Building an online army with DailyKos

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is the founder of DailyKos, rated by Technorati as the most-linked-to political blog on the Web. With founder Jerome Armstrong, he is the co-author of “Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics,” a sharp rebuke of politics-as-usual within the Democratic party. He spoke via phone with OJR about the book, his website and independent Web publishing. An edited transcript of that interview follows.

OJR: What the fairest label you think ought to be applied to you?

Kos: Wow. [Pause] I think, “partisan.”

OJR: Not “journalist”?

Kos: No, absolutely not.

OJR: Why not?

Kos: Sometimes I do talk to sources and sometimes I do do my own research. So in a lot of ways what I do does cross the line into journalism, but I think there is a conception of the word “journalist” that implies a certain degree of impartiality or nonpartisanship which I clearly do not adhere to. If the issue becomes am I “fair and balanced,” absolutely not. I consider myself to be accurate, because I am trying to wage a war of ideas here and to do so I have to be on solid ground, factually, otherwise I get discredited.

But when it comes down to it I think what I am is a partisan. I am engaged in a war of ideas against a very determined and very powerful enemy and this is a tool that I wield, which is my blog and my work.

OJR: When I read “Crashing the Gate,” on a conceptual level it is basically the story of individuals who are using the Internet to build a community to take on an established industry power. That sure sounds like the model for independent online journalism.

Kos: Absolutely. The books is primarily about politics, but really the lessons there can be very apolitical. For example, I run a network of sports blogs. What we’re finding is that people really are taking to these sites because they allow the fans a voice. Sports is a media world where the people who have voices are coaches and players and sports journalists. Unless you’re on sports talk radio, really the fan doesn’t have a voice. So you’re seeing suddenly the rise of this citizen media where everybody has a voice, there are no gatekeepers to keep these people out — and people are really excited and really taken with that. I am very much a proponent and a big fan of this notion of citizen media and this idea that we are no longer going to decide who has and who hasn’t a voice. Everybody’s going to get a fair shake and, sure, some people are going to have a bigger voice than others. But unlike other media, this is going to be a medium where merit has a lot more to say about that than who you know and how much money you have.

OJR: How many people read DailyKos on an average day?

Kos: God, I hate that question, because really there’s no way to tell. I have a public site meter, anybody can see, so I’m not hiding anything, and my public site meter says 500,000 and 800,000 visits a day. During election time, obviously, that really spikes.

OJR: How many of those people post diaries or comments to the site?

Kos: We’re at several thousand. There are close to 90,000 registered users and I think about 20,000-30,000 people comment on a typically month. There’s about 500 – 600 diaries day right now.

Most people don’t participate. The vast majority of people are there to read. It’s a amazing how many events I go to where people say, “I don’t post, but, oh, I love to read.”

OJR: How does someone build an online community of that size?

Kos: Well, it’s tough. It was tough where I did it and it would be tough now. But I had certain advantages. I came from Silicon Valley, I worked in technology, so I had a very good sense of community and how to mold the technology to accommodate the community as it grows. And I actually invest the vast majority of my revenues into the site. Sometimes I wish I could be like a typical blogger and just do a little profit-taking and live the high life, but I believe very strongly that to continue growing you have to spend the money and invest the money — and that’s been a big help. But at the end of the day, what needs to happen is that very successful communities are communities that are built around niches that nobody else is talking about.

Being able to provide content that nobody else has is one of the biggest things you can do to drive audience to begin with. And as your audience grows, if you can continue providing good content and maybe a little more varied content, then they will stick around. And as they stick around then your next challenge is how do you manage that community, how do you manage that growth?

OJR: OK, so how do you manage that growth?

Kos: For me, it was software. From the beginning, I’ve never been independently wealthy, and still am not. But I think there’s a sensibility that came from working in Silicon Valley and working in the tech world, in working in business … realizing that to grow you’re going to have to spend some money and you’re going to have to invest in other people to help you out.

This notion that you can grow this really large communities based on the fact that you have a content area that no one else is tracking, so you’ve got the niche, and great writing will do it for you — it’s not going to do it for you. And off-the-shelf software will only take you so far. You can see it actually, as other sites grow, that they reach a ceiling and I think its a technological ceiling. I don’t think it has anything to do with the writer can’t grow past, say, 150,000 visits a day. The technology has a carrying capacity, and unless you invest in the technology and create the tools that allow the community to grow and to flourish, I think you’re going to be stuck.

I have a full-time programmer and I’ve had him for about two years now. And at any one time I have one or two contractors working on the site.

I’ve never done the actual hands-on programming work. I’ll do some of the HTML stuff, but I’ve hired designers to work on the site. I’ve learned you have to invest money to make a site look professional. I’ve always made sure that DailyKos stands out from the crowd.

OJR: What sources of information do you think are going to have the most influence on the electorate in the 2006 election? In 2008?

Kos: If you’re talking about activists, the blogs are going to be the primary source. Blogs and activist organizations like MoveOn.

Now, we’re not reaching voters. We’re not going to convince people that they need to vote for who our favorite candidates are. There just aren’t enough people interested in politics to come to blogs to read up about their local races. What we can do is generate some money, we can generate volunteers, some excitement and buzz that, hopefully, campaigns can then take advantage of and use more traditional sources of media for voter outreach and to convince people to vote for their campaigns.

OJR: What do you think that new or aspiring journalists ought to be doing to gain the size audience that you’ve attracted?

Kos: If you’re aspiring to get hundreds of thousands of people to visit you, I think most people are going to be disappointed.

One of the things I’m not happy with about DailyKos is that it has completely skewed expectations of what is considered successful. To me, anybody who reaches any audience is effective.

What’s more important in a lot of ways is to reach the people you are trying to reach. [Take] the South Dakota Senate race in 2004: Republicans ousted Tom Daschle, who was the Senate minority leader, a Democrat, and it was in large part due to a blog that was read by about 20 people. But two of the people who were reading it, one was the publisher of the [Sioux Falls] Argus [Leader] and the second one was the managing editor of the Argus. And so they were able to influence local coverage of the race by constantly beating up on the press. It’s funny, I warned the Daschle campaign about that blog and they looked at it and said, “Nobody reads that, so who cares?” But it wasn’t that thousands of people were reading it, it was that the right people were reading it.

So that, at the end of the day, is the key — not to focus so much on the raw numbers, but to focus on what you are trying to accomplish and how do you reach those people you are trying to reach.