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The Fort Wayne Blogosphere
A flurry of local web logs are rife with opinion, analysis, and argument
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Last March, the impending sale of newspaper publishing giant Knight-Ridder to the McClatchy Company left 12 of the company’s newspapers out in the cold in search of a new publisher. One of those being resold by the McClatchy Company was Fort Wayne’s The News-Sentinel.
Despite the fact that Fort Wayne still prides itself on being one of the few cities of its size to offer two different daily papers, the Knight-Ridder sale has been given what many feel is a cursory, just-the-facts treatment by the local mainstream media. Those looking for more news about the sale have had to turn to another source — a local blog called Fort Wayne Observed (www.fortwayneobserved.com will get you there) which has been offering links and stories to how the other 11 papers have been dealing with the deal.
Maintained by Mitch Harper, a local attorney and former Indiana State Representative, Fort Wayne Observed is just one of many local blogs which seem to have exploded in the last year or so. Like blogs everywhere, the Fort Wayne blogosphere has its share of egotists, pedants, blowhards and dullards — sometimes all at the same site. On the positive side, some of it also fulfills the early promise of weblogs as a way to highlight and comment on local news stories that might not get the in-depth treatment or recognition they deserve.
“Certainly for me, you run into situations, maybe everybody has, where they read a story in the newspaper and think ‘gosh, were we at the same meeting?’” says Mitch Harper of Fort Wayne Observed. “Increasingly today, neither the newspapers nor the television stations are at those meetings. They’re not reporting things that happen in the community with either the frequency or thoroughness that they once did, and that’s a function of a shrinking news hole and shrinking advertising.”
The aforementioned Knight-Ridder sale is one issue where Harper believes he has been able to examine an important community story in more detail than he’s seen from Fort Wayne newspapers. “You look at The Philadelphia Inquirer or The Lexington Herald… other Knight-Ridder newspapers. They’re doing a great job covering the Knight-Ridder sale. Here in Fort Wayne, it’s sort of grudging coverage,” he says.
Harper inherited Fort Wayne Observed from former Fort Wayne resident Nathan Gotsch, who began the site in the late Spring of 2005, focusing on local media and issues like downtown development. Harper goes so far as to credit Gotsch with jump-starting the Fort Wayne blogosphere, and if that sounds a bit like a former Vice-president claiming to have invented the internet, there’s something to what Harper says: Gotsch was extremely active in encouraging others to add their voices to the mix.
And now, there a quite a few voices out there, covering everything from politics at the local and national level to observations on the daily, daily. Fort Wayne Observed is probably the most “journalistic” of the sites in the Fort Wayne blogosphere — it presents information and doesn’t editorialize all that much. It’s also been cited by other news sources, both locally and nationally, including a straw poll about the primaries a few months ago, and most recently for breaking the story about former mayor Paul Helmke taking a position at the Brady Project. “I think what some blogs do, when I look around the country, is they jump to a conclusion, often depending on some sort of conspiracy theory,” Harper explains. “I try to avoid that and let people make their own conclusions. Or maybe, you put something in, and it shakes out someone else who will say ‘that’s not the case. This is what happened.’ There are folks in Fort Wayne who want to bland down the coverage, or they don’t want to sell different public ideas. I say, let’s have a robust debate. Get all the facts out on the table. Do not be afraid of facts. Opinions can differ, but everybody’s entitled to the facts.”
The Fort Wayne Blogosphere even has its own “mystery blogger” — Indiana Pundit (www.indianapundit.blogspot.com), whose posts about local politics suggest an insider’s take on the subject. A few even think IP is a current office holder. “I'll neither deny nor reveal who I am,” writes Indiana Pundit via e-mail. “My anonymity allows me to say things that could cause me to become unpopular with some of my peers. I will say that I have enjoyed the many theories people have about me and the lengths they have gone through to try and figure it out.”
But there are plenty of other local sites where opinion and personality take the forefront and a particular post can trigger a rapid-fire — and sometimes mean-spirited — exchange between bloggers. The whole thing can seem insular at times, but considering some of the personalities and issues involved, it can still be interesting to the rest of us.
So why do they do it? “A lot of people do it for the ego,” says the blogger at Summit City Odds and Ends (www.fortwayneindiana.typepad.com) in a concise bit of understatement. But if it is ego — and some blogs are more than others — it’s ego in a good sort of way, where people who felt they had something to say found the perfect medium in which to do it.
Robert Rouse, a former musician and father of three, maintains the blog Left of Centrist (www.leftofcentrist.blogspot.com). Just like the name suggests, it’s a left-leaning blog focusing on politics at the national level. Last October, Rouse kept a daily record of Fort Wayne’s Camp Casey, the camp site set up in front of the NAACP to protest the war in Iraq. “At the time I started the blog (in April 2005), I thought I must be the only liberal around,” Rouse laughs. “I didn’t realize there were other liberals in town. It’s a place to vent without having to lay it off on my in-laws, who are not liberals. It became cathartic, and now it’s become almost a passion.”
