It happens on election day in Leon County, and the battles are fought online as well as 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 of which weigh in on the candidates. While the so-called historical media have lost some bandwidth, others have seen theirs expand. Steve Stewart started the center-right Tallahassee Reports in 2009. He says he quickly saw the 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 the city commissioners voted to give themselves,” he says. “It went unreported, we got a tip about it, we wrote about it – and in fact it was taken down because of our reporting.”
On the other side of the spectrum is the progressive blog Our Tallahassee. Bob Lotane is the editor of the site, launched last September. He agrees with Stewart on the need for more citizen-focused journalism.
“We felt it was better to have more coverage than less,” he says. “And it didn’t have to be traditional coverage, you know, where everybody gets paid [receive paychecks] and sells advertisements and issues bonds on Wall Street. This [corporate model] does not work anymore. It works to some extent, but not like before. 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. This is another local blog that says it is not a news site, but acknowledges that it has a point of view on issues such as business, development and enforcement. the law. Desloge launched 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 to fund the upgrade and renovation of Florida State University’s Doak Campbell Stadium.
“Look, I’ve been in this for 14 years. Politics is a blood sport and it’s full contact, and I find no excuse for that – and that’s how 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 disparage people who voted in a way you don’t like or trying to reverse it in some way.
4TLH 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 offers facts about things like campaign contributions, which require time and expertise that most people don’t have.
“We are not inventing anything. As much as people say we do, no one has made up a story yet where they’ve questioned…our accuracy,” he says. “And the other thing too is 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 “bloodsport,” drawing the ire of entities like 4TLH and Grow Tallahassee, a grassroots organization that describes itself as pro-growth and pro-economic. Bugra Demirel is the chair of Grow Tallahassee’s political action committee.
“Our political focus is on candidates who align with our vision for Tallahassee,” he says. “We advocate for economic development, workforce development and entrepreneurship programs. So our political objective ends where the election season is over.
The group openly supports 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 view, Our Tallahassee is designed to generate negative content and conspiracy theories to help “certain candidates.” He also fought with the group on social media.
“I believe at least three local candidates, in particular Jeremy Matlow, Adner Marcelin and Kristin Dozier are using these third-party blogs and websites to pretty much do their dirty work,” he says. “They’re spreading negative content through these blogs, and they’re attacking these candidates, their opponents, through these blogs because they want their campaign to stay clean.”
Matlow has also openly criticized Grow Tallahassee, while Dozier adamantly denies involvement with either entity.
“Our Tallahassee — the people who run it — don’t work on the campaign. There’s no coordination,” she says. “Obviously they have a position on local issues, on these elections, like Grow Tallahassee and like many other bands.”
These struggles for influence are often at the origin of the news cycle. But if there are all these new options, how do people decide who to turn to? Bob Ruggles is the founding dean of the School of Journalism at Florida A&M University. He is now retired and says it is nothing new for politicians to be aligned with the media.
“And I think that’s not all bad because, as the old saying goes, ‘From a multitude of voices the truth is more likely to come.’ I’m paraphrasing that, of course,” he says. “And we certainly have a multitude of voices nationally, and here in Tallahassee now.”
Steve Stewart says the damage done to mainstream media has been a double-edged sword.
“I think it provides opportunities for other people to provide information, but it also provides opportunities for people to take advantage of it from a political angle,” he says. “Consumers should therefore be cautious.”
August 13 is the first day of early voting for the primaries and August 21 is the last day. Election day is August 23.