30 December 2003
Freewheeling 'bloggers' are rewriting rules of journalism
By Kathy Kiely
Copied from: USA TODAY WASHINGTON
They used to be known as the boys on the bus: the big-name columnists, network TV producers and reporters for large-circulation newspapers who had the power to make or break a presidential candidate's reputation. Now they've got competition.
In the 2004 election, the boys (and girls) on the bus have been joined by a new class of political arbiters: the geeks on their laptops. They call themselves bloggers. Their mission: to remake political journalism and, quite possibly, democracy itself. The plan: to run an end around big media by becoming publishers on the Internet.
The freewheeling, gossipy Internet sites they operate can be controversial: Matt Drudge, the wired news and gossip hound who broke the story about Monica Lewinsky's affair with Bill Clinton, is a blogger. Many bloggers are not professional journalists. Few have editors. Most make no pretense of objectivity.
Yet they're forcing the mainstream news media to follow the stories they're pushing, such as the scandal that took down Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. And they've created a trend that almost every major presidential candidate is following. Even President Bush's campaign Web site hosts a blog.
Bloggers get their name from Web logs, a new form of publication on the internet. A blog is a cross between an online diary and a cybermagazine, aggressively updated to draw readers back. Just a few years ago, blogs were relatively rare. Now there are millions. They're devoted to every topic imaginable, from knitting to dating to homelessness. But those who have had the most impact write about politics.
In the past year:
GOPUSA.com, a Web site run by Bobby Eberle, a Houston engineer with no previous journalism experience, scored an interview with President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove.
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, a 32-year-old political junkie with no bylines to his credit but a popular Web site called DailyKos.com, was invited to travel with Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean.
Bloggers were in large part responsible for a change of leadership in the Senate last year. When Majority Leader Lott, a Mississippi Republican, remarked at a birthday party for retiring Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina that the nation might have been better off had Thurmond won his segregationist campaign for president in 1948, the major media largely ignored it.
But bloggers stirred up enough outrage on the Internet that the story eventually landed on newspaper front pages and Lott was forced to resign his post.
Members of the nation's political-media establishment are taking notice.
"There's no question in my mind that political bloggers are a major new development," says Ellen Miller, a longtime political activist and Washington lobbyist who reads blogs. "It takes the media out of the hands of the corporate world and puts it into the hands of guys with computers."
As Jay Rosen, a blogger and the chairman of New York University's journalism department, puts it, "Readers are becoming writers."
The political "blogosphere," as habitués call it, is an ever-expanding universe filled with fierce argument and even fiercer camaraderie. There are well-known journalists who blog and bloggers who have never written for publication. Most run their blogs as labors of love. But some have raised thousands of dollars from loyal readers.
There are liberals, conservatives, libertarians and near-anarchists. The one thing they all agree on: blogging. Bloggers discuss the new medium with proselytizing fervor. They know each others' Web handles (AngryLiberal, Atrios, Instapundit). They use links, which enable Internet users to jump from one Web page to another, to publicize each other's work. Bloggers feel so strongly about blogging, they even promote bloggers they don't agree with.
"We are a community," says Moulitsas, a left-leaning blogger whose DailyKos.com is popular with Democrats.
No one claims that political bloggers have anywhere near the audience of political reporters, whose work is broadcast on TV or printed on paper. "We're not USA TODAY ? yet," says Eberle, the co-founder of GOPUSA.com, an Internet publication for conservative Republicans.
Their audience tends to be an elite crowd of political junkies who have almost non-stop access to a computer and large amounts of time to surf the Internet for breaking news. In short: political consultants and journalists.
That's what makes political bloggers so powerful, says Jeff Jarvis, an executive with Advance.net, the online branch of Newhouse newspapers and the blogger behind Buzzmachine.com. "It's influencing influencers."
Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor whose Instapundit.com is one of the more popular right-leaning Web sites, says the blogosphere has become an "idea farm" for the established media.
Blogging as a widespread phenomenon was born in 1999. A company called Pyra Labs, which has since been acquired by Google, developed Blogger.com, software that allowed Internet users to create Web pages without using the complicated computer coding known as HTML. The following year, Pyra launched a service to host blogs, called Blogspot.com.The software and the hosting service are free.
Pyra executives thought their products would be popular with people who were already operating Web sites. "It was targeted toward a 'techie' crowd," associate product manager Jason Goldman says.
'Out of control'
But the free market took over. "I discovered Blogger.com. Then it all got out of control," e-mails Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for The New Republic and Time who also blogs.
Later versions of blogging software cost money, but it's still publishing on the cheap. Ben Trott is a cofounder of Movable Type, a blogging software company. He says his company charges bloggers $5 to $15 a month, depending on how much traffic they generate. Veteran bloggers say the most expensive sites ? blogs so heavily trafficked that they require their own Web servers ? can be operated for less than $500 a month.
Bloggers have found they can make their soapboxes pay.
Moulitsas says he got $4,000 in less than 12 hours when he asked fans of DailyKos.com to help him pay for a new server.
Sullivan last year hosted a Public Broadcasting Service-style pledge drive on his blog. He says he got almost $100,000.
Readers of Joshua Micah Marshall's blog, TalkingPointsMemo.com, sent him more than $4,000 to finance a reporting trip to New Hampshire.
