Thursday, February 01, 2007

Does the Blogosphere Help or Hurt in Wisconsin?

Political blogging is a world of immediacy. It's really a built in feature of blogs -- if you have something to say, you can say it as quickly as you can type and click "Publish Post."

So when a significant political news story appears in a major media source, there is an expectation that bloggers will write on it and write on it fast.

For instance, it's a little after 7:00am as I write this, and I would venture to guess that by noon, at least a handful of bloggers will have commented on Governor Doyle's backing of the proposed rental car tax. By tomorrow, you won't read much about it in the blogosphere, unless it's in the broader context of a post on the budget; the focused commentary on it, for the most part, will be done after today.

At the same time, the political blogosphere puts a premium on analytical commentary. Many bloggers will decry -- and rightfully so -- the posts that do very little except direct someone to a news article.

This may work on the national scene where bloggers are pointing out articles or quotes from obsure publications, pressers, or documents that most people would not otherwise read. But when a Wisconsin blogger, for instance, is merely pointing out a top tier article from a publication like the Journal Sentinel with little more than a couple lines of bland commentary, what's the point?

So the blogosphere has these two forces of immediacy and analysis, and, for the most part, they are very much opposing forces.

How informative, for example, are those commentaries on Doyle's support of the rental car tax going to be after an hour (or probably less) of thinking about it? And actually researching the issue -- who has time for that nonsense?

What this leads to, in my view, is a lot of sloppiness. And there's nothing that eats up sloppy analysis quite like partisanship. Partisanship feeds on half-assed analysis, and in many ways it was born of it.

And the thing is partisanship is popular, too. Readers seem to love it when bloggers of their same mind ra-ra it up with a rant they've probably already heard a thousand times -- nothing new is gained from it except more firmness in the belief that that's the way it is.

Some blogs even take the time to apologize to their readers in advance when a post is going to be "wonky" or involve numbers and such.

So where does this leave the debate? Where does this leave the usefulness of the blogosphere?

It reminds me of when Jon Stewart famously appeared on CNN's Crossfire to tell hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to "stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America." Carlson and Begala were just two of the talking heads who do nothing to advance the political conversation in the country, but merely further entrench us in partisan debate.

Is the Wisconsin blogsophere any different for the state?

I'd like to think it can be, although I wouldn't say it's the norm, at least right now. And I'm not trying to put myself above the fray. I've displayed rank partisanship on this blog before. It was especially true for me during the election season, and I thought it took a heavily negative toll on my writing during that time.

I feel that some of my best posts are the ones where I eschewed immediacy and actually took a day to think about and look into a topic. And most of the time when I do that, the post I end up writing is dramatically different than the one I envisioned writing when first considering the topic.

Those are also, interestingly, some of the posts that received the least amount of reader attention -- perhaps because they lacked a partisan edge, perhaps because they lacked immediacy (or perhaps because they weren't as good as I thought).

But, that said, I wonder what the blogosphere in Wisconsin would look like if there was a mandatory 24-hour waiting period on posts that involve analytical commentary; that is, the ones that go beyond "Hey, here's a link." It would never happen, nor could it (and maybe nor should it), but I have a hunch the look and feel of the Cheddarsphere would be drastically different if this was the rule (it may also mean less posting for some -- reactive writing is easier than reflective writing).

Some posts may not change even with a 24-hour waiting period, but those who would choose to truly use that time to think about a topic and dig into it beyond the partisan talking points would see, I think, a dramatic change in what they write, at least if they're being honest about what they discovered while waiting.

And I'm not talking about dumping ideology. Ideology -- and the political party that most closely embodies it -- will always play a factor in any political writing.

But there is such a thing as unflinching partisanship, which is the conscious (or maybe subconscious for some) refusal to consider going beyond the surface of an issue, perhaps for fear that what will be discovered will take you away from what you thought you were supposed to believe or defend -- not necessarily to "the other side," but just away from the dramatic edge of your initial reaction.

That's the partisanship that's got to go if the blogosphere has any chance of not hurting and actually helping Wisconsin. And questioning the place of immediacy in writing that fashions itself as analytical may be a good place to start.

