R.I. politics fire up state’s blogosphere

Local blogs fill big role in small state

Thursday, April 17, 2008

On April 1, Pat Crowley – a writer for the progressive blog Rhode Island’s Future – posted an entry saying he had accepted a new job offer and would be leaving the Providence area. Within hours, Crowley said, he received a flurry of e-mails from his readers and even a call from the Providence Journal.

Crowley was playing an April Fools’ joke, but here in the nation’s smallest state, political blogs are taken very seriously. And these once-alternative forums are now stirring up discourse – and controversy – while bringing a fresh perspective to local politics that bloggers say is lost in mainstream media.

Because Rhode Island has only one major newspaper, the Providence Journal, there is a bigger gap in the news market to be filled than in other states, said Justin Katz, the creator and administrator of the conservative blog Anchor Rising.

As a result, some in Rhode Island are frustrated with the “lack of rigor” in print and television media and want “alternatives to right-wing talk shows,” said Rep. David Segal, D-Dist. 2, who contributes to R.I. Future and the liberal Providence Daily Dose.

Blogs are quickly becoming that alternative, Katz said. They allow readers and contributors to engage in “a relatively rapid discussion in a thoughtful text-based medium” in a way traditional news sources cannot, he added.

The state’s small size also allows bloggers greater influence on local events, said Matt Jerzyk ’99, founder and editor of R.I. Future.

But the smallness of the Ocean State can also cause bloggers to lose their objectivity, Katz said, because the social and political networks in the state are tightly woven. “It feels like you start to get pulled into this family,” he said.

“Chances are that if you’re blogging about a political figure, they’re going to read that,” Crowley said.

The rise of blogging

According to a 2006 Pew Internet survey, 57 million American adults read blogs. But it is unclear what power this alternative media form actually wields.

“Blogs are very rarely going to have a direct effect on elections,” said Henry Farrell, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, who specializes in the relationship between politics and the internet.

Rather, he said, the more important influence of blogs comes when they break a story the mainstream media then picks up – such as the recent focus on Barack Obama’s comments about small-town America, which were first recorded on the Huffington Post blog. In a recent speech at a San Francisco fund-raiser, Obama characterized middle-class small-town Americans as “bitter” because of economic hardships they’ve suffered.

In Rhode Island, many blogs garner attention by covering local politics. Originally receiving 30 to 40 hits a day, R.I. Future began to get around a million visits a month due to their coverage of the 2006 Senate race between Sheldon Whitehouse and Lincoln Chafee ’75.

Segal said he also sees blogging as a good way to “communicate with (his) constituents.”

Even readers who are not normally interested in politics can find it a more “accessible” subject online, Segal said. The Daily Dose is written in a casual, witty style, and it covers a mix of art, music and culture in addition to politics, which attracts a “broader cross-section of people,” Segal said.

Partisan bickering moves to the internet

Where there’s politics, disagreement often follows, and Rhode Island’s political blogs are no exception.

Blogs across Rhode Island’s political spectrum often cross-reference each other, providing links to a particular assertion they would like to dispute, a practice that Katz said was part of the blogging “etiquette.”

Jerzyk said he founded R.I. Future for Rhode Island’s Democratic population, but added that because the site now allows readers to vote on which stories they would like to see, the blog’s progressive tone is a response to what readers want.

“If a hundred libertarians jumped on the site and started posting libertarian stuff, that’s what we’d be reading,” Jerzyk said. He also said the site is open to everyone and draws many conservative commentators.

Katz said, as a conservative, he “absolutely” feels outnumbered in Rhode Island, a position which has both its perks and drawbacks.

On one hand, Katz said, “it is a lot easier to be the top conservative blogger in Rhode Island” and get national attention. But, he added, the potential local audience is smaller, which can make getting advertising difficult.

“I made a joke when I started Anchor Rising that my goal would be to have every conservative blogger (in Rhode Island). Now that we’re up to six, I think we’re pretty close,” Katz said.

Though Ari Savitzky ’06, a former Herald Opinions Editor and a writer for the Daily Dose and R.I. Future, said that he feels there are “no blog rivalries,” tempers flared when some bloggers were asked about their counterparts from across the aisle.

“Anchor Rising is so right-wing that they’re borderline fascist,” said Crowley, who contributes to R.I. Future. “I think they’re jealous about the level of content and the attention that we get.”

In response to Crowley’s comment to The Herald, Katz posted an entry on Anchor Rising decrying Crowley’s characterization of the blog, to which several commenters offered their support.

“What a shame the Rhode Island Left has allowed that guy such a visible place in the local public discourse,” Katz wrote.

Crowley is “more of a rhetorician than an intellectual,” Katz told The Herald. “And not a very good one at that.”

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