GreeneSpace

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Piedmont Blog Conference

This morning I was among some sixty bloggers (or soon-to-be-bloggers) at a nifty conference hosted by Ed Cone in Greensboro. Here's my quick transcription of what transpired. For links to the sites of all the people who spoke, please see Ed's site.

Note well: If I failed to cite you, that's because I was too caught up listening to you!

UPDATE: Evan Zimmerman of NCBlogs has pictures up.

Ed Cone

I was motivated because Jeff Thigpen candidate for Register of Deeds was blogging. That was an excuse to do this conference!

It's a self-organizing conference—you did it. This is the first local or regional weblog conference, and that's important. We all get how weblogs have sort of a national and global impact, but we're just starting to figure out how they are a powerful local tool too. Local and statewide.

The intelligence is distributed across the room. This is not a conference with traditional panels.

Section 1: Politics, campaigns, advocacy and governance

David Hoggard talks about his experience with a blog as a political candidate for Greensboro City Council.

I wanted to get my voice out. If I depended on journalists to get my word out, it's limited at best, the ability to say what I want to say unfiltered. I didn't win but I worked hard.

I envisioned being transparent. Transparency in government is one of the most lofty ideals we can get, and there's nothing more transparent than a weblog.

Jeff Thigpen, Guilford County Commissioner, candidate for Register of Deeds

We wanted to get some things up quickly. The blog gave us more control over the message. . . .

Next came a freewheeling discussion of the value of the internet in political campaigning now and in the future.

Will Raymond of Chapel Hill

What about schizophrenic bloggers, like Sally, who have a political blog and a personal blog?

Sally Greene, Chapel Hill Town Council

That's a fascinating question, Will. Last year I ran for office; I had never run before, although I had been on the Planning Board. I knew that I needed to get my message out and I too knew that I couldn't count on the media to do it. It may seem strange since I'm married to one of the gods of the internet, Paul Jones, but I just didn't know anything about blogs.

But what I did do was to start a listserv. I used it on an irregular but frequent basis to write thoughtful (at least, I thought I was thoughtful) commentaries on campaign issues—for example, after a candidate forum I might come home and write more about what was talked about. People would tell me that they had liked one or another listserv message in particular and had forwarded it to x many other people—and so it went on like that.

I also had a static web site, like everyone does, but I loaded it with content. Since I'm not a very confident public speaker, I always have a written statement. I had four years of statements I'd made to the Town Council on various issues, and I put them all up. [Note: these statements are not up on my site now; I decided to start anew from the date I began to serve on the Council.] So people could go there and find out just what I'd said about any number of issues.

While most campaign sites fold after the election, I have maintained mine and I continue to update it with content and links to town-related news stories (which I selectively pick). I have kept up the listserv announcements too.

Now, for a couple of months I've been blogging. But it is separate from my Town Council web site. Each is linked to the other, but they are separate.

What I write on my blog is not very political; you can tell generally that there's a leftist bias on national issues, but very little of it has to do with local politics. This is in part because the Chapel Hill Town Council doesn't meet in the summer. It's not a very political time. I expect that in September when we start up again and we start to be dealing with live issues, I may very well blog about those.

But on the other hand—and this is something that I haven't consciously thought about very much, until Will's question—I think I do want to keep some space that is just my own, my "greenespace." I mean, there is a difference, although of course they overlap.

There was more freewheeling discussion, which I got so caught up listening to that I forgot to take notes. Part of this discussion was about whether it's a good idea for a political blog to accept comments. My own naïve assumption had been that of course it would be a good thing—people ought to be able to talk back to me as a candidate and officeholder. But others pointed out that one rude comment can attract negative attention to your site, and even though you have a pretty good explanation that it isn't your fault, your name is associated with it anyway. This is something to think about.

Ruby Sinreich, Chapel Hill, founder of orangepolitics.org

[Note: I didn't take notes of Ruby, because I know her and I'm familiar with the site. So this is a paraphrase. What Ruby has aimed for is very ambitious: she wanted to set up a community forum that would encourage more local engagement in politics. It's not clear that people have actually become more engaged in doing politics, which she counts as a disappointment, but it is very clear that the discussions that take place on the site are an important factor in Chapel Hill and Orange County politics. Later in the morning's discussions, talking about blogging and mainstream media, someone said that today, no journalist doing Chapel Hill politics can ignore orangepolitics.org. That's pretty powerful!

She also talked about the struggles she's had with keeping the comments civil. She started with a "moveable type" platform that had no way to require verifiable email addresses. You had to include one, but you could make it up. Anonymous posting on the site became a frequent thing and even a frequent subject of debate—whether it was a valuable practice in the spirit of Ben Franklin, etc., or just a cowardly annoyance. She has now moved to a different platform that allows her to require verifiable addresses.]