21 Comments:

Blogger Dad29 said...

Yah...but like you say, nobody READS the 'think pieces.'

You kinda wonder if it's really worth all the effort of thinking, finding the facts/figures, sourcing, cut/pasting, yada yada.

THEN some damn Lefty comes along and has OTHER facts....

My head hurts.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

My point is not that more reflective writing should result in the use of facts that have the sole purpose of furthering a purely partisan point of view that would've been pushed initially, anyway -- my point is that truly reflective writing would be aimed at furthering a debate on a topic, not just "winning" an argument in the comments section. In other words, reflective thinking is intended to get us away from the purely partisan bickering, not simply make it more nuanced purely partisan bickering.

Some partisanship, of course, will always exist in political discussion, but as I noted in the post it's the degree and type of partisanship that's important to consider.

And on the issue of readership, if traffic can only be increased and sustained through blunt force partisanship -- like the ra-ra type I discuss in the post -- then what purpose does the blogosphere have in Wisconsin? Is it helping or hurting the state? I would argue the latter.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Jenna said...

I think you're right, on many counts.

There are a lot of times when I read a news story from (gasp!) 24 hours ago and think that it's too old to blog about, or that it was already beaten to death on other blogs.

I think the main problem may be time--the real thought provoking posts take time to research, and when one doesn't rely on the MJS or WSJ articles everyone else already read, and instead tries to do investigative work or original reporting, that takes even more time.

I'm incredibly guilty of the "here's a link, and here's a one-liner," but when I have a couple of papers and 600 pages to read, sometimes that's all I can muster.

Do you think it would be better to forgo those types of posts altogether or to deal with the mediocrity and wade through to find the good posts?

February 01, 2007  
Blogger WatchdogMilwaukee.com said...

A good blog has insightful and yes, sometimes biting commentary.

A good blog is one where the author doesn't just regurgitate info that comes from the mainstream media.

Bloggers have the benefit of immediacy and sometimes we scoop the mainstream media because we don't have to run through multiple editors.

A good blogger is better than a bad or even mediocre journalist. The only difference is that the journalist receives a salary.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks for your comment, Jenna.

I agree time is a big issue. I can manage to get out one post a day, and that alone often comes in a time crunch.

But I think the point you make about a news story from 24 hours ago already being "beaten to death" by the blogs is key. When a significant news story comes down the pipe, bloggers from both sides with go after it with pure partisanship, and after that the lines have been drawn in the sand for the debate: lefties over here, righties over there. That, essentially, kills the conversation.

Rather than going that route, what I'm suggesting is that bloggers should take more care with those stories, specifically with an eye toward prolonging the debate -- and thereby enhancing the conversation -- rather than so quickly drawing that line in the sand. Hardly any major issue can be fully discussed and hashed out in 12-24 hours of posting and commenting -- most issues are highly complex and nuanced, and should be treated as such.

That's why I think it would be so valuable (although admittedly unrealistic) for bloggers to just sit on some stories for awhile before pouncing. That would give them a chance not only for research, but also just plain old thought, which often can be just as useful.

If bloggers were more reflective than reactive -- as I note in my post -- there probably would be fewer (but, I think, better) postings taking place. But in terms of the one-liner posts, I don't necessarily think they should necessarily go away. Some of them can be really useful, such as when they serve as a follow-up on a topic already covered in-depth by the blog or when they highlight a more obscure article/interview/study/document/etc. that others may not be likely to see or when they are simply highlighting something the blogger plans to return to more in-depth later (when they've had a chance to think about it completely). All in all, if it contributes to conversation, rather than attempt to end or stifle it, then I think it's worthwhile, regardless of length.

Jim,

I agree immediacy can help bloggers “scoop the mainstream media,” but in the local blogsosphere those examples are few and far between. What I’m talking about here is not journalistic blogging but what encompasses the vast majority of local blog postings: commentary. Most local blogs are far more like the editorial page than the news desk.

And while commentary can be biting, again, there are degrees of partisanship. It’s my feeling that more often than not, bloggers are trying to end debates with their posts (and commenters are trying to do the same with their comments) rather than contributing to and enhancing conversations.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Dave Diamond said...

