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Blogging Locally

Web Sites on State and Local Politics Gaining Prominence

One of the most important, and possibly most enduring, stories to come out of the 2004 election was how the Internet’s Web log community, affectionately known as the “blogosphere,” became the hip new battlefield upon which the war of public opinion was waged.

As the election loomed, a few popular blogs showed an uncanny ability to beat the mainstream media to a story, or at least force national news organizations to cover stories that may otherwise have slipped through the cracks. Blogging gods emerged, and today sites such as Daily Kos, Instapundit and Atrios have established themselves as influential outlets for information on national news stories and sites that voters and politicians alike are paying attention to.

But if 2004 belonged to the national political blogs, 2006 might well be the cycle of the local political blog. These blogs specialize in state or local political coverage, and while these smaller, non-national political blogs may not have the resources — financial or otherwise — of the well-known titans of the blogosphere, many are starting to gain a following, not to mention the respect of state and local media outlets and politicians.

“I think there are local television stations and newspapers everywhere who better start paying attention to these local blogs because they are a direct connection to their communities,” said David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.

Bohrman is the man who helped create CNN’s “Inside the Blogs,” a regular segment on Judy Woodruff’s “Inside Politics.” After experiencing the 2004 elections and the impact of bloggers after the State of the Union address, Bohrman said he knew that “being able to report on what the blogs are saying and doing is worthwhile. … Clearly there’s something out there when it comes to the blogs.”

It’s important to note that there are for-profit political Web sites in many states that are run by more traditional reporters — such as the Ralston Report in Nevada, Howey Political Report in Indiana or the various sites operated by the Publius Group, like PoliticsPA.com or PoliticsNJ.com — but they aren’t necessarily blogs per se. These sites are dedicated to breaking news stories, offer a variety of in-depth features and often are used by politicians to push rumors or float ideas.

But the free-flow nature of blogs, the fluid mix of opinion and political ideologies that can dominate some sites and the sheer newness of the blogging medium makes the impact of state and local political blogging hard to define by conventional media standards.

But maybe that’s because conventional media standards don’t really apply to the blogging world. Indeed, an editorial in Sunday’s New York Times calling for bloggers to institutionalize ethics policies not unlike traditional print and television news outlets earned a storm of criticism in the blogosphere earlier this week.

“Don’t expect these blogs to have the same economic model as The Washington Post” or other mainstream media entities, said Joe Monahan of JoeMonahan.com, a blog that has been devoted to New Mexico politics for the last year and a half. Blogs “aren’t meant to replace these things, they are a separate media entity with their own economic model and standards. So don’t try to impose those standards on blogs.”

A journalist by training and a registered independent, Monahan works at a consulting and marketing firm by day, but his after-work life is devoted to running his insider blog, which has become one of the most well-read sites among those in the know in the Land of Enchantment. He said his site started out as a hobby that took on a life of its own after he began chronicling GOP intraparty struggles in New Mexico in late 2003.

“I’m a one-man shop and I find it a little amusing that some journalists have told me they are in competition with me,” Monahan said. “My site is filling a void that has been neglected by the mainstream media.”

Ben Smith, a political reporter with the Manhattan-based New York Observer, runs a local political blog on the Observer Web site and said he has been surprised by how well the blog has been received — something like 1,500 hits a day — since he launched the site at the beginning of the year.

“There’s sort of a universe of people who read blogs and a universe of people who are interested in city politics, and they intersect,” Smith said.

Smith said that while many of the large national blogs are very ideological and come down on one side or the other in the political spectrum, his success and the respect he holds in the New York City political scene stems from being independent in his coverage.

“A lot of my readership works for one side or the other,” he said. “I require myself to be even handed.”

Monahan said he sticks to the same standard.

“Blogging, if done independently and fairly, can cover the issues the mainstream media doesn’t have the time or resources to cover,” he said.

But some political professionals dismiss the importance of the blogs.

“The state blogs don’t break news, at least not for House races,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti. “They may help promote news that gets printed in some obscure newspaper. … The people who go to these blogs, it’s the very partisan Republicans and very partisan Democrats, and those aren’t the people we are worried about.”

And many state and local blogs find themselves focusing on races that just aren’t competitive. These blogs “become very enamored with certain candidates, and while they may be very well intentioned those candidates are often running in districts that are unfavorable,” said Greg Speed, former spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Speed added that in battleground areas, keeping an eye on what the blogging community is saying can be an important part of running a campaign.

Speed pointed to South Dakota and Sen. John Thune’s (R) 2004 battle against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) as an election where bloggers showed just how much of a force they can be. In that election, South Dakota Republicans orchestrated a highly effective blog-based campaign against Daschle and one of the state’s largest newspapers, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. During the campaign, bloggers hammered away at the paper’s coverage of Daschle and raised questions about certain writers’ objectivity.

“You had right-wing bloggers start a blog essentially claiming the Argus Leader was treating Daschle with kid gloves,” Speed said. “And what you had was other mainstream media in the state seeing these things and thinking they were real stories.”

In just three months of covering the blogosphere for “Inside the Blogs,” CNN reporter Jacki Schechner said that she has seen how state and local sites have at times shaped the direction of the mainstream news cycle. She cited GrassrootsPA.com (the self described “epicenter of conservative grass-roots activity in Pennsylvania”), which has recently been following developments concerning Rep. Don Sherwood’s (R-Pa.) alleged affair with Cynthia Ore, as one of several smaller local blogs that have made repeated appearances on her “Inside the Blogs” segment.

“I think it’ll be more and more interesting as local races heat up … my guess is that [local bloggers] will start to vie to be the authority in local races,” she said.

“The national blogs hit first and were supported by so much revenue and advertising, state blogs don’t really have that,” Monahan said. “I think a shakeout will occur in the next couple years and the ones that have staying power will be left.”

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