Bloggers provide focus, attention, nuance in political coverage

Last week, a group of progressive bloggers and activists launched, a Web site dedicated to covering the California governor’s race and promoting challenger Phil Angelides against incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger (full disclosure: I am a contributor to this effort). This is the latest of what has become an increasing trend in how politics are covered online: the rise of local blogospheres.

Local bloggers were very vocal in Democratic U.S. Senate primaries in Montana, Virginia, and Connecticut this year, resulting in victories for candidates like Jon Tester, James Webb and Ned Lamont. Measuring the blogopsheric impact on these races is an inexact science; progressive organizations like and Democracy for America, as well as longtime state activists, had a strong presence as well. Then again, nobody really holds newspaper editorial boards to account for their track record in endorsing candidates, so I don’t know how germane it is to do the same with the Net roots.

What local bloggers provide, more than anything else, is much-needed attention and focus. It’s a sad and telling statistic that, less than 90 days out from a general election, the Los Angeles Times did not bother to include one story in any of their weekend editions covering the California governor’s race. Its sole story Monday was entitled “Angelides and the Charisma Question,” showing that state and local political reporting suffers from the same single-mindedness on personality and horse-race process as its national counterparts. Bloggers and blog readers understand that government has a significant impact on the lives of every individual, and yet finding substantive news and information about government is often a difficult process. They also understand that blogging and online activism is merely an extension of participatory democracy, and that they have the best chance to impact that process by focusing on their own states and their own communities.

The best blogs provide context to the news, highlight stories that are under-covered or totally uncovered, drill down into specific analyses of issues and public policy, and even do some of their own original reporting. For example, The California Courage Campaign, in association with the national site, produced a post-election poll about the Francine Busby/Brian Bilbray special election for the 50th Congressional District of the U.S. House that yielded some surprising results, which differed from the traditional narratives used to understand that race. According to the poll, it was not the lack of motivated Democrats, but the low turnout of independent voters that doomed Busby in that race. And more of those polled were supportive of progressive immigration ideas over the hard-line approach, completely contradicting the punditocracy’s notion that Bilbray’s hard-line stance on immigration decided the race in the heavily Republican district.

Traditional journalism doubtlessly feels threatened by this challenge to their market share and the time-honored assumptions about how they do business, and many of them are playing the “if you can’t beat them, join them” game by starting their own blogs themselves. This approach will only work if journalists can handle the two-way communication that is a hallmark of the blogosphere. Sites that set up barriers or moderate comments will never earn the respect of its readers online. And journalists who would rather decry the “angry partisanship” of their online critics than defend their stories and assumptions will end up with no credibility. Traditional media must also realize that the online audience includes their most voracious media consumers. A newspaper insulting or stereotyping the blogosphere (“they’re just kids in their pajamas”) is no different from insulting its own readership, those most crucial to keeping them in business.

The rise of local blogospheres is good news for anyone who wants more information, increased choice and a wide variety of opinions from all sides of the political spectrum, and who don’t want political reporting that falls back on familiar tropes and content-free process politics. As this new media environment expands, voters will have a wealth of knowledge with which to make decisions on their representatives in government, and the end result can only be positive for democracy.

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