Being a blogger once meant posting online pictures of your cats in sweaters, to the delight of your immediate family and a few high school friends. Now, bloggers may be standing toe-to-toe with traditional print and broadcast journalists at the Utah Legislature—even wielding press passes that would grant them access to the House and Senate floors as well as priority seating in packed committee meetings and press conferences.
Utah State Senate Chief of Staff Ric Cantrell, a champion of the “New Media,” recently issued a call to bloggers—appropriately enough, from the Utah Senate Blog (SenateSite.com/blog)—asking for input on policy to guide the creation of a blogger press pass. Cantrell has strongly pushed for using all tech tools available to encourage the public dialogue with state government, including social media like Facebook and Twitter. Encouraging more participation from bloggers is a smart move, Cantrell says, whether some elected officials care to admit it. “Some legislators look on bloggers like they would look on an incoming torpedo,” Cantrell says. “At the Utah Senate, we’ve taken the approach that we want the truth to get out, by any means necessary. Traditional media can do a lot of the work, but it can’t do all the work.”
Giving more perks to citizen journalists seems a natural evolution in media and politics, but there still may be growing pains. First, they have to determine what constitutes a blogger. Then, they need to decide what privileges they should be accorded compared to traditional media. Privileges, like access to the House and Senate floors during the session, packed committee hearings or being invited to press conferences, are easy to provide. But some resources are limited, such as tables in the public galleries where reporters set up their laptops while covering the sessions.
“We’d be fools to displace a Tribune reporter, a 120,000 circulation newspaper, for a blogger with 600 unique hits per day,” Cantrell says. “There’s got to be a tiered system.”
Holly Richardson, a right-leaning blogger, has been covering local and national politics for the past nine months from her Holly on the Hill blog (hollyonthehill.wordpress.com). She’s excited about the idea, but agrees there should be credential standards.
“You shouldn’t be able to say, ‘I made a post once, so I’m a blogger,’” Richardson says.
During her time as a blogger, she has posted more than 300 entries touching on national politics, political rallies, and state legislators. She sees bloggers providing a service by giving more attention to issues that traditional media might ignore, or give scant coverage to.
“Why wouldn’t a legislator or a political figure want more exposure?” Richardson asks. “Besides, I’m the type that thinks sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Richardson admits that the credentials wouldn’t dramatically improve her access during the legislative session. However, Richardson says that for bloggers, credentials would offer legitimacy, especially if they are trying to interview legislators. “I think there’s some credibility that will come with a pass like that,” she says.
Other bloggers, like Rob Miller, a state Democratic Party staffer and author of the left-leaning Utah Amicus blog (utahamicus.blogspot.com), thinks passes aren’t necessary.
“To me, it’s a lot of ego,” Miller says, noting that there’s nothing stopping any person from asking legislators questions now. Beyond that, Miller questions whether the credential is appropriate for bloggers. “You’re credentialing someone to give their opinion. With the press, you’re credentialing because that’s what their job is—they are the professional press.”
Some, however, see a distinction to be made with bloggers, especially as the newspaper industry continues to struggle. “That’s where we’re going as the economic model crumbles—citizen journalism,” says Dale Cressman, a Brigham Young University professor of communications. “There are bloggers out there just giving opinions and regurgitating other people’s links, and then you have other people who are performing journalism—they’re out there reporting,” he says, citing the blogger who broke the story during the 2008 presidential campaign on Obama’s quote regarding small-town voters who “cling to guns or religion” to express their frustration.
Currently, Cantrell is considering ways to formulate blogger credentials although a decision likely won’t be finalized before the start of the 2010 Legislature as Cantrell weighs opinions from interested parties in the discussion. Cantrell sees the need for a solid collaboration between government and the media—new and old.
“Now citizen journalists are starting to step into that role as watchdogs of government, and I think they need to be encouraged. They’re not there yet, but they’re not an insignificant influence right now, either. People on Capitol Hill can feel the heat from a blogger just as intensely as a cold word printed on a page,” Cantrell says.
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