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The election results are in: Web coverage beats TV in a landslide

On Tuesday night, the electronic campfire officially became the cyber cauldron. MI found out that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had been projected to be the 44th president of the United States by watching as my desktop monitor streamed MSNBC. And I doubt I was alone. Watching the Election Night returns and punditry on television felt suddenly clunky, distracting, repetitive and altogether inadequate. You had to put up with all of those crawls and graphics and hyperkinetic tally boards clogging the picture. I kept wanting to reach for the mouse to click it off.

And so finally, I did.

The advantage of the Internet in digesting election returns is the security and convenience of being able to tailor the experience to your own unique tastes without the need to repeatedly jam your fingers into a remote control. You can watch a live stream, read a blog post, check on a Minnesota Senate race and keep tabs on the California propositions simultaneously and with relative ease.

When you're watching TV, you're pretty much stuck with whatever your network of choice happens to be preoccupied with and whomever they're talking to/about. And the anchors seem instinctively to understand their limitations: They represent the past. The Web isn't merely the future but the present as well, very much the corollary of a printed publication trying to compete with the march into cyberspace.

Although you might be reading this column thanks to good ol' fashioned paper and ink, the sad truth is that this materials-heavy means of communication and consumption is on borrowed time. Perhaps you received the memo. If you missed it, don't bother checking your office inbox; it would have been e-mailed.

By the time 2012 rolls around, it's highly unlikely that the networks covering the presidential election will even go through the pretense of pushing television as the primary means of coverage. More likely, the push will be toward their Web sites and some combination of stream, download and blog. It's a somber but inevitable move toward continued relevance.

Why somber? Because there is a certain emotional connection, a genuine poignancy that stands to be lost in the online shift. The networks demonstrated why we should mourn the passing of the TV news revolution in the way they were so effectively able to convey the transcendent magic of a racially divided America electing its first president of color.

There is a remoteness to the online universe that distances us from any shared life experience, that places a barrier in the path of expression. When President-elect Obama began his stirring acceptance speech Tuesday night, I shut off the computer and clicked on the big screen. It was a moment not to be minimized. But in the expanding information age, that galvanizing spirit of national bond stands to grow increasingly uncommon.

But enough with the mawkishness. Tuesday was one of those times where you'll tell the grandkids you remember exactly where you were when the Obama tsunami moved through — which is not to be confused with recalling which PDA you were holding.

Yet the greatness of these Internet times was driven home after the pundits had all gone home and Tuesday night had shifted into early Wednesday morning. I was trying to keep tabs on the Senate race in Minnesota between Democrat Al Franken (the comedian and author) and incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. Surfing onto CNN.com, I found that with 89% of precincts reporting, precisely 172 votes separated them.

Instantly obsessed, I was determined to stay awake until a winner had been declared. I refreshed my laptop with abandon as the precincts that checked in crept up to 92%, 93%, 94%. The gap between Franken and Coleman never exceeded a few thousand votes and seesawed back and forth. I learned how to access the voting by Minnesota county to see which candidate strongholds still had votes left to count.

I invariably passed out before learning of Coleman's 727-vote victory early Wednesday, which triggers a mandatory ballot recount (ah 2000, how I missed you so). But this is the kind of obsessive behavior that TV simply can't adequately serve. And it's why the Web is changing the way we watch and absorb news, occasionally at the expense of our personal lives and sanity.

Ray Richmond can be reached at ray.richmond@THR.com.
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