Queen of the State Blogs

I used to think that I'd keep up on state politics around the country by reading a lot of blogs. This was ages ago, maybe 2005, ...
by | April 24, 2007

I used to think that I'd keep up on state politics around the country by reading a lot of blogs. This was ages ago, maybe 2005, when most state capitols had just a handful of bloggers on the scene and only one or two worth reading. Since then, the explosion of state blogs has made it a total pain to keep up with them all--notice the many gaps in our blogroll. State blogs come and go. And they're soooo insidery. For a national observer like myself, reading blogs in Des Moines and Nashville and Tallahassee can feel like a cocktail party where there's 50 conversations going on and I can't follow any of them.

So I was impressed to hear that Emily Metzgar is not only following state blogs around the country but doing a scientific analysis of them. Emily is working toward her Ph.D. in political communication at Louisiana State University. She also happens to be one of the statehouse bloggers in Louisiana who is worth reading. (Her blog is here.) Using a national survey, she hopes to get a handle on this messy blogging business and to answer two questions. Who the heck are these state political bloggers? And who the heck reads them?

I caught up with Emily recently on the phone, to talk about how she plans on puzzling all this out. We also talked about how political blogging has evolved in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. But before we get to that, I should note that state bloggers and avid state blog readers who want to take the survey should e-mail Emily at etm408@gmail.com. You can also follow her project here.

My Q&A with Emily Metzgar is below the jump.

How did you get started blogging?

I was doing research for a professor at LSU as a doctoral student, and he became interested in blogs. I wrote a paper about blogs, and I said this looks like simple technology. So in June of 2005, I started using Blogger, the free site, and later began using WordPress. It's a one woman show. I also started podcasting at the beginning of this year.

I started blogging a couple of months before Hurricane Katrina. With Katrina, the online environment started to change in Louisiana--there was an immediate impact. A lot of people were blogging Hurricane Katrina in a lot of different ways. It really sped up the way that the online community coalesced.

What did Louisiana bloggers do during Katrina?

In New Orleans there were people who rode out the storm and reported their experiences. In Baton Rouge, for a brief period of time the airport was the busiest in the country--there were rescue helicopter flights all day and massive Red Cross centers. A guy who was an undergraduate student at LSU at the time was going to places where evacuees and rescue workers congregated and was interviewing them and doing his own reporting on the ground. It was interesting stuff.

At one point I got word that all the vaccines for Louisiana were maintained in New Orleans, and the Center for Disease Control's facility had been flooded. There was a need to restock, and it had to be in a safe place. A friend forwarded me a request for help and I put it up on my blog. They ended up finding a place in Shreveport to store the vaccines. There was a lot of on-the-ground ad hoc networking and putting people together behind the scenes. The intensity of it and the way people connected in a time of crisis formed the foundation of a lot of what's going on online now.

What are Louisiana's political blogs like? Do they do much reporting on their own, or are they mostly chiming in on what the newspapers say?

It's a mix. There's a website that's a knockoff of the Drudge Report, called The Dead Pelican. It's very much like Drudge, with links to headlines. I know if I get something posted there, for a day my traffic skyrockets. He gets something like 8,000 to 10,000 unique hits a day--very steady traffic. So there's that model.

There's people who do a bit more. They'll give the headline and post an excerpt, and not a lot of original commentary. And then there are few people, and I'd list myself in this group, who respond to what they see in the press. It's not just pointing to an article but saying here's something I read and here's what I think about it. Or here's a report that came out and what I think about it.

There's one guy who is tracking the number of murders in New Orleans, which is something he thinks the press hasn't done a good enough job of covering. Every day he sends out an update to say there's been this many murders in New Orleans.

Have these blogs had much impact on state politics or policy?

In Louisiana the most vivid example I can give is last spring, there was a bill passed by the legislature with only 4 votes opposed, and sent to Governor Blanco for her signature. It turned out the legislation was to provide state legislators and their families lifetime health insurance benefits at the expense of the state.

A blogger who was a longtime legislative counsel and definitely well-versed in the legalities of things here in Baton Rouge said this looks like a bad bill and we should ask the governor to veto it. That was on a Monday. And by Thursday afternoon, the governor issued a statement saying that she'd heard the people loud and clear and she'd veto the bill. Between the time the blogger raised the issue and the time the governor vetoed the bill, a number of legislators changed their votes--that's something they can do here. And then both the Republican and Democratic parties, though they had both endorsed the bill, came out in opposition.

One thing I've noticed is that the dynamic of a blogosphere in a given state seems to reflect what the politics in the state look like. In Louisiana, the legislature is dominated by Democrats and the governor's mansion is held by the Democrats. So it's no accident that Republicans and the more conservative side of the blogosphere are more active now.

I've not had a chance to test this hypothesis yet. In an online survey, I'm going to test for whether or not the blogosphere functions sort of like a loyal opposition. You could argue that's what happened at the national level. Conventional wisdom is that the blogosphere nationally is more left-leaning, and that would be consistent with a Republican in the White House.

Tell me about your survey. What are you hoping to find out about state blogs?

I'm waiting for approval from the university's Institutional Review Board to go forward with the survey. But the way I'm planning to go about this is to look at agenda-setting measures--that's the idea that blogs can set the stage for what's discussed in the media and among decision makers and among the public. In political communication and mass communication that's called "agenda-setting theory."

Another theoretical aspect is known as "uses and gratifications." Why are people using this technology and what they getting out of it? I'm interested in why bloggers are creating their blogs. What is special about bloggers that gets them to dig in and plant a flag in the blogosphere and say this is what I believe, and to start gathering an audience around their opinions? A secondary interest is what type of people are following the blogs, and what influence do people think blogs are having?

How wide a net are you casting?

I used several services to look for state blogs. I looked at 13th Floor, and stateline.org has a list. Redstate.org has a list of state blogs. And there's a new project called Placeblogger, which is a group of people, including one blogger in Massachusetts. She looks specifically at people blogging about municipalities. I'm using all those different web sites as information sources and doing a lot of surfing of sites. I've identified about 200 blogs around the country that seem to focus consistently on state politics.

Part of the model for my study is going to be asking bloggers to complete the survey and pass it on to others they know of. I want bloggers to do the survey. No one has looked at who these bloggers are. That's my primary interest.

But secondarily, I'm also hoping to have people who read blogs regularly do the survey. I'm interested in who are these people in the states who are regularly consuming this material and why are they doing it? Is it for knowledge? Advocacy? Cynicism? Why are people reading blogs and do they think blogs make a difference?