This is exactly why I've tired of my blog experiment. We're really good at cheerleading and griping, but is there really any point to it?

I've always been critical of the notion that bloggers are somehow at the vanguard of modern journalism. Few bloggers actually do the sort of legwork that reporters do. Incidents like the Dan Rather/Bush service record forgery being uncovered by bloggers are notable for their rarity.

Posting links and cheerleading are a great way to manufacture news -- after all, we have our friend Mrs. Bucher to thank for making Kevin Barrett a celebrity -- but I honestly don't think they contribute to public debate. Has anything you or I or Owen Robinson wrote swayed an opinion or started a debate?

On the few days I've actually done analysis and digging of my own (limited to what I can Google easily), my readership spiked in the 150-200 range. La-de-frickin'-da.

Even the most famous and well-regarded blogs like Kos or Hotline depend 99% of the time on linking to articles from real journalists in the "MSM" or linking to other bloggers. There's very little original thought going on among the sycophancy -- and as you mention, if you spend a bunch of time dissecting an argument you miss the boat.

I've reached the conclusion that blogging in general sucks and I don't want to do it anymore. It serves no purpose other than feeding my own ego.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Louis Kaye said...

Nice post, Seth. Very thought provoking and I agree with your perspective about many bloggers and the question you raise about partisanship. But if we are to avoid the partisan battles to settle our differences, who may I ask is willing to make the first move? Years ago, I used to think I was in the political center until Newt drove me angrily to the left. Someone needs to hold the other side to accountability. The more ambitious the partisanship the better - in my opinion.

But I would like to think I'm not one of the bloggers who just copy and paste all day and link all night and my low trafic supports Dave Diamond perspective.

More of us have to write what’s on our mind instead of trying to search the mainstream to add credibility to our opinions. It's just not there. The second I look at a post with one sentence and a link, I’m out of there unless the subject is really, really interesting.

Politics is a lot like religion, you have to believe in something regardless of the facts. I’ve been ripped from ear to ear for saying that, but if more political bloggers would end their posts with……and this I believe, or…. this is what I think, we’d be doing a heck of a lot better than trying to seek attribution from others to qualify our thoughts.

One of the best things about being a lefty, Democrat or liberal is the premise that most of us reject programming. We don’t cowtow to an agenda or underlying self-serving plan laid out by some righteous guru. Completely misunderstood by the other side, we are chastised for not having a plan when indeed we do, it’s just not theirs. This built-in opposition to imposition is what makes the left so strong and promising. It will be partisan until the facts can prove otherwise, this I believe.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Other Side said...

My blog is something I have fun doing. Family members mostly look at it ... and the occassional other.

I do combinations of both ... simple commentary and, at times, longer pieces. I do what feels good and fun to me.

My reason for doing this is not for others, it's kind of like a diary, but with the lock broken and the contents available for all to see.

If someone comes to my site and likes what I write, or what I link to with "bland commentary" ... great. If not, oh well.

I don't consider myself (or others truly) as the vanguard of modern journalism. However, I do like the idea of millions of voices being heard where very few were heard before.

Collectively, isn't ours a marvelously discordant voice?

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I agree, Dave, that the things a blogger does will rarely, if ever, contribute anything meaningful to the public debate at large (if there even is such a thing).

However, what I think the blogsophere can do -- although I'm becoming more and more convinced, as you seem to be, that it never will -- is exist as a model for the type of public discourse and engagement that should be taking place on significant issues. But bloggers, at least at the local level, seem to spend so much time beating each other (along with politicians, the "MSM," and anyone else who gets in their way) with their tiny microphones that the only thing the blogsophere as a whole usually contributes to the public at large is more partisan rancor.

