Political blogging growing like a vine

May 4, 2007

(http://www.suntimes.com/news/hunter/371066,CST-NWS-hunter04.article)

May 4, 2007

On my first day of college I headed to the student newspaper and signed on to be a reporter. Other young activists on campus joined the student government or the radio or television station or a chapter of a political party.

That’s still going on to some extent but it’s more likely politically engaged students will be seated at their dorm room desks scanning social networks such as YouTube, responding to blogs — personal Web pages on specific topics such as politics — or creating online commentaries of their own.

When I walked into the California State Democratic Convention last Saturday in San Diego and saw all the bloggers, I realized that not only was I a Luddite, hauling around my ailing microcassette tape recorder, but that this trend of political blogging is growing like a kudzu vine, snaking around a dozen newspaper boxes … overnight.

Resources for Web sites

Of the 400 media credentials handed out for the convention, 49 were given to bloggers, and that doesn’t include the traditional journalists who have blogs of their own. The California Dems even have their own computer/Internet caucus. “The caucus is symbolic of just how big a phenomenon (the Internet) is here,” says Roger Salazar, spokesman for the California Democratic Party. It was the first time the California convention had set up a table specially for bloggers inside the hall where candidates spoke. In fact, one of the blogging groups, Calitics.com, had a bigger contingent — nine staffers — than any of the regional newspapers.

California is the domain of the Silicon Valley, after all, and home to many of the largest political blogs in the country — The Daily Kos and Huffington Post for example. (We have our own bloggers at the Sun-Times, including Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief.)

But blogging is also being embraced by most of the Democratic and Republican candidates in their attempt to catch the attention of the young. According to a study by Kristin Hanks, a graduate student at Indiana University School of Informatics, only 2 percent of campaign Web sites had blogs or “visitors’ comments” in 2002. Today, it’s 74 percent.

“The resources being expended on these Web sites are incredible,” says Brian Leubitz, founder of Calitics and a master’s student in public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Barack Obama’s director of new media, Josh Orton, says the effort is to “democratize what it means to be involved in a campaign.” On Obama’s page is a MySpace-style site — MyBarack Obama.com — where users can sign up to create their own blogs. There are now 11,000 individual bloggers.

Obama has about a dozen workers on his new media team, including one of the founders of Facebook, Chris Hughes. “Now people can organize regardless of geographical location, regardless of age,” Orton told the computer/Internet caucus. “It’s really broken down a lot of walls.”

Obama has his own videographer traveling with him so live action can be posted on his Web site. Inside the campaign there is a staff blog.

From Obama’s site there are also links to MySpace, YouTube and other social networking sites. This linking is called “blog rolling.”

(The other front-running Democrats, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, have similar Web offerings.)

But sometimes things can go really wrong, as the Obama team found out when it tried to work with Joe Anthony, an enthusiastic supporter who started the page on MySpace in November 2004 for the candidate.

‘Early adaptors’

A tug-of-war erupted over control of the site between the Obama group and Anthony — who allowed the Obama team to edit the information on the page. MySpace executives negotiated an end to the dispute by dividing the spoils, giving the site name to Obama and the list of 160,000 “friends” to Anthony. Hanks at Indiana University recalls how she explored Republican candidate Mike Huckabee’s site and found a link to a MySpace search results page.

It led to a “F—Huck” site.

After doing a content analysis, Hanks determined the candidates’ Web sites don’t generate as much public discourse as one might expect, but they can mobilize people interested in politics.

“You don’t have to go to the door and you don’t have to get people to ‘sign here.'”

But Sree Sreenivasan, new media professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says the effectiveness of Web sites and blogs as political tools may only go so far: “It’s still a small percentage of people using these technologies.”

Most are young and what Sreenivasan terms “early adaptors.” And, as he concludes, the impact of young voters “is notoriously hard to predict.” It was thought they were going to turn out in big numbers in 2004 but that didn’t happen.

In the end, who has time to blog? After reading four newspapers each day and my e-mails and doing my work, I’ve had it. Blogging remains a luxury for the young — or the bored.

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