Blogs colliding with traditional media
Convention credentials expected forWeb logs
Among the media credential applications for this summer's Democratic National Convention -- from the TV networks, newspapers, and radio stations -- is the one from 21-year-old Jesse Taylor, a pundit of the self-declared variety.
He may not be a traditional journalist, but the recent college graduate does have a blog, a website called pandagon.net, where his opinions on current events and the press draw 12,000 readers per day. And from the standpoint of Democratic National Convention organizers, that could be good enough. This summer, they'll grant some of their 15,000 coveted credentials to blogs, the online diaries that link to news reports, post comments from readers, and critique the political process with unrestrained abandon.
In the subculture known as the blogosphere, the news has spread quickly: Blogs, short for "Web logs," are getting recognition from the insiders at last. Credentials are "a way to promote the blogosphere as a new and genuine and legitimate media outlet," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, 32, who runs the popular liberal blog dailykos.com -- daily readership, 150,000.
But this new form of media is colliding with old-hand political structures, such as the House of Representatives Press Gallery, the initial gatekeeper for credential requests. Officials there decided that independent blogs do not fit their standards of "media," and passed their applications down the ladder a rung, to the convention staffs that handle credentials for student and weekly papers.
It's a matter of definitions, said gallery supervisor Jerry Gallegos, who says that, these days, it's not always easy to distinguish real journalism from widely broadcast rants.
"Anyone with a computer and home publishing can call themselves whatever they want," he said. "If it's a retired couple that just decides they've got an opinion, that doesn't make them a news organization. It just makes them a retired couple with an opinion and a website."
But some bloggers say that the application process reveals a stodgy, old-world sensibility -- asking, for example, if an applicant works full time for a news organization, when most bloggers see their hours online as a labor of love.
"The process you have to go through if you're a blogger, to me, indicates that they don't quite get what blogging is yet," said Chicago researcher Colette Marine, 35, who applied for credentials to represent a left-leaning blog called Southpaw, and sometimes spends five hours a day reading and posting. With their painstakingly culled and cross-referenced links, she said, blogs have become her primary source of news.
Yet, as news outlets, blogs often fall into the shadowy space between reporting and advocacy. Outside of their links to stories from the conventional press, blogs tend to have little independent reporting, and more stream-of-consciousness commentary and analysis. They are often fiercely partisan, and post links to parties' and candidates' fund-raising operations.
And while bloggers will probably hobnob with the rest of the convention press -- "Whatever the journalists have, they will have" said Democratic convention spokeswoman Peggy Wilhide -- their relationship with traditional news outlets can be, to put it kindly, strained.
It's "a strange mix of hostility and dependence," Taylor told a Globe reporter. "We need you to give us stuff, but we're really mad at you for giving it to us."
Their distance from professional media, in part, is what gives blogs their identity. Bloggers' voices are often more conversational, and profane, than newspaper or magazine fare. And while blogs have been known to amplify little-noticed news events, such as Senator Trent Lott's 2002 praise of his colleague Strom Thurmond, blog postings don't always hew to old-school standards of sourcing and fact-checking. There's usually no editing at all, which many bloggers take as a point of pride.
"It's not corporately controlled. There's nobody telling you what you can or can't write," said George Peterson, 22, a recent North Carolina State University graduate who runs a blog called dirtygreek.org. (It's named after his college nickname, draws about 100 visitors per day, and consists of "sort of all the thoughts that run through my head.")
When he learned that bloggers could get convention credentials, Peterson decided to apply. "It would just be a really neat thing to cover, since I don't get to be a real reporter," he said. "It's the second-best thing, I guess."
So far, he's one of a couple of dozen independent bloggers to apply, on behalf of websites ranging from the small to the substantial. A Republican convention spokeswoman said the party has not decided whether to offer credentials to bloggers.
A major obstacle for bloggers is likely to be cost. Big news organizations foot the bill for their staffs' transportation and lodging. Bloggers would be on their own. Josh Marshall, 35, who runs the influential talkingpointsmemo.com, recently posted a call to readers, seeking contributions to finance his trips to both conventions.
Cost barriers could spare the Democrats from some tricky decisions: how to choose among bloggers if too many apply, and whether to open the doors equally to left-leaning and right-leaning blogs.
Still, any mix, however small, of bloggers and the old-school press could lead to some choice interactions, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "It cuts right to the core of the age-old question about journalists: Are they professionals, or can any old jerk do it? I guess we're going to find out."
Bloggers themselves are a relatively youthful, growing niche. A national Pew survey conducted in February found that 5 percent of the 128 million American adults who use the Internet say they have created a blog. And 17 percent call themselves blog readers.
But it's too early to tell what blogs' effect on the presidential race will be. Despite the hoopla over bloggers this year, Rainie said, the more-traditional John F. Kerry campaign prevailed in the Democratic primary, capitalizing on flesh-and-blood events such as his reunion, in Iowa, with a fellow Vietnam veteran.
"That was a TV moment," Rainie said. "There's nothing remotely like it online."
But blogs proved during the primary to be potent tools for drumming up enthusiasm and generating money. They also brought many young voters into the process, said political strategist Joe Trippi, who became a well-known apostle of the medium as campaign manager for presidential hopeful Howard Dean.
Bringing bloggers to the convention, Trippi said, will "help pull in a lot of younger voters and a lot of younger people. They'll have their reporters, for lack of a better way of putting it."
Bloggers say they've already proven that they'll bring a different perspective to their coverage. Moulitsas and Ezra Klein, Taylor's 19-year-old co-blogger, scored media credentials to the California State Democratic Convention last year, and focused on scenes that might not have made it into newspapers or magazines. Klein focused on journalists in the rafters and used his space to critique them. ("We all watched the same convention, I sat next to these journalists, but what I saw told a very different story," he wrote.)
Moulitsas ignored candidate speeches and wrote about the sideshows, such as longshot presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun's efforts to promote herself. At this summer's national conventions, he said, he wants to pull back similar curtains.
"My audience is a little more on the revolutionary edge, not in an ideological sense, but more of a people-power kind of issue," he said. "I'm going to be kind of their eyes and ears inside this big operation run by the establishment. I can't get that out of any kind of [traditional] coverage."
As critical as they are of the establishment, though, some bloggers say there's something intoxicating -- softening, even -- about the idea of being inside.
"Here I am, I'm 19, I started up this dinky little website for free," Klein said. And now, he could get into the biggest political party of all. "That's a really amazing and humbling feeling."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.