Part of my perspective is driven by the fact that I came to blogging as a citizen, not an activist, so I don't share the same type of grassroots let's stick it to 'em attitude that you and others seem to have, Louis. I turn to the Internet for information, not energy or irreverence, and I've tried to make my blog a place for getting people to think more about issues, not necessarily act more. The whole idea of "the netroots" is that it's supposedly getting people to act (or, I'd say, re-act) more, and I think that's great, but only as long as they're being sure to think before heading out and periodically along the way. And, unfortunately, when I look at the local blogsophere in this state, I don't see a whole lot of thinking going on -- I just see a whole lot of plain old reacting.

I've come close a few times to hanging it all up like you seem to have done, Dave. Perhaps it's my ego's appetite that keeps me going, I'm not sure. And if you are, in fact, done feeding yours, I'm definitely going to miss reading the feast.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger TC said...

I see myself in much the same way that Tim does. I blog because I like to and I blog about things that interest me, whether politics, religion, sports, TV, movies or whatever.

I don't see myself as a "citizen journalists" although my pictures and blogs of events I've been to may have been seen as such by others.

Unlike many bloggers I've observed locally (there are exceptions, but it seems to be true a lot of the time), I've never worked on a political campaign (other than the Waukesha county board shrinkage), nor have I run for office.

I see myself as just a guy with a blog. If people like what I write, great. I'm not widely read nor widely quoted, which worries me not a bit.

February 01, 2007  
Blogger Rick Esenberg said...

Seth

These are great points, but maybe there is room for a bit more optimism if you ratchet down your expectations. I am not so big on the bloggers as "citizen-journalists" thing. There are people who do that but most (including me) do not. I agree that much of what you read is just smack-talk, but there are exceptions (your blog, however much I may disagree, is one). I think that you have to accept the fact that the readership for that kind of thing is small. But it is influential, consisting of a lot of opinion leaders. Mostly, I try to offer commentary on stuff (a lot of it law and policy) that I think is inadequately explained in the MSM. I won't have as many readers as if I did something else for the same reason that the MSM inadequately explains it. The market is small. But it's an important market.

February 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

At times I've tried to think of myself as "just a guy with a blog" as you both do, Tim and Dean, but at other times I feel that attitude doesn't justify the level of time and work I need to put into the blog to make it something worthy, in my own mind, of any time or work. To put it another way, if I do it, I want to do it well (as most probably do), but to do it well takes time and effort that can't be justified -- for me, at least -- if it's not having an effect (hopefully positive) on others besides me.

And the optimist in me hopes that you're right, Rick, about the small market that reads blogs that try to meaningfully contribute to the public conversation on issues (which, I'll add, includes your blog...despite the fact that I often don't agree with what you write). I'd like to think that market, while small, is important, and I certainly wish more bloggers would cater to that demographic and, subsequently, try to expand it.

I suppose it's true that I vacillate between your optimism and Dave's pessimism on almost a daily basis when it comes to this blog, but as long as there's some question in my mind about it, I'll probably continue to error on the side of optimism...and if that is, in fact, just delusional, I can always fall back on the no harm, no foul attitude that I'm just a guy with a blog.

February 02, 2007  
Blogger Michael J. Mathias said...

I agree with much of what I'm seeing here, and I tried to post a comment last night, but Blogger ate it.

Jenna's right about time being a big factor--I would write more and probably be more thoughtful, but there are only so many hours in the day. I can’t really justify missing the discussion with my 10-year old about who JK Rowling's going to off so I can put up another link to Talking Points Memo. (I suppose it helps that I’m a bit of an insomniac.)

But even if a post is only a one-liner, I find myself returning to certain blogs because I want to see what that particular writer is thinking about. I rather like Jenna's focused outrage, Dave's ongoing disputes with Nate, and Tim’s mix of commentary and family updates. Seth, I come here because I expect the longer thoughtful pieces. And maybe no issue is advanced, when we play "gotcha" in the comments but I think we're ultimately better off being engaged than not.

And blogs can help advance issues. I’m not sure the outcome was ever in doubt, but the debate on the amendment between Owen and Ingrid wasn’t just a high-water mark for blogs last year, but for political discussion in general. It certainly shamed the coverage in the Journal Sentinel.

Anyway, keep writing. Another election’s just around the corner—the traffic will be back.

February 02, 2007  
Blogger Mike Plaisted said...

