Blogging the Block

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By Christina Breda Antoniades
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 3, 2007

There's the pothole on your street that is threatening to split your front axle clean in two, the empty lot on the corner you'd really like to see turned into a park and, admit it, all those neighbors whose interaction with you goes no further than a brusque "Hello" as you scoop up your morning paper and dash back inside (hoping that they think your boxer shorts are more than mere underwear).

Want to vent? Make a community connection? Or even, dare we say it, make a difference? Neighborhood blogs -- an ever-evolving mix of journaling and journalism -- are an increasingly popular forum for helpful, often constructive discussions of the uber-local sort.

Of course, neighborhood blogs can also bring out the beast, whether it's in the form of nasty neighbors with an ax to grind, low-level politicians with high-level egos or just ho-hum days with nothing much to post. We asked bloggers in Arlington, Laurel, Silver Spring and the District how they got started, what keeps them going and what sort of reaction their blogs have sparked. Read what they had to say and their tips for starting your own neighborhood blog.

The Bloggers

Arlington

Site: The Buckingham Herald Tribblog

Blogger: Steve Thurston, 41, assistant professor of journalism, Montgomery College.

For a former reporter, maintaining a blog can be pretty tempting. Throw in a neighborhood that's going through lots of changes (Buckingham, near Ballston), and you're bordering on the irresistible.

What do you cover?

I try to cover a little of everything. It started with the Buckingham Village redevelopment, [but] if I only did the neighborhood I would run out of ideas pretty quickly. I'll write about personal things -- like a bike ride I took with my kids -- but I do try to keep it kind of news-based and not a sort of brain fart.

What's the goal?

One of the big ones was to get some news coverage in my neighborhood when really the newspapers weren't covering it. For a lot of the little discussions, you had to go to the meetings in order to get that information. And a lot of that information was the stuff you really wanted to know. So that was part of it for me. It's hyper-local journalism. Nothing is too small to make it onto my blog.

Is it harder to be a blogger than, say, a reporter for a print publication?

I'm always a little bit nervous, I'll admit. It's tough without a big company behind you. But for the most part, people have been very good. The county staff and politicians, whenever I show up they always seem to know me. [But] I'll interview other people, and they'll look at me kind of funny, wondering what a blog is and whether they should trust me.

Do you talk about it in your journalism classes?

Not really. It's not like I consider it high-quality journalism and everyone should pay attention. It's more like, "This is what I could get done by Wednesday." It's sort of journalism lite. But I do talk about interviewing in class.

Do your posts ever stir up debate?

It's kind of funny because I thought it would be much more of a gabfest online, people yelling or getting upset or "yeah, you tell 'em." I get e-mails regularly but not frequently. The whole Buckingham Village redevelopment stuff has been heated and controversial just by the nature of the thing. But I don't think I have been the center of the storm there. It's not like, "I can't believe what the Buckingham Herald said."

What blogs do you read?

· The Green Miles

· Blacknell.net.

· Backfence Arlington

· Waldo's Virginia Political Blogroll

Laurel

Site: Laurel Connections

Blogger: Rick Wilson, 49, engineer and federal government employee.

Former Laurel City Council member Wilson may call himself a "one-term wonder" when it comes to politics, but that doesn't mean he's no longer making an impact (he served from November 2001 to March 2004). Wilson launched the Laurel Connections blog in 2005 to track developments in his 'hood. He focuses on the one-square-mile Old Town section of Laurel but has covered city-wide events, elections, county budgets and state laws.

How did you get started?

As the technology got pretty easy, I said, "Well, that's reached my price point," so I started testing it. I went to everyone who was running for City Council and said, "How about I do a bunch of questions, and I'll put your picture and your answers up on this thing?" I picked election season on purpose to roll this out [publicly]. I knew that would draw readership. I'm not a complete idiot.

Is there really enough going on that's not covered elsewhere?

In our little town of about 20,000 people and about four square miles, we're serviced by two weeklies, and they do a pretty good job, but you've got to wait until Thursday to figure out what's going on. And that didn't work for me. I'm pretty curious about what's going on. For me, a blog is just a form of the backyard fence.

What would you like to do with it?

My dream would be to have a blog where my neighbor who goes to all the PTA meetings will use it on occasion to put out information that she may have, and another neighbor who goes to the VFW meetings could use it as a channel, and it's just this thing where people can push out news and information that's very localized for a few thousand readers. There's no way to amass enough readership to make it pay, so people have to do it as a part of their daily life. My rule is it can't cost anything but my time.

You're a bit of an experimenter, no?

