Local bloggers are shaking up the media and politics as usual
by Brendan Mackie
In a dimly lit bar an overwhelmingly male crowd jabbers in various degrees of tipsiness, dreaming about battalions of camcorder-armed citizen journalists who record every politicians’ every move, edit it, and put it online. Conversation tonight, however blurry with beer, is more likely to steer toward polling data and endorsements than the new episode of Lost. This is the Minneapolis chapter of Drinking Liberally, a web of progressive groups that congregate in 46 states and the nation’s capital “promoting democracy one pint at a time.”
Political junkies have been gathering in smoky backrooms from Athens to Philadelphia for the full course of democracy. But there’s something markedly different about these political junkies. They are mostly local political bloggers, and as such are relative newcomers to the game. The doings of these bloggers might not seem any sexier than a shut-in adding the latest article about Ron Paul to his Digg profile, but political blogging—especially the local variety—could drastically reshape the face of political reporting and politics.
At the turn of the millennium, political blogging seemed sentenced to the lonely backwoods of nerddom, along with Star Trek and the polka. But all that changed in the primaries for the 2004 presidential election, when Howard Dean—buoyed by the support of large antiwar websites like MoveOn.org and Daily Kos—pulled in buckets of cash from the new internet grassroots (quickly christened the “netroots”). The money allowed Dean to assume a formidable perch at the head of the pack as the primaries got rolling and branded the netroots as a powerful force in liberal politics. Over the next few years, blogging edged its way into the mainstream, and the once free-flowing discourse became dominated by a handful of big-name bloggers.
Then came the 2006 midterm elections. National blogs pushed the senatorial candidacy of the antiwar Ned Lamont in Connecticut, who mounted a primary challenge against the deeply entrenched (and deeply conservative) Joe Lieberman. Even though Lamont lost the general election to a newly Independent Lieberman (after besting him in the primary) the scuffle sent a message to Democrats that the netroots had enough power to dismount a political bastion. Republican presidential hopeful George Allen spat a racial slur a few months later, and when the video hit YouTube it routed Allen’s ambitions like a bad bout of the whooping cough can derail a first date.
In the last four years blogs have gone from an obscure wonk-hangout to a respected—if somewhat independent—salon of political debate, endorsing candidates and hobbling political careers in the process. The big names in the blogosphere were nobodies six year ago and now have their blogs featured on the websites of the old guards of the traditional media: Matthew Yglesias, for instance, began his personal blog in 2002 and is now at the Atlantic. Matt Drudge turned his conservative-leaning email list into one of the most visited websites on the Internet.
For all the hype, blogging has not yet reached the apex of its importance. As traditional media struggle to gain a foothold outside of print, they will increasingly turn to bloggers who, emerging from their parents’ basements, will change the processes of politics and media.
Though the media mavens’ eyes have turned to the big national blogs, the real change will happen on the local level, where small-to-medium sized operations will be able to report on local issues and swing the crucial votes that can make or break smaller elections. Here, for all the hubbub about the big name bloggers, is where blogging can really make a difference.
You can read your local newspaper for decades and never see its writers in person. Walk into the local chapter of Drinking Liberally and you can see your favorite blogger, maybe drunk, and engage him on your pet set of issues. “It’s an interaction you can’t have with a newspaper,” says Robin Marty, a blogger at the Minnesota Monitor and an organizer of the Minneapolis chapter of Drinking Liberally. “There’s a personal voice that’s added to it. That’s what engages a reader.”
The Minnesota Monitor, a collaborative state-based blog, is a peek into what the future of local blogging might look like. While the bloggers at the Monitor weigh in on the heady national issue du jour, they also write about the issues itching Minnesotans (posts often circle around how the Republican National Committee is preparing for the convention in Saint Paul). What sets Minnesota Monitor apart from other local blogs is how professional it feels: the site itself is well-designed, the writing fresh, well-edited, and often reported. The Monitor, and its sister sites, state-based blogs funded by the Center for Independent Media, stand out from the crowd.
What are these blogs trying to do? Local blogs are not angling to supplant the dominance of traditional media and become the new newspapers. Through a mix of pointing to and commenting on news stories, and reporting their own stories, local blogs like these look to be an appendix to traditional media—a knowing comment on the chattering bulk of newspapers, TV shows, and magazines. Many bloggers even see their efforts as aimed at traditional reporters, who they hope will pick up their stories and storylines.
In many cases, the mainstream media does just that. Chase Martyn, managing editor of Iowa Independent, a prominent local political blog also funded by the Center for Independent Media, said that back in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses the media and politicians were “watching our every move. When we post something we sometimes get press inquiries and angry phone calls from campaigns only an hour after the story goes up.”