Seth:

This is a very interesting conversation you have going here. I think the best blogs can contribute to the national and/or local conversation. The "worst" can't do much damage -- people are pretty good at identifying and ignoring nonsense.

What I try to do is get up under the soft underbelly of the MSM and -- more importantly, these days -- the GOP surrogate radio wing-nuts and, yes, bloggers, and try to expose what is really going on. The MSM has always had problems with institutional blinders, protection of the status-quo and, in the case of the Journal Sentinel, ill-advised campaigns in support of, say, school "choice" and against, say, Jim Doyle.

The wing-nut echo chamber, on the other hand, has extreme message discipline, encourages rancor and division and its messages leak into the MSM with disturbing regularity.

The alternative left will never have the same sort of 24/7 megaphone the right wing has managed to seize on formerly-respectable radio stations like WTMJ and WISN. WISN even has a new promo spot for itself, bragging that the entire station is the anecdote to the "lefties now in control in Washington", "poverty pimps", etc. Blogs are one way to expose the lies and idea manipulations of these powerful, GOP-driven enterprises on the public airwaves.

So, I'm all for partisanship to expose the hidden secrets, even if all you can do is put 2-and-2 together and use intellegent speculation. I do think some writers could be more thoughtful, but the more ideas in the air, the merrier, even if it's just an amusing YouTube link.

I blog; therefore, I am.

February 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I see your point, Michael and Mike, that the more voices the merrier. And I think blogging on the media and the inner-workings of the political world is important and will always remain a highly partisan endeavor.

But the type of blogging I'm focusing on more in this post is public policy blogging, which is the type I do the most at In Effect (although I throw in a smattering of political culture and ideology stuff, especially as it pertains to elections).

Unflinching partisanship is most destructive, in my view, when it penetrates public policy conversations. And it's on public policy that the local blogosphere in Wisconsin is largely dropping the ball (if it ever even had a genuine opportunity to play in the first place, as Dave might argue).

February 02, 2007  
Blogger Dave Diamond said...

Maybe I'll just go back to doing what I enjoy most: making fun of the wingnut bloggers and the stupid things they write.

February 02, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Good to have you back, Dave.

February 02, 2007  
Blogger krshorewood said...

In many of your posts you have proven that someone can be partisan and still go into depth with a high level of thought. With a lot of the good information you provide I have served it up many times on the Grassroots Northshore site.

There are bloggers on both sides that have that capability, although they sometimes slip into mindless rants.

But on the whole partisanship is not a bad thing if controlled and subjugated to attempt to work with facts. If partisanship drives someone to blog, so be it. Blogs are not tea parties so the mixing up that happens from time to time is not a bad things. In fact it seems the true malcontents get a good old Amish shunning.

If anything we do not have a enough politcal activity on the Wisconsin sites. Saddly one of the few sites where there is much back and forth is on Boots and Sabors, although quite often I have to hold my nose.

But there must be something coming out of the blogs in the way of informed opinion and at times insider news. That is why the Jouranl is starting to run them in the Sunday Crossroads.

February 03, 2007  
Blogger Dad29 said...

Umnnnhhh...I read a number of blogs every day and actually learn stuff from each of them (not every one EVERY day, but you get the idea.)

Most times, the variety of perspectives lends a good deal of flesh to a news story or to a recurring theme (e.g. warming, healthcare.)

It's not hard to see where I have differed from the BushBots--I usually make it clear.

On the other hand, I think it's important to keep the entries relatively short, which almost forces a point-of-view to emerge.

February 03, 2007  
Blogger amzbd said...

Seth,
As a reader who is nothing more than a policywonkish mom, I say your posts are appreciated. Especially your analyses of health care policy, which are very informative and usually pretty balanced. It is obvious you put much thought into your posts and that you strive to be objective when you can. Please keep it up! Immediacy is a symptom of the Internet, not a necessity of journalism or public policy. I liken bloggers like yourself to the pamphleteers of old...self-publication is sometimes the only way to ensure the integrity of your ideas.

February 05, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Thanks, amzbd. I appreciate your thoughts.

February 06, 2007  

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