Early this summer Shearon Roberts, one of my Masters Students, working for the Wall Street Journal conducted a series of interviews with interesting and innovative political bloggers. Among her first talks was with William Beutler, then a Senior Writer with the blogometer column in The Hotline (of the National Journal). He now (August 2006) produces BlogPI as a blog analyst for New Media Strategies, a PR firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Beutler: At The Hotline, I write…the blogometer. That section of the main publication is also published on the Web right after The Hotline…as a Web column basically. And that Web column, the blogometer, I spend 6 hours a day reading probably 150 blogs. And I screen them trying to find the interesting conversations and the things people are saying that are affecting politics and things that are affecting bills that are on the hill.
It’s a powerful tool. If you could read 100 blogs a day and you’re interested in politics and you don’t have time to visit other websites, read the blogometer and you will know what is happening in politics today basically.
PBB: What are your impressions of the present state of blogging by politicians?*
In the last two years and really in the last year, and even more so in the last 6 months, representatives and senators are realizing that they need to be communicating to constituents and they need to be communicating with supporters through blogs. Because their supporters, people who are politically active, definitely read blogs and so they need to be in communication with them over blogs. And to constituents, they can talk to constituents a little bit by going on blogs.
If a politician wanted to start a blog, there are two ways to do it.
One is they can post to their own blog on their own official website. And a lot of people do that….Harry Reed has his own blog on a its really not a campaign website but it’s a PAC website. You can look it up, its called giveemhellhenry.com. He has one.
A lot of people, Rep. Jack Kingston, was one of the first I believe to set up a blog on his actual house web page. Bill Frist also has a blog called, its on his PAC blog called, its on the website of his PAC.
So they can do that, that’s one angle. They can create their own blogs.
But those blogs don’t really get read by a lot of regular readers, the main regular blog readers, because they’re outside of the main community of blogs.
Blogs are definitely a community.
I was going to add that the other thing they do, is that they would go, they will post blog entries at DailyKos if they’re Democrats or RedState if they’re Republicans.
These are the websites that politicians usually go to.
I’m going to guess that most people don’t write, most representatives don’t write and most senators do not write their own blog posts. There are, in general, I believe that there press operation is writing most of it. Unless, you see, unless within the post the representative says I said this and I said that, or they’re speaking for themselves, then it’s more likely that they wrote it.
If they probably say that they wrote it then they probably did write it.
But in general, candidates and politicians who are blog savvy and who participate in blogs, in general, tend to have staff aides, who themselves are bloggers themselves.
Jack Kingston is a blog savvy representative from Georgia. He has a staffer named David Hall. David Hall is guy who runs blog campaigns, not just for Jack Kingston, but for other members of Congress, for other members of Congress to get into blogging on the Republican side.
On the democrat side, there is Jerome Armstrong. He started a website, MyDD.com and he’s currently working for Sherrod Brown, who is a representative running for senate in Ohio. And he’s basically works for Mark Warner. Former Gov. Mark Warner is very likely going to be running for the democratic nominee for president in 2008 and Jerome Armstrong is running the blog on his PAC website.
PBB: How frequently should a political blog be updated and what should be the rules for commenting?
Well podcasting is a good thing for them to get into. It’s not very different from releasing short sound bites or short segments to their constituents or to their supporters. However, I think that a lot of the blogs that are done by politicians especially the ones that they host on their own websites, a lot of them should not be considered as blogs in a way that most of the popular blogs are. In the way that Instapundit is a blog or the way that Atrios runs a blog. These are websites run by one person, who just writes about stuff that’s interesting to them. In general politicians want their media outlet to communicate specific messages, and be very controlled.
Similarly their blogs, are generally best, when they’re written by one person and they have a personality. And a smart politician would find a writer that they like, that supports them, that would be able to write a blog for them. And would be able to speak to blog leaders and speak to other bloggers kind of like a spokesperson, but a blogger whose a spokesperson who is able to communicate to his people by being able to put up blog posts on the politicians website, by being able to be able to write comments on other people’s websites, with the approval of the politician.
I think they should do that. I think nobody has. Its going to take a few years before somebody does. I’m guessing. Because politicians are afraid of blogs a bit, it’s wild to us out there, they can’t control what’s being said, and they cannot control the message on blogs and that’s why politicians are afraid of them.
PBB: Why do politicians decide to blog?
I would say right now, an incumbent does not need to blog unless they are somewhat vulnerable. Lets think of certain candidates that do not need to blog. Does Hilary Clinton need to blog? She definitely has lots of critics in the blogosphere. Liberal bloggers are tearing her up there because she supports the Iraq war. So she could go engage those people, but she has such a big support among D.C. people, among fundraisers, she doesn’t need to.
