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Liveblogging from Vegas II

Andi, ArmyWifeToddlerMom, Sarah, and ButterflyWife are currently in Las Vegas at the Blog World Expo, attending panels on Milblogging.  I will update as the panel continues.

Milblogging Panel 2:  To Blog or Not to Blog: Milbloggers, the DoD, and the Media

Moderator: Ward Carroll from Military.comMatt Burden from BlackfiveMichael Totten from Middle East JournalJack Holt, the DoD blogger outreach coordinatorClaude Chafin, from the White House

Ward:  This panel deals with the impact of new media: what the DoD and White House have done to reach out to milbloggers and how the Media has dealt with it.

It may be fair to say that the DoD and the White House were "late to the party" in understanding milblogs.  Question for Jack and Claude: What prompted the outreach to bloggers?  Jack:  There were a lot of stories in the media that didn't really rise to the level of a story, didn't have full context.  What can we do to help this?  Coming late to the party, I take a little exception to, I was in Afghanistan, we noticed it was a user-generated, user-defined medium that wasn't very defined in the beginning.  I called around to non-standard publications, ones that didn't normally cover military affairs, to see if we could get them to the table, to round out the narrative and discussion in the media.  I kept getting doors slammed in my face.  Publishers didn't want to cover it.  But the blogs had a knowledge base developing out there.  Centcom had tapped into it and found a way to make it successful.  I reached out to bloggers like Bill Roggio, whose first question was "can you get us embedded?"  We have all these units downrange, we want the story told, and here are people like Roggio and Yon begging to go.  It worked.  The best way I could add value to what was happening was to hook up the bloggers with the men on the ground.

Claude:  We took the DoD's lists and piggybacked.  I would like to highlight General Caldwell as one of the first people to get it.

What's your perspective on this outreach?  Matt:  We get invites to talk VTC with people downrange, especially interviews with reconstruction teams.  You can really see the big picture when you do this.  Where it took off for Blackfive was counterinsurgency operations, which we can ask people the right questions and get the info to our readers.

Michael:  Jack helped me get into Iraq.  I was going to go on an organized tour of Iraq, which fell apart.  So Jack offered me to go embed by myself, with the 82nd.  It was me and Army guys, not me and bloggers in a managed environment.  It was better.  It's mean to call it dog-and-pony-show, but that's kinda what it might've been.  My audience is concerned that I only see what the Army wants me to see, but this way it doesn't really happen like that.

So what were the embeds doing?  Jack:  They were doing the job.  I was in Kabul with journalists and told them they needed to go see what was happening.  And they had all sorts of reasons why they couldn't.  There was no independent witness of what was happening on the ground.  And the soldiers want people telling their stories.  They're doing good work, and someone needs to acknowledge it.

What was in play for suggesting outreach for bloggers at the White House?  Claude:  Nobody came into this cold.  There's a knowledge that bloggers are telling a story that isn't being told anywhere else, modern day Ernie Pyle.  And the stories from back home as well.  That resonates, and resonated with the president very much.  It wasn't a hard sell.

The President's visit is a metaphor for what happens when the outreach happens.  Matt:  It was a boost meeting the president because we know what we know in milblogs, that most folks just want to do their job and the soldiers will follow the president's lead, but to hear the president acknowledge the work everyone has done to put a face on soldiers doing their job was great.  I knew there'd be a lot of flack from the left side of the aisle, but what blogging is is a conversation.  We engage the commenters, and we have a lot of folks from both sides.  I expected to be called a tool of the administration, so we tried to approach the issue with truth, to be on the side of the soldier and his family and nothing more.

