HHS Secretary Leavitt confesses to being an inveterate blogger. He got hooked because he’s been a long term fan of the web and recalled that as a former Governor, he found placing State services online turned out to be user-friendly, efficient and welcomed by his constituents, He also likes to write and uses writing to help clarify his thinking about issues and policy. He started blogging as a 6 week experiment and he’s still going strong. He can feel secure in blogging because as Secretary he is the official spokesperson for HHS. His twice-a-week posts consume about two hours a week while in trains, planes, automobiles and hotel rooms. There is no vetting’ by HHS staff, but he has a writer to help with grammar and punctuation. He is careful to solicit feedback prior to posting anything and has gotten advice to think again which sometimes leads him to withhold an article. Responses on the blog are moderated and other than three exceptions, all have been posted. Most are informed, many are insightful and some have even helped him change his thinking. His blog helps the staff at HHS who can use it as a library of ideas. He also believes his blog-based communications are more likely to be read than traditional print channels. Mr. Leavitt mentioned one person in HHS already has an official avatar in SecondLife. He has little doubt blogs will be a significant force in the formulation of public policy in the future.
At the conclusion of the Secretary’s remarks, there was a Panel Discussion moderated by Kaiser’s Vicky Rideout.
Michael Canon of the Cato Institute noted that he and his organization blog because their mission is to carry a torch for their libertarian ideas. They hope they educate interested readers about the finer points how they think government should operate. The ‘turnaround’ is also far quicker; when an issue comes up, there is no ginning up press releases or op eds. Yes, it’s easier in blogs to be vicious and half-cocked. Yet,talk radio or investigative reporters can be just as distasteful - so blogs are prone to being just as guilty but not more so. Blogging can change minds but he thinks that happens among the bloggers, thanks to ‘cross pollination.’ No mention of whether anyone is more libertarian if they subscribe. He also agreed that health policy blogs, despite the reputation for democratizing the public square, interact very little with other types of health blogs, for example, with persons with who write about their struggles with diabetes or docs that write about their experiences.
Ezra Klein of the American Prospect blogs because his organization knows media is changing. As mainstream media become increasingly shallow thanks to collapsing news cycles and attention spans, his blog offers considerable liberal depth for the interested news consumer. After all, in blogs, there is no scarcity of space, only content. Accordingly, Ezra can not only write insightful long articles but set them up as ongoing conversations that create relationships between the writer and the readers. He estimates his site gets about 50,000 unique hits a week and believes his readership consists of persons between 30-40 years of age, probably office workers who complete their morning tasks and use the late morning or lunch hour to read his posts. He also finds his posts are the gifts that keep on giving, because they often continue to get quoted long after they are posted or the news cycle has runs its course. He thinks his readership ‘tilts’ male and white which may be someone ironic for the supposedly diverse blogsphere. Yet, he also notes that it is too easy for persons from diverse backgrounds to become sorted into bloggycubbyholes based on race and gender. To him, the blog coin of the realm is feedback. He also notes that people cannot resist Googling their own names and that writing about or quoting people in blogs invariably draws them to your site – which not only increases traffic but enhances your visibility among opinion leaders. Blogs also get considerable media attention and, depending on the topic or circumstances, can generate embarrassing partisan feeding frenzies. Ultimately, once key difference from traditional media is that blogs speak not from ‘authority’ but ‘sourcing.’ He’s also not worried about any negative impact from blogging on public discourse because it can’t get any worse.
Jacob Goldstein of WSJ blogs because it fits with the Journal’s newsprint mission: explain the world clearly and insightfully. Someone else could do it, but this blog would prefer to be the one doing it. Blogs serve to aggregate content for both readers of the Journal as well as nonsubscribers. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t disclose traffic statistics, but it’s enough to meet the Journal’s ’desires.’ Its preferred style is to write as ‘an insider’ and he thinks that’s more effective than the what-where-when-why and how of traditional reporting.
John McDonough of Healthcare For All (in Massachusetts) blogs to overcome the superficial treatment of healthcare by the media and to communicate an important point of view about access to insurance. He described his site as a ‘diary’ of health care reform in Massachusetts that aggregates or ‘stitches things’ or links things together, such as documents and op-eds. He also hopes he has created a ‘community’ of about 1000 like-minded readers a day. Conversations on his site can turn into ‘pie throwing,’ but even that’s an opportunity to correct misimpressions. He notes blogging may not change minds but he derives some satisfaction by drawing attention to topics that are relevant. As a blogger, he finds anonymous posts are annoying but that’s not necessarily different from talk radio where persons can also talk anonymously. He believes blogging has helped changed some Massachusetts’ insurers’ minds. Finally, he thinks blogs accelerate the political process because legislators are reading about themselves.
Tom Rosenstiel is a media expert who described blogs as ‘muffins,’ distinguished more by their shape than content. He notes bloggers typically think of themselves as activists, much like soldiers in an army. Blogs have big implications for mainstream journalism, which is slowly moving online anyway. He’s not sure what media will look like in 25 years and he’s not confident that print will continue to exist at all. For example, many newspapers nowadays have ½ of their readership on line. There are 30 million unique visitors a month for these newspaper sites and the numbers are growing. He suggests blog readers are heavy news consumers who use blogs to extend the news they consume. In surveys, 50% of blog readers say they read a blog once a day and 80% say monthly. Despite those impressive numbers, however, keep in mind that 90% view daily TV news. In his mind blogs are distinguished by opinion and aggregation. They are typically conversational not observational, but there are there some exceptions such as pharma and politics where blogs have broken new news. Yes, blogs skew to a young, male and educated and are therefore open to being elitist. Blogs won’t necessarily help inform the public, because ‘more’ isn’t necessary ‘better.’ One factor that may distinguish policy blogs from personal diary blogs is whether there is appreciable advertising revenue.