Friday, March 03, 2006
Meet the Bloggers is raising level of political discourse
In the front room of Talkies Film and Coffee Bar in Ohio City a group of people have shoved together tables and draped their coats over chairs to have a conversation. It’s a scene that happens in coffee shops across the area, but there’s one difference here.
A group of seven bloggers is relaxed and ready to have a conversation with Sen. Marc Dann, a Trumbull County state senator running in the Democratic primary for Ohio attorney general.
“Check 1, 2. How’s that?” Dann asks, checking the audio levels on his microphone for the podcast.
He scoots in closer to the table covered with newspaper clippings, notepads, Web printouts and coffee mugs. In the background, the gas fireplace heats the room to a toasty temperature causing the windows along Market Square to steam up.
“Hi, this is George Nemeth of Brewed Fresh Daily and I’m here with a number of Northeast Ohio bloggers at Talkies Coffee in the front room and everybody has a cup of coffee, I’m drinking an Americano. We’re here with Sen. Marc Dann who is running for attorney general.”
And so begins another installment of Meet the Bloggers (MTB), a grassroots effort to engage politicians in deeper discussions about the issues facing voters.
Nemeth presides over the conversation reminding bloggers to identify themselves by name and blog and to use full names when slipping into acronyms to clarify for the record. All of his efforts are intentional and inclusive and designed to engage the wider community in the conversation.
It’s a role Nemeth is comfortable in, given that BFD is the nexus of the Northeast Ohio blogosphere. Meet the Bloggers has taken the living room conversation and moved it into a physical and virtual public space.
Topics are all over the map — residency requirements for home rule cities, No Child Left Behind, intellectual property rights, public interest law, health insurance, the role of the AG’s office in state budgetary decisions, intelligent design in the public schools, tort reform, the role of the AG in advocacy efforts, the conflicts with contracting and campaign contributions, and the problems in attracting and retaining bright legal talent to work in the AG’s office.
“I knew coming into this event that I would have a complicated, sophisticated debate on issues and that’s exactly what we had,” says Dann, following his interview. “I would have gone on for another hour if they had wanted me to,” he adds.
That’s typical of the kind of responses MTB is getting from candidates.
“Politicos are incredibly excited about it. It gives them an open forum to discuss their positions and issues in a free, intelligent way,” says Russell Hughlock, from Newark, Ohio, of Buckeye State Blog (formerly BuckeyeSenate.blog). ”In fact we probably have more demand for doing MTB than time or money available.”
Meet the Bloggers grew out of the monthly Blogger Meet-Up meeting when members of the group agreed it should be trying to interview various candidates running for mayor of Cleveland.
Nemeth provided technical infrastructure (podcasting); Democracy Guy Tim Russo had the big Rolodex and ability to network with candidates. Bill Callahan had the first contact with Cleveland mayoral candidate James Draper because a staffer on Draper’s campaign read Callahan’s Cleveland Diary blog.
“Without Bill’s advocacy we would not have gotten the (Jane) Campbell interview,” adds Nemeth. All along the group set about getting the smaller fish first in an effort to lure in the big catch.
“Eventually MTB became compelling enough to get Frank Jackson,” says Nemeth. “This is a forum in which he excels and he spent over an hour here. He did commit to a follow-up interview with MTB, it’s now a matter of scheduling.”
What makes MTB so compelling? It’s not focused on personality or political rhetoric. “It’s about issues and candidates positions on those issues. Candidates today are so busy campaigning and fund raising. Unfortunately, the electorate is undemanding, but we are. We don’t want the canned stump speech,” says Nemeth.
He’s put his money where his mouth is, investing more than $1,000 of his own money on equipment to improve the audio. And Jim Eastman of Wine and Politics, station manager at WRUW, has volunteered his time to man the audio board.
It’s a process of continuous improvement. “With every single interview we improve our process and our capacity,” says Nemeth.
“In the beginning we were browbeating candidates to do this. Now it’s taken on a life of its own. We have candidates from Cincinnati willing to come up to Cleveland for interviews with MTB. The difficulty is in building capacity of bloggers who participate,” he says.
For example, Nemeth has had a lot of interest from candidates running for U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown’s congressional seat in Lorain to participate in a MTB interview. But Nemeth doesn’t know the issues important to Lorain voters and would like to have Lorain-area bloggers run that interview.
“It gets back to citizen journalism. If you’re Joe Blogger in Lorain and you get an audience, literally and virtually, with a candidate, you are given the chance to ask questions that are important to you and probably someone else.”