'It has taken over my life'
No one knows how many blogs there are. "Three to five years ago, there were probably tens of thousands," Trott says. "Now there are millions." Blogspot alone hosts 1.5 million bloggers, Goldman says.
Political bloggers think they are riding a wave that will revolutionize campaigns and communications in the USA and around the world. A blog can be started by anybody. Owning a computer isn't necessary. All it takes is access to a computer at a public library or Internet café.
Jarvis says he has encouraged overseas readers of his Web site to start blogs in Iran and Iraq.
Some bloggers are so convinced of the momentousness of the phenomenon, they've begun to chronicle its effects. On a blog, of course.
"In my own humble observation, what's happening out there is the start of a fundamental reordering of democratic energy and political influences," ex-New York Times staffer Christopher Lydon writes on the site, The Blogging of the President 2004 (http://www.bopnews.com/).
It's being managed by Lydon, NYU's Rosen and a former software developer named Matt Stoller, who has temporarily dropped out of the job market to help run the blog. "It has taken over my life," Stoller says. "I saved up money to take time off and figure out how I want to make an impact."
Veterans of the political scene admit they're having some trouble adjusting. "When I first got up here, I thought blogging was an Irish dance," says Tricia Enright, a longtime Capitol Hill press secretary who earlier this year became communications director for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. She quickly became a blog believer. Dean, whom bloggers like to cite as Exhibit A of the impact of the medium, runs a blog, hosts other blogs, raises money on blogs and gets ideas from blogs.
"It is literally like an instant focus group," Enright says, referring to a small-group polling technique candidates use to gauge voters' reactions to their ideas. "It does change the way you do things."
Other political pros are skeptical. "To read this stuff is to drink politics from a fire hose. There's so much of it that it's hard to process," says Terry Holt, spokesman for President Bush's campaign. But he adds, "There isn't any doubt that it has given voters a real way to participate." And the Bush campaign is trying to encourage them. On the campaign Web site, there's a link to "Bloggers for Bush."
Policing the Internet
Blogging comes with new ethical questions. Bloggers do things that would be firing offenses in most newsrooms. "There's no pretension of being fair or balanced or impartial," Moulitsas says. "We all wear our ideology on our sleeve." So much so that Moulitsas, who writes about campaigns, is now consulting for them. He won't say which candidates for the House or Senate he's working for; he doesn't want them to suffer for his more outrageous opinions.
Professional writers who have turned to blogs say they enjoy the freedom. "It's a chance to get rid of editors and get rid of deadlines and to write about what I want to write about," says Mickey Kaus, whose Kausfiles.com was one of the earliest political blogs.
Some newspapers are experimenting with blogs, but the new and old media aren't always a comfortable fit. Sacramento Bee editorial columnist Dan Weintraub's blogging raised tensions in the Bee newsroom during the California gubernatorial recall campaign. Reporters at the newspaper protested that his popular blog, California Insider, didn't have to undergo as much scrutiny as their copy. Now he has to submit it to an editor.
Posting reader feedback is another touchy issue. Some bloggers do not allow it, partly out of fear that they will be made to answer for an outrageous or off-color posting on their site. GOPUSA faced that problem when a contributor posted a column about liberal financier George Soros that contained anti-Semitic statements. "We ran a column that in retrospect we should not have run," Eberle says.
Dave Neiwert, a veteran of traditional newsrooms who operates his own blog (http://dneiwert.blogspot.com), argues that bloggers police themselves: "Somebody puts false information out there, some other blogger is going to jump all over him."
Enthusiasts insist that blogging's shortcomings are more than outweighed by the new sense of community the medium creates.
"People are no longer simply consumers of political news. They're publishers of their own," says Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. Professional writers who have turned to blogging say they love the dialogue.
"It's like having a giant communal brain," Sullivan says.
But the biggest raves come from bloggers who have found a voice they never had before. Tom Bevan, a former advertising executive, turned to full-time blogging after a Web site he helped found, RealClearPolitics.com, took off. Bevan, 34, has no experience in politics or journalism. But he says he knows from the feedback that "a lot of influential opinion-makers" are benefiting from his views.
"That's one of the fantastic things about the blogosphere and the Internet," Bevan says. "If you have something to say that's interesting, you will eventually be heard."
A sampling of political blogs
Instapundit.com: Those who keep track say that this site, operated by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, is one of the most popular.
AndrewSullivan.com: Sullivan, 40, writes regularly for the Sunday Times (of London) and the New Republic, a magazine he used to edit.
TalkingPointsMemo.com: Joshua Micah Marshall, who operates this left-leaning blog, is a Washington-based journalist.
DrudgeReport.com: The granddaddy of all blogs, operated by Matt Drudge, was instrumental is breaking the story of President Clinton's affair with a White House intern.
DailyKos.com: Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, 32, began operating this Web site in 2002. It gained such a following among liberals that some candidates have now hired him as their web consultant.
RealClearPolitics.com: Tom Bevan, 34, started this conservative-leaning Web site with a college friend in 2000 and added a blog in 2002.
Kausfiles.com: Mickey Kaus, 52, worked at the New Republic and Newsweek before starting one of the first political blogs in 1999.