Bloggers Press for Power
In This Article
Whether bloggers qualify for press credentials is getting a lot of attention in state capitols.
By Nicole Casal Moore
A “blog swarm” began shortly after Rob Weber told a blogger why he couldn’t have a press pass to cover the Kentucky Legislature.
Weber, who is director of public information at the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, told Mark Nickolas of BluegrassReport.org that he was welcome to watch from the gallery. But he couldn’t have a seat with the journalists.
This is how Nickolas headlined his post about their exchange: “A Brave New World Hits the Old World Head-On.”
And this is how Weber reacted: “I’m 35 years old,” he thought. “I’m the Old World?”
It got worse. A few days later, Club for Growth’s blog called for a swarm. “It’s time for blogging barbarians to jump the moat and tear down the gate,” the blog read. Seven or eight more blogs started writing about the issue, Weber says.
This is “likely an early skirmish in what will be a lengthy nationwide struggle,” read Tapscott’s Copy Desk.
Even National Journal’s Beltway Blogroll mentioned the situation.
Weber was more famous than he wanted to be, but he and the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission stuck by their decision at the time. But the media landscape is evolving, he says, and the precise geography of blogger country is still unknown. The question of whether bloggers qualify for press credentials is one his state will undoubtedly revisit, and others are taking up.
Bloggers aren’t taking “no” for an answer. BluegrassReport.org’s Mark Nickolas found a loophole in the Kentucky policy and qualified for credentials. He started writing a column for a local paper. Bloggers in at least Texas and Tennessee plan to apply for press passes to cover the 2007 session.
“This is an issue that’s going to keep coming up,” Weber says. “Blogs are gaining power. They’re influencing the way stories are covered and they’re decentralizing the information distribution system."
Into the Blogosphere
The web log was born around a decade ago. Its earliest genre, which is still its most popular, was the personal diary. Today, blog search engine Technorati.com tracks 57 million blogs, 11 percent of which discuss politics, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Although just 8 percent of American Internet users keep blogs, 39 percent of Americans read them, Pew found in a summer 2006 survey. The Blogosphere is part of the larger online media universe—a place 19 percent of Americans went for election news on a typical day in August 2006, according to another Pew study.
It’s hard to count exactly how many bloggers write about legislatures, but NCSL’s blog, The Thicket at State Legislatures, links to around 150 others with some connection to a statehouse. Many are part of the grassroots or citizen journalism movement like BluegrassReport.org.
State Legislatures doesn’t know of any bloggers not affiliated with a print or broadcast news organizations who have credentials to cover a legislature. A majority of legislative communicators who responded to a quick survey said they would not be inclined to give a blogger the same credential status as a journalist. That’s a sentiment reporters echo. But media experts say a blanket denial policy is not a good idea.
Of the 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska is unicameral.), 81 have a process to give reporters credentials. The qualifications vary, as do the perks, which range from a parking space and a beeline through security to a desk in the building and floor access.
Why Bloggers Want Credentials
Credibility is another big boon, bloggers say.
Eileen Smith, who blogs on InthePinkTexas.com, believes treating “qualified” bloggers as press is in the best interest of the legislature. “A known, credible blogger on the floor is better (and far less dangerous) than an unknown anonymous blogger in the gallery,” Smith says. She suggests considering a blogger’s education, experience and even legislative background when deciding who is “qualified.” Bloggers deserve consideration, Smith says, if for no other reason than their power.
“My statewide readership consists of influential political insiders, decision makers, motivated individuals, elected officials and their staff, lobbyists and voters,” Smith says. “I would contend that the reason traditional media outlets are granted press credentials is not because of their inherent objectivity, but because they have political power, influence and a direct line of communication to the public.”
Smith covered the 2006 session and plans to ask for credentials in 2007. At press time, Texas officials were working on a policy that would apply to bloggers.
Martin Kennedy, an economics professor at Middle Tennessee State University, will be new to legislative blogging this session with his Legislative Report. He, too, plans to request credentials. Why? “Credibility and access,” Kennedy says. “To make contacts more easily, to spread the word about the blog.”
