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Simon Owens

Mark Glaser is on vacation this week, but we are happy to have blogger/journalist Simon Owens filling in as guest blogger. Here is his report on the upcoming Democratic Convention.

As the 2008 Democratic Convention quickly approaches, thousands of journalists will begin swarming into Denver for what is sure to be an around-the-clock media event. Reporters will interview throngs of convention goers to examine every facet of the political landscape and the implications it has for the upcoming election.

Among these mainstream media bees will be a wave of new media journalists appearing out of the Wild West of the Internet to lay at least partial claim to the stories that will be emerging from the convention. A number of these bloggers will be working at a location outside the building in a facility appropriately called the Big Tent Denver. Whether these new media reporters will be able to produce compelling convention coverage without constant access to its participants remains to be seen.

Inside the Pepsi Center itself, there will be approximately 50 bloggers — one from each state — who applied for and received press passes to attend the event. Though only a few blogger passes were offered at the 2004 convention, the rise of new media since then has made a blogger presence a necessity now. Conferences organized by bloggers are now attended by well-known figures and politicians, and several major news stories have been uncovered by citizen journalists armed simply with Blogspot and WordPress accounts.

So this year there wasn’t even a question as to whether bloggers would be admitted into the Democratic National Convention; it was just a matter of how many. Still, several bloggers expressed disappointment when the DNC only handed out 50 blogger passes. It was in the midst of this disappointment that the announcement for the Big Tent was made.

Huge Demand for Tent Access

Hosted by Daily Kos, Progress Now, and the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, the Big Tent will be a 9,000-square foot, two-story erected structure a few blocks away from the Pepsi Center where the convention will be held. It will be specifically geared toward new media — bloggers, podcasters, vloggers— and its sponsors include both Google and Digg.

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Aaron Nelson, project director for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, told me that the discussion for organizing the tent began about seven or eight months ago.

“We recognize that more and more people are turning to new media and as a result new media has become a powerful driving force,” he said. “We’re providing access to resources and platforms to discuss politics and sustainability. We made it a non-partisan event and bloggers that have access to our tent represent this. For example we have people from Daily Kos and we also have bloggers from the Heritage Foundation — completely different sides of the spectrum.”

The organization received over 3,000 applications for those who wanted to attend the Big Tent, but because of spacing restrictions and fire codes, only a fraction of those were accepted. Though the final count is a “moving target,” as he put it, there will likely be around 300 bloggers and other new media journalists who will participate.

I asked Nelson what benefit the bloggers would have at the tent, given that they wouldn’t get access to the building where the convention is actually being held. The bloggers, for instance, wouldn’t be able to walk among the convention-goers and use that atmosphere to provide context to their reporting. Why wouldn’t a blogger just stay home and watch the event on his television?

“Well, we’re going to try a couple things,” he said. “First, we’re trying to develop partnerships and momentum to lure convention participants over to our tent. Being half a block outside the security line, we think it’ll be simpler than maybe otherwise. The other incentive is that we simply provide a gathering place with access to resources, including food and WiFi. These are the kinds of resources that the new media hasn’t experienced at any other major national event.”

Who Gets In and Who Doesn’t

Though the organizers are still pulling together much of the programming and offerings that will be available, he said the tent will likely beam out live streaming video — what he called the “Virtual Big Tent” — so that Internet viewers who are not able to attend can watch the events inside the facility unfold.

I asked him to explain the breakdown of the tent and how those who aren’t credentialed Big Tent bloggers will be able to move about the facility. Would convention-goers be allowed to wander in?

“There’s a small part of the space sponsored by Google that is accessible by people,” Nelson responded. “But the majority of the tent will be for credentialed bloggers only. The second floor of the tent will be the media lounge and nobody but the credentialed people will be allowed up there. The ground floor will have a bit more multi-use, so it will have a little more accessibility. But nonetheless there will only be a limited number of spots for those who don’t have reservations.”

Valerie Reynolds, like many of the bloggers I interviewed for this article, first found out about the Big Tent through a press release published on Daily Kos. As a lesbian progressive blogger living in Tennessee, she said that she was driven to online media because she didn’t feel represented by the news outlets in her red state.

Reynolds, 52, runs a horse farm 45 minutes northwest of Nashville and she writes for Avalon Farm Blog, a site that focuses on a number of issues ranging from LGBT rights to blues music. With her background in radio, she also operates a podcast that functions as a spin-off from her blog.