[Break]

Matt Gross talks about

www.civicspacelabs.com

which is a continuation of DeanSpace, is open source and will probably good for 2005 races.

Section 2: Journalism and personal media

Ed Cone begins with a discussion of himself as a paid journalist and as a blogger.

For purposes of this discussion, journalism is blogging and blogging is journalism. Sometimes it's about my dog. I want to turn to one blogger who has had an amazing impact as a journalist: Eric Muller.

Eric Muller, UNC-Chapel Hill law professor

I started my blog Jan. 2003, and if you go back you would see somebody not having the faintest idea what he was doing or why he was doing it. Then Howard Coble went on a radio program and said Japanese Americans were interned for their own safety, etc. He was then chair of house subcommittee on security . . . I started to go after him them. My readership went from nine to several thousand on many days. Got me up and running. And then I had reverted to mix of legal and other stuff. Then Michelle Malkin came out with this book which was brought to my attention by a reader. I didn't get an advance copy, even though she says in the book it was my thing about Coble that got her interested in writing. One of my readers emailed me and said did you see this. On the front cover is Mohamed Atta on one side and a Japanese American man on the other. For close to a month [it is longer than that] it has been All Malkin all the time. I got links from other bloggers, but also an invitation to do a formal book review from Reason magazine, and Brad's radio show. The day before his show I was on WHYY-Philadelphia radio in an hour-long debate with her; that opportunity also came to me through the blog. So the efforts that I put in have really shown very well how the line between what I'm doing and at least access to big media and conventional media is really blurring.

Without this, the story would have been lost. With Coble I did try op eds and struck out across the board (except at the Raleigh News & Observer). This time I didn't even bother trying. Just started blogging and it took off from there.

Ed Cone

So here you have a guy who's not a journalist doing a serious feat of journalism. So now every reviewer who is going to write a review of this book will have to go there. Clearly it's not just the fact that he got a number of hits in the last month that would make us all weep with envy. He moved the media world. That is fascinating.

Mark Binker, Greensboro News & Record reporter

I was at a seminar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. We talked about . . . empathy for your subjects and issues like that; how to write so that the communities you're writing for think you're part of them. Part of the exercise is to write a personal essay about whatever is going on in our lives. We didn't have to publish it, but we did have to read it to the other people in the group. It's the last day in the seminar and you think you've processed everything; all of a sudden you're reading this, and you think, I'm exposing this part of myself? Take that and however many people have access to the web . . . if you are writing about yourself and writing about what's on your mind, and you have people coming up to you and say hey, I read this was on your mind. It was a very surreal experience at least for me because I'm not used, I’m used to being the black hole that information gets dumped into and I parcel it out bit by bit. It gives me a great deal of empathy for poor folks like the people I call. For somebody who has not been on that end of things before, blogging is an interesting sort of laboratory.

Ed Cone

The hunter gets empathy for the prey. That is critical for journalists. They are getting a sense of being a part of the community. That has another aspect to it. Sometimes the hunter becomes the hunted. We have Cori Dauber from rantingprofs.com. The New York Times kind of pisses Cori off. She's been good on NBC in the Olympics but her focus is that the NYT is not taking this shit [national security reporting] seriously enough. Cori, are you getting catharsis, getting results, having an effect on the debate on this subject by writing a well-read weblong saying media coverage of the war on terror ain't so good.

Cori Dauber, UNC-Chapel Hill, Department of Communications Studies

I talked to a friend of mine who is a journalism professor, and he had a great dividing line that journalism is a craft or practice; blogigng is a medium. There have been two or three times I've posted things that arguably could be called journalism because of primary source gathering. The one that got the most buzz in the blogosphere is one of our alums in Bagdhad who wrote about what their company had done and how the press had covered it. But for the most part I'm not engaged in journalism, I'm critiquing journalism. I start with the assumption they won't listen to me. I'm pointing out things to an audience, using the bizarre academic niche that I'm in to open things up. One of my readers emailed me very upset about a New York Times article where he felt the reporter had been unfair to a colonel who had once been his captain. There are specific reasons why the article was problematic. Not inaccurate; just had no follow-up. It said US troops had blindly shot and killed civilians. There was an outside investigation and it didn't involve US troops firing at civilians at all. That never was reported. So again with his permission I posted that email, and one his colonel had sent, with permission, that got lots of people buzzing in anger. All of it got sent to Daniel Okrent, "public editor" of the Times. This one they took very seriously. They went back and interviewed lots of people, checked the blog's facts, and it led to a very good column from Okrent surrounding this event. That's an impact. Do they listen to Okrent? I don't know. But it's on the record now.

Ed Cone

So, we have blogs by nonjournalists as a watchdog on the media. How about as watchdog on community life?

Jay Ovittore started a weblog a few weeks ago. His wife saw a house on fire; they called 911 was told it's just a controlled burn. Jay said, what's that about? You're scaring people to death. Shouldn't there be a sign? He got ticked off. He called fire chief and interviewed him and wrote an article on his blog.