Officials in the Tennessee legislature say he’ll likely get his wish. It’s easy in Tennessee. He just has to rent space in the press room.
Bill Hobbs, a media relations and blogging consultant who publishes the personal political blog BillHobbs.com, believes even Tennessee’s policy should be updated to be fair to “grassroots journalists” who may not be able to afford to rent space.
Letting bloggers have credentials would give the public another way to follow the legislature, Hobbs says.
“Journalists covering the state capitol can’t cover every piece of legislation that’s filed, but bloggers can focus on specific topics. I cover tax-type stuff, and I don’t cover legislation that may affect abortion rights,” he says. “Bloggers provide a second, larger set of eyes and ears and can find stories the news media missed.”
Like many other web logs that cover legislatures, Hobbs’ blog contains original reporting. He digs up about 50 percent of the content himself. He has sources inside the dome, he says. He doesn’t just comment on news articles.
Are Bloggers Worthy?
Based on the most common view of press credentialers, bloggers aren’t worthy of press credentials. They don’t subject themselves to the same ethics and accuracy standards as news reporters. They write mostly opinion. And press space is limited.
Wyoming Legislative Information Officer Wendy Madsen says her office would likely provide press credentials only if the blogger was a member of a commercial media outlet. “Blogging is still the ‘wild, wild west’ of the journalism frontier and until there are standards for collecting, verifying, and editing information posted by bloggers, I think it is a stretch to even classify the phenomenon as journalism,” she says. “That doesn’t mean politicians should ignore the trend. They need to pay close attention to the blogging world to keep pace.”
Allentown Morning Call reporter John L. Micek is president of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, which grants the long-term press passes to statehouse reporters there. He says bloggers might join the association as affiliate members, similar to membership held by journalism professors and retired reporters, but he doesn’t believe they could get a full membership.
“A lot of these guys are fairly partisan, so I have concerns about opening the full membership to people who are not in a traditional sense objective reporters,” says Micek, who added that this is his personal opinion; the association hasn’t decided yet. “We could get into a days-long discussion of what is journalism and who is a journalist. Not to say that bloggers’ work is any less credible than others but they have one point of view.”
MediaNews reporter Steve Geissinger, president of the Capitol Correspondents Association of California, doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have partisan voices in the Capitol press corps. In California, certain press conferences aren’t open to the general public, he says.
“On the officials’ side, the governor and legislators don’t want biased people skewing a news conference,” Geissinger says. “And the media doesn’t want valuable time taken up with biased questions.”
The California Assembly is working with Geissinger’s association to write new rules that apply to bloggers.
Scott Gant is a lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose book, We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age, will be released in June. Are bloggers journalists? is a big question, but Gant takes a step further back and asks whether professional journalists should get preferential treatment at all.
Gant’s argument goes back to the Bill of Rights. He says the Supreme Court has never found that the “freedom of the press” provision of the First Amendment grants any rights that “freedom of speech” doesn’t apply to all citizens.
“Giving special privileges to established news organizations might violate the federal Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection,” Gant says. “There hasn’t been enough attention to that issue.”
Christine Tatum, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, says newspapers are the “Fourth Estate”—another check and balance on our three branches of government. It would be wrong, Tatum says, not to save space for professional reporters.
“We’re talking about helping advance and promote an informed citizenry, which I contend is one of the cornerstones of democracy,” Tatum says. “We have to make room in these places for people who represent news organizations to be there. That’s how news organizations have traditionally functioned. They’re the ones who are willing to sit and listen to the blather and the grandstanding.”
As for non-professional reporters, Tatum says it’s hard to figure out where to draw the line. She’s not alone. The Blogosphere is a murky place that can be scary, experts understand. And it’s not the first time a new medium has produced confusion. In a talk to legislative communicators in October, Mark Senak, senior vice president at Fleishman-Hillard who blogs on EyeOnFDA.com, read some quotes about the dawn of television.
This one is from a New York Times editorial in 1939. “The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen. The average American family hasn’t time for this. Therefore, the showmen are convinced that for this reason, if no other, television will never be a serious competitor of broadcasting.”
