May 24, 2005

Independent Media Forum

On Saturday I went to the Bellingham Grassroots and Independent Media Conference to sit on their blogging panel. It was a fruitful trip because I realized the following, which I'll elaborate on later: When conservatives are faced with a new communication medium, they at once ask themselves, 'How can we bend this to our will?' Liberals seem to wonder, 'If we mock it long enough, will it go away?' Add water and stir.

It's about an 80 mile drive from my house to Bellingham, so I wasn't there the whole day, but I did also attend two previous panels dealing with more traditional (if still alternative) issues in journalism.

The print journalism panel talked about the effectiveness of local reporting in dealing with issues such as the upcoming 24-hour video security monitors to be placed in downtown Bellingham, and some of the minutiae of running a very small paper or wanting to be a freelance writer. Then one of the panelists who worked (iirc) at a small college paper made a snippy remark about not being just some internet site. There were approving smiles, snickers, and sympathetic huffery from all corners of the room. The exception was former Alternet columnist Kevin Nelson, who spoke up for the internet's incredible utility as a research tool, after which the discussion turned to other topics.

The next panel I went to was called Making The News, and I found it very relevant to many of the media issues that get brought up regularly in the blogosphere.

Communications Professor Michael Carlberg described the "information subsidy" provided by the public relations industry which helps make news businesses more profitable by decreasing the cost of gathering raw material. He said that the media industry "isn't about news, it's about spectacle," and was a "commercial industry devoted to the manufacture and sale of audiences to advertisers."

Cortney Harding of the Public News Service talked about how the woman who started the company (didn't catch the name) got the idea to start making audio press releases on progressive issues for local radio. After getting a job in a news organization in Idaho, it fast became clear that every Republican organization there was had a newswire of some sort and sent out press releases every which way, so she decided to do the same thing with progressive issues. Harding said that the only way to fight public relations press releases was by writing your own, and emphasized matching the delivery of the message to the expectations and proprieties of the listeners.

Curiously, in talking about ways to get their message out, Harding was laughingly proud that no one at the Public News Service had suggested doing something (by which her tone implied 'something stupid') like starting a blog. And the discussion moved right along to other topics.

This was a fairly progressive crowd, and if any of the panelists objected to the liberal tone, I didn't catch it. But their attitude towards the internet and blogging was a sharp contrast to the attitudes of the Republicans I interviewed at a WA State gubernatorial recount rally. The protestors on each side stuck to their own side of the street, and of course no one had heard of me beyond two people on the pro-recount side that I knew from offline. On the Republican side, when I introduced myself as a blogger some people's eyes lit up. They'd heard of bloggers on their conservative radio shows, they knew that bloggers had been invited to speak at their rallies and they knew that bloggers were busy making their case on the internet. I strongly suspected that they assumed blogging was a conservative pastime. On the pro-recount side (they were very insistent about it not being a partisan issue, though a good few were assuredly Democrats) virtually no one had heard of a blog and I was met with plenty more skepticism.

The blogging panel was moderated by John Servais of NW Citizen, and also speaking were David Goldstein of Horses Ass, Lee Rosenberg of Reload Blog, and Amy and Grant of Better Donkey. At some point, there will be a web streaming version of all the panels, so you can see us pontificating on the spot. As we mostly agreed among ourselves before starting off, there's a reason that our hobby involves spending a lot of time at a computer, but maybe it's time to branch out ;)

The topic eventually turned to whether any of us saw a big difference between the liberal and conservative blogospheres. Goldstein & I both made the argument that one main difference was one of access. A conservative blogger can easily get ushered onto local talk radio, is more likely to be included by Republican politicians in their events, has a potentially huge megaphone in sites like the Drudge Report, and there's nothing like that on the liberal side. They have multiple avenues of continuous free publicity, so they get a lot more traffic than they would naturally (this isn't a point of merit, but findability), and based on that traffic the regular media decides to pay attention to them.

Someone asked why we thought liberals in the media (the discussion at that point had centered around local radio hosts) had turned their backs on us, but it was a question that missed the point. You can't be snubbed by people who barely think about you in the first place. It's like saying you've been 'snubbed' by the President of Uruguay, who, by the way, never calls.

And so beginneth the rant. More on the flip.

A gentleman who seemed to be the conference's token conservative said that we were just whining and that conservative bloggers would say the same things in reverse. I don't see how that could honestly be true. At the panel I went to last week, two of the conservative bloggers in attendance had regular columns with local media organizations, and one of those is regularly invited onto local radio. I work for my school paper, but I got there because I took a journalism class and not because someone noticed my blog. And that's just the dynamics of blogging in this little corner of the country. It's simply a fact that we don't have that sort of established support structure on our side of the ideological divide.

