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Breaking into the mainstream

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA - With its name alone, Pseudopolitics.com might seem to be thumbing its nose at the campaign establishment gathered here for this week's Republican National Convention. But the youth-oriented Web site, which will chronicle the event with live audio feeds and interactive chats, is after something else altogether:

Its very own place on the mainstream political scene.

This week, Pseudo's pierced and tattooed commentators will sit in a skybox overlooking the convention floor, nestled among the corporate media giants covering the event for the television networks. Like their print and broadcast counterparts, they will have credentials and be fully legit.

The 2000 conventions mark the arrival of a new player in the political event: the dot-com. Fund-raising dot-coms. Special-interest dot-coms. Political dot-coms. And, most visibly, media dot-coms. Notepads and tape recorders in their hands (and, in some cases, Webcams strapped to their heads), the new media are out in force.

"There's something new looking over the hall," says David Bohrman, a veteran of convention coverage for several networks who now heads 5-year-old Pseudo. "I think a lot of people will know we exist now, and they will know the nature of convention coverage is changing."

Outside the convention hall, about 60 media-related dot-coms are amassed in the convention's media area known as "Internet Alley," located, as it happens, next to the old gray lady herself, the New York Times.

It's quite a change from four years ago, when the few news Web sites that did request convention credentials were greeted with confusion by the event's planners, who did not know quite where to put them.

The last time the Republicans met here, in 1948, was also the occasion of the first official television broadcast of a political convention. At the time, few predicted that television would reign supreme at conventions.

Now, dot-com pioneers see 2000 as a similar milestone. Only they predict that it won't take another 52 years for this new media to dominate.

"This is a chance to show we're serious," says Randy Tate, who handles Republican content on the bipartisan Web site Voter.com, which offers a mix of news, analysis and voter services. "This is the last of the real network conventions. If you want full coverage from here on out, you're going to need the networks and the Internet."

Voter.com hopes the convention will turn the company into a household name. It has sent up to 40 employees here, more than rivaling the contingent of most major newspapers, and is shelling out big bucks for a cyber-cafe, multimedia kiosks and a party cruise.

Networks, newspapers and magazines are promoting their online coverage of the convention. But alongside them, a host of lesser-known sites is blanketing the Web with news reports - an exercise they will repeat in Los Angeles at the Democratic convention next month.

At a party for the 15,000 members of the news media Saturday night, many of the dot-com folks were easy to spot - funky glasses and a whiff of irreverence. And they were abuzz with the message of their industry: to give viewers the sort of experience they could never get with television or print.

"We want people to have a virtual convention experience," said Jill Homan, an aide to U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, who is using her vacation time this week to work as a Web reporter for Gopconvention.com, an official Republican Party site.

The site invites readers to become "dot-com delegates," and it aims to make readers feel as though they are in the hall.

"They pose a question to a leading Republican, and we'll ask it and come back and give them a response," Homan says. "The point is to get an insider's view."

Gary Bauer, the conservative activist and former Republican presidential hopeful, is also riding the new media wave. A correspondent for Beliefnet.com, a site with news and opinion on religious subjects, Bauer will write about the role of religion in Republican politics at this convention and will file daily feeds at this and the Democratic convention.

On the Democratic side, Mike McCurry, President Clinton's former spokesman, will offer analysis for Grassroots.com, an interactive voter site. A new Web site, Iknowwhatyoudidintexas.com, sponsored by the Democratic National Committee and unveiled here yesterday, promises to tweak George W. Bush with updates in the days leading to his nomination.

Somewhere between the Democrats and Republicans, comedians such as Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live" and Comedy Central's Ben Stein will perform live video feeds for Voter.com in what will likely become equal-opportunity mockery.

Well-funded and media-skilled, the dot-coms stylishly appoint their work stations with vintage furniture or space-age backdrops that look good on Web broadcasts. And some - America Online and Pseudo - have even appropriated the ultimate status symbol of the broadcast world: the convention hall skybox.

Pseudo, hoping to reap an advertising blitz from its prime position, will call attention to itself with an illuminated "On the Net" sign, instead of "On Air." And, much to the delight of its staff, the Pseudo logo rests neatly in the CNN shot when that cable channel trains its cameras toward the convention hall stage.

"It's a little strange to look over the hall and see Pseudo and AOL looking down on the convention," says Bohrman, a newsman for more than two decades with ABC, NBC and CNN before coming to Pseudo six months ago.

"I don't think anybody has a clue about what it means for the future - but the electoral process in 20 or 30 years might not even be a convention in a hall. It might be a virtual convention."

Dot-coms say they hope that if the news is not always so interesting, at least the way it's reported will be.

Pseudo's engineers, for example, have installed 360-degree panoramic digital cameras on the convention floor that will allow viewers to click for close-ups inside skyboxes, delegations and anything else in the hall that interests them - in the midst of Bush's climatic acceptance speech, if they choose.

In the new world of e-media, some reporters are adopting fanciful techniques - such as strapping cameras that feed video to the Internet onto their heads.

At Insightmag.com, what might be called robo-reporters will cover the event. With a keypad on one wrist, an Internet screen on the other, a minicomputer at their waists and a camera strapped over one ear, six reporters will conduct interviews at parties and on the convention floor and simultaneously feed to the Web.

"Whatever a reporter sees, you'll see, whatever a reporter hears, you'll hear - I want to demystify this process," says Paul Rodriguez, editor of Insight magazine and coordinator of its Web activities. "We're going to show you how the sausage is made.

"Some of [the coverage] is going to be really serious; some of it's going to be really fun," he adds.

And what if, heaven forbid, some of it's really boring?

"In that case," Rodriguez says, "they can always click it off."

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