As the US attorney scandal unfolds, mainstream media coverage focuses on speculation that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will be forced to resign. But the story behind the story is that Joshua Micah Marshall’s TPM Muckraker blog is largely responsible for latching on to the scandal months before mainstream media even noticed.
This isn’t the first time that progressive bloggers have been the ones to develop and break important news stories. Consider Firedoglake‘s team coverage of the I. Lewis Libby trial. Marcy Wheeler’s standout reporting for the blog was so thorough that even the mainstream media relied on it. But Firedoglake wasn’t prepared for the increased traffic that came with its newfound success, and as the verdict was handed down, its server crashed. For Wheeler, the crash represented something more than twenty minutes of a blank webpage; it was proof that bloggers’ lack of resources seriously impairs their ability to compete in the reporting of breaking news. “In many ways we were running an organization every bit as professionally produced as the mainstream media,” Wheeler observes. “But it would be a lot easier to do such work if the excess capacity already existed.”
As bloggers become some of the progressive movement’s most effective voices, the left still has not figured out how to provide them with the resources they need to keep going. Although philanthropists like George Soros have shown that they aren’t scared of the Internet–Soros gave $5 million to MoveOn in 2004– bloggers still are not on the radar of most grant-making foundations. “Bloggers are nobodies in the political funding world,” says Markos Moulitsas, founder of Daily Kos. Although some blogs are making money through blog ads (Daily Kos charges $9,000 per week for a premium spread; over at TPM, advertisers pay up to $10,000 for a spot on its premium sidebar), blogging remains a labor of love for the vast majority of online reporters and pundits. And that’s a real problem. “When blogs understand the power that they have–when they all start talking about the same story, they can break through into mainstream media news,” observes Joel Silberman, a communications consultant who has trained bloggers for network television appearances. “But how do we fund these people? This is the big overwhelming question.”
Peer-produced media like blogs and Wikipedia have become the cornerstones of new creative projects that largely depend on the coordinated work of volunteers. But can they thrive without financial backing? Moulitsas says no. “There has to be a financial incentive to stick with blogging,” he says. “There will be a subset of blogs that will be OK on their own, but there is a larger group of bloggers who need to be taken care of. There are bloggers like Digby who should not have to work a day job given what they bring to the progressive movement.”
It’s the same old story: progressives tend not to put their money where their mouth is. “On the left, there’s a tendency to think that political operations should work for free,” says Chris Bowers, a blogger for MyDD. Susan Gardner, a fellow at Daily Kos who once observed that money is to liberals what sex is to conservatives, says that not paying bloggers devalues their effort. “The left looks at money as so suspect that it expects a lot of volunteer labor. That’s dishonoring the work.” The left’s attitude towards money is, of course, in direct contrast with the right, which has systematically poured money into conservative media and think tanks for decades.
But also there’s a feeling among some that the progressive establishment doesn’t quite know what to do with bloggers and therefore perhaps doesn’t fully realize their value. “Nobody understands blogs–even politicians don’t understand blogs,” says Gardner. She compares Daily Kos to a town meeting of 20,000 people, which is about how many read the site in one afternoon. “The town hall meeting online–that’s the kind of innovative thing that can be done on blogs that can’t be done in a newspaper,” she says. But she regularly observes how politicians post diary entries on the site and then neglect to respond to comments left by thousands of readers, as if they were writing an op-ed to a newspaper. “Would you go speak at a town meeting of 20,000 people and not answer questions?” she asks.
That holds true for much of official Washington as well, Marcy Wheeler says. “On the Hill, it’s just that there’s not an easy way to deal with bloggers. It’s easy to go to a trade association and dump a press release on them and get their coverage. For bloggers, there’s no way for a congressional office to figure out where to send the press release. There’s not necessarily a way to understand that we are both unpaid lobbyists and also media.”
But politicians like Ned Lamont, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Howard Dean, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, do recognize the multi-faceted role that bloggers can play. Candidates are bringing bloggers on to their campaigns, some with more success than others (Exhibit A is John Edwards, who took some recent heat for two bloggers whose outspokenness on their personal blogs offended William A. Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The bloggers ultimately resigned.)
But there are some hopeful signs. Progressive advocacy groups like the Center for American Progress hire bloggers to write about the issues that the organizations focus on. Moulitsas, Bowers, and many other bloggers express hope that foundations and progressive think tanks will begin funding fellowships to provide what Bowers calls “a room of one’s own for bloggers.” David Bennahum is championing a third model, investigative blogging. He founded the Center for Independent Media to train bloggers to do investigative reporting in their home states of Colorado, and Minnesota (Iowa is launching May 1).
“As the established news media kills off its news gathering abilities, they destroy a critical mechanism for ensuring an informed citizenry,” Bennahum says. “Blogs can play a curative role, filling the void and delivering serious investigative reporting.”
To really succeed, bloggers need access to resources that many journalists take for granted: news data bases, media credentials to cover major news events, health insurance, cheap WiFi, web hosting fees, technical and design resources, to name just a few. Bloggers also need amplification outside of the blogosphere: talk show appearances and face-to-face meetings with progressive politicians.
But ambitious progressive bloggers shouldn’t quit their day jobs just yet. “I would not be doing what I’m doing today if I wasn’t making a good living from it,” Moulitsas admits. “No matter how much I care about progressive politics, at the end of the day, it’s my family and their well-being that’s going to come first.”