Boss Hogg couldn't survive bloggers buzz

Boss HoggOn dark days I feel like starting a Keith Olbermann countdown to the demise of newspapers and journalism as we know it - or knew it.

Perhaps the end of journalism as I knew it when I got into this business 30-odd years ago has already passed and I missed the story?

Interrupting my bouts of grizzly cynicism, however, are events such as the Feb. 5 primaries in this valley of the American Heartland far from the high tech coastal social network meccas. Journalism appears alive and thriving if not always in the hands of those that call themselves journalists by trade and if not always in the traditional modern forms of print, television and radio.

A bit of background and I'll be brief. In Knoxville, Tenn., politics is played the Good Ole' Boy way. Think Boss Hogg from TV's The Dukes of Hazzard and its fictional Hazzard County, Georgia.

County organization charts read like family trees. Paid county employees hold county elected offices. Meetings are mere formalities for decisions made in used car lots.
 
Controversies break out among fighting factions aligned with politicos who control dollars and patronage, but rarely ripple out as interests to the average citizen.

And the voters? Don't raise taxes and keep the schools open and most couldn't tell you who represents them and couldn't care less.

The cynical have smugly believed the cozy system couldn't be breached. But it was and my theory is happened because the Good Ole' Boys (and sometimes Gals) failed to grasp that the Internet provided a transparency like X-ray vision into their hallway deals. And when the public saw, they gasped.

The most entertaining thumbnail view of the Knox County controversy is a New York Times piece published the day before Super Tuesday.  The saga, which is destined to continue for months, started on Jan. 31, 2007 on a day known as "Black Wednesday."

Term-limited by a court decision, the commissioners had to replace 12 officeholders, including eight commissioners, with appointees. Before it was over there were handshake deals, double-crosses, and fights. Cronies, a spouse and a son were appointed. People, for once, were outraged.

The editor of the newspaper I work for and a group of citizens filed a state open meetings suit that ended in defeat for the Good Ole' Boys in October.

And Black Wednesday was the match that ignited a reform fire that ousted incumbents en masse on Feb. 5 and is still burning.

News Media covered the year-long "county chaos" story with text, video, photos and by posting documents online. Stories were heavily commented upon online and in the pre-election run up, a common comment was a just a list of the incumbents on the ballot with the exhortation to vote against these.  Bloggers fanned the fire and new sites sprang up.

Since The Knoxville News Sentinel was a party in the open meetings, or Sunshine, lawsuit it was covering, Editor Jack McElroy asked a group of bloggers to cover its coverage and the newspaper highlighted their sometimes unflattering critiques.

Looking back at the year, McElroy said:

The online media played a significant role in the county commission story. Within a few days of the "Black Wednesday" meeting, the online dialog was so great on Knoxnews.com, that -- at the suggestion of online readers -- we extracted two days worth of comments and ran them in the print edition.

They filled a full broadsheet page at eight-point type and vividly showed the community the depth of the reaction. When the trial began, volunteer bloggers covered the newspaper's coverage of its own court case, helping mitigate an unavoidable conflict of interest As the scandal continued, bloggers played a significant role.

One orchestrated an online campaign that resulted in a recall provision being placed on the general election ballot. During the election, bloggers helped profile the candidates and, in one case, presented the most comprehensive look at campaign contributions.
The county shenanigans had been a continual topic at KnoxViews, a self-described progressive or Liberal group blog in this region known for conservative Republican politics in the mold of Howard Baker Jr., Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. It's a place that by just driving around and looking at bumper stickers, you would think state native son Fred Thompson is a shoo-in for the GOP presidential nomination.

KnoxViews founder Randy Neal, who first gained local notoriety blogging as South Knoxville Bubba, said in an email:

I think the role of blogs in all this boils down to a couple of things.
 
One, blogs consolidate news and updates from a variety of sources, including mainstream media reports, online official documents, eyewitness accounts, and expert commentary. There's a sense of immediacy about it, especially at a group blog like KnoxViews where you have potentially hundreds of participants scouring the Internet and talking to sources for information about a breaking story and then posting it in real time as it becomes available.
 
Two, blogs provide a forum for people to react and discuss the implications, and in some cases organize around an effort, and also to maintain a level of awareness and sense of continuity, especially where previous posts and comments can be linked together and easily referred to. Certainly not all 90,000 Knox County voters were reading KnoxViews, but blogs attract informed and engaged people who are active in their communities, not to mention public officials from time to time, and their sphere of influence extends far beyond the blogosphere.
 
To a lesser extent, blogs provide a way for the media and the candidates and local officials for that matter, to "take the pulse" of the electorate. But, as I just mentioned on the blog recently, getting an accurate sense of the mood can be skewed somewhat by blog participant demographics, which don't necessarily correspond to the general population or the "typical" voter in terms of education, awareness, and involvement. That said, anyone following the Knox County term limits controversy on local blogs would have easily picked up on the near universal anger and frustration with the status quo, which predicted the Feb. 5th outcome for candidates involved in Black Wednesday.
 
On the second point above, the advent of allowing reader comment and feedback at media websites has, to a certain extent, affected the role of blogs as a discussion forum. My observation, though, is that most blogs provide for a more extensive and thoughtful conversation of the issues. And, depending on how they're implemented, blogs can carry on the conversation long after the news is off the front page. Also, blogs build up a community of responsible and thoughtful participants over time, and there is a general sense of mutual trust and respect among participants which adds value to the conversation, especially when there is a wide range of experience and expertise to draw from.
 
All that said, blogs aren't going to replace the mainstream media as a primary news source any time soon. Somebody has to go out and get the story, and in contrast to bloggers they are usually trained professionals who get paid to do it. But blogs can add value to the story in ways previously mentioned, and, for good or ill, we are starting to see a lot more "citizen journalism" taking place.
Other sites popped up. A retired accountant set about doing his own audit of county expenses.  A blog called Knox County Wood Shed surfaced and another called PoliticalKnoxville. One site, Knoxify did its own candidate questionnaire with responses posted on its site.

Bloggers with their own sites, of course, found county politics a ready topic for words.

The founder of PoliticalKnoxville, Brian Paone, describes the origins of his site:

Political Knoxville was formed with one purpose in mind - providing a neutral, unbiased information source covering local politics.

When I was watching the Sunshine Law coverage, I found it difficult to find 'raw' information on the trial; all I was able to find were soundbites and short video clips. Articles written about the trial focused well on certain aspects, but there were no video or audio archives. There was a distinct lack of documentation available as well.

Since that's what I wanted to see, and there was no central location available that had those documents, I just took my father's advice: 'If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself.'

Thus, Political Knoxville was born.

Since its creation, PK has seen hundreds of unique visitors a day, searching through our documents, watching our archived videos, and contacting us for specific information on a variety of topics. We've received a number of compliments via phone, email, and in person commenting on our site design, ease of use, and - most importantly - the variety of our information available.
Will the attentions of voters eventually wander elsewhere and allow business as usual to return under the cover of apathy? Perhaps.

But the year of intense focus has shown that citizens empowered with the tools of the digital era will on occasion raise their voice to question and examine in a very journalistic type role. And the mainstream media can provide a forum for conversation in addition to digging for truth.

So maybe, I haven't missed the headline on the demise of journalism. It's still challenging the status quo, righting wrongs, serving the public interest. All the things that made journalism seem like a worthwhile endeavor to an idealistic young college student in the '70s.

(This piece is part of the Carnival of Journalism. Read this month's whole collection.)