Liftoff came for thirty-eight-year-old Liz Benjamin with the Times Union’s Capitol Confidential blog. It was late 2005, and Benjamin, state bureau chief at the time and a longtime reporter for the paper, had taken a liking to Ben Smith’s Politicker blog at The New York Observer. Politicker had launched that year, pioneering the format of the modern local political blog—devotedly insider-ish, constantly updated, overseen by a hard-working obsessive, and very well-sourced. Vanity Fair’s Michael Wolff described Smith’s blog in a profile of his current employer, Politico, last year: “It has a kind of focus and relentlessness and unavoidability that, through sheer immediacy and constancy, forces everybody to acknowledge it.”
“I said, ‘I want to do this,’” Benjamin remembers telling her editors. And while it was “like pulling teeth” at first, Rex Smith gave her the green light to launch Capitol Confidential in early 2006. Benjamin immediately loved the format. “I love reporting and blogging lends itself to that,” she says. “And I’m sort of a frenetic person and the pace of the blog is frenetic, so that works pretty well for me. It’s a quick hit and you get it out.”
Bob Port, who joined the Times Union as senior editor of investigations in 2007, kept an eye on Benjamin’s statistics in the early days. “She amassed such a huge audience in such a short time—there were about 10,000 uniques on the web reading her blog—it dwarfed anything else we were doing,” he says. It was the result of hard work. “She would feed stuff into it day and night. The rest of us were at home, drinking coffee, trying to wake up, and Liz would be on her computer filing news.”
Capitol Confidential quickly became the first-read for political junkies across the state. In 2007, the Daily News poached Benjamin to take over the blog Ben Smith had gone on to start there, The Daily Politics (until this month, she also wrote a Monday column for the paper). Some say she eclipsed the blog’s founder. “I think she set the standard and defined political blogging in New York state,” says Rex Smith, who was sad to see her leave the Times Union. “With all respect to Ben, I think Liz really brought the political blog to fruition. Now, everybody has one.”
Benjamin’s latest blog, The State Of Politics, had a slow start on Capital Tonight’s website when she moved to the show in April. Faithful readers followed while others took time adjusting to Benjamin’s multimedia move. But the blog—featuring video from the program and contributions from Capital Tonight’s reporters and producers—soon picked up steam. In September, for instance, the site’s servers crashed when Benjamin posted video of an altercation between Carl Paladino and Dicker that Capital Tonight reporter Kaitlyn Ross caught on her cell phone.
State of Politics, like many political blogs, specializes in legislative musical chairs and horse-race snapshots of particular political moments: the moment Andrew Cuomo jumps in a poll, the moment Carl Paladino accosts a reporter, the moment X refuses to endorse Y, the moment Y is replaced by Z. It’s aimed at political junkies, and its sharp, informed, and sometimes comic tone has proven addictive.
It helps that Benjamin—the daughter of noted SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin—is something of a political Wikipedia. “I remember a lot of arcane political stuff,” she told me casually the day I visited at YNN. “Who defeated whom, who’s giving money to whom, who screwed whom, politically speaking.”
“She knows a lot of people and they trust her,” says Ken Lovett, Benjamin’s onetime co-worker as bureau chief for the Daily News. “She knows people from the unions to the political insiders. She’s a political junkie and she’s very good at it.”