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Year of The Political Blogger

UPDATED: From the early days of Howard Dean's online fund-raising success in his Democratic presidential run to the rise of influential political Webloggers, 2004 ranks as a standout year for the Internet's impact on politics -- so far at least.

Perhaps the best symbol of the Internet's impact came through bloggers on the political process. This was the first year they earned media credentials to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. The development helped raise the profile of already-popular bloggers, such as the DailyKos on the left and InstaPundit on the right.

Sharing space in Tuesday's New York Times editorial pages is the Op-Ed headline The Revolution Will Be Posted. "The commentary of bloggers - individuals or groups posting daily, hourly or second-by-second observations of and opinions on the campaign on their own Web sites - helped shape the 2004 race," said the intro to the piece, which asked bloggers from all political stripes to comment on what they thought was the most important event.

"In some ways, blogs are reflective of the country at large right now," said Dave Pell of ElectaBlog, which supports Sen. John Kerry's Democratic presidential bid against President Bush. "Many blogs are extremely one-sided and spend much time shouting down those on the other side."

Pell, who said he has been writing blogs and newsletters for years, said his traffic has surged since his writings during the DNC, and expects traffic to surge past 200,000 page views for a day as voters go to the polls.

"There have been many stories that broke in blogs and were taken mainstream and other stories that have broken in the mainstream press (and may have been forgotten) that really exploded in the blog world," Pell said. "The munitions story and the Sinclair story are two recent examples," he wrote in an e-mail, referring to the New York Times story about missing munitions in Iraq, which was soon questioned by traditional media as well as posters in the blogosphere. Sinclair Broadcasting planned to air "Stolen Honor," a harsh documentary about Kerry's Vietnam experience, but later backed away from airing it in full -- again after wide reporting and discussion in the blogosphere.

Scott Sala, a blogger who was accredited as media to cover the Republican National Convention this year, said his site has also grown in popularity since the RNC. He claims about 1500 unique visits per day.

"Why do blogs work? For the experienced blogger, it is only a matter of a few minutes and a few clicks to sift through the BS and get nearer the truth," he said. "Blogs get criticized as a whole for being inaccurate individually. Well, we all are sometimes. But taken collectively, it is clear the truth prevails. Hundreds or thousands of voices -- even though partisan -- do not lie."

Blogs, especially conservative-leaning blogs such as Powerlineblog.com, run by John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson, were instrumental in the online movement to expose documents used in a "60 Minutes" episode as frauds.

Mike Krempasky of RedState.org, also among the accredited bloggers, said he only launched his site before this year's Republican National Convention in New York. He now cites about 3,000 registered users, and an average of 20,000 unique visitors per day.

"We know that we've raised thousands of dollars for a few select races this cycle. We also know that we've helped to drive a story or two not only in the blogosphere, but into the mainstream press as well. Blogs in general have had a great impact in terms of dollars raised, volunteers generated and the ever-important 'win psychology' that every campaign needs," he said in response to an e-mail query from internetnews.com.

Tom Watson, an avid blogger (and co-founder of @NY, a pioneering online publication that chronicled the dot-com boom and bust in New York and is now owned by Jupitermedia), said blogs fact-checked where the media fell short (as in the CBS story about Bush's National Guard experience that were widely seen as based on forged documents). But they also spread their share of fiction too.

"Thing is, they also became my first-look place for news. The reason was not accuracy; it was speed and distribution. Basically, I had two partisan armies doing my research work for me. I knew that Kos or Atrios [another blogger at the DNC] would have the latest from the Democrats. And yeah, they also had a point of view," said Watson, who is currently the CIO at philanthropic consulting firm Changing Our World.

Watson said he found that his own blog became part of a small but effective network of Weblogs where groups actually shared analysis of the campaigns. "I'm proud to say my blog's comments were split between Republicans and Democrats -- real cross-pollination," he wrote in response to an e-mail query.

"There is one myth I'd like to debunk -- that blogs are somehow pure citizens media, a bunch of average Joes posting their hopes and dreams. That's a crock. The best-trafficked blogs are written by pros -- journalists, political operatives, consultants and the like -- not by Jane Q. Internet," Watson wrote.

As for whether the blogs only serve to harden people's political views, Watson, an avid supporter of Kerry, said everyone's views were hardened by events of the past year, especially the Iraq war.

Looking forward, he added: "It will be interesting to see whether the blogs of '04 evolve into a permanent political infrastructure something the left hasn't had for decades, but that the right has used to great effect since Reagan."

Online advertising dollars still remained a pittance compared to the traditional media spend this year fueled by the so-called "527" advocacy organizations. And even some online political ideas backfired, such as the Sloganator, an idea by the Bush-Cheney campaign that let users create their own custom slogans to help the Republican presidential ticket. In no time flat, the site was run over by anti-Bush groups.

But the Bush-Cheney Web site was also ranked third among the top 10 sites as having the greatest impact on the way the Internet is changing politics (Kerry-Edwards site ranked sixth), according to the PoliticsOnline's September release.

Media pundit Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine notes that blogs "bring in more information, often from new sources." His advice for traditional media: "Weblogs complement established media -- if established media will start to realize that (and, in some quarters, they are)."

In addition, Jarvis added: "We in established media have had printing presses for hundreds of years. Now it's everybody else's turn. Now the people formerly known as 'they' have a voice and we should listen. We should put the spotlight on 'them' and stand back. See what we will learn."

Corrects spelling of Powerline's John Hinderaker's name in prior version

Erin Joyce contributed reporting for this story