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CITIZEN WEB: Blogs, Political Websites Broaden S.C. Media
FREE TIMES ^ | June 1, 2005 | Dan Cook

Posted on 06/02/2005 5:31:15 PM PDT by SuzyQ2

CITIZEN WEB: Blogs, Political Websites Broaden S.C. Media

By Dan Cook

Mike Green is a staunch conservative, but he isn’t too pleased with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham these days. “I am a Republican, I voted for Lindsey Graham, I even campaigned for him in Greenville,” Green asserts. But Graham’s work toward brokering a compromise in the Senate fight over President Bush’s judicial nominees has Green reeling, and on May 20 — four days before Graham joined with Senate moderates to avoid a showdown — Green declares himself “hopping mad” over Graham’s reluctance to push for ending the Democrats’ ability to filibuster nominees, an idea the media have taken to calling the “nuclear option.”

“Senator Graham, now is the time to lead or get out of the way!”

If Green’s words were confined to a coffee-shop conversation with a few fellow Republicans, he might expect that they would trail off under the din of clanking cups and animated discussion. But Green isn’t sitting in a coffee shop; he’s posting his thoughts on the Internet at a blog called The Right Times. And, because he’s linked the posting from another site he operates — the popular S.C. Hotline — he can be fairly confident that politicos from around the state will read it.

Political blogs, short for “web logs,” are all the rage in the media these days. In their most raw form, blogs are like op-ed pages gone wild: Bloggers spout off about issues of the day, sometimes with little regard for basic fairness or thorough fact checking. But many blogs are far more sophisticated than the stereotype, offering real political analysis and a wealth of resources for research.

Though blogs have existed for years, the first big sign of their rising prominence in national politics came in December 2002, when bloggers brought amplified attention to the pro-segregation comments of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott at the 100th birthday party of the late Strom Thurmond. Yet even with that breakthrough, bloggers didn’t attract sustained attention from the mass media until the 2004 election cycle. During the election, however, bloggers’ importance grew exponentially. A preliminary report released May 16 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that readership of blogs increased 58 percent in 2004, with 16 percent of U.S. adults — 32 million people — now counting themselves as blog readers. Not only are Americans reading blogs, they’re also starting them; the same survey estimates that 11 million Americans have their own blogs.

During the presidential election, sites like Real Clear Politics offered political junkies a clearinghouse for all the latest polls and analysis, an approach that Green’s S.C. Hotline mirrors on the state level. Mainstream media sites developed comprehensive online election coverage, too, but there was no getting around the fact that new media players had arrived. The new players were particularly influential on two infamous election stories — the Swift Boat Veterans ads attacking John Kerry and the CBS/Dan Rather story questioning President Bush’s military service.

In both cases, bloggers raised questions that kept the stories alive, and in both cases, those questions played out in ways that helped the Republicans. However, the “blogosphere,” as the world of blogs is called, is in no way tied to one political ideology. Instead, it is a political free-for-all open to anyone with an opinion and a web site.

Here in South Carolina, the history of political blogs dates back several years to sites like The Wyeth Wire — written by Wyeth Ruthven, a former speechwriter for Gov. Jim Hodges — and the anonymously written Palmetto Journal. While neither of those sites is still operational, several current bloggers mention The Wyeth Wire in particular as an early influence for their own blogs.

“Wyeth was really the king of them all,” says Laurin Manning, a blogger and USC law student. “He was more of an investigative journalist; he had real news sources.”

Small and friendly with each other, South Carolina’s web-based politicos constitute something of a virtual community. Many if not most of them are politically conservative, but they express a kinship with their counterparts regardless of party affiliation, and they often link to each other’s sites. Some see their sites as just a pastime, while others hope to grow them into profit-making operations. And at least one has attracted national attention.

While bloggers have already proven their influence on national politics, South Carolina’s web politicos have not yet had the same kind of highly visible impact at the state level. But the infrastructure for such a breakthrough is in place. Right now, for example, right-leaning sites are focal points for expressing anger over Graham’s alleged betrayal of his party in the fight over judicial nominees. More generally, there is plenty of evidence that people are tuning in: From a few hundred visitors here to several thousand there, the community of South Carolinians operating blogs and other politically oriented web sites is already attracting the attention of those hungry for state-level news and politics.

Below are brief profiles on some of South Carolina’s web-based politicos.

Man of the Moment

Jeff Quinton, Backcountry Conservative

The current golden child of S.C. bloggers is Jeff Quinton, who operates a site called Backcountry Conservative. Though he’s only had the site for two years, Quinton is widely linked on national conservative web sites and his site has been featured twice on national media outlets, first on CNN’s Inside Politics and more recently on MSNBC, where he was interviewed about bloggers’ response to the recent base-closing recommendations.

