They say all politics is local, and IlliniPundit.com proves that point on a daily basis. Whether it's the final days of a heated mayoral campaign or deep in the doldrums between elections, there will still be hundreds of folks in Champaign-Urbana wanting to talk politics. IlliniPundit gives them an online forum for that urge. When site creator Gordy Hulten (pictured at left) reorganized the site in 2006 to more of an open discussion from its earlier Republican incarnation, he wanted "as many voices to be heard as I could possibly allow."
With over 200 contributors (25 or so of those regular writers), the political blog is well on the way to that goal. That helps keep the pressure of writing light on Hulten's shoulders. "If I decide not to write something on Tuesday, it's not like there's a gaping hole on the site," he said.
Hulten, who works for the Devonshire Group as a marketing and government relations representative, as well as doing campaign work for U.S. Representative Tim Johnson, started blogging anonymously shortly after the 2004 election. "In the 2004 elections, I wasn't very active, for whatever reason. I was burned out after 2002, pretty much, and I was frustrated with myself," Hulten recalled. "I started Illini Pundit to have an outlet for that, as a way to get more plugged in to the local scene that I'd sort of dropped out of."
After a couple of years of blogging as IlliniPundit, Hulten stepped out from behind the curtain of anonymity and began blogging under his real name. However, he didn't reveal that he and IlliniPundit were one and the same until after the 2006 election. "I decided I wanted to take ownership of it," Hulten noted, "so at that point I stood up and said, 'I'm Illini Pundit, I've been here all along.' "
Since then, IlliniPundit.com has operated mostly as it currently does, accepting blog entries from members of the community. While the site still leans to the right, Hulten hopes to balance things out a little in the future. "I've got a few regular commenters or contributors that are way, way to the left of me," he said. "I'd like to figure out some way to get them to feel more empowered, more involved, like they own the site more than they do now."
Hulten is able to maintain a certain amount of decorum, despite the naturally divisive nature of the subject matter. Compared to more innocuous topics like sports or even parenting, he says, the tenor of the conversation is less vicious than might be expected. He maintained, "We've established a tone where we ask for respectful discussion, and for the most part, people agree to live by those rules."
As he looks back on the history of the site, Hulten's warmest memory is breaking the Chief Illiniwek retirement story. "I had a couple of people that tipped me off about 24 hours early that the Board of Trustees was going to announce that they were going to retire Chief Illiniwek," Hulten related. "The funny thing for me was that all my friends that are regular reporters, that write for the Tribune and all these papers across the state, were trying to get ahold of me to find out who my sources were.
"And it was just nice to be first and to say, 'I don't need to run this by an editor, I don't need to reveal my sources,' I can just run with it with absolute certainty that it's going to happen, and I was right."
IlliniPundit.com has maintained a symbiotic relationship with The News-Gazette. "I'm just a place that enables discussion of what The News-Gazette does," he explained. "We give them some stuff ... but for the most part, they're leading the way and we're analyzing what they do and discussing what they do."
Despite the current struggles of the newspaper industry, Hulten had warm words for both The News-Gazette and its radio sibling. "We're really lucky that we have The News-Gazette because of their ownership, they the way they're structured," he said. "They're local, they're not a Gatehouse company. We're lucky to have The News-Gazette, we're lucky to have WDWS, because the way they create value for themselves and the community is by doing things that nobody else does: local news."
Hulten hopes to fill a gap in local news coverage with more video content on IlliniPundit.com. He added, "There's a huge, gaping hole in this community. You know, we had an important school board meeting last night, and the 10 percent of the town that gets it on cable access and the three people that watched it [were able to see it], but there's no archive of the meeting, nothing like that. [IlliniPundit.com could] be the place of record for local government, local politics."
No matter what you think of his politics, Hulten runs a tight ship at IlliniPundit.com, contributing to the local political discussion and allowing for others to share their views.
There are many tremendous bloggers in Champaign-Urbana, and this column will recognize them one blog at a time. Every other Tuesday, we’ll shine a light on a different outstanding local blog, explaining how they got started and revealing what keeps them going and where they’re headed. If you know a local blog that you’d like to see profiled in this space, send me a tip at joelgillespie [at] smilepolitely [dot] com.
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