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Bring The Blogs Home
June 21, 2005: Looking for a laugh? Tune into "Inside the Blogs". A new feature on CNN's Inside Politics. Two blog reporters (blogs are their beat!) inform a news anchor and the audience as to what blogs are saying about national and international events. And more important, what blogs are saying about what the mainstream newsmedia is saying about national and international events. Though the self referential chit-chat is plenty comic, the real gut buster are the visuals: they make the TV Yule Log look kinetic. Picture a screen displaying a picture of a computer screen displaying blogs. As in-- a TV within a TV filled with print too fine to read.

Possibly "Blogs" is meant for people who never go online, but who want to be able to say they've seen a blog. Hence it's like one of those 1950's guides to the beatnik life for folks who never went near Greenwich Village. Since such guides tend to spell over & out, "Blogs" may signal that the blogasphere needs fresh air. Watching blogs watch the newsmedia watch national and international news could turn bogasphere. Though watching the newsmedia watch blogs watch the newsmedia watch the national and international news is still instructive. Because it shows how easily blogs could be absorbed, via a symbiotic relationship, into conglom newsmedia mush.

Don't get me wrong. It's good that some blogs and websites cover the same national and international events covered by say, CNN. Particularly when they enlarge on the material or spot gaps in the coverage. But the immense Internet ocean of IMHO on subjects such as Dubya's latest flub, or political jockeying in the ho house of Congress, is a dead sea. It's as if a zillion versions of New Republic and National Review had surfaced; the only new thing being the format. More bloggers and web authors should look homeward angel. Local fronts are crying out for a wider range of coverage and opinion. And iconoblasts take note-- home sweet home is where free speech can prove most risky.

Mexican Floods

In May of 2000, Sergio Bichao, a 16 year old high school student in Hillside, New Jersey, started his news-site DaHiller. As an alternative to his school newspaper which he believed was too accommodating to the administration. Eventually Bichao's critical eye ranged far beyond high school, to the political scene in Hillside and the surrounding areas of Jersey. DaHiller became widely popular. As Matt Welch in the Online Journalism Review put it in 2001: Bichao was the "teenage Matt Drudge". DaHiller covered what interested many people in Bichao's area. Topics which weren't getting enough coverage by the local "adult" newsmedia. Not only were they too circumspect re local political corruption, but they gave short shrift in general to area news. Sergio Bichao commented that local reporters preferred covering events such as floods in Mexico, rather than which candidate got elected to what local board. Because they thought the latter topic less prestigious. But what impacts local readers more? A disaster thousands of miles away? Or a home grown public official?

While in high school Sergio Bichao and his parents experienced the retaliatory wrath of the administration. But in 2003 Bichao won a seat on the school board. On a slate of reformers.

Bichao's take on local newsmedia resonates widely. Which is one reason why websites and blogs focused on local politics have become a staple of the Internet. But even in areas with a conscientious press, such enterprises thrive. DaHiller for instance, is one among many such sites/blogs in New Jersey. It's not that all of Jersey has no good newspapers. It's just that there's so much corruption, so little paper. Contempt for Jersey's sleazy political scene drips from the Net. Bloggers and posters keep a running account of who paid which pol for what public deal. In the halls of Garden State government ears must burst into Tiki torches nightly. Across the border in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia newsmedia is no slouch. Yet a host of blogs hack at Philly's corrupt, pay-to-play culture as currently embodied in the administration of Mayor John Street. New York City is rife with blogs and sites delivering "all the news the Times won't print"* but hey-- that's to be expected. What's really intriguing is the burgeoning scene in upstate New York.

