Blogs Have Their Day

How three amateur journalists dethroned an icon and turned the mainstream media upside down, all without quitting their day jobs

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Memorial Day weekend 2002. A fiftysomething Minneapolis lawyer named John Hinderaker (sounds like "indie rocker") sits down in his kitchen with a laptop and some simple software and cooks up a website. He bangs out a generic first posting: "This is a new blog dedicated to current events and any topics that are of interest to me." Fair enough. His daughter, 13, is hanging out in the kitchen with her best friend. The friend throws out a name for the blog: Power Line. Sure, that'll work.

A lot of people, including Dan Rather and any number of executives at CBS, wish that Hinderaker had done something else that Memorial Day weekend.

The word blog, in case you've managed to avoid it until now, is short for weblog, a personal website that offers short, intense bursts of commentary and opinion, usually accompanied by a link to a news story elsewhere online. Some blogs are diaries; some focus on highly specific topics, like knitting, car repair or sex. Powerlineblog.com covers politics, specifically the rightward-leaning variety. Before this year, blogs were a curiosity, a cult phenomenon, a faintly embarrassing hobby on the order of ham radio and stamp collecting. But in 2004, blogs unexpectedly vaulted into the pantheon of major media, alongside TV, radio and, yes, magazines, and it was Power Line, more than any other blog, that got them there.

Hinderaker didn't start Power Line because he had too much time on his hands. He started it because he was too busy. He and a colleague at his law firm named Scott Johnson used to do some writing together in their off-hours--Op-Eds, investigative journalism, you name it. But as their careers took off and their families grew, they had less and less time to write.

So Hinderaker set up a blog. There was no money in it and less glory, but on the upside there were no editors, no deadlines, no space constraints, no hassle and no waiting. "I typed in 'Power Line,'" Hinderaker remembers, "hit the button, and the site was born." The next week Hinderaker called Johnson and asked him if he wanted in. He did. "But I gotta tell ya," Johnson added, in words that would haunt him the way Michael Dukakis' tank photo-op haunts the Democrats, "I think the idea that we could ever have any readers for this thing is a pathetic fantasy." The phrase "pathetic fantasy" is now a running gag among the Power Liners. A few months later, Hinderaker emailed Paul Mirengoff, a Washington-based lawyer who had been his college debate partner at Dartmouth. Mirengoff had no idea what a blog was, but he was in too, and the Power Line lineup was complete.

It was a good mix. Johnson is soft-spoken, with a straight-out-of-Fargo Midwestern accent, but he's the site's anchor, the guy who gets up at 5 in the morning, reads all the papers and makes sure he's on top of the big issues of the day. He blogs under the name the Big Trunk. Mirengoff, who goes by Deacon on the site, is the details man, the close-focus, line-by-line analyst. Hinderaker, a.k.a. Hindrocket, is the ranter, always willing to go over the top with a big speech and flights of fancy. He's also the mediagenic one. He's a clear and forceful speaker--he's a litigator by day, after all.

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