AUSTIN, TEXAS — In 2002, Republicans gained control of the Texas state legislature for the first time in over a century, allowing then-congressman Tom DeLay a chance to push for an unprecedented voter redistricting that would give Texas Republicans a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. With few progressive watchdogs online in the Lone Star State, undergraduate students at the University of Texas stepped up to publish Burnt Orange Report. The site tracked the redistricting controversy from day one until the 2006 Supreme Court case that found one district in violation of racial gerrymandering.
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Today, mid-decade redistricting buzz has subsided and DeLay awaits his appeal of a criminal money laundering conviction, but Burnt Orange Report is seeing a new surge in readership as Texas governor Rick Perry, who supported the redistricting, launched his presidential campaign.
Since its founding in 2003, BOR has earned over 10 million page views and won “Best Local Politics Blog” six times in the Austin Chronicle readers poll. Writing his inaugural post in 2003, co-founder Byron LaMasters said, “I believe that blogs are leading the ‘second’ Internet revolution, capable of revolutionizing politics the way that the television did in the 1950s and 60s.” Considering this was before Facebook, Twitter, and the proliferation of WordPress, the prophecy was less self-evident then than it seems today.
Early postings were about what one would expect from eager, outspoken undergraduates. Features included the “Bush lie of the day…” and “The Rise of the Campus Neoconservatives–and how to fight back.” Postings became noticeably less frequent during exam week.
Readership grew in 2004 when LaMasters was given press credentials to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, joining the first group of bloggers ever credentialed for the convention. Also present was Karl-Thomas Musselman, Texas’s youngest convention delegate, who would become BOR’s second editor after LaMasters graduated to become a D.C. consultant.
“It has gone from a talk-at-you to a more inclusive and community-driven site,” says Matt Glazer, who stepped down as editor in March to serve as executive director of the advocacy group Progress Texas. BOR has matured along with its audience, a fact represented by non-UT Austin alumnus Glazer’s stint as editor. Still, the insider perspective on lobbyists and lawmakers remains unapologetically progressive, and BOR is both an ally and critic of the Democratic Party, even as Musselman, who moved from the editor’s to the publisher’s chair in 2007, continues to be heavily involved in democratic causes. He worked for Democratic PAC ActBlue in 2007, and has worked in fundraising and on campaigns for Democratic candidates running for both state and federal offices. Though he is compensated for his work on BOR, it is not his primary source of income. Musselman, along with other BOR writers who have occasionally been employed by campaigns, abides by a general policy to refrain from writing about races in which he is working.
As the 2012 presidential campaign gets underway, its editor, Katherine Haenschen, and half a dozen regular contributors focus on doing what has made BOR one of the state’s longest running blogs: providing in-depth political commentary and serving as a hub for discussing state political news.
The city of Austin represents 40 percent of the blog’s readership, and though Musselman would like to develop a stronger presence in cities like Dallas, there is hesitation to compete with other existing progressive sites. Financial constraints also limit the ability to expand. Besides Musselman, no staff members or contributors are currently paid. The site does, however, publish op-eds and press releases by paid lobbyists and members of organizations supporting progressive causes. The author’s relationship to the issue is disclosed in his or her byline.
Through its custom mobile app for the iPhone and Adroid, BOR is able to deliver fresh content around the country. Without institutional support, however, BOR is sustained through a meager $5,000 annually through Google AdWords, Common Sense Media ads, BlogAds, and the Texas Progressive Alliance, a network of blogs around the state.
BOR’s patience and focus, Glazer believes, has enabled the blog to outlast other university-hatched efforts that often become distracted by national culture wars. In addition to growing up with its readers, BOR evolved alongside the blogging platform as a whole–from angst-inspired hobby to an established medium in the political landscape.
Burnt Orange Report’s slogan declares, “Our Eyes are Upon Texas Politics.” One shouldn’t expect them to blink first.
Burnt Orange Report Data
Name: Burnt Orange Report
City: AustinTyler Jones is a contributor to CJR.