I've been experimenting with Google maps and podcasts. I did a podcast interview with our police chief recently. The production quality stinks, but it's enough to get the information conveyed. We're all experimenting.

Have you had any stumbles?

If you read what I write, it's obvious that I'm comfortable with making mistakes. People have got to understand that I'm putting it out there and I'll make some errors. I try to be as transparent as I can in the process. . . . When you read something The Washington Post puts out, you assume that they've taken certain steps. I don't have an ombudsman following up after me. That's not how it works. When people read a blog they go, "Wilson could be full of it."

Does the conversation ever get ugly?

In any community there are certain grudges that develop. When we have elections, that's when it gets a little dicey. There have been a number of [controversial posts]. . . .

My thing is to put something out there and potentially entice people to read more than the headline. It's rare that they do engage. For every 100 who might read a thing, there's only a small number of them who will say anything. What you get are the extremes, the people who have a definite opinion.

What blogs do you read?

· Just Up the Pike

· Council member Mike Sarich's blog

· Free State Politics

· Laurel 2020

Silver Spring/College Park

Site: Just Up the Pike

Blogger: Dan Reed, 19, student.

Not happy with the status quo of the "no-man's land straddling" Montgomery and Prince George's counties, college sophomore Reed decided to get blogging. Since then, he has stepped on a few toes, kept a few people informed and, he hopes, given the area an image boost. He covers communities from Laurel and College Park on the east to Wheaton and downtown Silver Spring on the west. "The divide I talk about is east of Rock Creek Park and west of Rock Creek Park," Reed says. "That's the traditional divide both in D.C. and Montgomery County."

Where are you from?

I was born in D.C. and lived in Silver Spring since I was 3. I'm now a sophomore at University of Maryland, studying architecture.

When did you start the blog?

Last summer I was working at an architectural firm in Bethesda. One day there was a flood that wiped out half the road and the only bridge that gets me there. I was stuck on a bus, and I started thinking about all these things that don't exist between east and west Montgomery County. I felt like we were looked down upon, so I wanted to create more awareness for the east side.

What do you cover?

Originally the theme of the blog wasn't political, but as elections started it got very, very political. We've talked about anything and everything that's affecting east Montgomery County. It's not always serious, either. There's this woman in Chevy Chase who wrote to [a local paper] and said her lemonade stand would be displaced by the [proposed] new Metro line. So I wrote about that.

How's the response been?

People seem to enjoy it. We've been getting anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 visitors a week. [In terms of public officials] it ranges from people completely ecstatic about it to being at least a little frustrated about what I have to say.

What's been your favorite post or topic?

I can't really say I have a favorite. I relish any opportunity I get to speak to people. Last summer I took a walking tour of the proposed Purple Line, and I got to talk to people in the neighborhood. I really enjoyed that. I've also enjoyed going to Rockville and interviewing County Council members.

You didn't go into it as a reporter, but you've sort of turned into one, right?

Yeah, it turned out that way. It was mostly opinion at first, but it switched to more of a reporter with some opinion as I got out to more events. People want to know what happened, not what I thought of it.

What are your goals for the blog?

Well, I have a serious goal and I have a playful goal. My serious goal is to improve awareness of east Montgomery County. I just want people to start thinking differently of the east side and not turn up their noses. The playful goal is I've always wanted to be interviewed by The Washington Post.

What other blogs do you read?

· Rethink College Park

· Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

· Sprawling Towards Montgomery

· BeyondDC

· Tales of Two Cities

· DCist

Northeast Washington

Site: Stop, Blog, and Roll

Blogger: Jaime S. Fearer, 30, publicity and exhibits coordinator for a local publisher.

After buying a house in the District's Woodridge neighborhood in 2005, Fearer wanted to make a closer connection with her community. And she really wanted to blog, but she didn't know what to write about. Hmmm? Can you hear the little cogs turning? Fearer focuses on the Woodridge and Brookland neighborhoods, but the blog's broad boundaries are Michigan Avenue NE on the north, New York Avenue NE on the south, North Capitol Street on the west and Eastern Avenue on the east.

Was it easy to get started?

It's been a big learning process. I had just moved into D.C., so I had to learn about the government and how it works. But setting up the blog was extremely easy.

What's your mission?

I think it's still changing, but when it started, I felt like I really didn't have a good grasp of what was happening in the community.

I wanted to contain all the information on one page so if anyone was as confused as I was they could find it. I cover crime, arts, community meetings, neighborhood cleanups. I'd like for it to be more opinion-based, but I haven't felt like I had the authority. I feel like I'm at the point now where I do.