"The actual administration of this thing is taking a lot of my time now," says George. Transcribing the audio podcasts to text is costly, but it’s part of what gives the process its integrity, and that in turn is what has brought candidates forward. In an effort to raise money to primarily help pay for the cost of professional transcription services, Meet the Bloggers held its first fundraiser at Pearl of the Orient in Rocky River in January and raised nearly $800.
More than just talk
MTB has also created a historical archive that other campaigns are listening to and that voters can tap at any time. “This kind of information totally alters the dynamic of campaigns. It results in better democracy, better political discourse and even better journalism,” says Nemeth.
Bryan Flannery, of Strongsville, is a democratic candidate for governor. He’s publicly expressed his frustration with the Associated Press’s decision not to cover his campaign. But he also embraces the MTB experience and will be present at the Democratic primary gubernatorial debate at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19 at Talkies.
“Candidates are looking for more creative and cost-efficient ways to get their message across,” he says. “Meet the Bloggers provides transparency and changes the dynamic for both candidates and voters. I think this movement is significant and will play an important role in this and in upcoming elections,” says Flannery.
Tim Russo, a former Democratic political strategist with a sharp tongue says, “Meet the Bloggers’s ethic is an intense visceral despise for how the mainstream media covers politics."
In a critical election year, it's designed to give voters and candidates more coverage between now and the primary on May 2. The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com have answered somewhat with their own Web-based coverage called, “OPEN.” It, too, features a blog of newsy poltical items, though the dialogue is one-way without a comment function.
“MTB has given more coverage to the attorney general’s race than anyone else. Candidates love that,” says Russo. More coverage means more open discussion. And when bloggers write about the interviews it pushes that discussion forward even further.
If candidates had concerns about the MTB process being about blogger grandstanding, they have seen otherwise. They often stick around after the fact to carry on specific conversations. “We’re sitting in a coffeehouse talking,” explains Russo. “This is how normal humans operate. We converse.”
Bill Callahan thinks the format is MTB’s strength. “It’s straight up questions and answers with no pruning or editing. What you read in the transcript is what happened,” he says. Of course individual bloggers will comment on what they heard or read from the candidates, but the integrity of the process is the word-for-word transcript of the podcast.”
Voters can listen to the candidate speak. They can hear the passion or lack of passion in their voice and judge for themselves. “What one of us does or says on our blog has very little to do with how we conduct ourselves in the interview,” says Callahan.
All of the original organizers express their frustration with their inability to get more diversity of bloggers in the process. It has largely been focused on democratic candidates, but that’s not for lack of trying to get conservatives involved. “We’re making serious efforts to be bipartisan. I would like Republican bloggers and candidates to participate,” says Nemeth.
At least one Republican blogger, Matt Dole of Lincoln Logs in Marietta, Ohio, is interested. He admits that liberal blogs are stronger in Ohio than conservative blogs, but that shouldn’t impede the discussion.
“For better or worse, I am a Republican who believes in the Republican platform and will generally support Republicans even if they are less than true to my personal ideology, because they generally fall far closer than any other option,” says Dole.
“That said, for the electorate — for independent unmade-up minds — the Meet the Bloggers is another excellent opportunity to read what candidates have to say in a fairly laid back and candid manner,” says Dole. “What makes them different is this idea of mixing the commentary with the meat and potatoes of the transcript. It closely resembles cable news, which allows a politician to speak to the world before heading back to a studio so that a group of panelists can dissect the performance and substance.”
Idea, not product
Above all else, the content is king and it is open for everyone to use.
“I’m a happy guy,” says Callahan. “I get to have conversations with important people on issues that I care about.”
However, one of the big disappointments, says Callahan, is that the mainstream media has not participated in the interviews or used the information gleaned from these interviews for its own reporting.
“I’m not sure why they aren’t ripping off this material? This is intended as an open source activity. If anything would make this more politically useful, it’s that it be used as source material for mainstream media reporting,” he says.
There’s a network effect found both online and offline. “The reality is you can’t do this except in a community where people sit down face to face,” says Callahan. And that's why he thinks it has taken off in Cleveland. But that's not to say it can't happen elsewhere.
MTB is an idea, not a product, explains Russo. And the idea is expanding.
“We have already expanded MTB from the Cleveland area to Central Ohio/Columbus in an effort to bring more people into this open process and I think this kind of expansion is something that is going to continue as MTB becomes more and more popular,” says Buckeye State’s Hughlock.
“We’re building a dialogue around technology,” says Nemeth. “It’s the localization of media. It’s crucial to me and to the process that other people bubble up to the surface.”