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January 12, 2006

Welcome to the new world order

by Mark Nickolas

Few things exceed the joy of serendipity that clears a roadblock erected by The Establishment. It was just such an encounter with the editors of LEO that brings me here today as the newsweekly’s newest weekly columnist on all things political.

As publisher of BluegrassReport.org, Kentucky’s most heavily trafficked political Web site (or blog, if you prefer), I ran straight into the unyielding brick wall known as state government at the end of 2005 when it came time for our government to grant media credentials to those covering the 2006 legislative session.

BluegrassReport has a weekly readership of 15,000 on the subject of Kentucky politics; still, the Legislative Research Commission refused to issue media credentials to me, restricting them to print and broadcast news outlets. The online world was out of luck.

Mainstream media seemed to relish this. The Lexington Herald-Leader eagerly gave the story front-page billing with the headline: ‘No press credentials, state tells bloggers.’

As BluegrassReport.org readers know, I don’t fashion myself a member of the press corps in any conventional sense. I come from the trenches of the Democratic political world. I spent more than a decade in and out of campaigns on all levels, from Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign (including being on the ground for those 36 miserable days in Florida during the recount) to managing Ben Chandler’s races for governor and Congress. I left the formal political world last summer to test the untapped potential of the new digital universe.

Political blogs have quickly become a vital source of news and opinion for millions of Americans and an alternative to traditional newspapers and television. Top sites like DailyKos.com are visited by more than 500,000 readers per day. While individual blogs are widespread, most have few readers and are infrequently updated; the more serious political blogs are enormous time commitments, and it’s not unusual to find a blogger still writing at midnight, posting breaking news with commentary and analysis, researching tips.

On BluegrassReport.org, you’ll find a hearty but unpredictable mix of activism. Former Courier-Journal political writer Al Cross once described my work as “advocacy journalism.” That’s probably right.
After just seven months, 300,000 readers of all political stripes have visited BluegrassReport.org, leaving 13,000 comments to the 1,500 published posts. It’s been a wonderful and humbling start but often frustrating, especially when the government you cover gets the final say on who gets access to cover it in the first place.

Fortunately, about the time I was turned down by the LRC, LEO was also exploring new avenues for keeping its product fresh and current for 2006. Unlike mainstream newspapers that have been forced to close bureaus, shrink news staffs and slash resources in the hope of pulling out of their death spiral of shrinking circulation, lower ad revenues and failure to engage young readers, LEO knows it must embrace emerging trends and bring new ideas to its savvy readers.

Today’s readers want to be either entertained or be part of a dialogue, and mainstream media tends to offer little of either. One reason that blogs like DailyKos.com or BluegrassReport.org have grown exponentially is because the medium is interactive, a collaborative two-way street, not an overly structured one-way lecture that our parents learned to accept.

Blogs like BluegrassReport allow you a direct voice in the debate (anonymously, if you prefer) in real-time and unfiltered, regardless of your viewpoint. It can get heated and passionate, but there’s no mistaking the process as anything but a conversation.

At the same time, political blogs have increased their reach and influence (especially for the younger generation) and have ended the unchallenged authority of mainstream media to set the political agenda. In his new book “Blog!,” author David Klein declares that “a new breed of citizen journalists has crashed the gates erected by the Big Media and succeeded in pushing new voices, new issues, and fresh new opinions into the nation’s political discourse.”

Ironically, he argues, political blogs recall the pioneer days of the American press, when the public was gifted with thousands of pamphlets, newspapers and magazines published by political parties, religious organizations and even labor unions. Throughout the 19th century, nearly 80 percent of American newspapers were openly partisan. Even well into the early 20th century, every large city fielded from six to 20 or more daily newspapers — each expressing and advocating a distinct political viewpoint.

Things have certainly changed in the 21st century, where mainstream media seems headed toward irrelevance. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that only 41 per-cent of Americans said they had read a newspaper the previous day, compared to 60 percent in 1994. Among age groups, the differences are striking: only 23 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds regularly read newspapers, compared to 60 percent for those 65 and older.

Recent revelations that purported “objective” journalists like Armstrong Williams was secretly paid by the Bush administration to promote the president’s No Child Left Behind Act, or the failure of The New York Times to scrutinize its dozens of pre-war stories on weapons of mass destruction, have caused the public to lose even more respect for and trust of the media.

But mainstream media’s problems are largely of their own making and their stubborn refusal to adjust to the demands of readers — especially the younger tech-savvy people who spend more time online than in front of televisions.

So, after a few phone calls and a triple Americano, the simple notion of asking LEO to help me secure those press credentials morphed into a perfect example of right place-right time for both sides. A partnership was quickly struck that will bring LEO’s 151,200 readers on a ride from the one-way road of the printed weekly to the two-way world of blogs, a perfect marriage for two anti-establishment entities.

Beginning next week — and every week — we’ll peek behind closed political doors, examine the actions of our political leaders and parties, and begin filling the vacuum of coverage created by a timid mainstream press, taking us back to the days of wildly diverse and openly partisan media, where the First Amendment was there to keep government’s doors from being shut in our face, not to perpetuate the monopoly of today’s corporate media.

Ironically, the decision by state government to keep BluegrassReport.org and its 15,000 weekly readers out of the traditional media buffet line forced it to quickly adapt. As a result, not only are full media credentials waiting for me to pick up in Room 23 of the Capitol Annex, but the gatekeepers unwittingly grew the audience — which they tried to keep out — more than ten-fold in the process.
Sometimes justice is so sweet.

Contact the writer at
mark@bluegrassreport.org