Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Argus blogging story

Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, SD)

August 9, 2004 Monday
Blogging: A venue to rant, rave and review

BY JENNIFER SANDERSON

Steve Sibson is a conservative with a ponytail.

The Mitchell man knows he's a contradiction. Disillusioned first with the Republicans (Watergate) and then with the Democrats (Clintongate), he joined the Independents briefly before coming full circle.

By day, Sibson is an accountant. Over hurried lunch breaks at home and well into the night, he's Sibby Online - posting anything and everything relating to the body politic on his low-tech Web site.

Unapologetically opinionated, Sibson is determined to be heard.

He's not alone.

Though there's no research clearinghouse on the number of blogs - short for Web logs - there's also no denying they're a growing segment of dot-coms. Most are online journals or personal pages. Most entries contain hyperlinks, or embedded text that takes the viewer to a related page with a single mouse-click.

This election cycle, political blogs are keying in on public frustrations and hoping to bring their brand of truth to the masses.

"Many people don't take into account how influential bloggers are," said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. "Blogs are getting an increasing readership. People who are going to those blogs are real political junkies who can then reach everybody else."

Mainstream newspapers, including the Argus Leader, have started their own blogs.

Top national blogs record daily hits in the tens - even hundreds - of thousands. Among the heavies are The Daily Dish, Talking Points Memo, Instapundit and Daily Kos.

At home in South Dakota, where Democrat Tom Daschle faces Republican challenger John Thune to keep his seat in the Senate, some bloggers think they can have a very real effect. They take on issues, media and campaigns. Most, however, say less about the candidates than they do about how the news portrays those hopefuls.

Many think such study is long overdue, considering the public's ideas are formed in large part by a mainstream media they say is almost uniformly liberal. Others think there's danger in abandoning one for the other.

"Links are the key," said Sibson, who founded his blog as an extension of his letter-writing to area newspapers. "If you don't like my bias, follow the link. If I'm going to talk badly about somebody, I'm going to show what he's doing. More links eliminate the partisanship."

Or at least counter it with an equal and opposite response. Blogs typically represent the opinions of one person or a small group of people, with no editing beyond the writer's own. That model makes traditional journalists skeptical about the results and ironically mirrors a newsroom symptom that many bloggers rail against.

"We have so few people reporting on politics in South Dakota, and it's a problem with resources," said Jon Lauck, a Sioux Falls blogger and history professor at South Dakota State University. "There's so much discretion in the hands of a few about what makes it into the news."

While individual blogs might tread the party tightrope, bloggers say their contributions are better measured by the marketplace of ideas they bring to readers. Their authors say blogs have the power to reshape how people receive and analyze news.

"A blog to a political junkie is like a fly fisherman tying his own ties. It's a very personal thing," said Custer native Ryne McClaren, who blogs from his home in Chadron, Neb.

His blog's postings reflect a grounded sense of humor and the occasional thought that it might be unhealthy to care so much. An ongoing series of postings is titled "Things You Should Be Doing Instead Of Blogging." While he speculates there will be some disoriented, "Now what?" head-scratching come Nov. 3, he also admits to bouts of blogxhaustion.

"I'm sure journalists get the same feeling sometimes, this self-doubt of, 'My God, what am I doing? Why am I worrying about this?' " he said.

Blogging is a contact sport, and he said those who post comments "should be ready to be challenged. They should be ready to be inundated with e-mails every time they say something stupid. ... I think it's great that a lot of these blogs have such a naked ambition."

But are they also credible?

Degree of objectivity

Some bloggers post their names on bio pages, while others fiercely guard their alter egos. Though critical of media bias, few hide their own prejudice. Visitors quickly will see where their sympathies lie, they say, so there's no need to disclose them or make a false show of objectivity.

"Blogs are not and should not ever be considered journalism," said blogger Tim Gebhart, a Sioux Falls lawyer and former political reporter. "If they are, they're the 'journalism' that appears in the op-ed pages. I'm not going out and interviewing people and trying to get both sides. You have to know that what is said there is solely and entirely my opinion."

Lauck disagrees, as do McClaren and others belonging to the Dakota Blog Alliance. Its members, all conservative bloggers, will host a conference on politics and the media Saturday at Augustana College. Using Site-Meter software, DBA members track 500 to 1,500 hits apiece each day.

