Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Blogging boom

Blogging boom

Ozarkers share their lives, interests with global community.

By Michael A. Brothers

Hundreds of people visit the Moxie Cinema every day, yet the independent movie theater in downtown Springfield hasn't sold a single ticket or tub of popcorn — or even opened its doors for business.
That's because the theater's loyal customer base is online, following the slow but steady progress owners Dan and Nicole Chilton are making via Dan's Web log, commonly known as a blog.

"My goal in the beginning was just to kind of chronicle the steps my wife Nicole and I were taking to open the theater," says Dan, 25. "... I thought maybe one or two people would be interested."

When he began the cyber chronicle a year ago, only a handful were. Then Chilton's blog — which discusses everything from whether or not to hold intermissions to a step-by-step guide to soundproofing an old window — was chosen as a "Blog of Note" on the Web site

Chilton says he still has no idea how or why his blog was highlighted, but the project has taken on a new life since. Occasional posts turned into a daily routine, and the once text-only site now features an extensive photo log of the renovation process.

The blogging phenomenon has been around for a few years now, but Chilton is one of at least 30 Ozarks bloggers who are using the worldwide medium of the Internet to publish local content. One might think only area residents would be interested in following the progress of a tiny Springfield movie theater, but Chilton and others like him are proving that local blogs can have global appeal.

A blog is as unique as the person who writes it, says Andrew Cline, an assistant professor of journalism at Southwest Missouri State University who writes a blog about press and political rhetoric. He's also compiled links to every local blogger he could find, whether their content is local or not.

"It's everything from a personal online diary to very serious commentary about our world to helping people to sell more widgets," Cline says.

Blogs have a few defining characteristics: a unifying theme, regular and frequent content updates, personal voice and links to interesting or related Web sites and blogs.

Local blogs run the gamut from entertainment listings to rants about life in the Ozarks to exploring weird places to starting movie theaters.

After the spotlight, readership of the Moxie blog peaked at more than 1,200 people a day, but it has since leveled off to about 500 regular readers, about 30 percent to 40 percent of whom are local, Chilton says.

"In the beginning people really liked reading the posts of behind-the-scenes stuff like where you get movies, how much of the ticket price goes back to the theater and why concessions are so expensive," Chilton says.

"Then when people started to get more invested in the theater, they started to get more into the picture blogs."

Chilton compares finding a good local blog to meeting a person from your hometown in some far-flung corner of the world: there's an undeniable connection no matter what the circumstance.

"It just opens up your eyes to so many different views of the same community," he says.

That's what happened to John Stone, a retired biologist and local blogger who discovered the Moxie online.

"It's a way for me to learn about what's going on in Springfield," says Stone, 61. "I knew nothing about the Moxie theater and I live within six blocks of it. I knew nothing about it until I read it in the Springfieldian."

The Springfieldian is an often humorous blog about local life, and one of about 15 that Stone reads daily. Others are about the sciences, but they aren't merely cut-and-dried academic journals.

"Blogs have personality, and it's really more creative writing than it is technical writing," Stone says. "... That's the joy of blogging. If you find somebody you like to read, you get to know them."

Stone, 61, started writing his own blog, Curbstone Critic, as a diversion. The title is taken from a column that appeared decades ago in this newspaper. He admits it has little purpose other than to amuse its author, but more than 1,000 people have logged on to read his personal profile.

"There is absolutely no reason for my little blog to be in existence," he says, "but I'm surprised as to how much it's read."

Other local blogs have more gravity.

The Turner Report, written by former journalist and Joplin middle school teacher Randy Turner, is frequently updated with Missouri news and the author's analysis. Cline's Rhetorica Network has a largely academic tone and draws 2,500 to 5,000 daily hits from across the country.

Some blogs are more varied. Chatter, by Ron Davis, is one of the most closely followed among the local online community and cuts a wide swath between oddball news items, liberal politics and sometimes very personal topics like the death of a parent.

Starting your own blog is easy, bloggers say. There are a number of sites like that allow users to simply fill out some information about themselves, choose a format and go. The only requirement is computer access.

One well-known blogger, Kevin Barbieux, wrote about being homeless via free Internet access at a Nashville public library.

"Don't be surprised if it becomes something you never, ever thought it would be," says Daniel "Buck" Evinger, a Branson businessman who runs a blog called Laugh At Liberals with a handful of friends.

They started it last year as a way to poke fun at the left during the presidential election, and as a way to feel more involved with the national political process.

But the blog of original humor attracted even more liberals than conservatives, and soon an active community of readers trading posts and opinions began to revolve around it.

"I'm just amazed at how it started out as a way for us to have an Internet site where we could post our little topics, our little commentary and funny little jokes, and how people just started finding it and doing the same thing," says Evinger, 41.

SMS' Cline believes blogging, whether local or national, will change the way people communicate and gather news and information, eventually shifting the model of mass media from one-way lecture into group discussion. More and more news outlets will adopt the practice in the future, he believes, because interactivity attracts an audience.

"The Internet is teaching people they can talk back to power," Cline says.

Yet Evinger, who works in the advertising industry, says local blogs often still need a boost from traditional media like TV and newspapers to be noticed by local audiences.

"That hasn't changed, and I don't see that changing anytime real soon," he says.