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Blogs 2.0

Colorado Confidential tries to give blogs a journalistic upgrade.

The debate over whether blogs qualify as journalism isn't terribly useful. After all, a lot of the stuff on TV newscasts isn't journalism, either, and it won't be until the definition of the latter is broadened to incorporate coat drives, blooper reels and chuckle-heavy conversations about the next day's forecast. But for the website known as Colorado Confidential, the intersection of blogging and journalism is central to its goal of reporting stories that aren't being covered elsewhere, in the hope that other media organizations will belatedly push them to the masses.

"Newspapers and TV stations only have so many resources," says Jason Bane, a Colorado Confidential news editor and blogger. "They can't look into everything. So there's a real opportunity for groups like ours to pick up the slack."

That doesn't mean mainstream info providers will embrace every piece Colorado Confidential produces, no matter how solid or newsworthy they are. On September 15, for example, Bane, collaborating with Nancy Watzman and other Colorado Confidential bloggers, accused the Trailhead Group, a conservative enterprise that's among the main backers of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, of questionable financial transactions totaling nearly $200,000. The offering was thorough and well-documented, yet the Rocky Mountain News didn't report on the charges until five days later, after complaints were filed with the IRS and the Colorado Secretary of State on the basis of Colorado Confidential's findings. These complaints were dropped before the Denver Post or other outlets took up the tale.

News sources reacted much more positively to a recent effort by Fort Collins's Wendy Norris, who's a blogger and the official owner of the Colorado Confidential site. Specifically, Norris revealed that state representative Bill Berens, a Republican from Broomfield, accepted a $20,000 check from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association for making a hole-in-one at a golf tournament sponsored by the trade group. These outlets generally failed to credit Norris for finding this tidbit, but that doesn't matter to David Bennahum, the president and CEO of the Center for Independent Media (CIM), a Washington, D.C., organization that backs Colorado Confidential and a sister site, Minnesota Monitor. "You can get into ego issues over who broke what first, but we're humble," he says. "The main thing is that we're acceding to our mission. If something gets picked up and we're not credited, that's fine."

Over the past few years, a growing number of news items have begun their lives in the blogosphere, and some have been significant. Think of the 2004 controversy over disputed documents pertaining to President George W. Bush's National Guard record, which contributed to the subsequent resignation of CBS anchor Dan Rather. Nevertheless, most independent bloggers don't have a journalism background, and because they generally perform their posting duties for no compensation during time off from paying jobs, they can't fully devote themselves to extensive investigations -- hence the preponderance of opinion-based blogs that reference pieces originally broadcast or published elsewhere.

In contrast, Colorado Confidential boasts a paid staff of bloggers who are asked to generate original material, and several of those on the payroll have legitimate journalism credentials. Although Bane is best known in these parts for being an early (and initially anonymous) force behind ColoradoPols.com, another highly topical website, he's served as a sports reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a stringer for People magazine -- and Cara DeGette helped launch the Colorado Springs Independent, a prominent alternative weekly for which she continues to write. Even so, they joined those members of the Colorado Confidential roster without much formal journalism training, such as Erin Rosa, at a day-long primer on the subject before the site went live in July. (Their chief instructor was Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Doig, an Arizona State University professor.) And they have regular contact with Sandra Fish, a CU-Boulder journalism instructor who serves as an advisor for the site. "I communicate periodically with everyone about how they're doing," Fish says. "I'm impressed that these guys have taken off in some areas and broken some stories."

Such an operation takes money, and Colorado Confidential has got it thanks to the Center for Independent Media, which is funded by the likes of Dal LaMagna, who's associated with the Huffington Post and Yes magazine, and Linda Shoemaker, a boardmember of the Bell Policy Center. Colorado Confidential was the first regional website funded by CIM, much as Colorado Media Matters, profiled here last month, is the initial beyond-the-Beltway foray by another Washington-based organization, Media Matters. Both are progressive, although the folks at Colorado Media Matters are more comfortable with the term than Bennahum is.

"We have values that people see as progressive," he allows, "but I think the nomenclature of 'progressive' or 'conservative' mean different things to different people. Our mission statement talks about democratic government being an engine of social good and how it's important to address issues of equality, and some conservative bloggers mocked it as being Marxist. And I'm like, 'Well, there you go.'"

Bennahum was a writer for Wired during the mid-'90s, and later penned Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace, a 1998 memoir about growing up in the computer age. He ventured into the corporate world shortly thereafter and made some nice coin. But pro bono work advising nonprofits on Internet strategy got him thinking about ways in which blogging could influence public discourse, and he soon came up with what he considered to be a workable concept.

"I wanted to build an infrastructure to support promising individuals who could function as journalists -- people who could adhere to the standards of journalism, but who had a commitment to writing about their state," he says. "Because if you look at the dynamics of news and shaping the debate, a lot of that happens locally. And since a lot of the gutting of newsrooms has happened locally, too, it was a double whammy -- a way to hit the sweet spot."

The next step was to determine where in the U.S. to set up pilot projects. Bennahum wanted to find places "that were facing a true identity struggle about what kind of state they wanted to be," not to mention an already established blogging community from which to draw. Once he'd settled on two locales, Colorado and Minnesota, he and his staff set out to discover if bloggers there would be game to participate. The response was enthusiastic.

DeGette leapt at the opportunity because "blogging is here to stay, and the more we can encourage and ensure that responsible journalism is a part of it, the more we can shape its growth." Watzman, whose personal website, MuckrakingMom.com, takes a hard-edged approach to matters affecting parents, adds that "most reporters I know would love to do investigative stuff, but often they don't have the support of management. So I think the idea that a blog can help provide some of what's missing in that arena is a really interesting one."

At this point, Colorado Confidential has been a going concern for about three months -- one more than the Minnesota Monitor, which debuted in August. The Monitor, though, recently racked up CIM's biggest score to date, after a blogger videotaped Republican congressional candidate Michele Bachmann making a de facto stump speech during a church service, most likely in violation of tax laws. Site traffic went from 500 unique visitors per day to 25,000 after the Huffington Post linked to the item and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann declared Bachmann to be October 16's third-worst person in the world.

Accomplishments like these excite Bennahum, who'd like to start four more CIM sites in 2007 -- and while he pledges that the Monitor and Colorado Confidential will keep running, he says, "I do think they're going to evolve slightly. Exactly what direction and how, I can't quite tell you yet."

For that reason, bloggers like DeGette, who signed on for what she calls "a six-month fellowship," don't know what the future holds. Moreover, there's no telling if Colorado Confidential will be able to maintain its momentum when there's not a looming election to jack up interest in politics and government. But for Bane, the uncertainty is part of the fun.

"We're really embarking on new ground, on a different road," he stresses. "No one knew what was going to happen. But we're growing, and we're having an impact."

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