Bloggers help to shape primary
(Lima News, The (Ohio) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 19--CLEVELAND -- Talkies Coffee and Film Bar sits in a row of businesses, shops and homes on a brick street in the heart of Ohio City, a progressive neighborhood just west of downtown Cleveland.
Patrons can walk through a doorway and leave the coffee house's bustling front counter and find themselves in a dimly lit room with comfy couches, local photographs on the walls and a screen for showing movies. On most Sunday afternoons, for the better part of this past year, it has been home to Meet The Bloggers, an interactive candidate forum.
On a recent Sunday, Democratic candidates for governor Ted Strickland and Bryan Flannery met with about a dozen bloggers who asked questions in a debate-style forum for two hours. The audio was broadcast live on the Web and is still available at www.meetthebloggers.com for anyone who wants to hear it.
The event points to a new political landscape for the Ohio races this year, in which bloggers and the technology they use are beginning to change how candidates communicate with voters. While the blogging audience is small, it's important and growing. Because of that, bloggers are gaining influence; candidates are taking notice and using the technology themselves.
This year, blogs won't have much direct effect on voters, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
"Most people don't read blogs. We have a relatively low percentage of the population that's truly online," Green said. "The number of people with access to the Internet is going up, but it's not like telephones yet."
What is a blog? Imagine your journal posted for the world to see, or instead of calling a friend and saying, "Hey, did you read that in the Times?" you had a place you could let thousands know about it. Imagine all sorts of people, friends and those you've never met, commenting on your thoughts, and still others commenting on their thoughts. At their best, blogs foster conversation, a lost art that many bloggers are proud to have recreated, even if it is virtual.
"Are we creating community? Absolutely. That's a big part of the blogging thing," said Dave Stacey, a blogger at Nixguy.com, from suburban Cincinnati. "My wife is into knitting blogs, of all things. It's a whole different world. You wouldn't believe. Google knitting blogs, and there's like a thousand of them."
In the blogosphere, all candidates are equal. On that Sunday at Talkies, Strickland, considered the leading Democratic candidate, and Flannery, woefully underfunded and barely registering double digits in polls, had the same stage.
"Blogs and the Internet are the great equalizers. We try to focus on policy and ideas with MTB and the blogs," said George Nemeth, who blogs at BrewedFreshDaily.com and is an MTB founder. "It doesn't matter how much political capital you have at that point, it's about how you articulate your ideas, how well thought they are, how well supported they are."
Last year, Stacey helped a friend from church with no name recognition in a local race. The candidate became active with the blogging community.
"The guy got 5,000 votes," Stacey said.
Bloggers have already shown they can affect a race; last year they rallied around Iraq War veteran and Democrat Paul Hackett in the southern Ohio congressional special election to replace Rob Portman. Hackett came close to pulling off an upset in the conservative district after his campaign drew support and money from bloggers.
Bloggers are attempting to do the same thing for Republican Bill Pierce in his challenge against U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine. While the mainstream media gives little coverage to DeWine's two challengers, many bloggers, frustrated with what they view as DeWine's abandoning Republican principles, have latched onto Pierce's campaign.
Tom Blumer, 51, of suburban Cincinnati, blogs at bizzyblog.com and is working with Pierce's campaign. How much bloggers affect the outcome of the Republican Senate primary will be another benchmark for their influence, Blumer said.
At the very least, said blogger Tim Ferris, of Cleveland, he gets a place to have his say.
"We have that perfectly fine fellow, Bill Pierce, and they won't even acknowledge him," Ferris said. "He needs to be able to tell people what he thinks, without having tons of money. That's what we do. That's the democratic process, with a small 'd.'"
Those who blog politically nearly always have candidates they are supporting; the bias is a major difference between them and other media. Bloggers say, however, that their bias is stated, not the hidden bias they say they see in larger, corporate media.