But a candidate who is running for a new office, like Sherrod Brown in Ohio, who is currently a representative, is not really famous, is coming up against John Mitchel, he is very well known across Ohio, he should have an Internet presence because he is trying to appeal to more people as he runs for this new office.
Somebody like Ted Kennedy, who doesn’t need to worry about re-election, has no need for a blog. And I think that in general, most politicians, most senators, will have something that they will call a blog. They’ll have a blog, but very few will actually engage in the wider debate among regular bloggers.
Most of them don’t need to, and they won’t do it unless they’re getting attacked really hard or unless they have something really interesting to put to the bloggers. If they really want to harness the power of bloggers regionally for a campaign, then they can go do that. But if they don’t think they really don’t need to, I think most politicians would only use blogs if they think they have to.
PBB: How large is the audience for blogs by politicians and who is the main audience?
The audience for blogs for politicians writing on their own websites, is going to be real small. Because even people who read the regular political blogs in what we call the blogosphere, they’re not going to go read a website or a politician’s website that’s going to be talking points, that’s going to be probably done by press secretary. If a politician’s blog is clearly run by the press outfit, and doesn’t sound like the politician is directly talking to people, then they definitely won’t read it.
Now when a democratic politician posts a diary, it’s called a diary. When they make a post on DailyKos, it’s called a post. John Kerry has posted there, Barack Obama has posted there, so has Russ Feingold. I think they can get thousands of people to read it, thousands of those people are already committed democrats, they’re probably not even people from their home state, they’re democratic activists who are on the Internet. That’s whose mostly reading, politician’s blogs. It’s not an effective way of speaking to people back home for the most part.
But unless a candidate posted on a local blog, one where most of the audience will be in state, then that would be a good place to do that. In Ohio, there are a lot of local political blogs that politicians are going and appearing. These local political blogs that we don’t usually see at the national level, I wouldn’t notice it unless the bloggers have emailed me about it.
So it is a way of getting around the local media. It is a way for the politician to put out their own side of the story, without having professional journalists ask them hard questions.
PBB: To what degree are blogs by politicians filtered?
I think that every politician that’s smart probably does control the comments that are available on their websites. You should look at, if you’re curious to find a politician that has fairly loose comments, I’d go look at John Edwards. John Edwards launched a new website, which is not a blog, but it has a lot of blog elements to it and it has the capability for people to post diaries, to post new comments there. I don’t know how closely those ones are monitored. I think he’s taking a big step toward starting a whole new community on his website. But in general, most politicians would want to be careful about what people say on their own website.
I can give you an example. I told you earlier how Harry Reid had a blog on a website called giveemhellharry. Now there is a conservative blogger called Michelle Malkin, whom you might have heard of, a newspaper columnist. She attacked Harry Reid over I forget what exactly, maybe it was immigration, maybe it was something having to do with the war on terrorism. Michelle Malkin, is a major hawk. She is all about the war on terrorism. And she sent her readers over to Harry Reid’s website, and I think she told them to leave comments or she definitely led them to his website and her readers flooded Harry Reid’s website. And they eventually shut them off and blocked them because they didn’t know what to do with all these people saying all this random stuff they didn’t like. Some of it was probably offensive and all of it was stuff that Harry Reid wouldn’t want to be telling people.
And it’s happened both ways. The republican websites have been inundated by liberals and the democratic websites have been inundated by conservatives, and it happens pretty regularly.
PBB: People say that blogs are one way for political leaders to talk directly to the people, bypassing the filter of big media. Do you see that at work?
Here’s the thing about blogs in general, not just politicians’ blogs, but all blogs. Blogs appeal to the elite, whether it’s in journalism, or it’s in politics, whether it’s in, music across the whole sphere, blogs, they’re popular because they communicate ideas very efficiently. The vast majority of the United States population, the vast majority of the world wide reading population, hasn’t quite got into a blog yet. Eventually, everybody’s going to find a blog they like. But right now, political blogs especially, there’s only so many people, that care to follow politics in the first place. Blogs make it easier to follow politics and more people now will follow politics, but it will eventually reach a ceiling. It’s a new upper limit where at a certain point, there are not that many people that care about the events of the day, or they care about the national issues of their government.
I think that soon more politicians will use blogs to reach their constituents, but that’s not really going to be their audience in general at all. Politicians who blog, their audience is still going to be activists. So it’s a new way for politicians to speak to activists. They’re already reading political blogs, they really want to hear from politicians over blogs, so politicians will do that for them.
[In terms of numbers:] That’s a very difficult question because different politicians would get different amounts of traffic. Think about lets say a politician, a democrat, posts to the DailyKos website. I believe DailyKos gets about half million unique visitors every day. And the politician’s blog entry may not show up on the main page, and so most people on the website would not see it. Maybe as many as if there is half a million people reading DailyKos everyday, then a single politician’s post might meet about as much as 100, 000 people, but probably less, probably 50,000 people, if they are posting on DailyKos. And that is the highest traffic political blog out there.