You have a memorable blog name, but what's the significance?

I wanted a funny name, and I finally came up with one. I didn't know it was going to be a neighborhood blog at the time. But by that time I had already purchased the URL, http://stopblogandroll.com/, so I had already made a financial commitment as well.

Do you think you reach the people you want to reach?

There's a huge gap. I think many people, particularly in Ward 5, aren't connected to the Web, so I'm not reaching a lot of people. I think as the mission of the blog grows I'll get more participation, particularly regarding a lot of the development that's slated for Ward 5. My average day right now is running between 50 and 70 hits, which is very low. But if Wonkette links to me, which they like to when somebody gets murdered, I can get 300 or more.

What kind of feedback have you gotten?

Every once in a while I get a comment from someone who appreciates what I'm doing, which makes me feel better because sometimes I'm not sure what people are getting out of it. On the negative side, I've had small [contentious] discussions in the comments before. I know who it was, I know the person, so that's interesting because we don't talk about it in person very much.

Can you make money on it?

I chose not to make money on it. I think there are some bloggers who might charge for their advertising, but at this point I'd rather promote those businesses than charge them.

What was your favorite blog post?

The first time Wonkette linked to me I was really excited, until I realized they were being snarky. Not about me but about the topic. Someone torched [Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner] Kathy Henderson's car, and a few days later there was a police press release about a prisoner who had escaped. It mentioned that he was a suspect in an arson on a certain street, and I put two and two together. It hadn't been reported anywhere. Wonkette had some comment about the way the suspect looked and the fact that a crazy arsonist was on the loose. I got a ton of hits. But of course those people are never going to come back.

What other blogs do you read?

· Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space,

· Frozen Tropics

· In Shaw (Now With More Gentrification)

· Bloomingdale

· New Kid on the Eckington Block

· DCist

How to Blog Your Corner of the World

Whether you're new to the concept or an experienced blogger hoping to blaze a cybertrail, check out these words of encouragement -- and caution -- from neighborhood bloggers.

Choose a topic that's meaningful to you, advises Jason Beard, whose blog Treebox Vodka ( http://www.treeboxvodka.com/) focuses almost exclusively on trash issues in the District's Shaw neighborhood. "Be involved, do research and get readers engaged," he says. Once you start, there's a demand to keep it updated, a task you'll have a hard time tackling if you're lukewarm on the subject.

Grab a camera and document."Photos help," Elise Bernard says. Her Frozen Tropics blog ( http://frozentropics.blogspot.com/), which covers the Trinidad neighborhood and H Street in Northeast Washington, gets 1,000 hits on a busy day. "Just seeing an image can change the way you think about" an area.

Reach out to other bloggers for help, says Stop, Blog, and Roll's Jaime S. Fearer ( http://stopblogandroll.blogspot.com/), who found other bloggers to be "very receptive" to requests for links and advice.

Find your own niche. Even if your neighborhood already has a blog, you can find a corner to cover. Despite the abundance of blogs in Shaw, "we're doing different things," says Marie Maxwell, who has written the In Shaw (Now With More Gentrification) blog ( http://www.inshaw.com/blog) since 2003. "We seem to play off each other. Like one can attend a meeting and the other can't, and one will focus more on a particular business area." If you can determine what's missing in the current coverage, you've got yourself a niche.

Make sure your posts are accurate, says Frozen Tropics' Bernard. "There are going to be mistakes every once in a while, but if you're not careful you can get yourself in trouble," she warns.

Laurel

Site: Laurel Connections, http://conexshuns.blogspot.com/.

Blogger: Rick Wilson, 49, engineer and federal government employee.

Former Laurel City Council member Wilson may call himself a "one-term wonder" when it comes to politics, but that doesn't mean he's no longer making an impact (he served from November 2001 to March 2004). Wilson launched the Laurel Connections blog in 2005 to track developments in his 'hood. He focuses on the one-square-mile Old Town section of Laurel but has covered city-wide events, elections, county budgets and state laws.

How did you get started?

As the technology got pretty easy, I said, "Well, that's reached my price point," so I started testing it. I went to everyone who was running for City Council and said, "How about I do a bunch of questions, and I'll put your picture and your answers up on this thing?" I picked election season on purpose to roll this out [publicly]. I knew that would draw readership. I'm not a complete idiot.

Is there really enough going on that's not covered elsewhere?

In our little town of about 20,000 people and about four square miles, we're serviced by two weeklies, and they do a pretty good job, but you've got to wait until Thursday to figure out what's going on. And that didn't work for me. I'm pretty curious about what's going on. For me, a blog is just a form of the backyard fence.

