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Published: Monday, 12/15/2008

Bloggers give Toledo a World Wide voice and forum for local issues

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

One enduring stereotype about Internet bloggers is that they lounge around in pajamas all day.

Yet a more inclusive description of workday attire for the de facto queen of Toledo's blogosphere, Lisa Renee Ward, would include not only pajamas but a bathrobe and blue "fuzzy socks."

"That's one of the nice things about it," said the 48-year-old married mother of five, who from her upstairs bedroom in South Toledo publishes what's widely considered the premier blog for local politics and issues - Glass City Jungle. "Doing this from home, you don't really have to dress to the nines."

Michael Brooks, a doctorate student at the University of Toledo, operates historymike and gained notoriety in the blogosphere while posting live from Toledo's riots in October, 2005. Michael Brooks, a doctorate student at the University of Toledo, operates historymike and gained notoriety in the blogosphere while posting live from Toledo's riots in October, 2005.
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And for the more prolific, blogging can be the near-equivalent of a full-time job, or at least an all-consuming hobby.

In the case of Ms. Ward, a "confirmed political junkie" and former secretary who can blaze 120 words a minute on the keyboard, it's a daily six to seven-hour commitment. Ms. Ward launched Glass City Jungle in early 2006, and it is one of her six blogs.

Other big players in the local blogosphere include Chris Myers, a Web site designer who runs SwampBubbles; Michael Brooks, a doctorate student and instructor at the University of Toledo who operates historymike, and Maggie Thurber, the former Lucas County commissioner behind Thurber's Thoughts.

Still other blog sites include Roland Hansen Commentary, Just Blowing Smoke..., and Hooda Thunkit's Therapy Blog.

The influence of ToledoTalk, once a go-to Web site for local political discussion, appears to have waned since the site changed focus two years ago to broader topics.

Self-proclaimed political junkie Lisa Renee Ward maintains Glass City Jungle, a blog devoted to local politics and issues. She devotes six to seven hours each day posting to her six blogs. Self-proclaimed political junkie Lisa Renee Ward maintains Glass City Jungle, a blog devoted to local politics and issues. She devotes six to seven hours each day posting to her six blogs.
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On the scene for a few years, many of these blogs are offering more than just an opinion forum for their authors and the public. The more popular sites bear an evolving role in the reporting and dissemination of local politics and news, and in doing so, have gained an increasing influence.

"It creates this new front for politicians and elected officials, and even news media to watch," Mr. Myers said.

Indeed, Toledo City Councilman Joe McNamara said he regularly checks out the local blogs and is one of several area politicians, including state Sens. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) and Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), who send news releases to Ms. Ward in addition to the mainstream media.

"I read Lisa's [Glass City Jungle] every day, as I think a lot of political insiders [do]," Mr. McNamara said.

Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop also takes regular strolls through the local blogosphere, where he's frequently a topic of conversation. He said he views the blogs' commentary as one additional gauge of public opinion.

"It's like a public meeting online on some of these blogs," said Mr. Konop, who, along with County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz, occasionally updates a blog on a county Web site ()apps.co.lucas.oh.us/lcblog. "It helps me as an elected official to hear more opinions."

Blogging began in force in the early 2000s, with many of its earlier practitioners at the local level adopting an outsider's perspective.

"It started out very much as a kind of watchdog with an attitude about the so-called mainstream media," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It kind of stood for the democratization of the media here was the opportunity for anybody with a computer to be a journalist, as Matt Drudge once famously said."

Mr. Drudge is founder of the Drudge Report, a popular news aggregate site.

Today blogging often is seen as an addition to rather than competition for older media such as newspaper Web sites. Some news organizations, including The Blade, use staff members to write news-related blogs for their Web sites.

Glass City Jungle - glasscityjungle.com/wordpress - is the most well-read of Ms. Ward's blogs and receives about 70,000 unique visits a month, she said. The blog carries a subhead: "Because Local Politics Can Be A Jungle Out There ..."

As Glass City Jungle's sole operator, Ms. Ward writes several posts a day upon which readers may comment. She encourages folks to post their names, but allows anonymity.

While her own political views are decidedly liberal, she said she tries to keep Glass City Jungle politically neutral and free of advertisements so as to serve and appeal to a broader audience.

"I try to keep my politics off the blog, which is a little bit unique," she said. "The rest of the Ohio bloggers can't figure me out - either I'm a traitor or a closet conservative."

Advertising revenues from her other blogs allow Ms. Ward to make several thousand dollars a year - or about what she might make with a more traditional part-time job, she said.

