For Some Bloggers, all Politics is Local

For Some Bloggers, all Politics is Local

BY Editors | Wednesday, February 2 2005

Maura Keaney is a local blogger who made a difference. In early 2005, she used her weblog to rally opposition to a Virginia bill that would have required women to report fetal deaths – legislation worded so broadly that it was seen as a threat to women's rights. The bill's sponsor, Delegate John Cosgrove of Chesapeake, withdrew the bill after receiving more than 500 emails prompted by the website's reporting.

"I've never been blogged before," said Cosgrove to the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot.

Keaney is one of the writers of Democracy for Virginia, a site created by some former Dean campaign volunteers to take closer look at state legislative issues. "Until blogs raised awareness about (the bill), the mainstream media didn’t cover it at all as far as I know," she says. "Unfortunately, many of these overlooked bills slip through the cracks and become law without average Virginians understanding their full implications and potential impact on Virginia families."

Her opposition to the Virginia bill spread quickly through the blogosphere and into the mainstream media and beyond. "Ultimately, the hundreds of women who contacted me… covered all parts of the political/ideological spectrum, from conservative Republicans and Libertarians to progressive Democrats and greens, if they mentioned politics at all," Keaney said.

Keaney, who is taking time off from her career as a teacher and Democratic activist to care for her ailing parents, is one of an emerging breed of writers who use their blogs to cover local issues. The medium is the World Wide Web, and bloggers involved in national stories and campaigns have gotten plenty of attention. But if all politics is local, as Tip O'Neill famously stated, then it makes sense that political weblogs would go local, too.

In a nation of one newspaper towns and muted local discourse, bloggers are pushing traditional journalists by gnawing hard on local issues. They're reading legislation, attending city council meetings, questioning the coverage and editorial posture of the local press – and forcing people to take notice of issues that might otherwise be ignored.

It's hard to point to a local election last November in which blogs made a decisive difference – the paid bloggers who helped John Thune beat Tom Daschle in the South Dakota Senate race come to mind, and blogging candidates like Jeff Thigpen, who ousted the incumbent Register of Deeds in Guilford County, NC, may have gained some incremental advantage. But clearly local poli-blogging is beginning to come of age, especially in relatively well-wired urban communities with some critical mass of web-aware readers.

Filling the Local Vacuum

Across the country from Keaney in Portland, Oregon, The One True b!X, aka Christopher Frankonis, writes a site called Portland Communique. Described as "an ongoing experiment in amateur journalism which began as little more for The One True b!X than a way to learn more about the City which had become his home, to force himself to write about it every day," Portland Communique, launched in 2002, has found its way into the "must read" list of City Council members, City Hall staffers and local political junkies, not to mention Portland-area reporters.

"Unlike most bloggers, who typically link to previously reported material, b!X is unusual because he's out doing his own legwork," wrote Inara Verzemnieks, cultural reporter for The Oregonian. "Armed with a black spiral notebook, a laptop and a homemade press pass, he has become a familiar face at City Council hearings, county task force meetings and news conference crushes, quietly forging something that is beyond the Fourth Estate."

Frankonis, who scratches out a living from donations to the site, said Portland Communique has become popular due to its focused attention on local issues. "I think what I'm getting at is that the mainstream press sometimes missed is a matter of context," he said. "So often stuck in producing whatever the current 'snapshot' of a given might be, they sometimes forget to take the opportunity to step back and see where a story fits into a larger, more overall picture. That's one of the things I try, over time, to do."

Frankonis cites last year's primary and general elections for Portland's city council as an example of the Communique's effectiveness. There was next to no coverage of the two open council seats, something he found interesting since any potential alliance between the winners of those two seats would create a bloc that was just one vote shy of a council majority. "It was remarkable to me," he says. "The local papers recognized to varying degrees that there was a race going on other than the Mayoral one, and local TV news may have reported on the Council race not one single time." So Frankonis focused in on those two seats, and Portland paid attention.

"I devote a fair amount of attention to a given subject over a long period of time, whereas other local media outlets might only check in with a given story every once in a while," he says. Frankonis believes the other factor that made Portland Communique an attractive source for local news was the less-than-overwhelming online presence of the local print media — a common problem in other markets. "Few people I've ever spoken with think Oregon Live (the Web site affiliated with The Oregonian) is worth much, or makes itself especially useful — and that includes people inside at The Oregonian," Frankonis wrote. "To be fair, this is less a problem with the staffs of either the newspaper or the Web site than it is a problem with the corporate wall between the print and online divisions of Advance (Publications, the corporate owner of The Oregonian)."

