LGBT conference highlights influence of bloggers

by Phil Reese

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 15, 2011

"Blogger" was a naughty word in the media world when the Democratic and Republican National Committees made the curious choice to invite publishers of these then-alien publications to join mainstream press in covering their 2004 conventions.

In spite of protests from the citadels of traditional journalism; the parties realized these "Weblogs" were becoming trusted news sources for their readers. And bloggers, podcasters and vloggers were practically everywhere at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's annual Creating Change conference in Minneapolis from Feb. 2-5.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's New Media Training Institute was so popular at last year's Creating Change in Dallas that potential participants were turned away at the door. GLAAD sought out a larger space this year to allow the growing number of "citizen journalists" to participate to the all-day event.

The media watchdog's institute featured non-profit new media pioneer Heather Mansfield, who founded the page for "Nonprofitorgs" on MySpace early last decade. Budding new media "mavens" and "gurus" learned about Mansfield's experience with best practices on how to effectively use Facebook, Twitter and other leading social media networks.

"Create a presence everywhere you can," said Mansfield, "Early adopters become the big players as the network grows."

Aside from the GLAAD institute, the conference provided ample opportunity for bloggers to collaborate and report on their work. Daniel Villarreal, a Dallas-based Queerty contributor, attended Creating Change for the first time. "I could apply the work I do with Queerty to the larger community," he told EDGE. "We got to talk about how we can work together better with other bloggers, and with other college activist and other community activists."

Bloggers' influence grows at conference

Inga Sarda-Sorensen, director of communications for the Task Force, noted bloggers and other new media professionals have had an ever more visible presence at the conference since she first attended six years ago.

"Every year we have more bloggers and other new media creators in attendance, which is fabulous," she said. "Their respective points of view, areas of interest and topics they cover make the conference an even richer, more textured and dynamic experience both for attendees and those who do not participate in person."

The Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality worked closely with bloggers to build momentum around the Feb. 4 release of a report that documented the disproportionate rates of homelessness, unemployment, discrimination and general despair many trans Americans continue to face.

"Where once there was skepticism about the role and the need for bloggers, advocates and organizations are increasingly understanding that bloggers can play a key role in catalyzing supporters to take action, communicating political messages, and playing bad cop when needed," said Michael Crawford, new media director at Freedom to Marry.

Crawford added bloggers are an indispensable tool for his and other LGBT organizations to fulfill their missions.

"We no longer approach bloggers as traditional media who report about campaigns from the outside," added Allison Palmer, director of digital initiatives at GLAAD. "We view bloggers as partners who increase participation and add their own perspectives. More and more of our calls to action about anti-LGBT stories in the media are stemming from reports from bloggers. We're also seeing more speedy and positive outcomes as bloggers and their readers are engaged in our calls to action."

Villarreal understands why new media continues to become the pervasive source of information in a the LGBT and other social movements. "[New media] really depends on collaboration," he said. "At the heart of it there's a kind of idea of promotion and creation in a kind of market that used to be hampered by the cost of production or the means of distribution."

A 2009 Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs Communication survey found 55 percent of LGBT Americans read blogs. Universal McCann further estimates 77 percent of the Internet's 1.75 billion users regularly visit blogs.

"Gays and lesbians are not only looking to stay well informed but also to expand their key social, professional and personal connections online," said Bob Witeck, chief executive officer for Witeck-Combs.

Have bloggers' influence actually peaked?

Because most bloggers at Creating Change don't wear special "blogger" press passes-nor usually any press passes at all-the presence of these "citizen journalists" isn't always obvious. An indication of their presence, however, is the increasing numbers of bloggers who attend the Bilerico Project's annual Creating Change mixer.

Bil Browning, co-founder of the Bilerico Project; Mike Jones from; Adam Bink of the Courage Campaign and formerly OpenLeft and Michael Rogers from RawStory attended. Brad Luna and Cathy Renna and Michael Mitchell, executive director of National Stonewall Democrats; Rick Jacobs, chair of Courage Campaign, and Rea Carey, executive director of the Task Force were also in attendance. Not everyone, however, shares their rosy outlook towards blogging.

"[E]very 22-year-old with a "Sarah Palin" Google alert and a dose of irony fancied himself the next Alex Balk," noted Dan Duray in his New York Observer story that predicts oversaturation will cause blogs' influence to decline. And Robin Grant, managing director of the We Are Social public relations agency, suggested in June 2009 the growing popularity of social media networks has resulted in a decrease in the number of new blogs.

Villarreal disagrees. Rather than declining, Villarreal believes blogging is 'growing up.' "I think blogging is becoming a bit more specialized back in the day blogging used to be... Anyone could create a blog about your cat or things that ticked you off and it had some novelty to it," he said. It goes back to what I was saying about specialization, and people are realizing that blogging is a different journalistic method--or at least a different method of engagement. What you could get away with at the start, people won't spend time to tolerate or wait for you to improve, unless its your friends or unless you have some sort of fan base."

Noral Paul, director of the Minnesota Journalism Center at the School of Journalism and Communications, said blogging has matured from what she described as once the realm of amateur hobbyists. She said blogs remain key pieces of what she described as "constant information surveillance."

"When you find a blogger that really has decided that some particular niche is their thing, they are great 'hunter-gatherers' for you," added Paul. "They have their ear to the ground in a way that--if you want to get up to speed on something-they are finding the interesting stuff and putting it into an important context."

A former middle school English teacher, Phil Reese has been a veteran of LGBTQ advocacy for over 10 years in Michigan, Illinois and across America. He writes for numerous prominent LGBTQ publications, both online and in print, and is founder and co-host of the popular SameSexSunday podcast. He attends the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is seeking his Masters in Library and Information Science.