Opening Avenues To Wider Discourse

Chuck Shotton's Leesburg Talk blog focuses on hometown issues such as property tax assessments.
Chuck Shotton's Leesburg Talk blog focuses on hometown issues such as property tax assessments. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Colgan
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Chuck Shotton tried to follow the traditional route for effecting change in Leesburg: Two years ago, he rounded up 125 signatures of registered voters and ran for a seat on the Town Council. He finished sixth in a field of eight.

Today, Shotton, a technology consultant, is pursuing the same goal but via a different path. He's taking his issues online, by way of his blog.

His Web log, Leesburg Talk ( http://www.leesburgtalk.com ), is an unusual fish in the bloggers' sea. It focuses almost exclusively on analyzing and commenting on hometown issues. For Shotton, that means a steady critique of budgets, spending decisions, tax assessments and controversies from "push polls" to prickly personalities, with the occasional local restaurant review tossed in.

Most items attract lively reader comments, for all to see. But because its focus is local, and because Shotton's goal is shaking up Town Hall, not merely providing a platform for verbal flame-throwing, Leesburg Talk is in some ways more difficult to produce, he said.

"It would be very easy to take stands and be on a soapbox constantly," he said. "But it is much harder if you are working to change your community and have to live among those people you would be throwing rocks at."

More bloggers these days are, as Shotton did, accepting that kind of challenge and moving beyond the first blogging generation's approach to the medium. First tip: no more navel gazing.

Even the original model of blogging -- one person's comments and opinions, submitted for the regard or reproach of readers -- is up for grabs.

Consider Loudoun Forward, a self-described "micro-local news project" funded by the University of Maryland's journalism school. Its blog ( http://www.loudounforward.org/weblog ) is only part of a broader mission of delving into issues important to county residents. Producing position papers and sponsoring community forums are also in the mix. So project officials say that showing attitude and cheek is far less important than engaging readers.

"In an increasingly wired and well-educated community, we think blogging is a natural way for people to participate. It will soon become the most understood and easiest way to be part of a community discussion," said Dave Wiseman, who founded Loudoun Forward with Tamar Datan of Taylorstown.

The project, which is online but not yet fully operational, should enable readers to "ramp up on a topic quickly and become informed citizens as well as [be in] a place where comment and ideas can be forwarded," said Wiseman, who owns a print and interactive design business in Leesburg.

While Loudoun Forward aims to provide a nonpartisan platform for discussion, other group blogs, such as Leadership for Leesburg's Future ( http://www.leadershipleesburg.org ) and BlackOut2005 ( http://getblackout.blogspot.com ), are explicitly targeting local candidates and elections.

Jim Haynes, a member of Leadership for Leesburg's Future, calls the political action committee's blog "just one of the tools that I hope will raise the awareness of the election and thus increase voter turnout."

Shotton sometimes records video feeds from Town Council meetings onto his computer and posts video clips on his blog, adding comments. He revels in tracking down obscure line items in budgets. He says he has sources on the Town Council but won't reveal them.

"I hear quite often from people around town that they appreciate hearing details about a story that might not make it into the paper," he said. "The biggest challenges are finding fresh topics to write about and growing the readership."


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