The One True b!X (the name is the bastard child of an ancient web handle Frankonis used in the early '90s) hopes that Portland political blogging scene will become more interactive as readers come to expect some give and take with their news sources. "One of my goals for 2005 is to push and cajole more people into getting into the game — mainly, for an initial focus, various elected and other city officials and other known figures on the local political scene, such as former candidates who clearly have something to contribute to the political conversation around here." Frankonis said the newly-elected commissioner Sam Adams will be launching a blog.

Portland has a couple of other blogs who really put the screws to local government, serving as independent alt-dailies. There's Blue Oregon, which its founders hope "will be the water cooler around which Oregon progressives with gather," and to which another city commissioner, Randy Leonard, has contributed. Another site, Jack Bog's Blog, is run by Jack Bogdanski, a professor at Lewis & Clark College and keeps an eye on city and county officials and local media. Bog's Blog was so popular that when he announced in July that he was going to take some time off, he received 31 comments. "Jack, the day doesn't end for another 14 hours—plenty of time for another riff," one comment read.

That said, Frankonis added, "We still don’t have enough... I don't think we've yet hit the watershed or threshold moment that I'd like to see."

Freedom to Swarm

Local sites face the same issues that can bedevil national blogs and forums, and the proximity and familiarity of local posting sometimes makes things even more personal and contentious. For example, public officials in Emerson, NJ sued the creator of a site called Eye on Emerson, along with anonymous posters at the site, for offensive comments they claimed to be defamatory. After the charges against the posters were dismissed, the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court ruled in late January in Donato v. Moldow that the host was not liable for postings made by visitors to his site.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, where the authors of this article live, local political blogging is approaching some sort of critical mass. The daily newspaper, the News & Record, has launched several staff blogs, including ones by the editor in chief, the political reporting team, and the editorial page editor; the paper is also soliciting community input on making its website into a "public square." And several office holders and political candidates, including Thigpen and Greensboro City Council member Tom Phillips, have blogs of their own.

But the real digging into local issues may happen on independent blogs, which are also making themselves heard on the web. A local blog aggregator and online hub, Greensboro101.com, is growing into a new sort of online alternative publication. David Hoggard, a former candidate for Greensboro City Council, has proposed a method of reporting he calls "blog swarming," in which several bloggers focus on a single issue over a period of time to bring home a widely-sourced, detailed report. His first suggested topic: violence in public schools. Blogger David Wharton, a professor at UNC-Greensboro who is active in urban development issues, has announced that he will be following the local developers group as it attempts to craft regulations governing its own members.

Another approach to local political blogging has emerged down the road in Chapel Hill, where Ruby Sinreich organized a community blog form called Orange Politics (Chapel Hill is in Orange County). The site is run by progressives, but open to commenters of all stripes. "We will sometimes be overwhelmed by comments of one particular opinion or another," says Sinreich, who works as technology field manager in the public policy division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, pointing to a "deluge" of comments opposing growth and education issues in the area. "We still provide an open forum for anyone who doesn't express hateful or hurtful ideas, but we also offer the influence of an editor to keep things from devolving into total chaos."

One local issue where Orange Politics made a difference was in publicizing a decision by the local public radio station, WUNC, to refuse an underwriter ad that referred to "reproductive rights." WUNC is a powerhouse, covering much of the state, and it's decision on acceptable speech was seen as a marker in the culture wars. But big media ignored it. "This was essentially deemed a non-story until we bitched about it for several days," says Sinreich. "Then Salon.com blogged about it, then it was in the News & Observer, then it was all over the papers. This led to a letter writing campaign at Ipas (the non-profit sponsoring the underwriting spots at the station) and the ultimate withdrawal of their funding for WUNC. I don't think any of that would have happened if we hadn't blogged about it, and continued to discuss it fervently."

Sinreich says the community blog also "turns out to be a useful place for public officials to test out ideas and see how they float, and for journalists to get the pulse of at least some segment of the community." For all that, though, she hopes the larger impact of Orange Politics will go beyond politicians and the press. "I would like to have more of an impact on my neighbors by getting them more engaged in local issues."

Across the country, blog by blog and town by town, that same strategy is starting to come into focus.

Sam Hieb is a freelance journalist based in Greensboro, NC. Ed Cone is a senior writer for Ziff Davis Media, and an opinion columnist for the (Greensboro) News & Record.

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