As local blogs are busy courting the attention of the mainstream media, the mainstream media have been trying to figure out blogs’ success. Marty at the Minnesota Monitor sees bloggers and newspapers in a race to develop a new style of interaction with readers, one that mixes the easy demeanor of blogs with the credibility of newspapers.
“Everybody’s still trying to find the perfect match of how you can have the immediacy of a blog, but have the reputation, sourcing, and confidence in the material of a newspaper,” she said. “Eventually I don’t know whether bloggers will get the quality, or if the newspapers are going to figure out how to be quick enough and how to be natural, but they are going to get closer and closer to that middle ground.”
If you look only at the impact that local blogs have on the broader media, though, you will miss out on a huge part of their appeal. The tens of thousands of words, the hundreds of links, the incessant tracking of stories and storylines, the obsessions of the blogs—it all may seem to be terribly centered on the narratives of politics: who did what, when, where, how. But local blogs are more than a centralized information clearinghouse; they can often become a meeting place for like-minded activists, where the issues and debates play out in real time. Readers might start visiting a blog to get information they agree with, but they keep coming back to the blog to add to voluminous comment threads, become involved in the campaigns, or find stories to write about on a blog of their own.
The locals who put their energy into blogs are often the same committed, urgent people who make up the bulk of politics’ shock troops: the door-knockers, the phone-bankers, the donators. When involved in local politics, in which the energetic actions of a few committed individuals can make or break a race, this social aspect of blogs might be more important than its traditional journalistic activities. Functions like Drinking Liberally are the natural next step in blogging, taking politically active people away from their computer screens so they can find each other and begin to organize around shared issues.
The path to a blog-connected civic utopia is not paved with flowers, though. The same democratic impulse that makes blogs so accessible also means they lack credibility. The stories of large news organization, edited and (hopefully) fact-checked, have an aura of austere authority. The misspelled, over-caffeinated screeds of the blogosphere don’t. Even a large national blog, hosted and linked to by the traditional media, has more believability than some political junkie living in Iowa.
But in some way, these blogs don’t need to get around the problem of believability, because most readers don’t go to blogs for unbiased information. In a 2004 study (pdf) Thomas Johnson and Barbara Kaye showed that less than four in ten people think that blogs are fair. But six in ten think that they are believable. A blog’s bias is even seen as a strength: It allows them more depth, and since the bias is transparent, bloggers can be both honest and interested.
Nevertheless, for many bloggers—especially those seeking to influence the media—believability is crucial. Reporters need to trust a blog to use it as a source. Some local blogs are closing the credibility gap, although it will take some time. Chase Martyn said that the “mainstream media is paying more and more attention to local blogs, to the point that they are no longer afraid to take a story from a local blog and use it as a tip to write their own story. That hasn’t yet existed.”
Another problem facing local blogs is that national blogs are still dominating the conversation. Matt Stoller, who blogs at Open Left, thinks that the relationship is getting “healthier,” in part because the missions of the two groups are pretty much the same. “There are big fights going on in Congress and there are big fights going on in state legislative races and in local areas. The character of these fights is related; they’re all about the same power struggle. The national blogs are a kind of clearinghouse for the fights when they reach a national level of interest, but the hardcore work in terms of creating change is in this synthesis between national and local blogs.”
Local blogs have the power of brining abstract national issues to our homes. Local bloggers can write the story about the dead soldier next door, the struggling immigrants down the street, the corrupt politician representing the district. Stoller’s blog keeps a list of Bush-Dog Democrats: legislators who capitulated to the president on key issues. Local bloggers who find their legislator on the list will find their local fight plugged into a vibrant national struggle.
Political blogs might be trapped in a complicated hall of mirrors made up of blogrolls, links, comment threads, and campaigns that, while producing engaging conversations, do little to actually change the world. I spoke with John Swon, a blogger for the conservative website Truth vs. The Machine, who said that the problem was that blog writers and members of the media were all speaking the same “language of political wonkiness. They enjoy politics, they enjoy the issues, they enjoy debate. That’s something that’s outside the bounds of 95 percent of most voters.”
The phenomena of local political blogging could turn out to be another big balloon of hot air, and that balloon might burst once its illusion is poked hard enough. “The influence of blogs is very, very limited, except for the fact that they have the ear of some important people—which is more than some people can say. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to anything that happens at a poll,” Swon said.
But then again, there’s a reason why Swon continues to blog. He’s a political junkie. Political junkies find dry discussions of policy matters enlightening, even enlivening. The real power of local political blogs is that they have made part of the experience of talking about politics sexier and more informed—and they let political junkies get together and talk. By giving the policy wonks in our communities a soapbox, local blogs have amplified amateur concerns, turning hobby interests into something powerful. These blogs may facilitate nothing more than people talking with themselves. But, as Stoller says, “There’s nothing wrong with talking to yourself.”