"It's tough getting any coverage by the Cincinnati Enquirer. I can't figure it," Blumer said about Pierce's campaign. "The guy's getting endorsements from counties that aren't too far from here, and they don't cover it. But when DeWine won Miami County, which is north of Dayton, they covered that. Bill canceled his subscription over the issue."
Stacey, a systems administrator, openly supports Republican Ken Blackwell for governor at his site but maintains his independence.
"If Blackwell does something stupid, I'm free to post that, and say, 'Well, that was dumb,'" Stacey said. "I'll preserve my freedom to do that. It's an essential part of being an independent blogger."
The three Cleveland men who started Meet The Bloggers last year did so out of frustration with how The Plain Dealer was covering a mayoral primary. The group began inviting candidates to interviews and posting the content. The idea stuck.
"With so many candidates in the race, the paper decided it couldn't cover them all and centered on their frontrunners," said Gloria Ferris, a Cleveland blogger who now participates in MTB. "The group thought it was a missed opportunity to talk about issues in Cleveland."
Candidates join the club
For candidates, blogging has become the next generation of Web sites. They've found it a powerful and cheap way to reach and excite their base. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell has one of this year's most sophisticated Web sites; on his site, you can view entire speeches, along with news releases, commercials and policies, all without the filter, balance and criticism that comes with mainstream media coverage, Green said.
Blackwell's site also includes a campaign blog, run by a blogger who had been doing an independent blog. Blackwell liked him so much, he hired him.
"It's one of the many ways of communicating with an evergrowing more diverse constituency," Blackwell said. "There are some folks now who get their news almost exclusively from the Internet. And they matter. It's just smart politics, and it's not as expensive as some of the other mediums."
Blackwell, sitting in the very back of a minivan on a drive from Columbus to Dayton, was surrounded by a mobile office, complete with Internet access from the road. He was asked if he personally embraces technology.
"Yeah, we do OK," he said.
Candidates haven't yet figured out how to broadcast that information to a wider audience, Green said.
"Think about it: With newspapers or television, a significant number of people are likely to see something inadvertently," Green said. "To people who are already interested, the Internet is a very powerful tool. It can bypass regular media, but to people not already interested, there isn't a good way to get that message to them. There has been some experimentation with mass e-mails, but we have a strong cultural bias against that. We regard it as spam and delete it."
Argument about purpose
Even bloggers disagree among themselves what their ultimate purpose is.
Nemeth, 38, lives in suburban Cleveland; BrewedFresh-Daily receives about 1,600 unique visitors a day.
"We're shaping the dialogue, and we're doing it early, while candidates are thinking through their platforms. The last time we interviewed Strickland, his platform wasn't as complete as it is now," Nemeth said. "You see an evolution of ideas he's been thinking and talking about."
The best blogs foster discussion in a productive way, Nemeth said.
"But only a handful of blogs are doing that, where dialogue is intelligent and doesn't deteriorate," Nemeth said.
Blumer is a part of a conservative blogging group called State of Ohio Bloggers, formerly the Southern Ohio Bloggers. The group started with six, since opening up membership statewide, they're up to 20.
"My interest is in forming alliances with people who think similarly," Blumer said. "I'm interested in advancing the conservative cause."
Tim Ferris helped his wife, Gloria Ferris, start her blog when she was running for Cleveland City Council. The Ferrises found out that most people weren't interested in the political posts.
"They were interested in the little things. So we started telling them about taco night at the Ugly Broad and steak night at Pearl Road Tavern," Tim Ferris, 58, said. "We realized that we have the ability, a better ability outside elected office, to organize 25,000 people, and to get them to function together again as a neighborhood. There are so many people who feel disenfranchised, who feel disconnected one way or another."
Ferris feels a cultural revolution coming on.
"Lately I'm thinking it's about as exciting as 1966," he said. "It's starting to happen. It's heating up, and it's going to go a lot quicker this time. Don't ask me what 'it' is. We name it, we might kill it."
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