Political bloggers writing for selves

The Baltimore Sun

Given the fuss that political writers and analysts make over the "blogosphere," you'd think the course of the 2008 election will be dictated by a handful of political bloggers whose hourly pronouncements are awaited by the electorate with bated breath.

In fact, with literally millions of people pouring their hearts out on blogs of every political, religious, topical, technical, medical, scientific, literary or sexual persuasion, it's a wonder that there's anybody left who doesn't blog.

What the blogging world lacks, it seems, is people who want to read all those blogs, especially blogs on politics.

In a January poll conducted online by Harris Interactive, only 22 percent said they read political blogs "regularly," meaning at least "several times a month" and only 7 percent said they read them several times a week or more.

More surprises: Although the young think they invented the online world, they don't use it as much for politics as do their parents.

More than 23 percent of baby boomers and their elders were regular political blog readers, compared with about 18 percent of younger voters. There may be a fairly simple explanation: Older voters are far more likely to actually show up at the polls than younger ones, so they're more likely to read about politics, too.

Republicans, by the way, were more likely than Democrats to be regular political blog rats and more likely to believe that political blogs are valuable sources of information. On the other hand, GOP voters were more likely than Democrats to say they never visit political blogs at all. Make something of that.

One caveat: The Harris Interactive polls, which are conducted online, don't necessarily represent the entire electorate, which would have to include those who aren't regularly online.

So the real influence of political blogs on average voters, as opposed to those with Web access and a high interest in politics, is probably lower than that.

I have a bit more confidence in numbers from the Pew Research Center, whose surveys are more broadly based. Although it didn't address blogs directly, its decade-long project to find where Americans get presidential campaign news found that 24 percent regularly get it from the Internet - almost double the proportion of 2004.

Even so, the percentage who learn something about politics from the Net is significantly lower than the proportion who get information from various newspaper and TV outlets (31 to 40 percent).

True, the share of these "old media" has decreased sharply since 2000, but the decline appears to be leveling out. Morning news shows and National Public Radio are gaining ground as political information sources.

In our own back yard, The Swamp (a joint operation of the Washington bureaus of The Sun and other Tribune newspapers) is by far the most popular of Baltimoresun.com's 39 blogs.

But before you draw conclusions, consider some additional figures from Comscore, an Internet metrics firm. Web-wide, the company found that just 20 percent of blog visitors account for 84 percent of the time spent on blogs.

What this seems to show is that political bloggers talk mostly to political junkies and to one another. If they have external influence, it's because the rest of us buy into their hype about how important they are. Regular voters don't much care.

You can find the Jan. 11 Pew report at pewinternet.org and the Harris survey at harrisinteractive.com.

Department of Digital Transition: Readers burned up the wires with e-mail about last week's column urging folks with TVs that get their signals over the air to buy digital converter boxes now - rather than wait until broadcasters turn off their analog transmitters for good next Feb. 17.

To ease the pain, the government will give every household two coupons worth $40 each toward the cost of these converters (which themselves cost $40 to $60).

But a couple of readers warned me about a catch: There are two batches of coupons available, and they're not both available to all comers.

The first batch, available now, will go to every household with an analog set that receives TV signals over the air, even if other sets in the home have cable or satellite service. Congress has appropriated $990 million for this group.

Once they're gone, another $510 million is available for coupons, but only for those who have no cable or satellite service in their home - and thus depend entirely on over-the-air reception.

If you're in a mixed household (some cable TVs, some with antennas) get your coupons before the first batch runs out. And remember that you have to use the coupons within three months after they're issued. Visit www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009.

Many readers wondered whether their current antennas would work with the new converters. I think there will be significant reception problems in many areas, so it's worth a visit to www.antennaweb.org, a site operated by the National Association of Broadcasters.

Enter your address and ZIP code (ignore the request for your name and e-mail address), and you'll get a list of the stations in your area, the direction of the transmitter from your home, and the type of antenna you'll need for each station.

Obviously, you'll need a better antenna to pull in Washington stations than you will to get Baltimore broadcasters. Antenna boxes are color-coded, so this makes it relatively easy to buy one.

For a geekier look at your prospects for reception, visit tvfool.com and browse the online maps for a look at the digital signal strength of each TV station. This is a great map-and-data mash up, but you'll have even more fun with the site if you install Google Earth on your computer.

Stay tuned.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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