The old saw says it’s unwise to pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. Updated for the digital era, it might say something about bandwidth or Twitter followers.
As old-style editorial-page fire-breathing waned with newspaper cutbacks and consolidation, bloggers happily stepped into the breach to fire their slingshots at policymakers who offended them, or the sacred honor of their cause. But more than a decade after the blossoming of the blogosphere, few have been able to sustain an independent blogging voice over the long haul, or be influential in the way old-style newspaper tycoons were. And yet, they keep firing away.
These should be pleasant times for Jason Gillman. Republicans control the Governor's Office and the Legislature. But that hasn't stopped the editor of Right Michigan from sniping at the powers that now be in Lansing.
“We are a conservative, right-sided blog. We’d like to be considered the conscience of the right,” Gillman said from his base in Traverse City, where he also serves as a county commissioner.
“We have an interesting collection, libertarians, as well as social conservatives, primarily. Rule of law people, constitutional law people. It’s a collaborative venture. Those who participate quite often get in arguments with one another,” he said.
His aim, now that Republicans control state government, is to “be an anchor” for conservatism, which he sees as rooted in bedrock principles. Right Michigan “calls (Republicans) onto the carpet,” he said.
Saul Anuzis, for example. The former state GOP party chairman and contender for the national chairmanship is in Gillman’s crosshairs at the moment, “for his shenanigans with the delegates.”
Anuzis, Michigan’s representative on the GOP National Committee, has been accused of manipulating policy to favor his preferred presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. That infuriates Gillman.
That it might be moot by the time the convention is held doesn’t matter, he said: “Even Mike Cox” -- another Romney supporter -- “thinks this is wrong.”
And even if all the criticism hasn’t stopped Anuzis, well, that’s blogging, where the psychological payoff quite often exceeds any impact.
“I like to think we had something to do with the branding of Frank Beckmann,” said Eric Baerren, the Mt. Pleasant freelancer behind Michigan Liberal. Beckmann, the WJR mid-morning talk-show host in Detroit, “writes a weekly column for the Detroit News, which is usually one of the most ridiculous things published in the state of Michigan every week,” Baerren said. Beckmann’s regular dismissal of climate change got him renamed “Magic Frank” on the blog, a name Baerren employs even when the radio talker isn’t going on about science.
Wryly taking note of an on-air argument between Beckmann and fellow host/columnist Mitch Albom, Baerren observed, “They both make solid central points, which is to say that Albom called Magic Frank an ignorant know-nothing and Magic Frank called Albom a self-serving egomaniac.”
The fact Beckmann is still comfortably employed with a vast audience, and Baerren works as an aide at a group home, doesn’t bother the latter much. Hardly anyone blogs for money -- a 2008 survey found only 2 percent of bloggers said the work was their primary source of income -- and Baerren doesn’t even know what the site traffic is at Michigan Liberal: “I haven’t checked in a couple of years. Maybe 1,000 (visits) a day?”
He’s more interested in “having an impact on the conversation” surrounding public policy, particularly in Michigan. “During the anti-bullying legislation, the things I was saying on Michigan Liberal were being said by Democrats and progressives.
“Most things I write for my own enjoyment. As long as I can pay my rent at the end of the month, pay my utilities, the rest of it doesn’t matter.”
Gillman, too, focuses on the "who's reading" aspect of the work.
"We get thousands of hits a day,” he said. “Lots of Republicans in the Legislature read us daily.”
While the collection of regular bloggers at Right Michigan represents a wide spectrum of political opinion, Gillman said he is interested in policing the principles the party stands for.
“There are groups called No Labels, who don't want anyone to stand for anything,” he said. “That’s not us. We want to know what people are about. I can't do an investigation on every single character in play. But if someone is a bad actor, (who) says they're for fiscal sanity and then votes for another trillion in debt, we're going to call them on it. Voting for a debt limit increase gets you on a wall of shame.”
Right Michigan does have a rate card, but no one selling ads. Like most bloggers who aren’t attached to a major-media outlet, Gillman does it for love alone.
The blog was founded by Nick De Leeuw, who stepped aside when he joined Mike Cox’s gubernatorial campaign in 2010. “I stepped up because I didn't want to see it go by the wayside,” Gillman said.
“It comes at great cost,” he added. “Between this and the county commission work, it takes 15-20 hours of my week.”
By contrast, Patricia Lesko's site, A2politico.com, does something people say shouldn’t be possible for a site her size: Puts its content behind a paywall.
“The first article is free,” says Lesko. The rest of the content -- news and opinion from a progressive perspective -- requires a payment. A one-year pass costs anywhere from $20 to $100, with the reader deciding what to pay.
“Payments have averaged around $40,” said Lesko. “People really want thoughtful, intelligent, in-depth accountability journalism.”
The payments allow Lesko to pay contributors, and builds loyalty among readers who appreciate her site’s poking around in Ann Arbor city government and, more recently, and in spin-off sites in Detroit, Grand Rapids and the Downriver communities south of Detroit.
“We have always paid the hardworking people who write, design and code for our site,” Lesko writes on her site. “We don’t answer to corporate overlords at the three corporate companies that virtually control the mainstream media in Michigan. We control our own content and answer only to our own conscience.”
Michigan, she added, should have a livelier blogosphere, considering what’s going on in Lansing, with a Republican Party running with the bit in its teeth. But distinctive voices are fairly rare here, Lesko said.
There’s plenty of opinion on A2politico, but there’s also investigation (Lesko loves to file Freedom of Information Act requests), interviews and other content aimed at finding information more traditional outlets can’t, or won’t. Lesko sneers at ideologues beating the same tired dead horses, and in her own reading, doesn’t confine herself to her own part of the political spectrum. One of her regular stops is Tom Gantert of Capitol Confidential, an online site for the conservative Mackinac Center.
“He does investigative reporting,” Lesko said. “I’m an intelligent reader. I’m going to make my own decisions, but I appreciate the effort.”
Surfing the debate
Democracy Tree, a left/populist blog run by Amy Kerr Hardin: “Our cherished democratic principles are under siege from multiple enemies,” she writes on her About Us page. “... While this is nothing new to human history, it is happening in our time, on our watch as citizens and stewards of the democratic process we owe it to our American antecedents and to future generations to protect our shared democratic principles.”
Michigan Taxes Too Much, run by Jason Gillman of Right Michigan: A recent post commented on a press release on the need for adult immunization: “Preventive maintenance might be the best way to stave off the effects what will be a declining number of physicians in the future. Government has interfered to a point where the desire to enter the profession does not meet the rewards, so the best way to avoid wait times, high costs, and the inability of the sector to provide relief would be to not require the relief. Don’t get sick.”
Huffington Post Detroit, the local version of the well-known news and opinion aggregator: Leans left; recent posts have included former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s take on Mitt Romney (“a hollow man”) and spokeswomen for Transportation Riders United opinion on what Detroit mass transit needs (both buses and light rail).
Michigan Log Cabin Republicans, run by Joe Sylvester of Bay City, chairman of the state chapter of the gay Republicans’ organization: Updated sporadically, Sylvester calls it a blog for the full spectrum of right-of-center sensibility – libertarian to moderate to conservative – from a pro-gay perspective. Which means not every cow is sacred; commenting on an unsuccessful bid for Holland City Commission by an anti-gay, Gary Glenn-backed candidate, Sylvester wrote: “If Gary cannot muster enough votes to get one of his anti-gay buddies on a small town city commission how can anyone expect him to defeat Debbie Stabenow?"
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.