While neither Thurber's Thoughts nor SwampBubbles carries advertising, Mr. Brooks' site, historymike.blogspot.com, which he said gets about 1,000 readers a day, has "in-text advertising" that helps him to earn a few thousand dollars a year among all six blogs that he updates regularly.

Subject matter on local blogs often is driven by what's already in newspapers or on TV. Yet bloggers sometimes snag their own exclusives.

When former Toledo councilman Karyn McConnell Hancock admitted in court earlier this month to stealing more than $624,000 from her former law clients, her husband, Bishop Lawrence Hancock, wrote a lengthy comment about the case on Glass City Jungle, "to establish truth that has been hidden from the Toledo community."

The post received 38 comments from readers, a large - though not record - number for Glass City Jungle, which has fielded more than 50 comments on certain posts.

Ms. Ward's blog also broke the news in September that Mr. Konop had erected black billboards around town for a grass-roots network, NowToledo.net, that could foretell a mayoral run by the commissioner next year.

The Glass City Jungle post sent news organizations scrambling to cover the story themselves. Ms. Ward dashed off a "risen from the dead?" headline and noted with some irreverence how the billboards identified Tony Pizza, a retired county prosecutor who died in 2007, as being the Konop campaign's chairman.

Mr. Konop, a Democrat, explained the flub as an unfortunate mixup at the printers, and asked Ms. Ward to erase the post. But Ms. Ward said that despite their friendship and his early support for her blogging, she ethically couldn't kill the story.

"I'm never going to not blog about a story because I like someone," she later said. "You have to go after the ones you love as you do the other ones, or you are biased."

The decision has had consequences for Ms. Ward: She said the commissioner hasn't sent her a news release since the billboard episode.

For his part, Mr. Konop denied cutting off Ms. Ward from any communications and noted how he recently posted comments on the site. He said his office targets news releases to receptive audiences, and that the comment section on Glass City Jungle seems to have "lurched to the right-wing fringe."

"For whatever reason, it seems to me that the far-right wing in the Toledo blog world is the most vocal," he said. "It starts to become analogous of whether I want to go appear on the Rush Limbaugh show."

Bloggers sometimes encounter reactions beyond hurt feelings.

Mr. Brooks, 44, said he has been stalked at home and at work, and even received death threats since he criticized neo-Nazi groups on his blog.

"I haven't written about them in a year, and yet I still get one to two e-mails a month from someone calling me a race traitor," said Mr. Brooks, who is white.

Mr. Brooks' blog gained prominence in October, 2005, when he wrote live updates on his laptop from the scene of the North Toledo riots sparked by a planned Nazi march.

"I was actually blogging from the riot zone," he recalled, thanking the stray wireless Internet signal he picked up at the corner of Chestnut and Mulberry streets

Mr. Myers' swampbubbles.com ("What will bubble up today?") is a less controlled site than Mr. Brooks' or Ms. Ward's and allows users to generate their own subjects.

It began in collaboration with the operator of ToledoTalk, as SwampBubbles picked up the local politics focus that ToledoTalk was winding down.

Mr. Myers, 33, is a former Republican candidate for state representative and ran unsuccessfully for the Toledo Board of Education. SwampBubbles is one of a dozen Web sites he said he operates, including IdeasforTPS.com and PaperTrailMyth.com.

Ms. Thurber was a Republican Lucas County commissioner when she launched thurbersthoughts.blogspot.com to communicate more directly on county issues: "I was having a hard time getting all of what I wanted to say out to my constituents - limited by space in the newspapers, time on the TV, or the radio."

She also gained notoriety as a friend of Tom Noe, the convicted GOP fund-raiser and rare-coin dealer who funneled campaign cash illegally to President Bush through her and other local and state Republicans. She and others were convicted of not reporting money she received from Noe.

Since her commissioner term ended in December, 2006, Ms. Thurber has expanded the quantity and scope of her blog posts, which often share her right-leaning musings on a mix of local, state, and national issues, intermixed with quotes and links to articles and documents.

In October, Ms. Thurber traveled to Washington, where she was named "Blogger of the Year" by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that espouses limited government and low taxes.

While Ms. Thurber declined to reveal her blog's viewer numbers, she has gained 517 followers on Twitter, a relatively recent "microblogging" service that allows instantaneous delivery of 140-character messages to the cell phones, e-mail, and Web sites of people who sign up to receive an individual's Twitter updates.

Some herald it as the next big thing in media. "You end up expanding the conversation more than if you wait for somebody to go to a blog and read it," Ms. Thurber said. "Now all of the sudden you're sending it out to everybody. It's being picked up; it's being tweeted.

"I'm even looking now if blogging is obsolete."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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