Netroots = Grassroots

The political mainstream has finally come around to the blogosphere. Thanks to the fundraising strength shown by Howard Dean early in the 2004 presidential cycle, and the influence of sites such as Markos Moulitsas Zúniga's Daily Kos or Crooks and Liars, which have helped insert progressive issues into the mainstream.

In New Jersey, the progressive Web site Blue Jersey ( has been at the forefront of several political issues in the state, most recently the fight over same-sex marriage with its Web-based ad campaign Think Equal (a series of ads showing the limitations of the state's new civil union legislation). The ads were created by Blue Jersey, but Garden State Equality, a gay-rights group, will be paying for television time potentially magnifying their impact.

The site, created by Juan Melli, a Princeton University graduate student from southern New Jersey in 2005, has also served as a clearinghouse for electoral advocacy, giving supporters of Democratic challengers in several House districts a place online to congregate and discuss issues and strategy.

"One reason for starting Blue Jersey was to educate myself about New Jersey politics and government, and in the process, help educate others," he told me via email recently. "The New York and Philly TV stations ignore us for the most part, so unless they read the papers, most people don't get much news about New Jersey. I also wanted to create a forum for progressive-minded people to share ideas and organize with the hope of creating an environment in New Jersey conducive to passing progressive legislation. We're a pretty progressive state, but you wouldn't know it sometimes by the way our legislature acts."

Melli's community-based blog site (to which I am an occasional contributor) has attracted about 1,100 registered users and gets about 100,000 page views a month, relying on a small crew of "front-page bloggers" and the rest of the community for content. In the process, Melli was named Politician of the Year by PoliticsNJ, the state's online political magazine.

I interviewed him via email in early January and what follows is an edited version of our correspondence.

PP: "How would you characterize the site? Is it a site for activists and advocates? For Democrats? For progressives of any stripe? Or a place for left-leaning discussion and strategizing? An alternative to the MSM? (I see it as a bit of all of this.)"

Melli: "Overall, the site focus has been evolving and as the site grows, expanding. It is part activism, part analysis, part media watchdog and part strategy.

"The site is a big tent. Anyone who is respectful is welcome to join in, but we don't hide the fact that we are progressives/liberals who want to see our state move forward through the implementation of progressive policies. Most Democrats would probably be comfortable here -- it's safe to say that most writers on Blue Jersey consider themselves Democrats -- but some of our harshest criticism is reserved for those Democrats who don't uphold the values the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.

"We don't see ourselves as competing with the traditional media, though we do act as media watchdogs to ensure accuracy and fairness in their reporting. We don't have the resources, and some of us don't have interest in, doing the original research and reporting associated with that type of work. Sometimes we do original interviews and reporting, often in the form of podcasts. We do it to connect legislators with the grassroots, not just for the sake of providing original content."

PP: "Is there a danger if the site is seen as being too closely affiliated with a political party?"

Melli: "I'm not worried about the site being too closely affiliated with a political party. We're open and honest about who we and what are goals are. If we begin acting like hacks, our readers will punish us for it. They don't owe us anything."

PP: "What role does a site like Blue Jersey play or can it play in focusing the state on particular issues? I am thinking of the Think Equal ads, but also the targeting of specific districts by Blue Jersey and smaller, district-based sites."

Melli: "Compared to most traditional media in the state, our readership is not that large, but by focusing on an issue we can increase awareness of it. Part of that has to do with our relationship with national blogs with hundreds of thousands of readers who often will pick up on important prominent issues and give them more exposure. Our audience is largely composed of traditional media and political insiders so we know that when we talk about something, it's at least on their radar screens. But the majority of our readers are activists and others interested in improving the state, and they're the ones who are the most vocal with their elected leaders."

PP: "One of the questions surrounding the so-called Netroots is where they fit in in the larger political culture. My sense is that sites like Blue Jersey -- and Daily Kos and Crooks and Liars nationally -- offer another tool, that they facilitate communication, but that they cannot replace on the ground organizing. Others disagree. How do you view the debate?"

Melli: "I agree that blogs are not a replacement for on the ground organizing. They are just one piece of the puzzle: they efficiently engage those who are already the most politically active. It's probably not realistic to expect political blogs to reach a general audience, though the medium does present interesting opportunities to engage new people. Blogs are evolving and they're no longer just a place to vent.

"They've grown to become interactive communities where anyone can share their ideas and strategies. But we haven't reached our full potential yet. Not by a long shot. At Blue Jersey we plan to continue adding tools to facilitate grassroots organizing and communication."

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey weekly newspapers. Email His blog, Channel Surfing, can be found at

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2007

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