“Basically I just wanted to be there at this historic event,” she said of the convention. “I wanted to be part of it, both as a podcaster and also to shoot video. I’ve got the gear, I know how to use it, and I’m pretty good at interviewing. I thought why not just place myself in the middle of it and see what stories develop.”

I asked Reynolds how the Big Tent would fit into the larger realm of media coverage at the convention, and whether it would serve as an effective alternative to more mainstream news outlets.

“I think the more voices that are in the conversation, the richer the dialog is going to be,” she responded. “The big thing with bloggers is there is no gatekeeper, you’re not hearing the message of the day, you’re hearing it as it happens. Depending on the level of expertise and the talent, it’s like having an eyewitness for you. What I love about the Big Tent is that they were so open to diversity.”

Bringing Regional Issues to the Fore

Both Matt Reichbach and Tracy Viselli will be viewing the Big Tent through a regional lens — he for his blog focusing on New Mexico politics and she for her site centered around downtown development in Reno, Nevada.

“I really want to focus on some of our local or state stories,” Viselli told me. “For instance, not only is Nevada a swing state, my county is considered the swing county in the state. Also, we have the possibility of electing our first all-female congressional delegation, which is really exciting.”

She explained that her “over-arching narrative” at the Big Tent will be written from the point of view of a female progressive blogger from a swing state, a fact that she believes gives her a unique perspective.

For his part, Reichbach said he’d try to focus on New Mexico and Western issues, hopefully getting one-on-one interviews with key legislators from his area.

“I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of opportunities to focus on the west since it’s in Colorado,” he said. “Democratic candidates from New Mexico are going to be over there and I’m going to try to talk to them. Actually something we’ve been doing on our blog a lot lately is podcasts through Blog Talk Radio. It’s basically just an online radio show that people can listen to live and can call into.”

Skepticism About the Big Tent

Despite the enthusiasm of many of the Big Tent participants I spoke to, there has been a fair amount of skepticism as well. In the comments section of an Alternet article about the tent, one person wrote that “any learned, critical thinking, reasoned human being would realize that this is a charade to sugar up and pacify the progressive community.”

“‘Walking distance’ from the convention?” another person wrote. “The first commenter is right: this is a joke. It’s called a ‘consolation prize.’”

I spoke to Sarah Granger, a blogger who has directed Internet strategy for a few campaigns and writes regularly for several sites. She is one of the few bloggers who will have access to both the convention itself and the Big Tent; she’ll be attending with several other writers from MOMocrats, and the group will be sharing a single blogger pass to the Pepsi Center, switching back and forth between it and the tent. I asked her whether the Big Tent would be a viable alternative to the news outlets that will have more around-the-clock access to the convention-goers.

“It’s going to be different,” she said. “It’s going to be a different group of people that are there. There won’t be as much bumping into the Congressmen in the hallway, it’ll be more of networking with other bloggers. That does have a lot of value too, it’s just going to be different, I think.”

I pressed further, asking, “Do you think it’ll be less value at all, because the bloggers are not going to be on the ground in the convention?”

“I think that having worked for a number of candidates and elected officials, I think they have their own sort of agendas, and mostly they’ll want to network with each other while they’re there,” Granger responded. “But I would not be surprised if some of them reserved some time to come talk to the media. I just don’t honestly believe that everyone is going to come out to the Big Tent. I don’t think they will. Also, a lot of people don’t understand the power of the blogosphere, so they may or may not be that tapped into it quite yet.”

In a July 14 Huffington Post piece, Granger complained about the lack of communications from the DNCC when it comes to what access credentialed bloggers will have, including what kind of Internet will be offered and how the final night at Invesco Field will affect them.

In our interview, she said that one advantage to the Big Tent is that the organizers have been much better at talking to the bloggers and giving them the logistics of what to expect.

“They have been very good about explaining their whole process of applying,” Granger said. “And they’ve been very good about getting back to us. Like we had one person in our group who applied under a different blog name, and due to a family emergency she won’t be able to be there. We wanted to see if we could still use the pass for the group, and they’re working with us to figure out a way to do that. They’ve been very responsive and very helpful, I think.”

What do you think? Will the Big Tent be a good way to get bloggers more access to the Democratic Convention, or is it just a consolation prize? Should the DNC have credentialed more bloggers? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Simon Owens is a 24-year-old newspaper journalist living in Virginia. He writes the Bloggasm blog, launched in late 2005 and focusing on the intersection of new and old media. It often includes in-depth feature articles on a variety of media subjects.