Apple Knocking The Net

Broad swaths of upstate New York languish in post-industrial malaise. The continued exportation of manufacturing jobs hasn't helped. When good jobs are scarce people are more easily intimidated by the threat of job related political retaliation. A practice not uncommon upstate. While there's an upstate population outflow of young people seeking opportunity, there's a corresponding inflow (particularly in urban areas) of people dependent on various forms of social services. Hence on local political structures. Overall, social mobility is more limited and class distinctions more felt than in the flatlands. Political and business connections often go back for generations and are frequently based on family ties. Not a negative per se, but when combined with other factors the result is a hush-hush society. And one resistant to change. **

Until recently upstate wasn't a big area for slash and burn political sites and blogs. But exasperation with government in the area is growing. And thanks to free blogging services such as Blogspot (now Google Blogger) and LiveJournal which provide user friendly blog software and templates, it's become easy and inexpensive to mount the cyber soapbox. Not a minute too soon. So many things upstate say blog me. Take the Erie Canal redevelopment fiasco. Please do say those who prefer to forget it. Or how about the unimpressive job creation and alleged cronyism of the Empire Zone (EZ) program upstate under the "oversight" of development czar Charles Gargano? A little more scrutiny of gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer's upstate record as Attorney General would be welcome. Was the sheriff of Wall Street missing in action re public corruption on Main Street? Then there are the policies that helped turn upstate cities into drug thug central and the ever popular (not) taxes taxes taxes. Plus the overall state of state government. And assorted public servants at all levels who seem to think elected office is just a crown turned upside down.

Kings Go Forth

Though the blog & site scene in western New York is generally more lively than in the east (as example, Buffalo is popping), fresh breezes do blow in the Hudson Valley. Among them, Democracy in Albany (DIA). Or more accurately, democracy in Albany under the reign of Mayor Jerry Jennings. Until DIA there were no sites or blogs in the state capital that consistently covered the Jennings administration from a critical perspective. (I do my part from time to time but Mondo QT has never focused exclusively on Albany.) Amazing considering that Jennings has been in office for going on 12 years and definitely has his detractors. But Albany epitomizes a locked down political culture: it's a one party town with autocratic machine traditions. That so many people are employed by state government doesn't help: civil servants see on-the-job political payback as a real and present danger. Plus the selling of the area's Tech Valley vision has raised boosterism to an ideological level, making critical coverage of conditions in Albany seem an act of subversion by spoilers.

As an indicator of the Soviet style of Albany civic life, DIA's author believes it necessary to remain anonymous. Personally, I dislike anonymity-- since it can perpetuate the perception of political criticism as dangerous. But the masked DIA ranger has reasonable reasons. And an engaging, informed style. Though the Jennings admin is DIA's main course, other subjects are served with similar panache. May a thousand diverse DIAs bloom. And spread like dandelions after a rainstorm.

Much as I dig straight up local political crit sites/blogs as embodied by DIA (or say, Mia Scanga's Stop Bret Schundler in Jersey City, New Jersey: SBS being the mother of all local deep dish sites) I also admire ones which provide a broader picture of living la vida local. In Albany, the Bray Papers, the website of environmental attorney and journalist Paul Bray, is a go-to place for insight re the Capital Region and upstate New York. Particularly the "Eye From Albany" section. Far more can be found there as well: including Bray's many thoughtful and widely published pieces on urban life and regional planning. Paul Bray grew up in Albany: his love for his hometown shines through in his writings. But he's not a nostalgic sentimentalist, nor does he wear blinders. Bray sees what is good and beautiful in his city, but also acknowledges what isn't. And tries to change the latter while not losing sight of the former.

On the political front Bray is part of the Albany Civic Agenda, a group attempting, via city charter reform, to change the shape of municipal government. From its current mayor-centric form to one where the Albany Common Council has a more meaningful role. A wise idea since Mayor Jennings is running for fourth term on the throne. With no equally well-funded opponent in sight.

The Bay State Of Mind

In a direct line east from Albany on I-90 lies the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. The Bay State. Springfield has all the problems of many American middle sized post-industrial cities. Drug trade, poverty and public corruption. The last particularly extreme. (Though not in relation to say, Camden, New Jersey). But Springfield also has residents who love it. Albeit ruefully. With a touch of black humor. A state of mind often found in folks from afflicted cities.

Tom Devine at the Bay State Objectivist often writes about Springfield. The city where he grew up. To my mind, the Bay State Objectivist (which is something between a blog and a website) epitomizes all a local site can be. Though Devine serves up Springfield's political parasites with plenty of crunch, he also evokes the charm that can still be found in Springfield. And the decency and uniqueness of many of its residents. Devine seamlessly combines observations on large and small. Remarks on the first flower of Spring appearing in a crack on the sidewalk flow into a dissertation on the cracked condition of Springfield municipal government. An ode to a long time family restaurant closing in a neighborhood turned family unfriendly, segues into an account of the latest surreal politically correct doings at a local college famous for surreal politically correct doings.

