Power Blogging Debuts in Utah Capitol

 

Utah's state Senate this year became the first legislative body to make online "blogging" a vital tool in lawmaking.

A semi-official Web site launched this year by the Senate Republican majority gave pols and citizens alike a computer screen-size soapbox to rant, rave and wrangle over the session's hottest topic: how to spend a record $1 billion surplus.

Joining the nation's growing proliferation of political Web logs, or blogs, the Utah site was the first of its kind to strike up a digital dialogue that included entries not just from state Senate Republicans but also from minority Democrats and lawmakers in the opposite chamber. Unfolding comment by comment, the unofficial daily log often paralleled official debate taking place under the dome — with the added bonus of anonymity.

"This bill makes about as much sense as a screen door in a submarine," wrote a frequent blog commenter identified only as "western liberal warrior" last month in response to a senator's blog entry in favor of a flat income tax. Tax reform was the biggest sticking point of Utah's 2006 legislative session, which ended March 1, and House and Senate leaders still are wrangling over whether to hold a special legislative session in June to cut taxes by an additional $70 million.

With only $150 in start-up costs, the blog billed as the "unofficial voice of the Senate majority" registered about 90,000 hits — or visits — in February when the Legislature was in session and more than 400,000 hits since it was launched in September, said Senate aide Ric Cantrell, who maintains the site.

Dan Harrie, political editor of the Salt Lake Tribune , Utah's largest newspaper, said much of the blog reads like a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, which controls the Senate 21-8, the House 56-19 and also the governor's office.

But Cantrell insists the blog is changing the traditional media's role by giving senators a venue to go around the Statehouse press corps and dish up their own version of events for daily readers. "This has been hailed in Utah as the year that new media broke the tradition of old media getting the story out," Cantrell said.

Just last week, the Senate blog went after the Deseret Morning News , one of Utah's largest newspapers, for a story about tax reform. Cantrell, the Senate aide, posted an entry directing readers instead to a competing newspaper article by the Salt Lake Tribune that "got it right."

Other hot blogging topics ranged from an open invitation to the Utah Senate kitchen for free ice cream to blocking transportation of nuclear waste.

"It is not right, effective, efficient, reasonable, legal, healthy, safe or fair for the beautiful state of Utah to be forced into becoming a litter box for toxic nuclear waste that originates far beyond our borders," Utah Senate Majority Leader Peter Knudson recently wrote to protest a proposed nuclear waste repository in Skull Valley, Utah.

The blog hummed during Utah's 45-day 2006 legislative session. It posted news and audio clips of legislative action and allowed all registered readers to post public or anonymous comments in a "feedback" section in response to blog entries or news developments.

Cantrell said that occasionally heated debates between readers added the spice of talk radio to the blog, including several comments that had to be deleted for profanity.

Spun out by home-based scribes posting diary entries or political diatribes for a worldwide audience, blogs first appeared about a decade ago but gained prominence during the 2004 presidential elections, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project , which, like Stateline.org , is a project of the Pew Research Center.

Howard Dean, for example, used his blog and campaign Web site to raise more money for his 2004 presidential bid than any other Democratic candidate. According to Pew Internet Project researchers, 32 million Americans — or 27 percent of adult Internet users — were blog readers by 2005, and 9 percent of them were writing their own blogs.

State lawmakers increasingly are turning to blogs to record their views on issues and share experiences from the statehouse, said Pam Greenberg, who tracks e-government issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). NCSL has links to 53 different blogs written by lawmakers in 24 states on its Web site.

Blogging in Utah actually was started by lawmakers in the state House. Utah Rep. Steve Urquhart (R) was the first lawmaker in Utah and one of the first nationwide to launch a personal blog — Steveu.com . Although the House Republican majority started a blog at blogspot.com , it is rarely updated and has not attracted attention like the Senate blog has, Urquhart said.

Urquhart said that he doesn't consider himself a tech trendsetter but that he recognized blogs had great potential to reach his constituents, who live nearly five hours from the capitol.

People now approach him on the street to talk about his blog postings, "exactly what I'm trying to make happen," he said.Initially, state-level politicians used blogs to appear "with it" or tech-savvy, said Rich Hanley, assistant professor of e-media and graduate director of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Now, Hanley said, "a politician who ignores this and doesn't have a blog presence is doing it at his or her own peril." But he also had words of warning for statehouse press corps, saying their mode of covering legislative news may be rendered obsolete as more unedited information becomes accessible through legislative blogs, streaming live video of lawmakers in action, and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds.

"The media need to react by redefining their role and updating their coverage to be more value-added with analysis and details," Hanley said. Ten states — Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin — are using RSS feeds to provide legislators and citizens with electronic updates about hearings, bill status and other legislative news, according to NCSL.


 
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