Say if they post on their own website, they can get anywhere from about the same amount if they are a popular politician, they can get a lot of website traffic from their website anyway or they can get anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand. I mean, if a politician is not writing an interesting blog, it won’t get much attention. But if they actually go out and seek attention, from the regular political blogosphere, they will certainly get more attention. They’ll get more attention if they go and post on somebody else’s website.
PBB: Are there any other observations you have about blogs by other politicians?
My colleague, Danny Glover…was collecting all the politicians’ podcasts he can find. There were only about 15 or 20. Which is usually a lot. There are 535 politicians on Capital Hill. So its not really that many, are there are more who blog, probably twice as many who blog. I think podcasting at the moment, is still very much a niche thing. I think some of these offices already have, as part of the office, produced audio recordings that they would put on local radio, or I’m not really sure where they would have put it. But they’re not going to get a lot of attention from podcasts. I think a lot of politicians right now are doing podcasts because it’s the new cool high-tech thing to do.
Also, let me point out that podcast is nothing more complicated than an MP3. It’s just a sound file. It’s called a podcast, because you can put that sound file on you IPOD, and play it anywhere, just like people put music on there. It sounds like that because everybody loves IPODs. But there is no guarantee that anybody would put in on their IPODs. Some of the savvier politicians and you can go to ITUNES, and you go into the politicians’ podcast section, you can see that some politicians have made their podcasts available on ITUNES. Those are the really savvy ones, if they’re a politician and haven’t done a podcast, or put it on ITUNES, or put it on a website called podcast ally, then they don’t really have a podcast. They just have an MP3 file available on their website.
One of the big things is that candidates and politicians, they don’t really understand blogs, they know they need to be doing it and so sometimes when they go get involved in blogs or podcasts, they come off kind of clumsy. If they have a staffer working for them who really understands blogs, they’ll come off really well. That’s why Jack Kingston’s come off really well. Jack Kingston also went on the Colbert Report, on the second night, either he’s a really cool guy or he have people working for him that a hip enough. At least Jack Houston agreed to do the blog, agreed to appear on Colbert Report, but for the most part, most politicians don’t get blogs.
And sometimes when someone advertises on blogs, they’ll get slack for advertising on blogs. And somebody says something bad and they’ll get negative attention for it. So that’s one reason why people are staying away from it. It’s because blogs are a free for all. They’re the Wild West, and candidates can’t control it, so they’re afraid about what might be said out in the blog world.
It would be one of the other, that would be the only two ways too blog [link on their own website, or making posts on a political blog, i.e.]. Sometimes, a democratic politician would make posts to The Washington Post, and that’s a bit different from making a post with DailyKos or RedState because Washington Post is run by an establishment. DailyKos is a well known in D.C., well know in Hollywood, the blogger, she’s not a grassroots type blogger, she’s a famous person who got bloggers to take her seriously. And so politicians will go to her website, John Conyers is one who posted to DailyKos. John Conyers has actually posted to both of them, but the Washington Post, that’s a more P.R. friendly place. It’s halfway between blogs, it’s an industry website by itself. It’s a blog, but it’s a little bit different from the others.
PBB: What have been some of the positive outcomes or advantages of blogs by politicians and what have been the negative outcomes or disadvantages of blogs by politicians?
What do they have to gain? Well let me add they also potentially have a lot to lose. You know Trent Lott, who was the Senate majority leader; he lost his senate majority leader role because blogs made a big deal out of something he said that came over really racist to a lot of people. He won’t read blogs now, he says. And I guess I don’t blame him. Certain candidates have been destroyed by blogs. And so that’s always in the back of the mind of a politician who gets into it. But they will get into it because it’s a, really because they think they have to or in the future they’ll have to. Politicians like to be media savvy and the latest media trend is blogs. So politicians who like to be hip will go have some involvement with blogs. Other ones will use its, say somebody who’s not elected now, say a challenger is much more likely to have a blog than somebody who is an incumbent. A challenger would like to rally supporters around the district, and even around the country by having a blog. So they stand to gain in numbers.
Another thing they stand to gain, especially on the democratic side is money. Ever since Howard Dean, when Howard Dean rose to prominence, in large part, because bloggers raised a lot of money for him. If you are a candidate that can get bloggers support, you can easily sustain your entire campaign that way. Few candidates can appeal to the bloggers that way, if they can appeal to the bloggers at all, it’s a way of making a lot more money, that’s working for democrats. Republicans haven’t tried as hard yet. They haven’t really needed to, because they still control Congress. But if Republicans found themselves out of power, you would then find Republican bloggers starting to raise money in the same way that Democratic bloggers have.
*Questions have been altered to fit those actually intended to be asked.
Originally posted August 17, 2006 at PolicyByBlog