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Local political blogs are battling to rule Leon County's fierce election cycle

stack of newspapers
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A stack of newspapers represents the old media that is giving way to online publications

It’s coming up on Election Day in Leon County, and the battles are being fought as much online as they are in person. At the center are the virtual publications that support competing candidates -- and some are fighting as hard as the candidates themselves.

There’s Tallahassee Reports, Grow Tallahassee, Our Tallahassee, and 4TLH -- all weighing in on the candidates. As the so-called legacy media have lost some bandwidth, others have seen theirs widen. Steve Stewart started the center-right Tallahassee Reports in 2009. He says he quickly saw a need for more local reporting based on issues he felt weren't being covered.

“And I think the first big issue that we tackled was the deferred compensation that city commissioners voted to give themselves,” he says. “It was not reported on, we got a tip about it, we wrote about it -- and actually it got repealed because of our reporting.”

On the other side of the spectrum is the progressive blog Our Tallahassee. Bob Lotane is the publisher of the site, which launched last September. He agrees with Stewart on the need for more citizen-driven journalism.

“We felt that more coverage was better than less,” he says. “And it didn’t have to be traditional coverage, you know, where everybody’s paid [receive paychecks] and sells advertisements and floats bonds on Wall Street. That [corporate model] is not working anymore. It’s working to a degree, but not like it used to. You can’t cover -- they [traditional media] just don’t have the resources.”

Bryan Desloge is a former Leon County commissioner who now represents 4TLH. It's another local blog that says it is not a news site, but acknowledges it has a point of view on issues like business, development and law enforcement. Desloge started the blog earlier this year in response to what he calls “a melee and a food fight” following a local political controversy: the joint city-county Blueprint commission's allocation of $27 million to fund stadium improvements and renovations to Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium.

“Listen, I was in it for 14 years. Politics is a blood sport and it’s full contact, and I don’t make any excuses for that -- and that’s the way the game is played,” he says. “But you know, when you have a vote on a contentious issue, like FSU, the vote went a certain way  -- you move on. You don’t spend the rest of your time trying to denigrate the people that voted the way you didn’t like or trying to somehow reverse it.”   

4TLH has criticized City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow and County Commissioner Kristin Dozier for their opposition to Doak and other development proposals.

Lotane says Our Tallahassee is more progressive than other local media... and that it offers facts about things like campaign contributions, which require time and know-how that most people don’t have.

“We don’t make things up. As much as people say we do, nobody’s come up with a story yet where they’ve questioned ... our accuracy,” he says. “And the other thing, too, is that if you look on our website, I would say at least 50% of the stories, if not more, we have the video, too.”

Our Tallahassee has found itself at the center of the "blood sport," drawing the ire of entities like 4TLH and Grow Tallahassee, a local organization that describes itself as pro-growth and pro-economic development. Bugra Demirel is the chairman of Grow Tallahassee’s political action committee.

“Our political purpose is about the candidates that align with our vision for Tallahassee,” he says. “We are advocating for economic development, workforce development and entrepreneurship programs. So our political purpose ends right where the election season is over.”  

The group is openly supportive of City Commissioner Diane Williams Cox, Mayor John Dailey, County Commissioners Nick Maddox and Bill Proctor, and candidates David Bellamy and Christian Caban.

Demirel says in his opinion, Our Tallahassee is designed to generate negative content and conspiracy theories to help ‘certain candidates.’ He's also brawled with the group on social media.

“I believe that at least three local candidates, particularly Jeremy Matlow, Adner Marcelin and Kristin Dozier are using these third-party blogs and these websites to do pretty much their dirty work,” he says. “They’re getting negative content out through these blogs, and they’re attacking those candidates, their opponents, through these blogs because they would like to keep their campaign clean.”

Matlow has been openly critical of Grow Tallahassee, while Dozier adamantly denies any involvement with either entity.

“Our Tallahassee -- the people who run it -- are not working on the campaign. There is no coordination,” she says. “Obviously they have a position on local issues, on these elections, as does Grow Tallahassee and as does lots of other groups.”

These struggles over influence often lie behind the news cycle. But if there are all these news options, how do people decide where to turn? Bob Ruggles is the founding dean of the journalism school at Florida A&M University. He's now retired and says it’s nothing new for politicians to be aligned with media outlets.

“And I think that’s not altogether bad because as the old saying goes, ‘Out of a multitude of voices, the truth is more apt to come.’ I’m paraphrasing that, of course,” he says. “And certainly we have a multitude of voices on the national level, and here in Tallahassee now.”  

Steve Stewart says the damage to traditional media has been a double-edged sword.

“I think that provides opportunities for other people to provide news, but it also provides opportunities for people to take advantage of from a political angle,” he says. “So consumers have to be careful.”

August 13th is the first day of early voting for the primaries, and August 21st is the last day. Election Day is August 23rd.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.