"The thing that newspapers aren't going to point about themselves is that they're used to being the final word on matters, and they aren't any more," said Mark Haugen, who uses a blog format for the online version of his independent newspaper, The Bird. Previously owner of the Tea-Harrisburg Champion, he's a former Argus Leader sportswriter who freelances for area publications including the Sioux Falls Business Journal, another Argus Leader company.

"You can get your paper and then go to the blogs to see what else people are saying," Haugen said. "It's continual news, not this idea that the news is done until I get the paper again tomorrow."

Blogs run by campaigns often are seen as less pure, so some candidates buy space on independent pages. There can be other ties, too. Lauck dissects "Daschle v. Thune" on his blog without mentioning he's a paid consultant for Thune's campaign.

Gebhart hasn't attached himself to a race in decades, but his job at a local law firm did make some topics off-limits. His group represented former Gov. Bill Janklow in a criminal trial after Janklow ran a stop sign, striking and killing motorcyclist Randy Scott.

Not impartial

The rules for mainstream writers don't apply to bloggers, Lauck said, because they don't portray themselves as impartial conduits. "I'm for Thune," he said. "That's pretty clear."

McClaren expresses a similar sentiment: "As far as ethics, it's the Internet. When people load up my site and see the Bush/Cheney campaign buttons, I would expect readers to exercise some common sense and say, 'This guy is a partisan, and he has an opinion.' "

Lauck and Jason Van Beek, the latter widely credited with starting the South Dakota blogging craze, think such disclosures are important only if they affect coverage. Both men's blogs accuse the Argus Leader of selectively reporting negative stories about Thune and ignoring news that makes Daschle look less favorable. They contend personal relationships and a liberal slant on the editing desk color the Argus Leader's articles.

The newspaper's leadership has dismissed those charges as unfounded.

Van Beek, who has called Vermillion home for a decade, said the connections don't matter "if the story's being covered and all the facts are coming out."

"I think it comes back to preconceived ideas," he said. "If you hear something about Thune or someone else that doesn't fit into your world view about how Republicans think and act, you have to try to make it fit."

Van Beek and Quentin Riggins, another DBA member in Vermillion, allow that bias, where it exists, is less conspiracy than it is a byproduct of humanity.

"When people are passionate about something, it's hard to separate it," Riggins said. "Hints of beliefs creep in."

Sibson doesn't want impersonal, uninvolved reporting. "You want passionate people on both sides," he said. "If you're passionate, you're off the fence. It's hard to be balanced. I talk instead about being fair."

Effect on campaigns

The Democratic National Convention capitalized on the trend by granting press credentials to more than 30 bloggers. Republicans have said they'll OK as many as 20 bloggers at their gathering in New York at the end of the month. Bloggers say it's a sign of the times, though they might disagree on what, exactly, it signals. Are parties welcoming bloggers as respected journalists or as a way to guarantee the right spin will be hammered out across the blogosphere?

"Most of the bloggers at the DNC were pro-Democrat, but not all," Lauck said. "There's so many blogs out there that if they sensed something was up, they'd blow the whistle."

Still, he wishes more bloggers would've been welcomed to the Democratic gathering. The lament circles back to the information monopoly issue, a popular theme in a sparsely populated state.

"Blogs are revolutionalizing political journalism," Lauck said. "People are smart enough to absorb all kinds of information from all kinds of sources. ... I can't think of a bigger event in the past few decades, if you're talking about the kinds of changes possible."

Gebhart thinks the effects will be more compartmentalized. "If blogs are going to have an impact, it's to the extent that they are read by and therefore may influence what those in the mainstream media report," he said.

Sibson, who calls blogging "a grassroots movement in cyberspace," thinks there's more to it.

So does Peter Curtis, a progressive blogger from Rapid City. He recounts the Internet fund-raising success of former presidential candidate Howard Dean, whose campaign set up in-person gatherings through www.meetup.com.

"We can transform the blogging community from being a news source into something more powerful - a resource for activism," Curtis said. "People can get informed by that news and then learn how to do something about it."

Ultimately, readers must judge what they'll accept and what they'll reject. The technology is new, but the warning is not: buyer beware.

"A number of years ago, I bought a book called 'Kooks.' It's a collection from a person who had the foresight to gather together all the stories from these wackos who stand on the street, handing out their mimeographed papers," Gebhart said. "I'm kind of like those guys, passing out my own tracts. Whether you end up on my street corner just depends on which Web sites, which neighborhoods, you hang out in."