Like a lot of political bloggers, Quinton’s background is varied and speaks to interests in media and politics. He has worked for both state and federal government, as well as in radio. In 1996, he covered the Republican National Convention in San Diego for a Greenwood radio station.

Despite the recent high-profile media attention, the 31-year-old former military man (he served in the Army National Guard) isn’t exactly making a living from his blog. Right now, he’s an engineering student at Greenville Tech and he lives in Laurens.

“I’m just doing it for fun,” Quinton says via cell phone from Baltimore, just hours before his appearance on MSNBC. “But my advertising is paying the bills on it, and I wouldn’t mind getting to where it’s profitable.” Money isn’t his top concern, though. “A lot of people are pushing too hard for the money, and when they do that the content suffers,” he says. “The important thing is to get your content up; the ad money will come later if you have a quality product.”

Quinton’s varied interests, one of which is web design, all came together to lead to blogging. “The buildup to the war in Iraq got a lot of people blogging on both sides of the issue,” he says. “That was part of it. I had been in the military for six years … and I was always a news junkie. I started out with international affairs, military affairs, and have kind of gone into national news, some state and local issues. But I also do some history and pop culture and even some personal things. It’s really a wide-ranging [site] about topics that interest me.”

Unlike some bloggers, Quinton didn’t start out pushing his own political opinions. “I really didn’t get into a lot of commentary until recently,” he says. “I had other people do commentary and that got traffic, but I was focused more on news.”

The issue of where to draw the line between opinion and news points to a key question in the world of blogs: Blogs are understood to be opinion sites, but are bloggers also “citizen journalists”?

“I think some people who blog are starting to do more traditional journalism,” Quinton says. “Like people who covered the [Republican] convention and were actually credentialed as journalists.” But, he says, “It’s a small subset doing traditional journalism. What I do is sort of in between. Some people who are just linking take themselves too seriously and try to equate to being true journalists.”

“The people who are filing [Freedom of Information] requests and calling people are closer to what I consider citizen journalists,” Quinton says. Regardless, he says, “Every aspect of the blogosphere [is] good in the way that independent papers are good — in asking questions that corporate media will not.”

Citizenship and Trust

Benj Buck, S.C. Headlines

Visit, and you quickly understand that “blog” is not the right word for what you’re looking at. For one thing, a banner across the top of the page says, “S.C. Where South Carolinians choose the news.” Whereas “blog” calls up images of a single fired-up writer, here any registered user can post their own headline. Those headlines — some reader-generated, some put up by the site’s editor — make up the main section of the site. The headlines link to stories from traditional media outlets, and registered visitors can also post comments or email a headline to a friend.

All this makes it clear that the emphasis here is on news and people’s reactions to it, rather than just commentary from the site’s editor, Benj Buck.

Buck, 29, is the coordinator of mentors for Bob Jones University in Greenville. He inherited the site from a co-worker, Jonathan Pait, who does public relations for the school. Though the school is staunchly conservative and evangelical, Buck wants his site to offer a forum for people across the political spectrum.

“We act as a community place,” Buck says. “What we are trying to accomplish is to let people share their ideas, challenge each other, and grow as a community and individuals.”

The currency of community, Buck believes, is trust. “Trust is the foundation to every relationship, whether it is a husband, a wife or a media reader. A lot of media have damaged that trust,” he says, citing the credibility scandals (Newsweek being the most recent) that have plagued both print and broadcast media. “Why not go for a blog site or a citizen journalism site where you can post a headline and add your own opinions? That is building a relationship.”

S.C. Headlines, which has only existed for a month in its present form, is a spin-off of Common Voice, which Pait started. Pait has gone on to expand the Common Voice template to offer coverage of several other states, including Georgia, Missouri, Nevada and Minnesota.

Though S.C. Headlines is not a blog site, it does link to S.C. bloggers and it does offer commentary, including Buck’s. What separates its commentary from that found on many blog sites, though, is that there are multiple columnists writing in a more traditional newspaper op-ed style, as opposed to the single-writer and more off-the-cuff quality of many blogs.

“We are a great melting pot of the people of South Carolina,” Buck says. “What a tool.”

In that it offers both columnists and news headlines, S.C. Headlines is in some ways more like an online newspaper than a blog. But there are key differences, too: The headlines link to stories produced by other media outlets, not to original S.C. Headlines content. And the op-eds on the site — for better or worse — don’t go through the same filtering process as they would with traditional media.

“When [politicians] do an op-ed, it goes up instantly,” Buck says, noting that Gov. Mark Sanford’s staff has been especially savvy in using the site. “When they submit to The State or Free Times, it will be [published] at best the next day.”

