Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Jeff Turbitt: The Blogging Journalist

Jeff Turbitt recently submitted an expose on the Saipan Bloggers to the Marianas Variety. It was published as a three part series. Here are all three parts:

WHETHER to keep up with friends far away, enjoy a new forum for self-expression, change the perception of the CNMI or simply to opine on matters local, national or personal, blogging has taken the CNMI by storm. The community of CNMI bloggers cuts a wide swath of society: lawyer, doctor, journalist, principal, environmental activist and dental hygienist to name the day jobs of a few CNMI bloggers. All have their own particular focus and passion, but each finds a creative outlet in this new form of self expression that readers are increasingly responding to.

For those unfamiliar with the rapid machinations of cyberspace, blogging is an online diary in which participants can offer written thoughts, as well as audio, video or digital images, on virtually anything. Blogging allows most anyone to be a journalist of sorts. Journalism even at the highest level doesn’t require a license. Blogging took on a new level of social cachet in the party conventions during the last presidential election, as a media area devoted specifically to bloggers was set up, and the opinions set forth by bloggers have increasing influence the establishment media. Blogging is included and covered in everything from the New York Times to Slate.

There are now approximately 1.3 million English blogs on the Web. One can conservatively estimate there are now at least 30 CNMI blogs. There were five or less a year ago.

The pole position blogger in the CNMI is probably Angelo Villagomez (http://www.jetapplicant.blogspot.com/), a privately employed political/environmental organizer who recently returned to his birthplace here in the CNMI after being raised and educated on the U.S. mainland. Villagomez’s blog averages a solid 430 plus hits per day, and partially took off after having links related to a sex scandal involving Miss Nevada Katie Rees. But sex scandals aren’t the crux of Villagomez’s blog, though he has been known to display a bevy of athletic bikini babes on his site. His blog discusses all types of things with a particular focus on environmental issues. “My blog is about life in Saipan. I touch on politics, people, places, events, and when things get boring I just post girls in bikinis. I also talk about national topics. I also post videos and pictures,” he said.

Villagomez notes blogging can entail certain negative experiences, such as when he was fired for blogging. He was critical of management at a restaurant he was employed in, discussed his thoughts in one of his earlier blogs, and was then told his services weren’t needed anymore. That experience didn’t stop him, but he acknowledges certain vulnerability from his online journal. “When you blog, you are opening up yourself to the world. When you allow people to see the world through your eyes, you become sort of a celebrity. People who don’t know you will think they know you. People will leave you comments with the intent of pissing you off.

I’ve had people leave some very personal nasty things about my family. Most things have been good. I make some money off of the Yahoo ads on my blog, plus people are always telling me that what I publish online reminds them of what a great place Saipan can be.”

Changing that perception of Saipan has been one of the goals of many of the Saipan bloggers. Most anyone who makes the move to Saipan will come across the Saipan Sucks Web site, which is extremely critical of the CNMI and can scare off a potential recruit. There was very little on the Internet to give a more balanced view of the islands prior to this rise in blogging, so a recent entrant to the CNMI, Walt F.J. Goodridge (www.passionprofit.com/escape), an author, career coach and “nomadpreneur,” started the We Love Saipan network (www.welovesaipan.com), a launching point for many CNMI bloggers last year.

“Right now, because of what we’re doing, there’s a new dialogue developing. There are an increasing number of people around the world who, after now discovering us through these new blogger channels, are saying things like: ‘I’m thinking of moving to Saipan! Have you ever heard of a place called Saipan? Ever thought about retiring on Saipan?’ Yes, the dialogue is changing,” Goodridge said.

THE dialogue isn’t completely Wild West, a common criticism of blogging. Given the size of the island, some people can feel a little bit of self-censorship — especially if their career seems to require more discretion.

Melissa Simms (http://melissasimms.blogspot.com), an assistant attorney general with the Division of Immigration, says the focus of her blog is her own usual day to day life struggles, as well as observations and sometimes tirades, but there are limitations. “Due to my position in the community, I tend to steer away from anything too political or controversial, even though I have very strong opinions. I find it is a great outlet for me to express myself and communicate with my friends and family who are far away. I have met many wonderful people and made a lot of new friends through my blog that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Simms also said things she read on CNMI blogs helped influence her recent move to the island, and she has come to enjoy the friendships of other bloggers, who meet on the last Wednesday of each month at 7 pm at Java Joes cafĂ© to talk and offer advice. There is an open invite to potential bloggers to join in as well. “I think that the blogging community in Saipan is very strong — we are all very different in occupations, political opinion, hobbies, etc., but blogging ties us together, and helps paint a picture of what Saipan is really like from the perspective of many different people.”

Brad Ruszala (http://beachboyinparadise.blogspot.com), a sportswriter and general sports enthusiast, professes great love for his adopted hometown of Saipan, and posts mostly about sports and daily life. He enjoys the different perspective blogging allows. “Too many negative stories about our islands come out in the local and international press. For some, that’s the only way of getting information. I have a real stake in the future of this place and I know that there is plenty more to read about than the evaporating garment industry, the ridiculous utilities firm and the soap opera politicking on the hill.”

