TORONTO -- The NDP Leadership Convention in Toronto drew by far the largest media presence an event for this party has ever attracted, as the proliferation of social media dramatically altered coverage.
NDP officials confirmed that nearly 700 members of the media were registered to cover the event -- a number that far exceeds the cadre of journalists and technicians who have historically attended party conventions.
The attention, says party spokesman Sally Housser, is a testament to the rising status of the NDP in the wake of the federal election last May, which saw former leader Jack Layton vault the party from third-party status to genuine contender.
“It’s an impressive number,” she told The Huffington Post on the convention floor Friday morning. “People are really excited to see who is going to be the next leader of the official opposition and possibly the next prime minister of Canada.”
Convention Coverage, HuffPost Style: The Huffington Post Canada brings you comprehensive coverage of the NDP leadership convention in Toronto, with photos, behind-the-scenes video, opinion and reporting from the convention floor.
Follow us at @HuffPostCanada, on our Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj's Facebook Page, on our NDP leadership site, and on our politics page and our front page. Friday, we cover candidate speeches and a tribute to Jack Layton. Saturday morning, we follow the rounds of voting that will end with the new leader.
Bruce Campion-Smith, Ottawa bureau chief for The Toronto Star, says the dramatic increase in media attention since the party’s last leadership convention in 2003 also reflects the legacy of Jack Layton, whose death in August left many wondering about the future of what many saw as his party.
“There is now the novelty of replacing a legend,” he said, noting the fact the convention is occurring in Toronto -- where many of the country’s major news organizations are headquartered -- is also a factor.
But as the party learned on Saturday, unprecedented media attention also means unprecedented scrutiny.
When the NDP announced that the third round of voting would be extended to address problems with the online voting system, which had resulted in lag times and other glitches, dozens of journalists swarmed party officials.
In less than an hour, three different NDP spokespeople found themselves at the centre of media scrums, during which journalists repeatedly questioned everything from the nature of the attempted cyber attack to the party’s apparent lack of preparedness.
Principal Secretary to the NDP Leader Brad Lavigne was subjected to some of the most intense grilling.
Minutes after Lavigne told reporters that the delays “were due to a higher than anticipated volume,” news broke that a cyber attack may have in fact been to blame, forcing Lavigne to return for another round of questioning.
He confirmed that the website had been the victim of an attempted cyber attack “from someone outside the party,” but that the integrity of the voting process had not been compromised.
NDP spokeswoman Sally Housser
Members of the media were among the first to file into the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Friday morning. Hours before delegates took to the floor, television crews, print journalists and bloggers were busy setting up lights, positioning cameras and testing their Internet connections.
The political bents of the news outlets in attendance spanned the spectrum, with right-leaning Sun News Network setting up in close proximity to the CBC.
In one corner, a dozen or so bloggers set up shop on a circular riser positioned below a large digital ticker tape displaying tweets from NDP delegates.
Though some were affiliated with a political party, blogger Rick Barnes, who runs queerthoughts.blogspot.com, says all those in attendance were accredited as independent members of the media.
According to Barnes, who is a member of the NDP, that’s a first at a federal leadership convention, and a testament to the power of the blogosphere.
“We have all the privileges of media. It’s actually quite amazing,” he said. “As bloggers we’ve been told we can go anywhere on the floor, talk to whoever we want. That’s pretty good access.”
Some of the best seats in the house went to the major TV networks, many of which broadcast their panel shows live from the convention.
But unlike in the past, says Wendy Freeman, president of CTV News, there was almost as much emphasis on establishing a presence online through the power of social media.
“This is definitely different than how we have ever done a convention… at CTV News,” she said. “This is the first time in a leadership convention that we have simultaneous coverage on television and online.”
Throughout the convention, she says host Kevin Newman moderated a discussion online to “bring viewers inside the event.”
“This is huge viewer engagement and interaction with our coverage on a whole other screen,” she said. “We have really embraced social media and this is the first time that we are harnessing it and fully integrating it into our coverage, so that viewers can be a part of this coverage and interact with the coverage while its happening.”
CBC pursued a similar strategy, rethinking coverage plans to include Twitter and a parallel television and online experience.
"There is no doubt that there are whole sections of our coverage plan that would be baffling to anyone who had been away from the media scene for even a couple of years," said Jonathan Whitten, executive director of news content, on Friday.
Social media also changed the game for print journalists, who no longer had the luxury of saving scoops for newspapers.
“The [Toronto Star] reporters will all be tweeting and live-blogging throughout the day,” Campion-Smith told HuffPost as the convention got under way. “Not only will they be tweeting the colour of the event, but also very dramatic news from the floor -- tweeting it out and getting it online right away.”
That shift has also influenced the way journalists at The Canadian Press operate.
As Ottawa bureau chief Rob Russo explains, company in the minute-by-minute news business means the wire service has had to find other ways to distinguish itself.
“We need to be fastest and we need be comprehensive, but we also need to do stuff that we didn’t do as much of before – and that’s provide contextual information, more perspective information and more exclusive information,” he said.
In the meantime, Russo says his reporters have become true multimedia journalists – a trend that has become commonplace in recent years as newsroom have contracted and the demand for digital media has increased.
“Our reporters are now not just covering broadcast and print, but you’ll see all of us – including me – slinging a video camera,” he said.
All of which, he concedes, has made the job more difficult – and rewarding -- than it’s ever been.
“The burden is more onerous, but we’ve never reached more people than we’ve reached today,” he said.