Also published on epolitics.com
Call it innovation, call it self-preservation, call it a traffic scheme, but the Baltimore Sun, one of the leading papers covering Maryland politics, has made the decision to offer a blog to every legally registered candidate running for office in the state of Maryland. The offer is bi-partisan and covers both Federal and state candidates. The paper’s site states the following:
The Baltimore Sun is offering free blogs to political candidates in key races this year. It is up to the candidate to decide whether to accept the blog invitation and to decide how often to post on the blog. The Baltimore Sun does not edit any candidate’s blog, and it is not responsible for any content posted by the candidate or the candidate’s representatives here.
Technology is the enabler
What makes this experiment by The Sun plausible is the advance in technology in recent years. During the last election cycle, the same experiment would have been nearly impossible. The staff and time required to implement such an idea would have far exceeded any benefits the paper would have derived from the endeavor – both in terms of money and readership. The advent of WordPress Mu changed that equation for The Sun and similar organizations. Used by the likes of Harvard Law School and Le Monde, WordPress Mu is an open platform powered by WordPress that allows site administrators to maintain multiple blogs (even with separate domains) from the same installation. This solution has drastically cut the cost and time required in creating and hosting multiple blogs.
Opportunity for candidates
The Sun’s experiment is not only beneficial to the paper, but also to the candidates –many of whom are running for obscure seats in the state legislature. For these candidates, having a blog on The Sun‘s website is an enormous platform to get their ideas and thoughts in front of a wide audience. Individuals who would not normally venture to a candidate’s site can now see excerpts on the homepage of The Sun and in other prominent areas throughout The Sun‘s website. Moreover, this experiment gives candidates a way to establish a more credible web presence. Many candidates have awful websites that get in the way of presenting themselves, their ideas and policies in a clear, concise and thoughtful manner. This opportunity allows candidates to be judged for the quality and depth of their ideas, and not their web-building acumen. Lastly, it allows the media more accessibility to challengers thus somewhat leveling the playing field with their incumbent counterparts, who stand in the media spotlight brighter.
It’s not all gravy
While this effort by The Sun is a promising one in theory; in practice, it leaves many questions unanswered. For instance, will Sun columnists feel the pressure to link to blog posts on their site instead of other articles on the web? Will the coverage of candidates who do not sign up for a blog be affected? How will the paper handle criticism from politicians on its on pages? Will blogging on the site give the impression that candidates received endorsements from the paper? In addition, the fact that The Sun stands to make money from ads on blog posts written by politicians, will not sit well with many readers and voters. These questions will not be answered by executives at the paper in a breakfast meeting while enjoying sandwiches and lattes. Instead, we will have to work through them together. Bloggers, the paper’s Ombudsman, competing media outlets and the voters—those who stand to benefit or lose the most from this –- will have to work together to develop a system of checks and balances to keep the paper accountable.
Moving in the right direction
Despite the many unanswered questions this experiment by the Sun should be encouraged — even celebrated. For the last couple of years, many have been predicting the slow and certain death of newspapers. Well, it appears that they will not quietly into the night. And for that I, for one, am glad. Our democracy stands to benefits if we can find more ways for old media and new media cohabitate, especially at the local level.
You can view the candidates’ blog at here.