Political blogs a rising force in the Ocean State

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Matt Jerzyk ’99 and other bloggers want to shake up Rhode Island politics.

“I have a very, very profound belief that the Internet is a very explosive tool for democracy if everyone uses it,” said Jerzyk, the founder of Rhode Island’s Future, one of the state’s top blogs.

“Political blogs have the potential to rebuild the town hall,” he said.

National blogs such as Wonkette, Daily Kos and Instapundit have established themselves as key players on the political scene, bringing attention to overlooked news and minutiae and offering constant commentary on the news. The Rhode Island blogosphere is still in its infancy, with just a few prominent blogs focusing on local news and politics.

But if the town hall has not yet been rebuilt, its foundations have certainly been repaired. Local blogs – liberal and conservative, well-connected and outsider – gain readers and participants with each passing month.

One blog, two blog, red blog, blue blogThe state’s leading blog – one with a strong liberal tilt – is Rhode Island’s Future, founded by Jerzyk in March 2005.

Currently a law student at Roger Williams University, Jerzyk started out by e-mailing a list of events and news to his friends while he worked at the Swearer Center for Public Service after graduating from Brown. Jerzyk became active in local politics – including four years as executive director of Rhode Island Jobs for Justice and running the 2002 campaign of Ward 9 Councilman Miguel Luna and District 11 Rep. Grace Diaz’s 2004 campaign. He said the need for a liberal news source became obvious.

“After five years of working in the non-profit world in Rhode Island and running political campaigns and lobbying at the State House, I just saw a real clear need for a more liberal, progressive media,” he said. “We’re a very liberal state but our news media, both the Providence Journal and the Channel 10 TV news, have significant coverage in the state … and there’s nothing significantly liberal or progressive in those institutions,” he added.

So Jerzyk founded Rhode Island’s Future, posting news and commentary on national issues such as immigration reform as well as local issues and political campaigns. The site has become one of the state’s most popular, with four million hits in its 13-month life and 700,000 last month alone.

“I decided to focus on local politics because Rhode Island’s political life is extremely exciting, and no one really knows how exciting it is. I just had to start writing about it,” Jerzyk said. “I think it’s reached a critical mass and become a force and people know what it is. Everyone in the chattering class of Rhode Island political life reads it.”

But Jerzyk has more ambitious goals for the blog than just readership.

“My goal for the blog is not just to be a place where people read stories … but to actively engage people and challenge people’s views and change the discourse in Rhode Island,” he said. “Step one, people are engaged. Step two, let’s use that to make social change.”

Though Jerzyk has found fertile soil for his progressive message in Rhode Island – where President George W. Bush garnered just 39 percent of the vote in 2004 – his conservative counterparts have faced more of a struggle.

A little over a year ago, around the same time Rhode Island’s Future began, carpenter Justin Katz founded Anchor Rising, which has emerged as the state’s leading conservative blog.

Katz said “no one’s really aware of what’s going on” in Rhode Island’s conservative movement. “So I decided to find a point in the middle of this uncoordinated mass of interest and tie it all together.”

The result was Anchor Rising, aimed at “introducing conservatism to Rhode Island and Rhode Island to conservatism,” Katz said. The site boasts readership in the “high hundreds” of unique visitors each day, and offers news and opinions from a cast of six conservative bloggers.

Katz said it can be difficult to offer conservative commentary in Rhode Island’s liberal environment.

“It’s such a foreign attitude to be conservative in this state,” he said. “I found that particularly with the issue of same-sex marriage. … It’s a very heated issue, and so to take a contrary position for intellectual reasons, it doesn’t carry over well into cocktail discussions.”

“But,” he added, “by the same token, the limited nature of the conservative movement in Rhode Island means it’s easier to get into the center of it all.”

Jerzyk said he believes the Rhode Island blogosphere is growing and maturing.

“It’s limitless what could happen. I think from a year ago when I started, when it was just me and Anchor Rising and the Brown Democrats, we’ve seen the cultivation of a couple more,” he said. “I think a year from now we’ll see 10 or 20 more.”

One of those rising blogs is Kmareka, run by Cranston social worker Kiersten Marek. Launched in January, Kmareka started off with about a 100 visitors a day and has grown to five times that number.