Speed and Experience

Dick Anderson, Swamp Fox News

Just as Buck boasts that he can post op-eds instantly, Dick Anderson’s Swamp Fox News also takes advantage of the speed afforded by the Internet. The Greenville-based Anglican and civil libertarian — he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed — has a system for frequently refreshing the content on his site, and he regularly emails headlines to readers. At 58, Anderson also has experience working for him: He’s been in both radio and TV, working as an anchor in Charleston, Greenville and Wilmington, N.C.

With that kind of experience, Anderson offers stories not only for political junkies, but also for average newsreaders. Along with the latest on Sanford’s vetoes, for example, readers can find links to stories on fires, festivals and weather, as well as plenty of sports statistics.

“If it is a news story and it is important to South Carolina, you are going to see it,” Anderson says.

He also understands the news cycle.

“I have discovered something: News operations shut down from about 2 a.m. to about 9 a.m.,” Anderson says. “At 9:01 a.m., bingo, it is there.” To make his site fresh, he says, “I have new stuff when you get up at 6, then new stuff at 10 or 11. There is nothing on the site that is real news that is two days old; it is dead at 48 hours.”

Anderson’s zeal for covering South Carolina news stems from a genuine love of the state. “South Carolina is my history; South Carolina is my mother,” he says. He takes a long view of South Carolina history, peppering his conversation with phrases like “the late unpleasant,” by which he means the Civil War. And, when asked why his site is called Swamp Fox News — a reference to Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion — he proceeds to launch into the lengthy, convoluted history that ties his own history with Marion’s.

“Nobody knows who Fighting Dick Anderson is,” he says. Mind you, this is Col. Dick Anderson of the Revolutionary War, not his son, Gen. Dick Anderson of the Civil War. “Everybody remembers the general, but nobody remembers the colonel. He was drinking buddies with Francis Marion.” He was also Anderson’s great-great-great-grandfather. “Fighting Dick News doesn’t sound real good though,” Anderson says, so he went with Marion’s nickname instead.

Anderson’s constant trawling for news from around the state and his steady updating of content has apparently paid off in visitors. Though there are different ways to measure visitors to a web site — “hits” versus “visitors” versus “unique visitors” — Anderson expresses confidence in his numbers. The site gets 120,000 “hits” per week, he says; of those, about 16,000 people spend more than five minutes at the site.

“It’s mind boggling,” Anderson says. “We started with 400 people … they come because we’re funny, and we take pokes at everybody.”

Left of the Dial

Laurin Manning, The Laurin Line

“‘Put Parents in Charge’ is DEAD in the House!!!! Wahoo!!!! (I realize I’m being obnoxious and probably offending 95% of my readership.” — May 4, 2005

Unlike S.C. Headlines and Swamp Fox News, Laurin Manning’s Laurin Line is a quintessential blog, not a budding online newspaper. In her May 4 posting, Manning shoots off a couple of short paragraphs on the fate of the Put Parents in Charge proposal in the S.C. House, then offers links to an article in The State and to Tim Kelly’s site, Crack the Bell. “As usual, he’s more on top of the issues than I am!” she posts next to the Kelly link.

Manning, a USC law student who’s currently doing an internship with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., started her site in 2002. She first learned how to make a site back in high school, she says, when “computer nerds” at the Governor’s School for Science and Math showed her the ropes. Later, she did an internship at Southern Living magazine, where she discovered the blogosphere.

“My first site was kind of a rip-off of Wyeth Ruthven — The Wyeth Wire,” Manning says.

Thematically, Manning’s site is all over the place: She’s trying to focus on state politics, she says, and she posts about state education issues, state taxes and the politics of the USC Law School. But she can’t resist putting down her thoughts about American Idol and Renee Zellweger’s marriage to Kenny Chesney, too.

It’s this freewheeling, personal touch that gives her site its character and makes it a true blog. And though Manning gets just a fraction of Anderson’s traffic — about 100 visitors a week — she’s happy with how things are working out. “The neatest part for me in doing it is the little community that it has created,” she says.

From PR to Politics

Tim Kelly, Crack the Bell

“We’re taught to admire the people who stick to their guns, but the fact is it takes little if any effort to do that in today’s political environment,” posts Tim Kelly on May 25, the day after the U.S. Senate compromise on judicial nominees has been announced. “The really courageous people today are the ones who are willing to bend a little for the greater good.”

“Surprised the hell out of me that Lindsey Graham turns out to be one of those people,” he adds, “and I hope he won’t pay a political price for it.”

In a conservative state like South Carolina, Kelly’s moderate stance on judicial nominees and his vehement opposition to Put Parents in Charge puts him firmly in the liberal camp. And there’s apparently a thirst for what he does: Information from his web administrator indicates visits by people from The State, BellSouth, the S.C. Democratic Party and state government employees, among others. At the height of the election, Kelly says, he was getting 9,000 unique visitors per month.

A self-described political junkie, Kelly is a public relations writer by day.

