My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

More politicians using social media -- including blogs, Facebook and Twitter -- to connect with constituents

By Patrick Johnson, The Republican
March 19, 2010, 5:10PM

AMHERST - Not long after her April 2008 election to the Amherst School Committee, Catherine A. Sanderson thought she’d create a simple, little blog to keep voters informed about what the committee was doing and to gain voter feed back.

“Those were my noble goals,” she said of the origin of her blog,

In a matter of months, her simple, little blog grew and grew to the point of becoming neither simple nor little.

Her two to three posts per month grew to as many as 20, the monthly visitors tally reached as high as 10,000, and individual posts could generate as many as 150 reader comments.

It's become a lot of work, but Sanderson said the blog has more than accomplished its original purpose. “I ran on a platform of more communication and more transparency,” Sanderson said. “It’s hard to not communicate and not be transparent when you’re on a blog telling people, ‘Here is how I am going to vote and why.’”

Sanderson is one of many politicians at the local, state and federal levels who are realizing the importance of using new media to connect with the voters.

The late media critic A.J. Liebling once famously declared, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But the abundance of simple blogging platforms, such as Wordpress or Google’s Blogger, and social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, make it so anyone can be their own publisher.

“There’s no filter,” said Westfield Mayor Daniel Knapik, who maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts. “People can get their message out to people exactly as they intend without it being altered, shortened or taken out of context.”

Across the state, politicians at every level and party are using social media to schmooze with voters and constituents alike.

“I use (Facebook) to keep in touch with friends and constituents. Hopefully, they are the same thing,” said Rep. Donald F. Humason Jr., R-Westfield.

Other local politicians doubling as bloggers include Northampton City Councilor Angela Plassman and Holyoke City Councilors Kevin Jourdain and Rebecca Lisi.

Sanderson said her efforts to reach voters directly has not been free from critics. There are some people who like her blog and some who hate it, she said.

Entrenched in the “hate it” camp, she said, are her husband, who complains it is too time consuming, and some of her School Committee colleagues.

“There are people on the committee who think it gives me a disproportionate amount of attention. That is 100 percent true,” she said.

If they want more attention, they should start their own blogs, she said. “Anyone can do it.”

In the same way, the ease of conveying information to your own personal network of friends, fans and followers makes Facebook and Twitter a natural among politicians at all levels of government and on both sides of the aisle.

In Massachusetts, Scott P. Brown has only been a senator for a little more than a month, but he's tops among Bay State politicians in terms of social networking. Brown's Facebook page has attracted 211,00 "fans", and his number of followers on Twitter stands at 22,000.

No one else is even close. Sen. John F. Kerry, for example, logs in with 9,000 Facebook fans and 4,900 Twitter followers.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick has nearly 5,000 friends and over 12,000 fans on Facebook and 10,000 Twitter followers. That may not seem like much compared to Brown, but it's more than any of his opponents in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

A report issued in February by the Congressional Research Service concluded that members of Congress are rapidly and avidly taking to forms of social media that did not exist 15 years ago. The advantages for each are the distribution speed (immediate) and cost (minimal).

Not coincidentally, the report notes, bulk mailings from Congress have dropped by 50 percent during this time.

Recent surveys have 205 of 538 members of Congress on Twitter accounts and 349 on Facebook.

Among members of Congress, one study noted usage varied greatly. During a two-month study, 16 congressmen tweeted at least 100 times in a 61-day span, including one who alone tallied 290.

But there were also several other members of Congress who had few if any tweets. That would probably include Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, D-Newton, who on June 18 posted his first and presumably last tweet: “I have one ambition: to retire before it becomes essential to tweet.”

That day may be drawing nearer and nearer.

With the exception of U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, every member of the Massachusetts delegation has a Facebook page, but just five of the 12 are on Twitter, and only two, Brown and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., he of @Markeymemo, post with anything approaching regularity.

Among state legislators, those from Western Massachusetts have been slow to embrace Twitter, said state Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.

Downing, who has 142 followers and tweets regularly, said Twitter and Facebook are becoming essential tools for politicians.

Facebook is great for organizing supporters, rallies and events, while Twitter specializes in getting messages to supporters very quickly. Traditional means - including press releases, interviews with the press, and public appearances - are still important, he said.

“It’s not about bypassing the media; it’s about supplementing it,” he said.

But effective use of social media can be enough to boost a candidate over the top, he said. Downing cited how Brown, during the special Senate election, was posting on Twitter and Facebook constantly, and by doing so helped create a sense of momentum among voters that carried him to victory.

The Brown campaign, and even President Obama’s successful run at the White House, show “just how powerful the social media can be if you harness it,” Downing said.

Agawam state Rep. Rosemary Sandlin recently announced her campaign for re-election via Twitter and Facebook.

Although she called herself a novice at each, she sees both as good ways to connect with voters.

“I’m learning more and more about Facebook. It’s a slow process. Twitter is my next mountain to climb,” she said.

Humason said he logs onto Facebook once or twice a week, but he draws the line at Twitter.

He said he is not so full of himself that he believes people need to know exactly what he is doing at any given moment.