“I guess for me it’s very important to balance the micro level of doing social work with a more macro level endeavor that raises consciousness and helps people think about things from a different perspective,” she said. “It’s a citizen journalism thing. I try to be a government watchdog and certainly do so locally.”

Marek’s blog is small but growing. Last month, she interviewed Democratic Secretary of State candidate Guillaume de Ramel, and she comments regularly on Cranston politics and news.

“The Mayor of Cranston (Stephen Laffey) knows me well, and he knows if I have a problem I’ll put it on my blog, so if I call them up they listen to me,” she said.

Though she is a Democrat, Marek said she believes in the “competitiveness of ideas” and is “very open to the idea that Democrats can suffer from corruption, from nearsightedness and blind spots.”

“We strive to be non-partisan,” she said.

Marek is different from most of her fellow bloggers in one important way – she is a woman, while she estimated that 90 percent of her comments come from men.

“I think as more women do this, we would have a better participatory, civic environment,” she said.

Making their mark?Marek, Katz and Jerzyk may disagree politically, but all share a disdain for the mainstream media in Rhode Island.

“I … find that when I go to the ProJo every day, I miss a tremendous amount of what’s going on in the world,” Marek said. “I can cull information and offer it to, obviously, a small readership, but people can find out about things (on my blog) that they won’t if they just read the ProJo.”

Katz noted that “a lot in Rhode Island seems to slip under the radar” and “the trick is to catch it when it does. We’re starting to get to the point where we can do that.”

Jerzyk goes so far as to call the Providence Journal the “BeloJo” on his blog, a reference to the paper’s corporate owner, Dallas-based Belo Corp.

“I just want to call attention to the fact that our state newspaper is controlled by a Texas corporation,” he said.

But Marek noted that Rhode Island’s blogs have a limited readership, and often their commentary is more a “symbolic gesture” than anything else.

“If we were like DailyKos and had a million hits a day, it would be different, but we’re small,” she said.

Rhode Island’s bloggers are enthusiastic, but it remains unclear if they will shift the political landscape.

“Blogs have democratized the flow of information. They allow anybody to put information into the public domain. So I think they have had a real impact just in terms of getting information out,” said Darrell West, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy.

West – who runs his own political Web site, Inside Politics – said the state’s small size can enhance local blogs’ impact.

“Blogs are the contemporary equivalent of the water cooler. People gather around them to figure out what’s going on,” he said.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who teaches a course on blogs, is more skeptical.

“I’m not sure that they have changed (national politics) in any fundamental way, but they’re part of the decontrol of politics and that might change things eventually,” he said.

On the local level, though, Rosen said a concentration of blogs can affect the political landscape. He said Greensboro, N.C. – dubbed “Blogsboro” by the Los Angeles Times – is a place where “the strength of local political bloggers and journalistic bloggers has encouraged public officials to start blogging.” There are almost a hundred local blogs listed on Greensboro101.com, with many focused on local politics.

In Rhode Island, an increasing number of candidates for office include blogs on their campaign Web sites, from Secretary of State Matt Brown to congressional candidate and Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy Jennifer Lawless. But only a few elected officials currently blog in Rhode Island, most prominently Providence’s Ward 1 City Councilman David Segal, who is a regular contributor to Rhode Island’s Future.

“Matthew and I have known each other for four years now and have worked on a million different campaigns for a million different issues together,” Segal said, adding when Jerzyk started the blog, “he asked me to be a contributor and I jumped at the opportunity.”

But Segal doubts many officials will join him in the blogosphere.

“I don’t think we’re going to see too many sitting, elected officials blogging,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to see city clerks blogging in Providence for the foreseeable future. Our city clerks just got e-mail in their office.”

But Jerzyk, Katz and Marek all said they enjoy what they do and hope to make a difference in local politics.

“The ability to talk about politics and steer the debate in a better direction in a fundamental way gets me up in the morning and makes me happy,” Jerzyk said. “That’s the whole point of this: access to information, access to resources – it can really level the playing field. I just hope that we can make a difference.”

Katz said Anchor Rising has given Ocean State conservatives “an avenue of expression that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.”

“It has helped us to find each other, give us more of a confidence and companionship,” he said. “And if it would start paying us, that’d be good too, but that’s down the road.”

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