Jay Ovittore

The fire chief agreed to an interview but wanted to speak in person. I had to gain his trust, but he answered my questions, invited my family to come see a controlled burn in the fall. He asked to see my story before I printed it to see if it was quoted correctly. I did and he loved it. I've only been blogging less than two months. It took me from joe schmo who is up and arms to someone who interviewed someone for a story I just wrote. I actually made the transition. I felt for a moment like I was doing something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, practice journalism.

Ed Cone

This is incremental, but that's good. It's on the record. An incremental victory. Part of the whole media landscape.

But I wouldn't have sent the story in advance to my source. I blog the same way I do journalism, and in journalism you don't do that for any number of reasons. That doesn't mean it's wrong for bloggers.

Do libel laws matter for bloggers? Yes. I did do an interview with Eugene Volokh about libel issues on blogs because when we start talking about standard practices. Read my post interviewing Volokh on this.

David Hoggard (on blogger as editor, blogger as blogger)

Sometimes after I post something I will come back to it. It has happened that I put out something that someone else tells me is wrong. So I change it. At that point what I do is to say I changed it. Because it's very easy to change without knowing that somebody screwed up in the first place. If you're editing yourself you need to let people know that you're changing it.

Ruby Sinreich

Journalists worship at the altar of facts, but they don't own them. We do media critique on stories. It's a positive impact, and I hope it leads to more accountability for journalists.

Ed Cone

Allen Johnson is the editorial page editor of the News & Record. He allows my blog address to appear on my colum. That's cool and progressive. We've had some back and forth, as colleagues, friends, journalists in a small city, some back and forth on that corrective dialogue and the media getting stuff thrown back out them. How do they respond? The personal blogs by News & Record reporters are exploding.

Allen, how does a big newspaper deal with 100,000 press critics in its market?

Allen Johnson

To me, blogs are like an extension of letters to the editor, which are to me an amazing tool particularly in a day and age when people have so much to do—to think that people still type them and put them in an envelope with a stamp. It's an extension of a way to have a dialogue. Part of the dialogues we've had with Ed is there are different types of blogs that I've seen with different standards and different rules. I think if they're generated by someone with journalistic credentials who is a journalist, then they should live up to those standards.

If there's a question about a policy or something, a journalist will ask the reporter why did you do that, or not do that? The media critic may still think it's screwed up, but we'd like to have that opportunity to explain how or why something happened or didn’t. It's an interesting way of empowering people to hold our feet to the fire. I like to read them because it helps me think about stuff going on in the community. Sometimes their criticism is right, often it is. There's an opportunity for us to get better by looking at that. But again, if you are presenting what you are doing as journalism, then you need to hold yourself to certain standards.

Ed Cone

I said to Allen: You should expect that every opinion columnist will have a web long soon; every opinion columnist should have a blog. Also, make it clear that the blog is not associated with the newspaper. Three, hold them to some standards, to whatever you have as standards. Then let a thousand flowers bloom. That was my answer. They've [the N&R's] been unbelievably accommodating. They're at the cutting edge.

Question to John Hood, of the John Locke Foundation, about how he feels about his media relationship

First, to the point about journalism v. blogging. Craft v. medium is a useful way to think about it. At my office I have some staff members who are researchers, some are journalists. It's even odd within our office who is a journalist and who is not. So definitional problems happen. But I think we ought not get too carried away with journalism as a field akin to law or medicine, with credentials. There is a process to go through to be journalistic. I'm not sure it has to do with credentials.

Blogging is influencing journalism practice in North Carolina. Journalists are reading blogs and calling folks up. It's happening. Some of it is scurrilous. Some is quite legitimate. Some of them led to stories. Reporters do read blogs to get a sense of what the conversation is. It's not fundamentally different from the way journalism has always been practiced. There's a place I like to have breakfast in Raleigh because the lobbyists are there and they don't know I'm listening.

Allen Johnson

Blogs are an additional tool. Journalists should be out and about.

Eric Muller

This is the wrong time to be worrying about that. Whenever there's a story about law, e.g., there are three law professors that the media calls. No matter what the subject, they'll call up Jonathan Turley at George Washington law school.

Cori Dauber

If you have a stable readership, that becomes a community.

Todd Morman

There's a lot of crap in the blog world, but there is in journalism too. Anybody who really likes truth really ought to see the spread of journalism out to the untrained as a good thing.

No one is aware of bloggers from the Raleigh and Charlotte paper.

At this point the conversation got so interesting that I quit taking notes for good. I kept wanting to break in but never quite made it. I will treat this like a forum at which I can post my further thoughts at my own pace, Greene's pace, as soon as I can gather them up.

Meanwhile, thanks to Ed and Billy the Poet and everyone for a wonderful and enlightening morning—at a beautiful museum to boot.