Although he has a Blackberry and is theoretically capable of walking and texting at the same time, Humason said he has no desire to start lest he walk face first into a wall at the Statehouse.

Humason also questioned whether all this access to politicians through social media actually creates more transparency.

“Why are we trying to be transparent by twittering all the time?” he asked “Why don’t we do something that’s really transparent?”

For starters, he said, the Legislature should discuss the budget out in the open and stop using parliamentary tricks such as scheduling votes late into the night, he said.

Also leery of social media is state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst. Although she represents one of the most Internet-savvy sections of the region, if not the state, Story said she places little stock in the social media. She is neither on Facebook nor Twitter, and has no plans to be.

“I don’t think it’s necessary and in many cases a complete waste of time,” she said. “I’m in meetings with people who are texting all the time. It’s annoying and rude.”

To those who say Story is inaccessible, she says, “My telephone number is in the phone book, and it’s in the newspaper.”

That’s her home number, she pointed out, not her regional office. She said when people reach her at home, they usually apologize as if they got through to her by mistake. “I have to say ‘No, this is the right number,’” she said.

Story said she prefers to do her social networking the traditional way: by actually going out and socializing with people.

“I like to go to events. I like to talk to people,” she said. “I see people in Stop & Shop and talk to them.”

Story said she even likes to talk to reporters.

“You’re the second one I’ve talked to today,” she said during a recent telephone call to her home.


Anonymous said...

What an interesting column. Although I haven't accessed other politicians through social networking sites - I would guess that many choose this media to promote themselves rather than actually interact with the public. Social networking solely for the sake of self-promotion IS a waste of time. However, since Catherine actually responds, this blog is mostly focused on true interaction with constituents. I appreciate that Catherine makes herself accessible through this media. It really has made SC more accessible. Although, I can imagine it requires a LOT of time.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah, I actually don't think of Catherine as a "politician."

Exactly why she scares the Hell out of paid politicians and bureaucratic beancounters who make W-A-Y too comfortable a living sucking at the public trough.

Tom Porter said...

Indeed it is clearly a labor of love, Catherine, and we who care about the schools and who depend on understanding the dialog - all sides - are indebted to you. Keep up the fantastic work. The school committee is making progress, in part because your blog compels it to.

We thank you!

Anonymous said...

Interesting...Ellen Story has it right...when you by pass real (face to face) interaction for the safety and anonymity of ranting on blogs... well, we've lost a little bit more of the moral fiber and character that evokes great leadership. Obama won the election reinventing social media and bypassing press for instant communication technology offers... why not. CS might be right, if her SC colleagues think it gives her too much access to the public, they can do it themselves (and risk the obvious negative consequences her husband noted) it takes up WAY TOO MUCH TIME!! I think I might rather be represented by SC members that limit their business to open meetings and spend more quality "downtime" with family. CS must love it, that's why she's driven to do it. I get it. I blog too. CS doesn't seem to be self-promoting politician, name-caller. She's certainly caught our attention. And I'm sure that's just the way she likes it!

Ed said...

Yeah, I actually don't think of Catherine as a "politician."

Actually, I do - in the positive tradition. In the same sense that I try to impart on the young people heading down to DC and not all of them get destroyed by that city.

Like Washington and John Adams and others, she is the reluctant politician dragged into the fray on the basis of principle and because of concern about the underlying issues.

And such a person is a true threat to corrupt established interests because she isn't seeking power. She HAS power because she isn't seeking it...

Anonymous said...

anyone who doesn't think catherine is a (skilled) politician is an idiot.

LarryK4 said...

Well, I have been called a lot worse than "idiot" over on my blog.

And Anon 10:36 AM, if you do blog I hope you write a L-O-T better than that on your blog.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Anonymous 7:06 - yes, it does require A LOT of time. And I agree that the interaction is what I find useful -- it would be much easier for me to just do posts and not allow commenting (or not respond to commenting), but I've found this interaction really helps me learn about the schools and even figure out what I think. I honestly can't imagine being a member of SC without doing this blog -- the interaction helps me do this job.

Larry - I think it is pretty clear that I'm a horrible politician. I mean, this blog has certainly led to considerable negativity. Think about the Marks Meadow issue -- I voted to close it, as did every other SC member -- it was unanimous. But because of this blog, I'm the one who took the heat for months and was villified in the Bulletin and at meetings. It would have been FAR smarter to just shut up about it and then vote yes at the end.

Tom - thanks for the very thoughtful message of support! I very much appreciate it!

Anonymous 10:36 - just to be clear, having this blog doesn't mean I don't have a lot of face-to-face interaction as well! I have emails every day from parents (and some staff/teachers), and pretty regular phone calls from parents (and teachers). And of course I have face-to-face interaction every time I pick my kids up at school, go to the gym, go to a bookstore, go to the dining hall at Amherst College, go to a soccer game, go to a birthday party, etc. The blog is just ONE MORE way in which I interact, and it allows me to interact with people I might not run into in my daily life, and those who might not feel comfortable identifying themselves to me. And if you think SC members should devote themselves to doing business only during open meetings, you should contact all the other SC members -- because NONE of us are able to do that! I'm just the only one (as of now) with a blog.