And indeed, none of the panelists from either of the other two events (some nine or ten people at a conference of maybe 150 or so), which for all practical purposes constituted the print media establishment at this gathering, sat through our panel. Even the audience almost completely changed out. There were about as many people at our panel as at the other two I went to, but there just wasn't the overlap. We were beneath the notice, as far as I could tell, of the Bellingham Weekly and the Organic Press.

As an aside, the editor of the Bellingham Weekly mentioned after the print journalism panel that these local alternative weeklies might be the only newspapers in the country whose circulation is going up. They could, therefore, also have the only newspaper editors in the country who aren't freaking out about the internet taking away their readers.

We did get the obligatory audience question about how to set up a blog, and that was the one time I spotted a face from the other two panels pop in, though the good professor quickly left again. Perhaps he thought we'd start speaking in code. Blogspot.free = true; There weren't any questions that indicated to me that the audience were looking to use blogging to expand the reach of an existing media outlet. The lady from Yes! magazine didn't show up to ask us, as she had the print panel, if we were interested in participating in a regional collaborative media project.

I don't point these things out because I feel that it's important that anyone should be paying more attention to me, personally. I'm no Steve Gilliard, David Neiwert or Amanda Marcotte. This is a hobby that I do on top of my real job of studying for a career in environmental science, and I work about as hard at this now as I'm likely ever to do. I point them out because what I have seen at every level of the Democratic party and every type of liberal or progressive movement that I've been exposed to over the last two years is a disconnect.

Disconnect is a vague term, and I could mean anything by it, but I mean everything by it.

The progressive bleeding edge of the party has no sense that they're being heard by the establishment. The progressive technoactivists (I'm just making up words as I go along here, sue me) are considered irrelevant by the take-it-over-from-within activists, who are in turn considered sellouts by every-other-type of activist. The moderates think the liberals are coming to sell their kids a nickel bag, the liberals think the moderates (guilty at times) are turning their backs on modernity. The party establishment is so factionalized and warring that ten Democrats ended up having a knock-down, drag-out primary fight that managed to lodge in the public consciousness only a vague memory of someone having screamed at the end, which bogglingly happened after the party couldn't get it together in 2000 to fully back and support their nominee all the way to the endzone, getting deservedly creamed thereby.

And the answer of these brawling, squabbling factions who barely talk with each other to the unified conservative message machine is... what? A unified front in a showdown over judges that Alberto Gonzales thinks are a little too extreme? A party chair who's barely tolerated by the leadership, but is being suffered because the screaming of their constituents finally came to them as a tinny but distant roar of discontent? A 'response' to the travesty of the bankruptcy and estate tax bills that would leave FDR spinning in his grave? A few feet in the internet pond, but no unified effort to use it for more than a cash machine? A million flowers blooming in the grassroots, most working hard to vigorously overshade the rest?

I may have gone a bit off the topic of blogging in particular and media in general, but any problem specific to the failure of progressives, liberals, Democrats, and all the various acitivist groups and would-be media influencers to 'get' Trippi's insight about the importance of hooking up with the public through blogs is just the lastest symptom of a systemic disease. When something works for a conservative, they all try it and share notes. When something works for a liberal, the rest of us look to see whether or not we like their faction before thinking about duplicating it, and under no circumstances do we seem to actively communicate a best practices playbook to each other.

When it comes to actual liberals in the media (by which I mean people in the media who would be described that way by themselves and other liberals,) I can't say I know what their deal is. Maybe they just don't want to get caught up in a fad and look unserious in their attempts to take over from within. Maybe they have the contempt of the long-laboring craftsman for the lucky amateur. Who can say.

But maybe they could have gotten an inkling if they'd stopped by, maybe even by accident, of why political blogging is so neat. How cool it is to have a cheap, searchable, research archive of your work. Or why this format is a useful and simple way to expand audience and reach for a wide range of organizations. Perhaps even the media literacy professor, who astounded some in his audience by the story of the fake testimony in front of Congress before Gulf War I, would have found himself introduced to a subset of media consumers to whom that story was old news.

Though someday they'll probably come around, because blogs aren't going away. As I mentioned briefly on the panel discussion, around 70% of political blog readers participate in political activity offline in some way. There wasn't a lot of time to elaborate, but this is important because those people are the core that work to transmit ideas and actions to the rest of the country. See this report for more:

... A study released Feb. 5, 2004 by George Washington University together with Roper ASW and Nielsen/NetRatings found that while only 7 percent of the population regularly visited online political and news Web sites, 69 percent of these "Online Political Citizens" were considered to be "Influentials," serving as opinion leaders in their communities. Only 10 percent of the general population are Influentials. About 60 percent of regular visitors to political Web sites have college degrees. [1] The number of Americans who visited online political and news Web sites undoubtedly increased as the election drew near. ...

