnigan plans to reinvest the money in Decision Desk, which he runs with two partners and several dozen volunteers who drive for hours and work at ungodly hours to serve up election data. And there have been encouraging signs of growth for the scrappy startup. Several publications, including HuffPost, National Review, Vox and Axios have run embeds carrying Decision Desk data (thus far free of charge), Finnigan said. Decision Desk recently made a deal with The Washington Post for historical election data.
Finnigan hopes the agreement with BuzzFeed will spur more news organizations to embrace open and transparent alternatives for race-calling. If enough companies jump on board, Decision Desk plans to go deeper into data, digging into precinct-level returns and examining trends in the historical data it’s amassed.
BuzzFeed News, for its part, is investing heavily in live video, from special elections to protests to rallies. The digital-first newsroom recently announced a new morning show, “From AM to DM,” that will run live on Twitter weekdays from 8 to 9 a.m. beginning Sept. 25.
For all its emphasis on live, breaking election returns, BuzzFeed News and Decision Desk will put accuracy first, Finnigan said, invoking the memory of the chaotic Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000.
“Can you imagine if the 2000 election debacle happened now the way it is?” Finnigan said. “It would be a disaster. If you think trust in the media is bad now, imagine what would happen if that happened again.”
“Calling races is great,” Finnigan continued. “It’s important. It’s part of the night. But people don’t really remember if you’re the first outlet to call something. They do remember if you screw up.”