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The Official Word

Some Government Blogs Ditch Bureaucratic Language to Communicate With Audiences in a More Light-Hearted Way

An old axiom says “history is written by the winners.” That was before the Internet. Bloggers write their own stories, win or lose, and government websites are using blogs to capitalize on the public’s Internet addiction.

A “.gov” blog may seem like an oxymoron. The very term “blog” brings to mind an accessible and informal source of information. Government agencies, by contrast, are typically considered to be neither.

Blogs have changed that.

Steve Wesson, an educational resource specialist who blogs for “Teaching with the Library of Congress” emphasized how important it is to strike the right tone in a blog post.

“We know our audience is relatively informal but focused on the practical,” he said.

The blog is one of several run by the Library of Congress, for which blogs have emerged as a key tool of the 21st-century librarian. Blogs across government organizations have become more important tools for communicating with the public.

With citizens spending ever more time online, the custodians of public resources are working to ensure that these resources are both available online and easy to use. In the past month, the Library of Congress launched a Congressional Record app, which allows users to access the Record on both the iPhone and iPad, and a beta electronic version of its classification system.

Despite their expertise, the bloggers at the Library of Congress refuse to take themselves too seriously. The posts are usually light-hearted while still being informative.

The Library of Congress has 25 million digitized artifacts available online, but the sheer size of the collection can intimidate users. The Library of Congress blogs aim to facilitate public access to these materials, in addition to creating a channel for dialogue between users and librarians.

The blog of the Transportation Security Administration, of all agencies, debuted a surprising personality.

They say not to say the word “bomb” in an airport. “The TSA Blog” would appear to be in violation of its own rule, headlining an article on July 27 “Cornucopia of Grenades.” The post continues, “Please, please, please, leave your grenades at home. Like milk and cola, grenades and airports do not mix.”

Many federal departments rely on blogs to communicate with key audiences. The Department of Justice blog reaches elected officials, individuals in law enforcement and the general public.

“A lot of the department’s [website] is very formal,” said Tracy Russo, a spokeswoman at the DOJ. “We use the blog to break it down.”

According to analytics, visitors to the DOJ website stay on the blog five times longer than they do any other part of the site.

Independent groups are picking up the slack of those agencies that are less tech-savvy, or just less willing to put their resources online. This year, the privately run “SCOTUSblog,” the unofficial blog of the Supreme Court, famously drew 2 million people on the morning of the ruling on the 2010 health care law. While the blog’s 6 million hits (and 15 minutes of fame) were unprecedented, its popularity before the ruling cemented its status as a top destination that day.

“SCOTUSblog” offers online resources more comprehensive than those offered by the court itself, which makes it crucial even for individuals who work within the court. It also includes features such as “In Plain English,” which breaks down the court’s rhetoric for public consumption. In many cases, the court refers questions it receives to “SCOTUSblog.”

While “SCOTUSblog” currently enjoys a position as the top authority on Supreme Court news, co-founder Tom Goldstein acknowledges the “fraught” relationship the blog has with the judiciary branch.

“We’re not recognized by the court. It does not give us a press pass,” Goldstein said. “On the other hand, it tries very hard to make it possible for us to do our job.”

Their job could change soon, as the movement of government materials online becomes inevitable.

In the years to come, the court may follow the example of the country’s other federal courts and file its briefs electronically. Currently, only “SCOTUSblog” posts the briefs online. Goldstein says he also believes that eventually television crews will be permitted inside the court.

“We’re filling a niche in a gap in time,” Goldstein observed, referring to the distance between a public whose demands are for digital immediacy and a court that still follows old traditions.

Goldstein is not worried about the future of “SCOTUSblog” if the Supreme Court website supplants some of its features in the future. As Wesson also points out, blogs are among the most adaptable of mediums.

“We try to be aware of whatever it is our readers are doing, and we want to go there,” Wesson said.

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