A disproportionate number of the people who read political blogs are the same ones who write letters, canvas, attend political events, donate and inform other people who pay less attention to politics. They are political influentials (pdf), and have an effect greater than their numbers. Additionally, many mainstream reporters read blogs, so it can in no way be suggested that we're all writing to an empty room.

Yes, Ms. Harding of the Public News Service, we don't have big audiences compared to some other outlets, but we have influential audiences. We're the popular trade journals of politics, the little niche magazines that get read by people who will tell ten other people what they read there. And btw, I'll bet you five bucks that within a week this post shows up on a Google search of the term 'Public News Service' before your own skimpy brochure of a website does. Indeed, until somebody willing to face a hailstorm of snark tries to start a company blog, this post will probably be the most easily accessible internet record of what you do.

And that's a shame, because it sounded like it would be interesting to have some kind of chronological, public archive of the story transcripts the Public News Service works so hard to put together.

Posted by natasha at May 24, 2005 01:44 AM | Blogging | Technorati links |
Comments

Natasha,

I had a similar reaction to what Ms. Harding was saying. She had the attitude that "if the Republicans can write up some propaganda and get it on the news, so can we". We'll that's fine and dandy, but it's still just one person (or a small group of people) with one perspective in a vacuum trying to fight a nationwide movement.

The evolution of the right wing noise machine did not start at the finish, where press releases to Fox News saying that 72% of the marijuana in the U.S. is grown in Jane Fonda's backyard leads to millions of Americans with Old Navy flag T-shirts nodding their heads and shaking their fists in anger. It started through radio. It started through getting feedback from listeners, and continually evolving the message to cater to that demographic.

Blogs are much better for that, as the process of linking and cross-referencing works as a filter to eventually push the most hot-button issues to the forefront, and honing in on the most effective messages and the things that people care most about when they head to the polls. One blog, on its own, can't do shit. But Ms. Harding's news service, essentially when it is thoroughly outfunded by the other side's PR machine, can't do shit either. It's about collaboration. Call-in radio was able to craft the right wing echo chamber and now right wing blogs keep it going. Air America is out there, it's as popular as any progressive could have hoped, and blogs can certainly run alongside and continue to build up a left wing echo chamber.

As an independent, I hate to advocate doing anything that encourages groupthink, and I'm continually debating myself over whether being truthful is more important than doing whatever is necessary to right the ship. On this, I have to concede that she might be right that we have to play dirty. But we also have to be more realistic about how they've done it if we want to copy them.

Posted by: thehim at May 24, 2005 02:30 PM

It's about collaboration.

Exactly. If all the Republicans had was Instapundit, or the Concerned Women for America newswire, they'd be just about where we are. It's about leveraging every single possible tool for maximum advantage.

I don't remember who it was that said the Republican's advantage was that they argued every issue, no matter how trivial. I'd add that another advantage is that they carry those arguments to every medium of expression, no matter how fringe.

Posted by: natasha at May 24, 2005 04:04 PM

I was in the audience for both panels. Listening to Ms. Harding speak was like listening to nails on a chalkboard in a New Jersey High school, two fold.

Not only was I unable to stomach her "like like like" speaking style with a side of eye rolls, I found it very hard to swallow her thoughtless blog knocking comment. She commented that if you're going to send someone around door to door to speak about an issue in a conservative neighborhood, you should make sure they are presentable and don't have blue hair and a nose ring so that people listen to them. She then added she may not feel that way herself, but it's true that conservatives, such as her parents (I think she said?) will shut the door on someone with blue hair. (correct me please, if I am in error)

For anyone sending someone to my house:

Send someone, ANYONE, who doesn't act or speak like Ms. Harding. Need someone remind her that a snotty attitude makes a huge negative impact on a person's presentation. I have no interest in the Public News Service other than seeing it never turn up in a Google Search.

Posted by: theher at May 24, 2005 04:44 PM

I'm flattered by your mention, but I too have a real, 40-hour-week job and blog as a hobby. I'm just a really fast and sloppy writer is all.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte at May 27, 2005 08:35 PM

I'm just a really fast and sloppy writer is all.

Well, you may be fast but I disagree on the second point. You're very readable. And I didn't mean to imply that you don't have a job, but that the volume and quality of your writing is more than I can produce in the time allotted to me. I am s...l...o...w at this, must work on that.

Posted by: natasha at May 28, 2005 12:46 AM