July 13, 2016

In 2015, President Obama broke with a longtime White House tradition by leapfrogging the press for his annual State of the Union Speech.

Rather than circulating not-for-publication copies of his remarks to reporters in advance, as had been custom, the Obama camp published them on Medium for everyone to read.

It was a watershed moment. Journalists at The Washington Post, which had for years published the transcript online with many other Beltway outlets, realized that the game was changing. The White House was a publisher now.

Staffers at The Washington Post saw an opening, said Terri Rupar, The Post’s national digital editor. If they weren’t going to make news by publishing the speech in its entirety, they could focus instead on rapid-fire analysis.

“There’s this huge amount of interest in the transcript on our site,” Rupar said. “…But everyone’s a publisher now. Any group is a publisher and able to take control of their own words and their own stories. They don’t need us to do it anymore.”

So, when the next year rolled around, The Washington Post published a marked-up version of the transcript using the Genius Web Annotator. This new version included insider knowledge, links, commentary and asides from The Washington Post’s politics team.

It was just the latest in a series of annotations for The Washington Post, which has been using Genius to mark up speeches, interviews and press conferences in what’s become a historically wacky election cycle. The Washington Post’s prolific political blog, The Fix, has been a fount of annotations in recent months, bringing a critical eye and an at times dry wit to the many transcripts that have made news in 2016: Donald Trump with The Washington Post; Donald Trump with The New York Times; Donald Trump with The Washington Post (again).

Much of this is the work of Chris Cillizza, the lead writer of The Fix, who last year made the (timeless) prediction that a new innovation would save journalism. This time, it was annotation:

…In a world in which people are looking for context and commentary with their news and where primary source documents are becoming more and more the coin of the realm, annotation seems to me to hold almost limitless potential as a new avenue by which journalists can add value (and keep their jobs!).

Ten months and several annotations later, Cillizza is still bullish on annotation. In fact, he doesn’t think his original prediction overstated things.

“I didn’t think it was ‘audacious,'” Cillizza said in an email to Poynter. “I thought — and think — it was right. To me, annotation is one of a number of enhanced reader experiences that journalism can and should move toward. Not just ‘here’s a transcript,’ but ‘here’s a transcript with relevant links to articles, some expert commentary and some fun.'”

Since its debut in 2009 as a website where readers could annotate rap lyrics, Genius has evolved into something much bigger. In 2014, the company expanded its purview to just about every online text imaginable, including music, news, literature and history.

Annotation has figured prominently into The Post’s political coverage in recent months. In August, for example, the Post put a new spin on liveblogging debates by teaming up with Genius to annotate the first GOP debate in real-time. In an election season full of gaffes and provocative pronouncements, when some of the most outlandish remarks have been made on live TV, The Fix has been quoting at length and fact-checking politicians at their most inflammatory.

And it’s produced encouraging results for The Post, Rupar said. Engaged time on posts annotated using Genius are generally between three and four times better than a normal article because people are taking the time to click through the comments and occasionally leave their own, she said. These posts also tend to have a longer tail, with people coming back to add annotations for up to a week after.

“It’s not ‘we put this up and you read it the moment we put it up or it goes away,'” Rupar said. “People will come back and have more thoughts and respond to other users in a way that’s really interesting and encouraging.”

Use of Genius has spread from the politics team to other areas of The Washington Post’s coverage. When Facebook tweaked its News Feed to emphasize posts from friends and family over news organizations in late June, The Post’s Caitlin Dewey and Abby Ohlheiser marked up the company’s announcement and read between the corporate lines. It’s been used on the business desk, too.

As D.C. institutions use Twitter, Facebook, Medium and other online platforms to get their news out, annotation gives the Post the ability to provide readers with analysis while being transparent with the original material, Rupar said.

“It’s really important to help people understand the political process and what their elected or appointed representatives are doing,” she said. “But letting people see the words themselves also has a lot of power. Genius gives us the ability to do both.”

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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