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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, March 23, 2007

BlogFest 07, and the critics

by folkbum

I knew as soon as I saw the full list of participants for the 2007 version of WisPolitics's Blog Summit, I began to brace myself for the inevitable storm of criticism--or, really, re-criticism, since we had the first storm of exactly the same criticism a year ago--that was sure to come.

Before I do this, let me be absolutely clear: I do not work for WisPolitics. I don't want to work for WisPolitics. I didn't ask to be a part of the second Blog Summit (nor the first one). And, except for the brie and wine cookies and soda that I ate at the last Blog Summit--and which you could have, too--I've never received anything of value from WisPolitics. And I'm not afraid of losing my invite if I were to join the chorus with a "Yeah, me too!"

But to the critics: You're wrong.

One thing I've learned in four years of blogging about Wisconsin politics, and which occured to me at some point after last year's summit, is this: You, my fellow Cheddarsphereans, are not WisPolitics's audience. You don't pay the salary of the WisPolitics staff, you don't pay for their bandwidth or server space, and you don't treat their website as a primary way to disseminate information or attract eyeballs or business.* It should come as no surprise, then, that WisPolitics has scheduled an even that isn't All About You.

This is not to say that, in a sense, the complaints about the Blog Summit are not legitimate. Seth Zlotocha, who was first to note that there might be a problem, is right when he writes,

[I]n spite of all the help WisPolitics has provided me and, surely, many other small-timers in the political blogging community--who make up the majority of political blogosphere--I have to question whether the 2nd Annual WisPolitics Blog Summit is really about those same bloggers.
I realize that is not a complaint, per se, but I think Seth has put his finger on exactly my point. This conference isn't for you, or about you as citizen bloggers. Consider, for example, the panels scheduled for the summit:
Blogging's effect on Campaign 06 and effect on Campaign 08, with Ed Garvey, Charlie Sykes, John Kraus (former aide to Russ Feingold and founder--now former head of--One Wisconsin Now), and Brian Fraley.
All four of these men are both veterans of the world of politics and bloggers or blog afficianadoes (Kraus sponsored the Download 2006 event last November, targeted specifically for bloggers). I think they, more than just about anyone else in the state, are uniquely qualified to discuss the intersection of blogging and politics. Is blogging what got them where they are? No. Would I kill to be on that panel? You bet. But which of them would you sacrifice for a citizen blogger--and which of us can offer the perspective that they do?

What is blogging doing to journalism?, with Jessica McBride, Tim Cuprisin, Steve Jagler (executive editor of Small Business Times), and Andy Tarnoff (publisher of the OnMilwaukee.com).
The first two are journalists who have added blogging to their repertoire (hey, Mathias, I see you giggling--cut it out), and the latter two run publications that have added blogging to their operations in the last year or so. In other words, people who can answer first-hand the question of how blogging has changed journalism. (Side note: As I was writing this, Kevin Drum answered that question.) What blogger is going to answer that question, except to say maybe "The Emm-Ess-Emm still doesn't get blogging! Ugh!"

Are all voices being heard in the blogosphere?, with Eugene Kane, Jennifer Morales, and Dasha Kelly.
Okay, complaining bloggers: How many of you are bloggers of color? Anyone? Anyone? (I can name two bloggers of color off the top of my head, Renee and "Sancho.") How about LGBT? Hm? We won't get many hands if we ask how many of us are over 40, or women, either.
The other panel--on the future of blogging--is me and Owen. And, frankly, I'm not sure I even feel all that qualified to be on that panel, either.

And that's my point: WisPolitics isn't talking to you, and, in a way, isn't even really talking about you. As I was writing this, Nick Schweitzer wrote a post that put it well:
Despite the fact that many people read blogs, the reality is that most people don't. And a lot of the people who do read blogs are bloggers themselves. We're really a pretty isolated group when you think about it. Even as bloggers we tend to segregate as bloggers on the right, and bloggers on the left, and hardly do the twain ever meet. Then to top it all off, you have the rest of the media establishment who look down on us as non-journalists trying to break into a field we have no business breaking into. Do we deserve more? Absolutely. But unfortunately, we aren't in control of that perception. They are.
In other words, if WisPolitics threw a "blog summit" with only the people on your average Cheddarsphere blogroll, it would be both unenlightening for the attendees and pretty poorly attended (Blog Summit 06 drew at least twice as many people as Download 2006--though that event was, in fact, pretty enlightening). Last year's Blog Summit featured, for as many of us who raised our hands in answer to the question of whether we blog, we were not the only attendees. Everyone from Lou Fortis to Chris Kleismet was there to check it out, and it was a great opportunity to expand our spheres of influence just a little bit.

Sean Hackbarth, who was a bridesmaid at both the first Blog Summit and Download 2006, is again the most, um, passionate about the lack of "real" bloggers invited to the summit (but he is by no means the only one speaking up). It goes like this:
Does WisPolitics.com want a weblog summit or a primer to what weblogs are all about? Why would a weblogger want to come to this? What weblogger needs to be talked at by mostly-part-timers about the effects of weblogs when they’re witnessing it first-hand? If we want to talk about weblogs and weblogging we need hardcore webloggers to talk about what they go through, what they do, where they want to go.

It’s obvious WisPolitics.com doesn’t give a damn about weblogging experience. [. . .] I’ve been on the front lines of weblogging for over seven years. Before the word “blog” was invented I was tapping away into a text file and manually uploading my posts. I’ve seen the blogosphere transform from a tech geek wonderland into the beautiful monstrosity we have today. There’s knowledge and wisdom to be had from that history. This Blog Summit, like last year’s, pretends the blogosphere plopped down on us in its present state.
Maybe there is a missing panel: Who are the hardcore bloggers, what do they do? I don't know. I don't sit around planning blog summits. But Sean does have a point that if anyone around here can provide a perspective on how blogging has changed--since change is a theme of at least three of the four panels--it's Sean. I don't begrudge him his anger at being left off the agenda, again; it has to be frustrating. But Sean's blogging lacks one thing that I think the WisPolitics people are interested in: Wisconsin politics. No one that I know of questions his blogging ability or credentials on the national scene. But his posts about, say, Ann Coulter, or economics probably just don't make it to the WisPolitics/ WisOpinion staff radar.

On the other hand, WisOpinion did have the good sense to link to Sean's post critiquing the summit--and to Seth's post, as well. There's little doubt that Jeff Mayers and his team know what they're doing. Nick is right: We Cheddarsphereans are a pretty small, pretty tight group. I have been nothing if not a cheerleader for Wisconsin's bloggers, promoting what we do and the ones that I think do it well--it's part of what I see as my responsibility as one who does get asked to do these sorts of events. But when we only talk to ourselves, about ourselves, we don't get any bigger. And maybe I don't want to live in a world where Charlie Sykes and Eugene Kane are who people think of as bloggers. But if sharing that world with them means living in a better, smarter, bigger one, I can deal with it.

And so, I think, can Seth and Sean.

* A lot of us bloggers do rely on WisPolitics or the less user-friendly (I think) Wheeler Report for information. And WisPolitics/ WisOpinion gives many of us the courtesy of linking to us and treating us as equals with the traditional paid punditry. The Budget Blog and Elections Blog are good non-partisan repositories of oddities and endities. And the Wisconsin blog search is gold.

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