Tom Devine has a history as a radio talk show personality. Because he's such a talented storyteller anyone from anywhere can drop into the Bay State Objectivist and be drawn into the inner life of Springfield. Plus Devine peppers the whole mix with off- beat photos and killer jokes. Though the site gets its name from an oblique political joke referencing the philosophy of Ayn Rand, in its local universalism and whimsical good humor the Bay State Objectivist evokes what might have resulted had G. K. Chesterton blogged.

Johnny On The Spots

The most tightly focused local sites and blogs hone in on a particular issue. Such sites are also often the most ephemeral-- since issues can go away. Though some keep going and going and going. See housing warfare in New York City. See it on RentWars. Where for years Ronin Amano has helped New York City tenants navigate a housing environment so hostile and convoluted that few living outside the city can imagine it. Though there are plenty of effective pro-tenant sites in NYC, RentWars brings a creative playfulness to the dead serious topic, referencing wizards, warriors and mythic battles. Lifting the spirits of those embroiled in housing hell onto a grander plain. RentWars is a handsome and stylish site, not the usual public service waiting room in cyber space. Even those not locked in mortal kombat with a NYC slumlord will enjoy a visit.

Another housing related issue pumping many a local site and blog is eminent domain abuse. Eminent domain is the right of government to take private property for public use. Traditionally (and reasonably) invoked when building schools, bridges, etc. But lately it's become a popular redevelopment tool. Most often in poor or modest neighborhoods. The potential for increased tax revenue via redevelopment provides local governments with the "public use" rationale for invoking eminent domain. The most common scenario has municipalities, in concert with quasi-public redevelopment agencies, forcing property owners to sell their homes or commercial structures to designated private developers. At a "fair market price". Based on appraisals done under the auspices of those most interested in getting a deal. If property owners don't like the deal, they can take their local governments to court. At their own expense in local courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering whether the use of eminent domain for redevelopment is in accordance with constitutionally protected property rights. If the Court says not, many local eminent domain battles will be settled by fiat. Related sites and blogs will go to the land of Cache. If the Court says go, the battle will continue state to state***. Even more eminent domain protest sites and blogs will spring up across the nation as neighborhood after neighborhood hear bulldozers coming over the hill.

In Camden, New Jersey, the bulldozers started revving awhile ago. And the hill is literal. Cramer Hill, a low income Hispanic neighborhood in Camden, faces death by revitalization. Residents have responded by mounting a legal challenge at the state level. The Cottage Coalition website ("every woman's cottage is her castle") presents compelling stories of eminent domain abuse in neighborhoods in 3 northeast cities-- including Camden. The Camden section (Camden: Property theft in New Jersey's poorest city) also provides an informative and entertaining guide to the Jersey Sleaze-O-Rama players who hope to help themselves to Cramer Hill.

The Eyes Have It

These are only a few local blogs and sites from the naked city. Or county or town or village. Their numbers are growing. Along with their sophistication. Not only are local blogs and sites invaluable tools to those fighting good fights, but many are fascinating places for outsiders to visit: the stories being told there illuminate less well known corners of American life. Plus they provide a handy dandy reference source for anyone seeking local skinnies. Who, contrary to all those old comic book ads, aren't cringing at the beach inhaling bully sand. But are instead hunkering down on beds of public money in local halls of power. Wishing John or Jane Blogger would just go watch the mainstream newsmedia watch national and international events.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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*A slogan of Hell's Kitchen Online. A NYC neighborhood site par excellance.

**As example, in 2001 "Governing Magazine" in conjunction with the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, rated city management practices in Buffalo, New York as 34th in a study of 35. Among a number of contributing factors was that political and business leadership in the area tended to come from the same families for decades, with little impetus to change.

***In March, the state of Utah, in response to citizen outcry, became the first to ban the use of eminent domain by redevelopment agencies.

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Copyright (c) 2005 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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