This started as a post, but turned into a paper. Consider it Vol. 11, No. 6 for a-clue.com this year.
As editor of Voic.us, a Drupal community covering Southeast politics, I've been able to watch the political blogospheres of 9 states for the last year, and track their success in moving the political conversation and elections.
Now, with newspapers and campaigns alike fighting to either hire bloggers or get their own blog products out there, I think it's a good time to talk about what works, based on an enormous pile of evidence.
The winning strategy is a scaled community with full-time analysis of candidates, issues, and other bloggers. The site should be friendly with your party, but not overly-friendly. If the site managers feel free to diss their friends at times, so will others. And I can't emphasize enough the need to use a Community Service Network platform, like Scoop, Slash or Drupal, rather than a blog metaphor. (Dailykos runs Scoop.)
The best political "blog" in the Southeast is BlueNC, a North Carolina progressive community. BlueNC has all the elements you're looking for. It has full-time analysis, it runs on Drupal, it's close (but not too close) to the state party, and it's a game-changer. North Carolina is now the most Democratic state in the South, whereas a few years ago it was among the most Republican. That's no accident. While state party chair Jerry Meek gets a lot of the credit, I think the party could go forward fine without him. But not without its netroots.
Virginia has the most active blogging community in the Southeast, on both sides of the aisle, and while Raising Kaine is the leading progressive voice (it was originally the blog for Gov. Tim Kaine's campaign) it's not dominant. Nor does it scale. Conservatives have a number of high-quality blog choices, and in fact both the national and state Republican parties have gone into Virginia's political blogosphere to hire talent.
The truth of what I'm saying is best seen in Georgia and Alabama, both states dominated by Republicans. In Georgia sites like Peachpundit and Jason Pye do the heavy-lifting for the business and ideological wings, respectively. In Alabama A Bama Blog and Politics in Alabama lead the charge. There are quality Democratic blogs in both these states, but none that uses a CNS platform, none that is run by anyone full-time.
Tennessee might be called the land of idiosyncrasy. Campaign blogs for both Bob Corker and Harold Ford Jr. dominated the discussion last year, but neither had staying power (unlike the Kaine blog). There are high-quality blogs on the right like BillHobbs, and on the left like Sharon Cobb or Sean Braisted, but again no communities. I'd give the edge to Republicans in this state, but if Democrats could get their act together a scaled community could do significant political damage.
Among the weakest political blogospheres are Florida and South Carolina, which are mainly dominated by newspapers. Here again, however, it's the conservative bloggers who have an edge, with sites like Peer Review and The State of Sunshine in Florida, and FITSnews in South Carolina both delivering good service -- regular posts, commentary, and direction for politicians. (FLAPolitics in Florida needs to decide what it's about -- news, commentary, or party-building.) The need for funding is especially evident in the South Carolina example, where a number of high-quality blogs went dark right after the last election.
The saddest state in the region is Mississippi, for many reasons (Katrina, grinding poverty). But its political blogosphere is very poor, very primitive. My favorite Mississippi blog is that of Ruth in Moss Point, near Pascagoula. But she's just a talented, passionate blogger -- I don't even know her politics. The best political blog in the state is that of Sid Salter, but he's a columnist at the Clarion-Ledger, not a political actor at all.
Special mention should be made here of Kentucky, which illustrates many of the trends I'm seeing in several states. Mark Nickolas' The Bluegrass Report definitely changed the game there, especially after Gov. Ernie Fletcher targeted it. Nickolas offers a great mix of news and opinion, he's the best in the state by far. But conservatives, aware of this, have now gone to great lengths to take him down, with such blogs as The Conservative Edge, CyberHillbilly and (within his own party) The Rural Democrat all treating him just as Nickolas did Fletcher.
Nickolas' problem, again, is that he's a blog, not a community. This means there's no support for him within the political community, as there is for BlueNC. There's no way within his site to develop other voices, even as spin-offs, something PeachPundit has been good at in Georgia. He's so closely identified with his site that he makes himself a target, a rich target. This not only provides opportunities for political opponents, but for newspapers who want his traffic.
Kentucky also offers the best petri dish for state political blogging in 2007, given that it has a hyper-competitive Governor's race, with multiple candidates in both parties. A few months ago I would have called Nickolas' political ally, Jonathan Miller, the favorite in this race. Now we'll just have to wait and see.
Let me summarize my recommendations for all of you, left, right and center:
- Use a Community Network Service, like Drupal or Scoop. Voic.Us runs on one and I'd be happy to discuss setting up either party, in any Voic.Us state, with its own system. But technology is not the differentiator.
- Have a good writer-reporter-analyst at the helm, full-time. Someone with firm beliefs, someone with passion, someone with a Rolodex as well as contacts in the blogosphere. This person should act as a reporter, as an editor, and as a cheerleader.
- Stay nominally independent. BlueNC is free to criticize the North Carolina Democrats. If you're not, if readers see you've got sacred cows, anyone you won't or can't criticize, you lose credibility. And that's the coin of the realm.
- Recruit, recruit, recruit. Judge your site manager by the number of voices they bring in. BlueNC actively recruits top liberal bloggers around the state to cross-post. And if you're recruiting, remember you need a budget for this.
Now, go out there and amaze me.