What would you like to do with it?

My dream would be to have a blog where my neighbor who goes to all the PTA meetings will use it on occasion to put out information that she may have, and another neighbor who goes to the VFW meetings could use it as a channel, and it's just this thing where people can push out news and information that's very localized for a few thousand readers. There's no way to amass enough readership to make it pay, so people have to do it as a part of their daily life. My rule is it can't cost anything but my time.

You're a bit of an experimenter, no?

I've been experimenting with Google maps and podcasts. I did a podcast interview with our police chief recently. The production quality stinks, but it's enough to get the information conveyed. We're all experimenting.

Have you had any stumbles?

If you read what I write, it's obvious that I'm comfortable with making mistakes. People have got to understand that I'm putting it out there and I'll make some errors. I try to be as transparent as I can in the process. . . . When you read something The Washington Post puts out, you assume that they've taken certain steps. I don't have an ombudsman following up after me. That's not how it works. When people read a blog they go, "Wilson could be full of it."

Does the conversation ever get ugly?

In any community there are certain grudges that develop. When we have elections, that's when it gets a little dicey. There have been a number of [controversial posts]. . . .

My thing is to put something out there and potentially entice people to read more than the headline. It's rare that they do engage. For every 100 who might read a thing, there's only a small number of them who will say anything. What you get are the extremes, the people who have a definite opinion.

What blogs do you read?

· Just Up the Pike, http://justupthepike.blogspot.com/.

· Council member Mike Sarich's blog, http://%20mikesarich.blogsource.com/.

· Free State Politics, http://freestatepolitics.blogspot.com/.

· Laurel 2020, http://laurel2020.blogspot.com/.

Laurel

Site: Laurel Connections, http://conexshuns.blogspot.com/.

Blogger: Rick Wilson, 49, engineer and federal government employee.

Former Laurel City Council member Wilson may call himself a "one-term wonder" when it comes to politics, but that doesn't mean he's no longer making an impact (he served from November 2001 to March 2004). Wilson launched the Laurel Connections blog in 2005 to track developments in his 'hood. He focuses on the one-square-mile Old Town section of Laurel but has covered city-wide events, elections, county budgets and state laws.

How did you get started?

As the technology got pretty easy, I said, "Well, that's reached my price point," so I started testing it. I went to everyone who was running for City Council and said, "How about I do a bunch of questions, and I'll put your picture and your answers up on this thing?" I picked election season on purpose to roll this out [publicly]. I knew that would draw readership. I'm not a complete idiot.

Is there really enough going on that's not covered elsewhere?

In our little town of about 20,000 people and about four square miles, we're serviced by two weeklies, and they do a pretty good job, but you've got to wait until Thursday to figure out what's going on. And that didn't work for me. I'm pretty curious about what's going on. For me, a blog is just a form of the backyard fence.

What would you like to do with it?

My dream would be to have a blog where my neighbor who goes to all the PTA meetings will use it on occasion to put out information that she may have, and another neighbor who goes to the VFW meetings could use it as a channel, and it's just this thing where people can push out news and information that's very localized for a few thousand readers. There's no way to amass enough readership to make it pay, so people have to do it as a part of their daily life. My rule is it can't cost anything but my time.

You're a bit of an experimenter, no?

I've been experimenting with Google maps and podcasts. I did a podcast interview with our police chief recently. The production quality stinks, but it's enough to get the information conveyed. We're all experimenting.

Have you had any stumbles?

If you read what I write, it's obvious that I'm comfortable with making mistakes. People have got to understand that I'm putting it out there and I'll make some errors. I try to be as transparent as I can in the process. . . . When you read something The Washington Post puts out, you assume that they've taken certain steps. I don't have an ombudsman following up after me. That's not how it works. When people read a blog they go, "Wilson could be full of it."

Does the conversation ever get ugly?

In any community there are certain grudges that develop. When we have elections, that's when it gets a little dicey. There have been a number of [controversial posts]. . . .

My thing is to put something out there and potentially entice people to read more than the headline. It's rare that they do engage. For every 100 who might read a thing, there's only a small number of them who will say anything. What you get are the extremes, the people who have a definite opinion.

What blogs do you read?

· Just Up the Pike, http://justupthepike.blogspot.com/.

· Council member Mike Sarich's blog, http://%20mikesarich.blogsource.com/.

· Free State Politics, http://freestatepolitics.blogspot.com/.

· Laurel 2020, http://laurel2020.blogspot.com/.


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