What do you do differently from traditional media or stringers?  Michael:  They don't embed.  Some want to, but their editors won't let them.  I couldn't come up with an AP headline for anything I saw.  All my stories were nuts and bolts of this is what I did in Baghdad today.  This is not a news story the media can publish, based on their own rules.  That's what they do, but you can't get those Weather Kills 10, Bomb Kills 100 by being an embed.  So stringers send data into the Green Zone and a reporter puts it all together into a story.  Embeds work better for a monthly magazine, not everyday media.  It's frustrating to see the media focus on the bang-bang stuff in Iraq.  I don't blame it on the individual reporters, but that's just the way it works.  They have to sell a certain type of story.  They're very limited.  Blogging is so liberating, and a good way to report on Iraq.

Matt:  Brown Univ did a study: journalists don't want to embed because they think it takes away their objectivity.  I disagree, but that's what they said.

Michael:  That's absurd, because when I was in Lebanon, I never once heard someone say "I was too close to the Lebanese to report objectively." 

Was there negative feedback from the president meeting the milbloggers?  Claude:  Now that the president has met with milbloggers, no one else can poo poo them or say they don't want to meet with them.  People are skeptical of new media, but now these people have more credibility to write a better story.  They had an hour to see how the president's mind works and what he thinks.

Why couldn't the Pentagon Press Corps attend the blog round table with the President? Jack:  They have access elsewhere, bloggers don't.  One example from one of the round tables.  General Stone discussed detainee operations, he had made the rounds and talked to Anderson Cooper, NYT, etc, and has been trying to tell people about the progress and successes.  It never made print anywhere.  He does one blogger roundtable, 30 min on the phone, as transparent as possible, recorded and moderated, and the transcript gets posted on the web.  The Washington Post finds that transcript and writes two stories based on it.  They had the opportunity to talk to General Stone directly but found quality in the questions from the bloggers that caught their researcher's eye.  They learned it was a story when bloggers framed it.

Matt:  Heck, we have jobs too!  Reporters have the access, but sometimes I have to miss a call because I am at my job.

Questions:

Michael Yon sometimes can't get internet access, a cot, etc.  What can you do to help the guy in the field?  Jack:  We're working on fixing it, with commanders in the field to make sure they facilitate.  The technical issues, there just may not be internet access.  You can't plug into a military net.  One issue we're looking at in DoD transformation is providing better web presence for commanders downrange, which might bring a link to the net for embeds.  We're looking at these issues.

Who's on your list and how do you decide topics? Jack:  I have about 100 people on the list and by word of mouth find new people to invite to the round table.  5-7 people per call is a good number, and I don't want to make it too big.  Sometimes we can expand the time if we have more people.

Claude:  I steal Jack's list and do a very similar thing at the White House.  I say that if you're going to spend time on a call with the mainstream media, I say that they might get more mileage from one of these blogger conference calls.

Do you interact with the NGOs?  Michael:  No.  I don't have any access to them.  When I go to Fallujah, I go with the Marines, and I don't think they have much contact with NGOs. 

Milblogging was born out of the failure of the media and many PAOs.  So now do PAOs get to participate in the roundtables?  Jack:  Yes, especially many of the young lieutenants and captains.  We want them to host some of the roundtables and then take that out into the field.

Are you targeting any foreign audiences or is it just for US consumption? Jack:  Well, I am not really targeting anyone.  I am just going with the people who agreed to be on the list.  This is not traditional public affairs, which is "here is the message we're putting out."  This is a conversation, putting subject matter experts together to make the info accessible to anyone.  You know the telephone game?  The first thing you learn is you are never in control of your message.  But if every other person clarified their message, you wouldn't have that problem.  The enemy has had an impact on the media, but those guys can't stay engaged in the dialogue.  They have one-way messaging.  Osama bin Ladin doesn't hold roundtables.  Once this info goes out, it's public domain, worldwide.

Claude:  Is there a blogger who only blogs for an American audience?  There is no limit because the community isn't limited to one nationality.  The roundtable transcripts are translated and sent to foreign embassies.  But if you engage, say, a Muslim blogger, they may become a target of violence.  That's why sites like al Jazeera are used to get the message out.

Out of time!

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