BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The Democratic Convention begins Monday, but early last week news crews were already littering the parking lots and back alleys of Bean Town. CNN's Judy Woodruff got there ahead of the pack and had to strain to fill her show with folksy tours of the U.S.S. Constitution. But Fox and MSNBC personalities were just behind, and now the stage is set for convention specials, the likes of which we've never seen before (or, so they tell us). With broadcast coverage pared to the bone, all three major networks are down to three hours of coverage each per convention. The cable channels have gone wild with self-promotion. Of course it's all about self-promotion for the Democrats too -- an opportunity to roll out the party stars and showcase their candidate in a stage production scripted to the last detail. For the party, coverage is great, but the last thing it wants to make is news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And chances are, it will succeed in making sure nothing really newsworthy happens. That's why the Boston Globe, which wants to be the convention paper of record, will be hedging its bets with a two-page insert covering the coverage. But if there's nothing to report from the podium, how about the after-parties? MSNBC's got that covered. Joe Scarborough will be crashing every shindig with Ron Reagan in tow. Meanwhile, the band of cable all-stars, including Greta Van Susteren, Wolf Blitzer and Chris Matthews, will be interviewing minor players in and around the main events. And if cable can't make this must-see TV, no one can, because no one has more practice filling the airwaves with...stuff. But now, a brand new class of people with pencils will be crowding the reporters on the convention floor. This year, for the first time, there's bloggers. Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: In many ways, Byron LeMasters is no different than any of the other 15,000 people accredited to cover the Democratic Convention in Boston next week, but he may be one of the only ones whose parents are paying for his trip.
BYRON LeMASTERS: They're, I think, going to pay for the ticket and the hotel room, and I think I have to cover expenses -- just food and, you know, that kind of stuff. I'm working part-time this summer, so I have some spending money and I have saved a little bit. And there's always credit cards. [LAUGHS]
JIM ZARROLI: LeMasters is a student at the University of Texas who recently started his own political weblog called Burntorangereport.com. He's already learned a thing or two about the power of the press. Governor Rick Perry supposedly complained to a reporter that the site was spreading rumors about his marriage.
BYRON LeMASTERS: I think that was when we kind of woke up and realized: Wow. People take us seriously now, so we have some responsibility here, I guess, to think about what we post.
JIM ZARROLI: LeMasters loves politics, so when the Democratic Convention said it would give press credentials to bloggers, he applied. Now, at the age of 21, he'll be roaming the convention floor, rubbing shoulders with long-time political analysts such as David Broder and Ron Brownstein. Convention spokeswoman Peggy Wilhyde says LeMasters was one of about 200 bloggers to apply for credentials. Some 30 were accepted.
PEGGY WILHYDE: We looked for people who wrote their own content on their site and didn't just merely post other people's content. We looked at the professionalism of their blog; what their blog looked like. And we looked at their readership or viewership or bloggership --however you want to describe it.
JIM ZARROLI: Wilhyde says the party decided to invite bloggers because it was clear they've become an important source of information for many people. To Jay Rosen, the chair of the New York University Journalism Department, the presence of bloggers at the two major conventions this year is historically significant, but not unusual.
JAY ROSEN: It's just another expansion of who the press is. Certainly that happened when television reporters came knocking on the doors, and radio reporters and wire services and all kinds, you know, the press has always been expanding.
JIM ZARROLI: Rosen is more than a neutral observer here. He's got his own blog where he writes about politics and the media, and he'll be covering the convention too. But, as Rosen is the first to acknowledge, it's very much unclear just where bloggers will fit into convention journalism. Almost by definition, most bloggers work independently -- without editors and without necessarily adhering to any journalism code of ethics. Alex Jones, of the Kennedy School of Government, wrote in the Los Angeles Times recently that he fears bloggers could add more sizzle than steak to the convention. This year, the House of Representatives' press gallery, which accredits most convention reporters, begged off any involvement with bloggers, leaving it up to the parties themselves. USA Today reporter Jim Drinkard heads the standing committee of journalists that oversees the congressional press gallery. He says committee members don't yet know what to make of blogging.
JIM DRINKARD: I guess the fact that it's a new medium, a new vehicle, is one element. Whether the medium is in any way the message [LAUGHS] is another, you know, and how do we evaluate that? How do we say this is or is not journalism?
JIM ZARROLI: In fact, many bloggers, like Byron LeMasters, make no claim to being journalists at all.
BYRON LeMASTERS: But I think a lot of us really come at this with the perspective as a political activist who's really just excited about this and want to help get Democrats elected.
JIM ZARROLI: LeMasters says he's not afraid to criticize the Democratic Party, but he makes no pretense of journalistic objectivity. He himself is a former Howard Dean supporter. One of the other contributors to LeMasters' site is actually a convention delegate, and many state and local parties have created blogs of their own. The question of how deep the ties go between bloggers and the party has already generated some controversy. Last month, Democratic Convention officials dis-invited some bloggers who'd already been credentialed. Convention Spokeswoman Peggy Wilhyde.
PETTY WILHYDE: We accidentally sent out letters saying yes to 20 more people than we had room for, so we had to rescind those, and it was an unfortunate mistake.
JIM ZARROLI: But the incident generated complaints from some bloggers that they were being blacklisted because they were too conservative. Jay Rosen, of NYU, who looked into the matter, says he thinks party officials are probably telling the truth. For one thing, some liberal bloggers were also dis-invited. Rosen also says whether bloggers are journalists or activists, they can bring something new to the convention.
JAY ROSEN: I don't know exactly what these webloggers are going to do. They may do nothing special at all, and add nothing. But coming with a naive view, coming with just a fresh view -- coming without some of the convictions and even some of the cynicism of a professional reporter might itself be good.
JIM ZARROLI: As Byron LeMasters sees it, many political journalists see covering the conventions as a job, and they're bored. Everything is scripted and choreographed ahead of time. All of the major decisions have already been made.
BYRON LeMASTERS: But what I think bloggers bring that's a different perspective is that we're really, genuinely enthusiastic about being there --we're excited to cover it, and I think we're going to cover different aspects that may not be reached by sort of the more mainstream media.
JIM ZARROLI: LeMasters says that means giving more attention to the views of delegates and to the candidate's policies. In that sense, the bloggers' status as outsiders, people who challenge traditional media paradigms, could also be what makes them most interesting. For On the Media, this is Jim Zarroli.