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Blogger of the Month: Richmond Sunlight

The state of Virginia's online coverage of its own legislature's annual session in Richmond wasn't doing it for Waldo Jaquith. So instead of griping and ranting about the inadequacies of the official site, as most bloggers might, Jaquith put aside his own popular Virginia politics blog and devoted his nights and weekends to creating the most wonderful tool any state government could ever wish for.

Richmond Sunlight, the result of Jaquith's many hundreds of hours of programming wizardry and editorial sense, is an encyclopedic, non-partisan baedeker to the happenings in the state capital, with a light touch, a bit of humor and all sorts of cool apps--heck, you can even comment on the bills as the legislators do their magic. You can annotate bills, share your notes with other readers, even check out which bills other folks are tracking--hey, it's almost a Facebook for state politics junkies. All this makes Waldo Jaquith our Blogger of the Month here on Raw Fisher.

Unlike most states' legislative websites, Richmond Sunlight is open to citizens to talk about the sausage making, and to track bills as they move through the process. Jaquith, 29, launched Sunlight a little more than a year ago and he's still madly adding features (in his day job, he's web editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, a literary journal in Charlottesville.) The result is a site that is quickly becoming the semi-official guide to Virginia lawmaking--several legislators have added Jaquith's material to their own sites, and the Virginia Interfaith Center has taken over maintenance of the project from its father. Soon, a professional programmer will take over, allowing Waldo to return to more hours of work on his own blog.

Jaquith was thrilled to give the site to someone more neutral. "The problem I had was I'm a Democrat, a partisan and I want people to know they can rely on this data and not think about a liberal blogger running the site," he says.

"I've never like the General Assembly's site and being a big geek, I thought I could just write my own," Jaquith tells me. So he asked the state government for access to all of its data, and the bureaucrats were happy to help. Jaquith started by adding all the tools he wanted for himself--he wanted to be able to click on the names of any legislator who sponsored a bill and see more about that lawmaker and his past votes. He wanted to add campaign finance data and got the Virginia Public Access Project to provide that. Jaquith had a version of the site ready before last year's session and he asked 100 people to test his creation. They came up with a slew of suggestions, many of which Jaquith has now added. Next on his list: A tool that will let visitors find substantially similar bills, so that if you're interested in abusive driver fees, you can instantly find all of the many bills that legislators have proposed, without combing through long lists of legislation.

Traffic is soaring on the site, up to more than 1,000 visitors a day, and readers are now visiting an average of more than eight pages on each trip to Richmond Sunlight. The Daily Press in Newport News has incorporated the site into its own news offerings--something Jaquith hopes other newspapers in Virginia might do.

It's a sad reflection of our times that the initiative for this project came from a solo blogger rather than one of the state's many big newspapers. Jaquith says he's a huge fan of The Post's Congress tracker and yet he wonders why no Virginia paper decided to create something like Richmond Sunlight. "This is the sort of thing that fits wonderfully with what newspapers should do," he says.

But Jaquith is happy to have taken the time from his own political blogging to get this done: "For me to spend time telling people what I think is just so much less valuable than creating something where everyone can say what they think and find out about the legislative process," he says.

And now that the site is up and running, he can go back to blogging, where he gets into everything from politics to fitness to his choice finds, such as this lovely bit from H.L. Mencken on Virginia politics, written in 1917:

Politics in Virginia are cheap, ignorant, parochial, idiotic; there is scarcely a man in office above the rank of a professional job-seeker; the political doctrine that prevails is made up of hand-me-downs from the bumpkinry of the Middle West-Bryanism, Prohibition, all that sort of filthy claptrap; the administration of the law is turned over to professors of Puritanism and espionage; a Washington or a Jefferson, dumped there by some act of God, would be denounced as a scoundrel and jailed overnight.

Lovely.

By Marc Fisher |  January 30, 2008; 7:49 AM ET
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Comments

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To call him or his web presence as "non-partisian" is simply inaccurate. He is one of the most polarized and pugnacious citizen voices in Virginia politics.

Posted by: Virginian | January 30, 2008 11:25 AM

I agree it's interesting. Suggestion--why doesn't the national desk do a survey of all states to identify the most innovative uses of websites and blogs to track legislation?

Posted by: Bill Harshaw | January 30, 2008 12:39 PM

Virginian wrote:
"To call him or his web presence as "non-partisian" is simply inaccurate."

Nobody called me "non-partisan." In fact, Mr. Fisher quotes me describing myself as "a Democrat, a partisan" and a "liberal blogger."

However, Mr. Fisher does describe Richmond Sunlight as non-partisan, which it certainly is. If there is ever the slightest reason why you believe Richmond Sunlight to be in any way partisan, I strongly encourage you to contact me or, better yet, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and alert them. The site would rapidly become utterly useless if it were in any way partisan.

But I don't think either the Virginia Interfaith Center or I will be hearing from you. Just a hunch.

Your description of me as "polarized and pugnacious" is funny. :) You may well be the first person ever to apply the adjective "pugnacious" to me. Coincidentally, Marc Fisher addressed this very topic in his review of Virginia political blogging in the American Journalism in February of 2006 (http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4040). His conclusion was quite different.

Posted by: Waldo Jaquith | January 30, 2008 12:55 PM

Waldo is absolutely the LEAST pugnacious person in the universe! His personal blog is just that--personal (also unabashedly partisan). But the quality of Richmond Sunlight is so great that several legislators (including me) link to it on our own web sites. Interest groups are also linking to the site.

Posted by: Kris Amundson | January 30, 2008 3:27 PM

I think it is amazing that Delegate Admundson has time to comment on this article.

Shouldn't you be spending your time figuring out what other types of house plants Virginia can place on the Schedule 1 list of dangerous drugs?

It is a sad day indeed when our purportedly liberal elected representatives take pride in expanding the so called "War on Drugs" to our gardens. Shame on you Delegate Admundson and the rest of the House of Delegates for imposing your prohibitionist (and puritantical) proclivities on the citizens of our great Commonwealth.

Posted by: Prohibition is not the Answer | January 30, 2008 4:04 PM

Yawn.

Posted by: Jack | January 30, 2008 7:19 PM

Biases are like accents. If you hear one like yours, you don't notice it.

Posted by: Briggs | January 31, 2008 11:17 AM

That's a really great point.

Posted by: Waldo Jaquith | January 31, 2008 9:20 PM

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Posted by: Ellis john | February 28, 2008 1:18 AM

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