Ed/Anonymous 11:11 - I have a very simple goal: I want the Amherst schools to be excellent for all kids. And I am serving on SC for that reason, and that reason alone, and I am going to give that goal my all for the next (final) year of my term, as I have for the last two. For me, having a blog helps me accomplish communication and transparency, and that's why I do it. But I think having this blog is really a double-edged sword -- because it also significantly raises the heat I take for all district issues (even when my votes are shared by many other SC members). Nonetheless, for me, the good outweighs the bad, and I'm going to continue doing the blog.

Anonymous said...

For some interesting insights on the state of the high school and the leadership there, see this week's Bulletin piece--signed by 105 teachers and staff:

Ed said...

For some interesting insights on the state of the high school and the leadership there, see this week's Bulletin piece--signed by 105 teachers and staff:

First, I found this painting to be VERY disturbing. Disturbing on multiple levels, mores because it was the staff access page (and not the staff directory), hence indicating an attitude toward students...

However, I did eventually find something I could count: and I found 152 people there.

That means that 47 teachers and staff REFUSED TO SIGN THIS LETTER! That is 31% of the total and it is damn significant!

31% of the teachers and staff decided to openly defy their principal - putting this in terms that people can understand, this is like an 18-year-old giving a police officer the middle finger (and maybe tossing a beer bottle out the window for effect) - you know that the principal/officer is going to get you for *something*, *sometime*, eventually.

This is stunning. It is like when the Amherst Housing Authority employees showed up at a Selectboard meeting to lobby for the zoning change, we didn't all support it (I thought it was downright stupid to eliminate two badly-needed low income apartments in this town) but we all had to go and support it anyway.

Likewise here - and 47 people willing to openly defy Jackson is significant. Most of these letters are unanimous with EVERYONE signing them.

Third, noticably missing was any mention of Junior High teachers/staff. Jackson runs that school too, doesn't he? They wouldn't rush to sign this? (And you don't get 105 teachers doing anything without the entire district knowing about it; teachers gossip like everyone else, they have cell phones and email just like the rest of us do...)

Fourth, I don't care if the teachers/staff like him or not. I care if the TOWN likes him, if he is doing a good job, and what his results are.

Fifth, this does not negate that woefully inappropriate display of insubordination (and unprofessional conduct) we saw at the last meeting. Many districts - many districts that Amherst considers peer districts - would have fired him outright.

But the bottom line is this: 31% of his high school staff -- and apparently 100% of his middle school staff -- essentially gave him "the finger." That is very very significant folks.

LarryK4 said...

Yeah BUT, they submitted the petition a tad LATE to make the, ugh, Bricks-and-Mortar edition of the venerable Bully dated 3/19/2010, the LAST one before the 3/23 Override--which OBVIOUSLY they are trying to influence.

Kind of highlights the MAJOR problem with our schools: NOT very nimble.

not getting it said...

Why did the high school teachers and staff write this letter? I don't understand.

Anonymous said...

Ed, as usual you assume alot of things are facts that you know NOTHING about. Surprise, surprise.

Anonymous said...


I have no idea what this letter is and had no idea that there was anything like this to sign. Since I teach at the Middle School (and chat with colleagues as much as anyone) you have made a major mistake in assuming that we knew of something were expected to sign and consciously did not sign it.

No other way to put it but simply, completely untrue.

Anonymous said...

The letter was written by a group of high school teachers and circulated among those who were around. It didn't make it to everyone, and it was never circulated at the middle school. It was written in response to a lot of trashing of the schools, and a lot of slanderous comments about the principal on this blog and elsewhere. Ed's desperate attempt to cast the incredibly positive sentiments of 105 teachers and staff into something scandalous is laughable.

Anonymous said...

Well said Anon 5:36. Teachers are thoughtful people! But when feeling continually attacked, they, as intelligent, reactionary human beings, respond. A quickly crafted letter, signed by whomever got to see it in time for publication DOES NOT MEAN those who didn't have the luxury of time to see it DO NOT support THE PRINCIPAL. What's up with Ed? Why so cynical?

kevin said...

My next-door neighbor is a real nice fellow, part-time minister and furniture maker.

The other day, I asked him, "What do you think about the override?" He said, he didn't know much about it, that he usually waits until the election, looks at the sides, and decides then.

For computer addicts, this is shocking to hear. How could anyone not be immersed in town politics?

Truth is, most people get their news the old fashioned way, in the paper and talking to friends. Maybe the evening news.

Even the Bulletin forum last Tuesday had just fifteen online viewers. We just assume everyone is like us, but most of the world is like Ellen Story.

Or she has a press secretary that handles that...

Could be.

The only thing I can think of is Catherine is collecting material for a book. Fiction, of course. And we will all be characters in the book, the names will be changed.

I wonder what her nom de plume will be.

And a title? How about, My Life in the Loony Bin

Kevin (aka Anonymous #7)


LarryK4 said...

Yeah Kevin,
As long as she doesn't steal my title:
Only In Amherst.