Reaching Out to Blogs
Even without press credentials, bloggers are writing about legislatures and their members in every state. You might want to watch what they’re saying, and consider reaching out to them as a new part of public relations. Here are some ideas.
- Peer into the blogosphere: If you don’t already know, find out which blogs write about your legislature. You can use Technorati.com to search for who has mentioned you or your legislature in a blog post. NCSL’s blogroll at The Thicket at State Legislatures (ncsl.typepad.com/thethicket) can tell you who’s writing blogs in each state.
- Don’t ignore bloggers: “The real issue is whether legislatures and the executive branch will view bloggers as a legitimate part of the public discussion,” says Tennessee politics and policy blogger Bill Hobbs, of BillHobbs.com. “Will they talk to bloggers? Will they respond to their Freedom of Information Act requests?” If you don’t comment, bloggers will say so. And remember: reporters read blogs.
- Tip off bloggers: Bloggers can use anonymous sources. Some of them are even anonymous themselves. If you’ve got an important news tip you don’t feel comfortable telling a reporter, tell a blogger. Eileen Smith, of InThePinkTexas.com is all ears. “People send me stories, anonymous tips and suggestions,” she says. “They share things with me that they wouldn’t tell reporters.”
- Talk to bloggers directly: Pennsylvania Representative Mark Cohen, who blogs at repmarkbcohen.blogspot.com and occasionally at national political blog DailyKos.com, sends out special e-mails to his list of bloggers. “When we reach out to bloggers, we’re reaching out to the people who also read the blogs. There’s a large number of people who like to get their news just from blogs,” Cohen says. Sometimes he turns to the blogosphere when the mainstream media aren’t interested. And that has paid off. A blogger was the first to write about his 2005 bill to increase the use of hybrid electric vehicles. The newspaper came next.
- Post comments on blogs: People are turning to more informal means of communication like blogs, and PR professionals should understand and embrace that, says Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “You’re not just working with reporters now,” Niles says. “You have to get in and participate in the discussion with the communities.”
- Start your own blog: Legislative staffer Ric Cantrell started SenateSite.com, the unofficial voice of the Utah Senate Majority, as a way to engage the public. As a bonus, says the assistant to majority leadership, he discovered a thriving community. “We comment on other blogs every day, and they offer their comments on our site as well,” Cantrell says. “It’s like talking to your neighbors.”
Where to Draw the Line
Based on what experts say, California has the right idea. Officials there are looking at its credentialing policy and may develop a process to let in some bloggers. All blogs shouldn’t be credentialed just because they exist, experts say. But neither should all blogs be denied special access. Doing that, says Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review at the USC Annenberg School for Communications, is “a really good way to make your message utterly irrelevant.”
“You have to decide what the new standard is going to be. If you credential everyone, you could be in a situation where you’d have to rent out the local stadium,” Niles added. “You have to look at the publication.”
Does the blog have a history? Niles says it’s fair to say it should publish for a little while before legislatures grant it special access. Is the blog being used as ammunition for opposition research? If so, it might not qualify.
Does the blog do original research? That’s the main question Mike McKean, chair of the convergence journalism faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism would ask.
“If all they do is comment upon the writings of others, maybe that’s not journalism,” McKean says. “If they’re doing any type of original reporting, they’re journalists like anyone else.”
Credentialing only bloggers who are connected to mainstream media outlets is a comfortable fix, but it might be too narrow, Niles says. “They’ve already determined that print is inherently more legitimate than online. They need to get over that. You have to look at the publication.”
Bloggers suggested looking at the number of hits a site gets. Lawyers said look at the blog’s intent. If it is published to disseminate information to the public, then it just might fit under the umbrella of journalism.
And instead of renting a stadium, blogger Bill Hobbs suggests a rotating spot in the capitol press room for “citizen journalists.”
Nicole Casal Moore is an editor and writer with NCSL’s Communications Division. She contributes to the magazine’s blog, The Thicket at State Legislatures.