Democratic bloggers shun official digs for 'Big Tent'

Why brave the painfully slow security lines and TSA-like hassles at the official Democratic convention center? For many lefty bloggers, it's a lot more fun to hang out at the Big Tent a few blocks away.

Stephanie Condon Staff writer, CBSNews.com
Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.
Stephanie Condon
5 min read
Dozens of bloggers write on Tuesday from inside the so-called Big Tent, a workspace outside the official convention center for lefty (and a few non-lefty) activists. Declan McCullagh/News.com

DENVER--If you want to find bloggers here at the Democratic convention, don't look inside the Pepsi Center, an island of concrete surrounded by fences, barriers, checkpoints, and heavily armed police in helmets and black uniforms.

Many have camped out in a more welcoming place: the so-called Big Tent, located a few blocks outside the security perimeter where bloggers can pay $100 for a place to work for the week. There are free smoothies and massages downstairs (thanks to Google) and free lectures upstairs (courtesy of left-leaning activists hoping to rally the faithful).

It is true that the Democratic National Convention Committee handed credentials to a record number of bloggers for the Denver convention this week, but more nevertheless appear to have gathered at the Big Tent. Adding to the lure of the unofficial venue is that the workspace's location on Wynkoop Street is around the corner from a multitude of restaurants and private parties, including a massive Tuesday reception organized by Emily's List, a late-night jazz festival, and an AT&T-sponsored brewery bash.

A front-row seat
Sara Robinson, a self-described progressive blogger from Vancouver, B.C., received credentials for both the Pepsi Center and the Big Tent. Her DNCC credentials got her prime seating during Michelle Obama's speech on Monday night.

"I was in front of the front row last night," said Robinson, who's blogging for Campaign for America's Future, a Washington-based advocacy group, and liberal lifestyle site Group News Blog. "There was nothing between me and the Secret Service."

The DNCC designated an official "blogger lounge" inside the Pepsi Center--the location for convention events except for Barack Obama's speech on Thursday--with access to televisions and other technology resources. The credentialed bloggers also have access to the convention floor, press briefing areas, caucus meetings, filing centers, and other auxiliary events open to members of the media.

Even though she said she appreciated her floor access, which is sometimes difficult to obtain for mainstream media, Robinson was less than impressed with the blogger lounge.

"Last night, before I went to the floor, I saw that there's a press room--it's lovely, it's air conditioned," she said. "Then there's a little room off to the side, and it's dark and it's dank. We're clearly not allowed to mingle with the big kids. I'm hoping in 2008 or 2012 we'll get past that."

Greek blogger Panayotis Vryonis says he prefers the blogger-mecca of the Big Tent -- instead of the official convention center where politicians are speaking this week. Stephanie Condon/CNET News

The Big Tent is not without its flaws, though. The 8,000-square-foot, two-story structure is notably lacking efficient air conditioning, Robinson pointed out.

"Other than that, it's amazing we have our own space," she said. "Physical presence counts for a lot. In 2004 there were bloggers, but we didn't have a space. What it says is, 'We are here, we are present, in a way we haven't been before.'

"It's an interesting time to meet my fellow bloggers and learn a lot more about how the sausage gets made," she continued. "It's fun to be part of a community that's merging into its own in the progressive community."

Other international bloggers, including Panayotis Vryonis from Greece, joined Robinson in the Big Tent. As a social media consultant for a progressive party from his country, Vryonis said this "was a good opportunity to see what's going on."

"You guys are a couple years ahead of us as far as the use of Internet in politics," he said.

Vryonis said that with only about 25 percent of Greek households connected to the Internet, campaigning online in Greece is not as effective as in the United States.

"With raising money, people have to be used to using their credit card online or used to giving their e-mail out," he said. "It's not about technology, per se-- it's more a cultural thing."

Vryonis said he paid his own way for the trip to Denver to write about it firsthand on his blog Vrypan.net.

"I'm not making money out of (blogging), but it's not exactly a hobby since it helps my job," he said.

Through his connections in the Greek-American community, Vryonis was able to get DNCC credentials as well.

"The access to the convention center is the most important thing, if you want to be able to say you attended," he said, "but to be honest, (the Big Tent) is much better."

The outcome of the U.S. election will influence not only Greek politics but European politics in general, Vyronis said. "There's an Obama-mania in Greece and Europe in general," he said. "The media loves him, and bloggers love him too, since he's used the Internet in his campaign. I hope he keeps them mesmerized after the election if he gets elected, when it really becomes difficult."

The view from Alabama
Larisa Thomason, a blogger for Left in Alabama, initially supported John Edwards, who has recently been embroiled in a scandal involving him cheating on his wife.

"I spent a week in Iowa with my 14-year-old daughter, freezing our butts off for John Edwards," she said. "His platform was the most progressive."

"I live in a place in Alabama where I can't get cell phone access from my house, and I can't use wireless Internet because we don't have broadband out in the country," Thomason said. "Edwards spoke to those issues. When Edwards pulled out, I just kind of checked out and waited to see" who the Democratic candidate would be.

A Web content writer by profession, Thomason blogs voluntarily for Left in Alabama and paid her own way to Denver, along with three other Left in Alabama bloggers. They held an online fundraiser for the trip on their site, which has seen its readership grow from a couple hundred readers per day last winter to about 1,000 readers a day. The site raised enough money to cover the $100 Big Tent fee for all four bloggers.

Watch this: Bigger blogger presence at DNC

"That was really nice because it made us realize people actually care what we're writing and want to hear from us," she said.

Left in Alabama also received DNCC credentials and was offered media housing by the DNCC.

"The room we were offered was $45 a night, so we jokingly referred to it as the 'blogger crackhouse,'" Thomason said.

Thomason opted to share a hotel room with a friend who is an Alabama delegate.

"One of our bloggers is staying at (the media housing), though, and he said it's basic economy lodging, and we would've been fine there," she said.

Left in Alabama received further credibility from the Library of Congress, which recently asked to use the blog for an archive of 2008 online political coverage it is creating, Thomason said.

The blogger has also been able to support the local media. The Huntsville Times of Alabama asked Thomason to contribute coverage of the Alabama delegation to the paper.

She has used her trip for more than just convention coverage, though. She arrived in Colorado early to take a detour to the Focus on the Family headquarters in nearby Colorado Springs, so she could write a "snarky" blog post about the conservative group.

Thomason also admitted she missed the first night of convention speeches on Monday.

"I wish I could tell you I was a good political blogger," she said. "I was actually across town eating Ethiopian food. You don't get it in Alabama!"