Ruszala also likes the democracy and different perspectives blogging allows. “The multimillion dollar foreign owned corporations and the overpaid politicians have lost touch with the regular people, so it’s time that the regular folks like me speak up. I’m not here to change the world, but I am here to say that it’s a lot different down here where I am.”

Yvonne Reyes-Gomez (http://sommysmommy.blogspot.com) is the principal of Garapan Elementary School, the largest elementary school in the CNMI, and she is someone who simply enjoys writing. ”Reading and writing are the two hobbies that give me the most satisfaction because I am able to expand my own thinking and express myself. I’m a wanna-be published writer, but without the guts or time to actually sit down and produce something worthy of publication. Blogging is my fix. I can be a poet, a political activist, a short story writer, even a comedian in a blog.”

Reyes-Gomez also eases her day to day anxiety through blogging. “I have a very stressful job. I never get a chance to really sit down and reflect on the other areas in my life. Blogging helps to re-focus. It’s sort of like a gratitude journal, a chance for me to see and say all the things that I do outside of work. Sometimes I feel like I don’t contribute enough to my community and especially my family. Blogging is tangible proof that I have a life outside of the campus gates.”
Unlike Simms, Reyes-Gomez feels less need for self-censorship. “I write about my thoughts on government and its leaders or lack thereof. In my blog I do not have to worry about being “proper” and keeping my government agent hat on too tightly.”

But government officials aren’t the only ones who might be a bit cautious around Reyes-Gomez, her own family must keep an eye on what they say. “Sometimes even my family self-edits what they do and say because they know it will eventually be publicized. I am the mamarazzi!”

One of the challenges all bloggers face is updating their blogs with fresh thoughts on interesting topics. “Sometimes I get blogorhea. Sometimes I’m on every day. It all depends on what’s going on in my life. When you’re a blogger, there may not be an event to post everyday, but there is always a thought worthy of sharing. I’m not against posting a one sentence quip either, just to get it off my chest. I read blogs every day though,” Reyes-Gomez said.

SOMETIMES devotion to a hobby leads to blogging. This is the case for Melissa Highfill, a self described “stay at home mom” who said she started blogging after seeing other people’s blog addresses in their signature on needlework message boards. “I use it as a tool to keep up with my friends and some of my family back home while we are stationed out here. If I had to pick one general theme, it would be needlework...that is what started it all and that is what I mainly look at when I am looking at other blogs. Many of my needlework friends are intrigued by our life here...hardly anyone has heard of Saipan,” Highfill said.

Bree Reynolds (http://breeanddoug.blogspot.com), a science teacher at Hopwood Junior High School, has a spouse who wonders why she devotes so much energy to blogging. “My husband actually asked me what the appeal was. Don’t get me wrong, he thinks it’s great that I’m documenting our lives, posting pictures, communicating with family, etc. That way he doesn’t have to do it, but he doesn’t get the appeal of sitting in front of a screen for hours reading other blogs, posting comments, etc. I told him, ‘I like to talk’ and blogging is sort of like talking to other people. Plus it’s a creative outlet.”

Reynolds also thinks blogging is an educational tool. “I created a blog for students to post about science and environmental related topics www.greencnmi.blogspot.com and another blog for posting about books and writing at www.fottenreaders.blogspot.com. These blogs are open to anyone in the CNMI that wants to contribute. They just need to email me to become an author. My students have also received a greater audience for their work and I really love that because it shows what students from an overcrowded, under-funded public middle school can do when they are motivated and inspired.”

Beverly Cabanatan (http://bevecaba.blogspot.com/), a registered dental hygienist, is one of the many CNMI bloggers with a spiritual focus. “I wanted to keep my family and friends in touch with what my life is like as a missionary dental hygienist with the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Saipan. I wanted to record my adventures, my experiences with my patients, and my spiritual growth in Saipan. I blog about my spiritual journey, the outreach of the SDA Church, missionary life, scuba diving, and random other things about my life on Saipan.

Dr. David Khorram (http://marianaseye.blogspot.com), an eye specialist and surgeon, uses blogging as an outlet for his many different interests. “My most positive experiences relate to influencing people’s lives and opinions in a positive way through my writing. I’m now getting about 100 visitors a day, so I know that people are enjoying what they read. Recently a friend sent me a link to a Web site in the Philippines where someone was quoting me after reading my blog. That was cool. The Saipan blogs provide personal perspectives on issues I’m not usually exposed to, uncover news, provide information on events and activities, and are made by a pretty savvy group of individuals that I have come to know and trust. As a result, the Saipan blogs have positively influenced my experience of Saipan.”

The net result of all this activity is a massive increase in the amount of online information about these islands, and a more balanced and diverse view of life here. It might take a little longer, but even global internet trends make their way to these tiny Mariana islands.

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