President Barack Obama has never been shy in expressing his distaste for some of traditional media’s bad habits.
Chatter on cable news merely panders to a self-selecting audience, he’s said many times over. Newspaper headlines, he claims, highlight only negative trends while ignoring diplomatic wins and economic gains made during his tenure.
Perhaps the greatest fault of legacy media, in the eyes of the White House, has been its aging audience: only 20% of Americans aged 18-24 say they read a daily newspaper, according to the Pew Research Center. The average viewer of network and cable news programs is aging into his sixties.
Now, in an attempt to reach audiences who aren’t reading newspapers or watching television, Obama is turning more and more to newer outlets for interviews.
The effort will be underscored Friday by his choice of interviewer on the West Coast: Re/code, the tech news and review site launched last year. He’ll be questioned by Kara Swisher, an award-winning reporter who’s covered the technology industry for years.
That sit-down comes after successive interviews with digital news companies in Washington, each appealing to a difference slice of younger readers: Vox, which bills itself as an explanatory journalism website, and BuzzFeed, an organization where serious reporting appears alongside lighter fare.
Younger Americans – an essential element to the coalition that elected Obama president – get news online and through social media, surveys show. Reaching those audiences, Obama aides have said, remains a priority, even as the President grants the bulk of his interviews to traditional outlets like CNN or The New York Times.
“My advice to a future president is increasingly try to bypass the traditional venues that create divisions and try to find new venues within this new media that are quirkier, less predictable,” Obama told Vox in an interview taped in late January but released on Monday.
It’s not just Re/code, BuzzFeed and Vox who are getting attention from the White House. Three YouTube stars, each boasting thousands of followers and videos with millions of views, took over the White House East Room in January to conduct five-minute interviews with Obama. The in-person interviews ranged from the Affordable Care Act to race relations to cyberbullying – and surprised some observers, expecting light-hearted fun, for their substance.
But there were distinctions with traditional interviews: one of the YouTube stars asked Obama for an autograph, and another gave him tubes of bright green lipstick for his wife and daughters.
Obama said the difference between the YouTube stars and traditional media interviewers was they “generally don’t spend a lot of time talking about politics.”
“The reason we did it is because they’re reaching viewers who don’t want to be put in some particular camp,” he told Vox. “On the other hand, when you talk to them very specifically about college costs or about health care or about any of the other things that touch on their individual lives, it turns out that you can probably build a pretty good consensus.”
When Obama sat for an interview with BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, a political journalist, the pair discussed terrorism, same-sex marriage and his presidential legacy.
But afterwards he made a far less serious appearance in a video produced by BuzzFeed’s team in which he used a selfie pole, made funny faces in a mirror – and pitched young people on enrolling in Obamacare.
The push toward non-traditional platforms isn’t new for Obama; during his first run for president in 2008 his campaign utilized emerging social media outlets both to relay its message and develop its database of supporters.
Once in the White House, Obama faced a decades-in-the-making media hierarchy that puts most emphasis on wire services, television stations and national newspapers. And of the hundreds of interviews the President has conducted during his six years in office, many have been with those legacy outlets that maintain a full-time presence at the White House and travel with Obama when he’s on the road.
But he’s also made regular stops on late night comedy shows and daytime chat programs, and offered lighter-themed interviews to People Magazine.
Obama’s turn toward new, but serious, outlets like Vox and BuzzFeed marks another shift in the White House media strategy, just as the administration looks to complete a review of how it reaches its target audience.
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s longtime senior adviser who announced last week he’s stepping down, has consulted Silicon Valley executives “to develop recommendations for how we best communicate to audiences in the digital age,” a White House official said. He’s expected to complete the review before he leaves the West Wing next month.
“We’re on the cusp of a massively disruptive revolution,” Pfeiffer told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” late last year.
“It is a revolution in the distribution and consumption of information,” he said. “And there are big things that are going to happen. The old models are starting to fall. And how we adjust to them, and how everyone adjusts to them – you know, entertainment television, the movies, the news, politicians and the government trying to get their message out – is going to be a massively fascinating thing.”