Instant message: Quick revamp of White House Web site follows promise of more transparency


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The official White House Web site has had a makeover that is as philosophical as it is political and physical. In recent days, President Barack Obama promised more transparency in government, and the revamped site is designed to reflect and reinforce that commitment.

As part of the makeover of www. whitehouse.gov, a long-standing presidential tradition -- the weekly Saturday radio address, which is carried on radio stations across the country -- has moved into the new media world. Saturday's weekly radio address is now also transmitted as a Web video. It's archived on the White House site, along with the text of the speech. The video is also posted on YouTube and Twitter.

And there's an official "blog," although the posts have been mostly in the style of breaking news items, such as yesterday's titled "President to Muslim World: 'Americans are not your enemy.' "

The White House new media team is using Web technology to meet several priorities: communication, transparency and participation. White House director of new media Macon Phillips outlined the strategy in an early blog post: "Americans are eager for information about the state of the economy, national security and a host of other issues. This site will feature timely and in-depth content meant to keep everyone up-to-date and educated."

The site has a briefing-room section that includes the blog, weekly address, text of executive orders and presidential memoranda; visitors can sign up for e-mail updates.

Another section outlines the administration's agenda for a range of issues, such as the economy, energy and the environment and homeland security. The technology agenda reads like the template for the new White House site itself: "Open up government to its citizens -- use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens."

The immediate goal for the site is to improve basic information functions, such as posting of press releases and executive orders. The new-look WhiteHouse.gov already has a cleaner, less-cluttered look than many government Web sites, and information is well mapped and easy to find.

"Transparency is obviously a big issue," says Aaron Smith, a research specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit organization that studies the Internet's impact on a range of areas, including families, communities and civic and political life. Smith sees "a focus on sharing information, both within the government and with interested people outside of the government. It's a repository for people who are interested in getting beyond the sound bites on TV at night, to go and view things in full. Those issues are things that have carried forward from the early stages of his campaign, moving into the governing process."

The Obama campaign relied heavily on new media, using tools such as YouTube videos, text-messaging and Twitter and Facebook networks to connect with supporters and raise funds. During the post-election transition period, Obama's Change.gov Web site posted the minutes of private meetings and featured a "Citizen's Briefing Book," where people could suggest ideas and issues that the president should deal with after he took office. Visitors to the site could comment on and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the suggestions.

Right now, the White House site doesn't have a talk-back element like the Citizen's Briefing Book. Blog posts also don't allow for public response.

The site is ultimately designed to be much more than an informational government Web site, Phillips writes in the blog: "Millions of Americans have powered President Obama's journey to the White House, many taking advantage of the Internet to play a role in shaping our country's future. WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration's efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement."

But if this is really a YouTube presidency, as some have called it, does that mean the non-wired will miss out? There's still a sizable digital divide in the United States for households without Internet access that continue to rely on traditional print and broadcast media to get their information.

The majority of U.S. homes are wired to the Web: According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Internet, 55 percent of all homes have high-speed Internet access, up from 47 percent in 2007. On the other side of the digital divide, the number of low-income households with Internet access isn't growing: Among households making $20,000 a year or less, only 25 percent had broadband Internet access, compared to 28 percent in 2007.

As long as the Obama administration continues to use other ways to get the message out, there shouldn't be a problem, the Pew project's Smith says.

"There's a recognition of the power of this stuff, but over the campaign, we've seen them combine the power of these new online tools to supplement and empower traditional political organization type roles," he says.

The message doesn't change -- whether one reads about it or watches it on YouTube or network TV. "You get that same message across all your different mediums, so that you aren't missing anybody."


Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or amccoy@post-gazette.com.


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