On the other side of the political spectrum is Summit City Odds and Ends. If political commentary can be compared to a game where the objective is to out wit your opponent, than the political commentary on SCOE is more like dodge ball, where the objective is to knock your opponent down and, as a bonus, make them cry. SCOE’s take on local and national politics can be acerbic and even offensive, though SCOE’s blogger says there’s a limit to how seriously anyone should take a lot of the stuff on his site. “I like going around poking the proverbial 800-lb gorilla with a stick, just to see how ticked off I can get them,” he says. “They’re usually liberals, because I’m a conservative Republican. There are so many liberals out there blogging in Fort Wayne. We just need more right-wing bloggers, so here I am.”
Summit City Odds and Ends wasn’t the only blogger citing what they saw as an ideological imbalance as the inspiration behind hosting a site. Craig Skinner says it was the chatter on WOWO that drove him to start Reverent and Free (www.reverentandfree.blogspot.com), a left-leaning blog out of Noble county. “It’s 24-hours a day, pro-Republican conservative stuff, right?” he says of WOWO. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s their product. I see the blogs as a way for people who believe stuff like I do to connect to each other and spread our own word.”
Andrew Kaduk at Just for the Record Books (just4therecordbooks.blogspot.com) says: “I’m kind of an NPR fan, and I like the way they dig into the news quite a bit deeper than most everybody else. That’s why I do it. You’ll see a little item about something that’s four sentences long and it may actually deserve four paragraphs or four pages. It’s great for analysis and elaboration, and it’s pretty much an open forum to get as rude, crude, or ugly as you want it to get.”
Indeed, Just for the Record Books, a seemingly conservative blog, can get pretty rude and crude at times. In fact, anyone who has taken a cursory glance at Kaduk’s blog is probably slack-jawed at Kaduk’s admission that he’s a fan of NPR. “People don’t realize that the online character I play is no different from Steven Colbert as a television character playing a President Bush fan,” Kaduk claims. “It’s a persona that I assume for the internet. I’m not necessarily like that in person. Hell, I barely talk politics in my personal life.”
The political blogs aren’t always about politics. In what it sees as a public service, Summit City Odds and Ends highlights an “Offender of the Day,” with mug shot and any other relevant details. Reverent and Free occasionally offers up a literary essay on whatever Skinner is studying, while “This Day On Beatles History” on Rouse’s Left of Centrist gives Fab Four completists a reason to drop by daily.
Even while they’re insulting each other, the bloggers at these and other sites take the concept of an open forum very seriously, no matter how strident their political views. Summit City Odds and Ends sites a recent exchange he had with Rouse at Left of Centrist, who commended the jury for giving convicted 9/11 plotter Zacharias Moussaoui life in prison. “I took him to task on that. He got offended, of course, and came back with both barrels loaded…” But he let the response stand, and he continues to link to Rouse’s site from his own blog.
For his part, Rouse says he draws the line at hardcore language. Beyond that… “If they’re attacking me, I just let them do it. Maybe I’ll respond and say ‘you know, you’re only making yourself look stupid, but if you want to continue, go right ahead.’”
Mitch Harper, a Republican, says that people seem surprised that Fort Wayne Observed isn’t more polemic. “I get asked, ‘why are you giving (Allen County Democratic Chairman) Kevin Knuth a platform?’ Because some of it is news! I laugh at them and say, ‘even Kevin Knuth is not wrong all the time.’ And let’s face it, the Republicans in certain areas could use a little more transparency.”
One of the big controversies about political blogging revolves around its relationship to journalism, with many bloggers claiming that the ability to expand upon an overlooked story and offer analysis qualifies as some sort of journalistic enterprise. There are local bloggers who are “real” journalists, like the Journal Gazette’s Tracy Warner and the News Sentinel’s Leo Morris (see our sidebar), who use their blogs to expand on issues in their printed stories and link to supplementary material. But as for the rest of the Fort Wayne blogosphere, most of them roll their eyes at the idea of being considered journalists, insisting the closest they get to journalism is editorializing. Andrew Kaduk of Just For the Record Books sums it up, acknowledging that there could be some sort of crossover potential, but most of the time he doesn’t see it. “There are people locally who definitely make some good journalistic efforts, but a lot of the time it’s just people like Craig from Reverent and Free. He just reads a lot and points people to things he likes or doesn’t like. That’s what I do. That’s what a lot of us do. I don’t necessarily scrounge up my own material.”
Fort Wayne Observed, however, does at times break stories and find its own material. Harper says holds himself to certain journalistic standards. “I had someone from a TV station who said, ‘the bloggers don’t have to operate under the same strict journalistic high standards we do,’” Harper says. “I try to be double-sourced on everything, but I’ll also know someone official doesn’t have to issue the press release in order for me to run with something.”
But Harper adds that he would like to see more local blogs applying the same transparency and journalistic standards to subjects other than politics. As he sees it, the “private sector” — like some of the really big employers around Fort Wayne — is ripe for the kind of blogging usually reserved for government. He acknowledges it would be difficult, but it would be interesting. “I guess I’m surprised by the number of people who haven’t joined,” he says. “The trouble is, a lot of people can’t put the facts out there. There ought to be someone doing an IPFW blog, a Lutheran Hospital blog… places like that, there are a thousand stories out there, but the internal politics that go on in places like that… that would be a very interesting blog.”