I've been writing online for the better part of 20 years, and in that time, writing about politics hasn't changed that much, even if the mechanisms for writing and publishing and broadcasting have been awe-inspiring. As we go into election season, a lot of new blogs are popping up, and older ones are getting reinvigorated, so I figure I'll pass on some thoughts to those who are wondering if they should be out writing about politics in Missouri.
1) Have something to say. First and foremost, you have to be interesting. While it feels good to rant about something that happens on a national level, there are millions of blogs that already do that. If you want to be relevant, and if you're writing, you want to be, you'll need to focus on something that you can make an impact on. There is a dearth of local, city, regional, and state news, and plenty of spaces to fill. Local reporting gives you the advantage of authenticity, and should you break a big story or be involved in a big story by virtue of geography, you'll have credibility in the area (which matters more than you think). If you are going to write about national politics, pick a topic others aren't digging into. Sunshine is good for all kinds of large organizations, and sometimes simply writing about them makes them act better.
2) Pick a good handle. Branding is key because it makes it easy to talk about who you are. Yes, this puts you in a box, but a good brand identifies your expertise before the reader clicks on your link, while fluffykittyeyes72 or BillsGrandma@yahoo.com tells them nothing about you. So pick a name, buy the domain, and write about the topic.
3) If you really want to be good, write about something you don't have a passion for first. If you've never blogged before, try picking a topic from your personal life, or local area, or local politics. Write about architecture, or restaurants, or something that allows you to practice without getting all worked up. Politics is unfortunately full of a lot of happiness, rage, despair, and references to Nazis (though some are more clever than others). The best bloggers are the ones who know how to write dispassionately, but who use emotions as spice. That takes some practice, and writing about non-political topics is a good start.
4) Research original content: There is a lot of work that needs to be done, from campaign finance reports, to local school board expenditures, to building connections between politicians and their cronies. The only way to be taken seriously (which means having bigger bloggers, newspapers, other media link you) is to be serious. Yes, it feels good to rant about the media, or business, or other bloggers, but that kind of blogging rarely gets anywhere. We've all heard rants. What we want is scoop.
5) Not everyone you write about is evil: It's hard to believe, but the majority of people in government, the media, and business aren't evil. Even when they are, they're not 100% evil. Yes, they probably are liars and hypocrites and self-serving, back-stabbing, and social climbers. But so too are a lot of people you know who aren't in politics. Keep in mind there are also good and generous people trying to work inside the system. There are people with families and responsibilities that are trying to manuever, and not just manipulate. Be aware of what you are writing, and the impact you have. Don't be afraid to pursue the truth, mock people, or call out those who need it. Just don't be nasty and pretend you don't know what you are doing. And try to save it for those who deserve it.
You also have to learn to decipher the structural mistakes from the personal failings and the illegal activities from the immoral ones. We might not like it when donations are shuffled through committees in Missouri, but it's not illegal. It needs to be broadcast, but if you're ranting about it being illegal, you lose credibility. And if you get on a treadmill of assuming that everyone acted in some conspiratorial fashion, you'll miss the opportunity to bust the people who actually do something wrong. When you're doing actual reporting, it also helps to not accuse the people you're investigating of wrongdoing before you've gathered the facts.
At the same time, don't think it's that hard to find corruption. There are a lot of arrogant people in politics, and that arrogance usually leads to carelessness.
6) Not everything is the media's fault: Yes, we'd like to see more balance in politics, but there is a difference between what the media can write and what they know. And there's a difference between opinion and news gathering. Just because you know something is true, doesn't mean it can get published in a newspaper or heard on the radio. Even when the reporter believes you.
The general rule is that if you don't have documents or tape, it's not going to be published. And even if you do, the documents have to be 100% conclusive. And even then, you often need a politician, political figure, or official spokesman to vouch for you.
It's not personal - it's just how the news runs. It's kinda like the legal system. The police have to present legally obtained evidence and convince a jury. Even if they know the perp did it, if they can't prove it in the right way, he walks.
You can still publish on a blog, and it's not a bad thing to do, but you can't get mad that it isn't picked up.
7) Don't argue you with fools: This is probably the hardest thing to do, but you should be careful who you argue with. Many people, on their own blogs and comments, just want to make a point so they feel good. Your life is wasted on them. Block them from commenting, shunt them aside on Twitter, and no matter how wrong they are, don't respond. This does not mean you get to hide from debate. It doesn't mean get into your Holy Huddle and only talk to like-minded people. There is a difference between those who you can argue with, and those who aren't honest and faithful actors. We can disagree on whether universal health care is a good idea, but when people accuse you of being a paid shill, or wanting people to die, you have to wonder if you'll ever change their mind.
You know what I'm saying. A good rule is to never bother to explain yourself. Your friends do not need it, and your enemies won't believe you.
Now I know staying out of these fights is often impossible. You're only human. I will tell you that you will be happier if you do.
8) Remember, Politics Ain't Beanbag: Politics today is about money. Government has it and doles it out. Those serving are looking at their careers when they leave, and those who depend on government are afraid of losing what they have.
And so when you choose to be effective, you're going to get flak. Most of it is harmless, except to your psyche. It's very rare to pay a price for political speech, but there are those who do pay - with their jobs, with their family, with their relationships.
And no one can tell you that you're wrong to not get involved. But I will say this. Our founders risked death to give us this country. They risked everything they had. We are nowhere near that. If you are afraid to speak up, and you're not a wild-eyed crazy, then you are trading security for freedom. For far too long, the general public has put their head down and tried to focus on their lives. The rising of the Tea Parties, a large cohort of formerly non-political people ready to finally do something, is a good sign for the country, but you do threaten those with power and money. Recording County Councils, using Open Record Requests on police officers, and snapping pictures of the politically minded makes them nervous.
Maybe it's time they got a little nervous. Good luck, and welcome to the fight.