“I love to write, but I write so much stuff for other people,” Kelly says, sitting at a laptop at his home in Columbia. “I’ve written so many op-ed pieces with someone else’s name on it. I started [blogging] just to have an outlet.”

Like Backcountry Conservative and The Lauren Line, Crack the Bell is a true blog, with the blogger’s posts being the central focal point. In recent weeks, the judicial nominee story has prompted several posts; before that, PPIC was a big topic. Kelly also has an extensive index of links to other blogs, especially left-leaning ones, and has recently been posting material from the S.C. Democratic Party — a “Veto Victim of the Day” highlighting the people and institutions that would suffer if Sanford’s vetoes survived the State Legislature. And though he’s been getting into book reviews lately, too, his main focus is on politics.

And in This Corner …

Mike Green, S.C. Hotline

When it comes to citizen-led, online coverage of South Carolina politics, S.C. Hotline is, so far, the undisputed champion. Even the editors of other sites admit it.

“There are things they think are important that don’t really affect more than the political wonks,” says Anderson, the editor of Swamp Fox News. “On the other hand, boy do they have the things when it comes to politics … there is not a newspaper in the state that does what Hotline does.”

The sheer comprehensiveness of the site can be intimidating at first. Boasting “Insider politics from across the State of South Carolina,” the site not only offers extensive links to media outlets throughout the state, but also party links, blog links, government links, guest editorials, Freedom of Information Act forms and a phone number for receiving anonymous tips.

Mike Green, a 31-year-old Taylors resident, launched the site on June 2, 2001. An entrepreneur who moves freely from flea markets and his eBay store to political consulting (he once served as communications director for former senatorial candidate Thomas Ravenel), Green says he used to read the Palmetto Journal, and, together with a friend, decided he could do something better.

“Palmetto Journal was sometimes every other day,” Green says. “I wanted to do something fresh and new every single day, reporting on these inside wranglings of politics.”

Since launching the site, Green’s traffic has expanded to about 1,500 page views per day. The web term “page views” doesn’t translate into as many people as “unique visitors,” but it’s still a lot.

“It just caught fire,” Green says. “It started out small, but it’s medium-sized now.”

As for the content, Green says about 95 percent consists of links to other media outlets and 5 percent is original.

Typically one-person operations, blogs and other citizen-led political sites don’t have the resources to compete with the newsgathering operations of daily papers, even if they had the same journalistic training. But S.C. Hotline — now a two-person operation, with Jeffrey Sewell helping Green upgrade the site — shows that even a small operation can accomplish a lot. S.C. Hotline recently published an exclusive op-ed from Ravenel criticizing Graham on the judicial nominees issue, for example, and the site has been in the forefront of covering possible challengers to Sanford in 2006.

“I have a lot of people who will email me tidbits here and there, basically politicos,” Green says. “So, S.C. Hotline is really more of a collaboration. And if I post something wrong, my readers will let me know.”

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of political blogs and citizen-led political sites: Instead of a top-down approach where editors determine the news, the news is told through an ongoing process of collaboration and dialogue with readers. The results can be messy and cacophonous, with rumors and conjecture given elevated status; or refreshing and invigorating, with unanswered questions getting renewed attention. More often than not, readers will encounter both, and it’s up to them to separate the hot air from the insight.

“I believe that the Internet … is the death of monolithic ideas,” Anderson says. “There isn’t anybody who will have the exact same view of news as me.”

More S.C.-based Sites “Dedicated to the disruption and discrediting of Neoconservative Ideals and the Religious Right.” Spirited blog entries on everything from base closings and judicial nominees to realty TV and baseball. A blog about blogs, with commentary and links to new blogs and stories about the blogoshphere. “From new media to old, much of journalism is just plain common sense.” Published by USC journalism professor Doug Fisher. A mostly personal site that sometimes veers into the political. “Simple Observations from One Who Pays Attention — Talking about family, faith, birding, pets, computering, aging, health care, education, and anything else that strikes my fancy.” A one-issue site dedicated to “debunking America’s worst newspaper.” Ruminations on medicine interspersed with political commentary. Conservative commentary from Mike Green, editor of S.C. Hotline. “The continuing misadventures of Marshall ‘Mark’ Sanford, South Carolina’s occasional governor.” Preaching “Progress for South Carolina,” this site asked on May 18:“Is Mark Sanford out of control?” Commentary on the happenings at the S.C. Statehouse, with reader feedback and a close eye on the legislative calendar. Operated by W. Thomas Smith Jr., a locally based author and journalist who writes on politics and military issues. Smith teaches in USC’s journalism program and contributes frequently to the online edition of the National Review.

KEYWORDS: blog; carolina; sc; south; weblog

1 posted on 06/02/2005 5:31:18 PM PDT by SuzyQ2
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2 posted on 06/02/2005 6:05:47 PM PDT by lunarbicep ("Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." - G. B. Shaw)
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