No one is safe. Not Isthmus newspaper reporters, not the Mansion Hill Neighborhood Steering Committee, not the city’s Landmarks Commission. In the past six months, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has taken all three to task in his blog for their positions on the Edgewater Hotel redevelopment project, which he supports.
“It should not be this hard for someone who wants to create jobs, add to our tax base, increase public access to the lake and revive a tired iconic property to get his project done,” he wrote in one blog entry on Oct. 29. “It’s not that the opponents of this project didn’t have some legitimate concerns. But those concerns have been more than adequately addressed. What remains now is unreasonable opposition from a slim minority that vows to use every tool at their disposal, including the courts, to block this project. In this long debate, it’s time for reason to take hold.”
Cieslewicz, a self-acknowledged Luddite and a lover of traditional newsprint, has taken to his blogging role with gusto. Since he debuted his blog in January, Cieslewicz has written more than 150 entries (including at least a dozen on the Edgewater Hotel), making the blog a dominant part of his communications strategy. Readers of the online feature get a window into Cieslewicz’s mind as he expounds on everything from his hunting expeditions with friends to his lobbying trips to Washington. But Cieslewicz most obviously and consistently uses his blog, which is housed on the city of Madison’s website, to assert his spin on city issues of the day — many times getting his opinion out there before a story breaks in the news media in an attempt, it appears, to subvert the news cycle.
“I’ve been reading here and there lately about what a mean guy I am,” he wrote in a May entry after criticism of his committee appointments began to percolate on neighborhood and organization e-mail lists. “Apparently, I am grinding my opponents into the ground like the Packers’ frontline in the glory days. To read some of these accounts, I am the Darth Vader (if not the Chad Vader) of Madison politics. How am I trampling on democracy? I am appointing people to committees who I want on committees.”
It’s not the first time Cieslewicz has turned the tables on political communication. Shortly after taking office in 2003, Cieslewicz took over the Madison City Channel show, “The Mayor’s Report,” changing its format from one where journalists or citizens posed questions to the mayor to a Letterman-style talk show that he hosts with various guests.
Cieslewicz acknowledges he’ll occasionally use his blog to respond to a story, but “rarely” tries to get ahead of the news.
“The last thing I want to do is undercut reporters,” he says.
Cieslewicz says he decided to start his blog after talking with staff more than a year ago about the new media environment and the declining opportunities to get longer written pieces into print editorial pages. Some of his earliest blog entries online even included a few defenses of the printed newspaper.
He is an engaging and persuasive writer. Entries are typically on the short side and eminently readable, with statistics used only as backup for his personal opinions. Cieslewicz, who writes every entry himself, says a typical blog entry takes only 15 minutes to write, but adds that he’ll ask a staffer to read over entries for grammar and to make sure a number or fact is correct.
This communication strategy has in many ways made Cieslewicz a pioneer for other mayors — search online for “mayor” and “blog” and Cieslewicz’s blog is usually the first or second page that comes up. Even compared to other mayors who blog, Cieslewicz tends to write about more topics more frequently. After a relatively slow start, it appears that more people are paying attention to what Cieslewicz writes, with the blog garnering nearly 15,000 of its 55,000 total views in the past month.
University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor Sue Robinson, who studies citizen journalism and the blogosphere, says blogs like Cieslewicz’s can be “grand vehicles” for humanizing politicians and communicating their political agendas.
“Anytime you have a major municipal official penning his thoughts to the world, people will be paying attention, and what is said in there becomes part of the information production happening in the city, influencing not just public opinion but the political process itself,” Robinson says in an e-mail.
The blog is different from most citizen blogs, however, in that it doesn’t allow comments or replies to Cieslewicz’s entries. Not allowing comments keeps the maintenance of the blog simple, with no city staff required to keep track of them. But Robinson says it has the added political advantage of keeping the message focused on Cieslewicz’s opinion — “any disagreement must happen elsewhere in the blogosphere.”
Still, she says, while blogging politicians aim to “bypass all the spin,” entries cannot be totally separate from the rest of the political debate, and using the blog to ward off criticism either from media or the public is not foolproof.
“Some research has shown that whatever a politician’s intention is with the blog, the content will inevitably get him or her into trouble, politically,” she adds.
While Cieslewicz has yet to make any major missteps, trouble may be on the way. Cieslewicz’s critiques of the “unelected” Landmarks Commission have prompted some to say that he is writing the literature for opponents of the recently passed regional transit authority, an appointed body with the ability to tax part of the county for mass transit. Cieslewicz has been a major supporter of the RTA, but notably called the Landmarks Commission’s appeals process, which requires a two-thirds vote of the council to overturn a commission decision, “fundamentally undemocratic.”
Even Cieslewicz acknowledges there is some potential for a blog to backfire, which is one reason that staff review his entries before they go online.
“The more you write, the more opportunities you have to mess up and put your foot in your mouth,” he says. “There are some entries that probably didn’t see the light of day, but that doesn’t happen very often.”
Some have also questioned whether the opinionated blog is appropriate for the city’s website, which often features links to such informative topics as alternate side parking, snow emergencies, property tax bills and park shelter reservations.
Lukas Diaz, the elections chair of the Progressive Dane political party, has written on his own personal progressive blog, Forward Our Motto, that using city resources isn’t “Chicago-style politics by any means,” but it does take up some public dollars in IT staff time and bandwidth for a political purpose. He notes in an interview one instance where Cieslewicz pretended to be a parking ticket recipient from Toledo, Ohio, mockingly calling Madison a “gulag of a city” for its intricate parking rules.
“I go to pay my water bill, and there’s a link to the mayor’s blog,” Diaz says. “He’s using this city resource to call people unreasonable. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just question him using city resources to make fun of citizens. It’s a small thing, but I don’t think it’s a good policy.”
Often, though not exclusively, blogs penned by politicians are hosted by their personal or campaign websites, or through a free blog hosting site like Blogger or Wordpress, which Diaz says would be more appropriate.
Dustin Weis, a radio reporter for WTDY who also writes a personal blog, disagrees, saying the blog isn’t that different from the mayor’s press releases, which have been posted and archived on the city website for years. While the blog can serve at times as a “propaganda catapult” for the mayor, Weis adds that it also provides “a really rare kind of policy insight” from an elected official and he doubts anyone mistakes its function for that of a newspaper’s.
“I think it’s certainly separate from the news,” Weis says. “It’s a different way of distributing information and people that read the mayor’s blog are going to be smart enough to know that it’s one unfiltered perspective from someone who has a political agenda to push. Certainly it’s no substitute for good reporting.”
Despite some reservations about it, Diaz calls Cieslewicz’s blog a “must-read” for him and says he hopes that Cieslewicz begins to improve his blogging etiquette by linking to other news websites and blogs.
“I think he’s an interesting writer, and he’s charismatic. He’s the mayor, so anything he writes will get read,” Diaz says.