Welcome to the first post in a new monthly series called “In the Spotlight” where we’ll be turning the spotlight on our publishers with in-depth interviews that will give you a glimpse into the stories, tips and secrets of successful bloggers and content producers.

bio_shot_house_galleryOur first “In the Spotlight” interview features Vince Leibowitz who writes the highly successful Capitol Annex blog. With the U.S. Presidential inauguration happening this month, it seems fitting to feature a blogger who focuses on politics. Vince Leibowitz is a former award-winning mainstream media journalist. He founded Capitol Annex in 2005 and is the chair of the Texas Progressive Alliance, the largest state-level coalition of bloggers in the United States.

Newstex: How did you get started writing your current blog?

Leibowitz: Capitol Annex isn’t actually my first blog. My first solo blog was “Free State Standard,” (fsstandard.com), which I opened in August of 2003, back when “blog” was still a term that wasn’t really as much a part of our culture as it is now. During the 2004 election cycle, I suspended writing that blog to work as Communications Director on a political campaign. Suspending the blog was a major mistake, and I lost a lot of my readers.

After the 2004 election, I sort of lost the desire to blog on a daily basis. That, coupled with trying to regain my readership, was more of a challenge than I wanted to tackle at that time, so I scuttled the blog. My decision to close it made the front page of the Dallas Morning News as part of a story on how political blogs would adapt after the 2004 election.

Shortly after I closed Free State Standard, Byron LaMasters, the founder of Burnt Orange Report, invited me to be a front-page writer at that site–another Texas political blog. I did that (and am still a front pager there) for a good while. In late 2005, as the 2006 election cycle started to get underway, I began to realize that I really wanted to go back to having my own “shop,” so to speak, from which to publish my opinions and news stories. Since I don’t live in Austin, the name “Capitol Annex,” which refers to a beautiful underground extension to the Texas Capitol in Austin, seemed like a perfect name. The domain was available and the rest is history.

Newstex: What makes your blog unique?

Leibowitz: I believe a couple of things make my blog unique. For one thing, it is singularly-focused on Texas politics at the state level–the legislature, elections, etc. There are many other blogs that focus on Texas politics, but many of them also cover national politics, local politics, or other issues. I pretty much stick to state-level politics. This year, by popular demand, I’m going to cover municipal elections in the larger municipalities in the state, but the primary focus will always be Texas state-level politics.

Too, I think the design and format of it is pretty unique. I’m pretty restless when it comes to staying with one blog design for very long, but I’ve recently adopted the Revolution News Theme by Brian Gardner, and I think it is one I’ll stick with for a while. As a result, I’ve had to focus on matching visual elements with textual elements. Since my background is in the newspaper business, that’s pretty easy for me, and I believe it probably makes Capitol Annex the most visual blog covering Texas politics.

I also think that my coverage is pretty unique. I’ve got a lot of sources inside the “Austin beltway” from both sides of the aisle and, consequently, I am often able to come up with some pretty good stories. And, when it comes to analysis of the business of the Texas Legislature, I have a bit more policy-wonkish perspective than do most bloggers and that attracts a specific audience.

Newstex: To what do you attribute your blog’s success?header_1

Leibowitz: I think Capitol Annex is successful because I provide content that people want to read. There is a significant market out there for content related to state politics–especially in Texas where it is the biggest contact sport aside from Friday night football. I have a pretty constant readership of people that follow state politics, but I also get a lot of drop-in and search-engine traffic because people are frequently searching for information about politicians, bills before the legislature, and election information. They find the blog and discover that it is a resource not just for that bill they were looking for information on but on the legislative process, elections and more.

Too, as more and more mainstream media news organizations cover less state politics–several papers in Texas have significantly decreased the size of their capitol staffs in the last few years–people are looking for the stories that the mainstream media doesn’t have the resources to cover or does not cover. Reporters for the mainstream media don’t typically have time to follow and write about the vast majority of the bills that are filed before the legislature–they’ll hit the highlights or find the big bills. Since that is the only thing I cover, I have the time to do it, and it generates a pretty good audience.

I also am not afraid to toot my own horn or try to publicize my blog. I make sure that the mainstream media is aware of my major posts. I make sure that Democratic activists who send around links from time to time are aware of posts that might interest them.

Newstex: What are the top 3 tips you can give to bloggers looking to develop successful blogs?

Leibowitz: First, publicize, publicize, publicize. Get your blog out there and get it exposure. If you blog about a specific topic or specific region, make sure that you know who the major players are related to that topic or region. Make sure that they know who you are. Make sure that the media folks who cover the beats you do know who you are and about your blog. Buying advertising to promote your blog for special coverage or incidents of breaking news doesn’t hurt either.

Second, blog early; blog often. I used to try to take weekends off from blogging. I realized after doing that for a year or so that if I even posted one or two things on a weekend, the typical “drop” in visitors on Saturday and Sunday wasn’t so dramatic. For one thing, a lot of bloggers do take the weekend off. So, even if you post something in advance to post on the weekend, it puts you ahead of other blogs that don’t do anything on the weekends.

That is one thing; another is to make sure that you have content every day–if you aren’t going to have content for a specific reason, tell your readers why (i.e., I’m traveling from point a to point b and won’t have any posts until X time today, so check back later). Regular readers appreciate this kind of thing, or, at least, mine do. I know this because I get a lot of reader email. If I am ill and don’t blog for a couple of days, I get a lot of email asking where I am. Also, blog throughout the day. As news breaks, try to be the first to blog it. Even if all you are doing is sticking up a headline and saying “more information as it develops” and you then update the post immediately with more information, do that. Being the first one out with a story can mean a lot more visitors, many of whom may become regular readers.

Third, it isn’t just about words. Since I’ve made my blog more visual, my traffic has increased significantly. Whether it is a picture in a post or a theme that is both snazzy and user friendly, do something to make your blog more visual.

Newstex: What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your work on your blog?

Leibowitz: Without question, being a founding member of the Texas Progressive Alliance (www.texroots.org). The TPA is the largest-state level coalition of netroots activists and bloggers in the nation. I was one of the founding members of the group and have been fortunate to be its chair for the last two years. Our group has helped get bloggers credentialed for the Texas Democratic Party Convention and helped bring Netroots Nation to Texas.

Newstex: What inspires you to keep blogging?

Leibowitz: Readers and their feedback. It would be a lot easier and simpler to look at something like the race for Speaker of the Texas House, formulate my opinions, gather the facts, and then just sit back and say, “well, I am smarter and more informed for knowing that.” But I know that there are people out there who don’t have the time or inclination to gather the facts, and by blogging that information I am helping inform those people. When I get an email from a reader telling me that they appreciate my posting a particular story because it opened their eyes–or even made them mad–that drives me to keep going because I know people are reading and, in some small way, it is making a difference when it comes to political discourse and progressive activism in Texas.

Newstex: What are your favorite blogs and why?

Leibowitz: In the Pink Texas by Eileen Smith (as well as her Texas Monthly blog, Poll Dancing). Eileen is a talented, hilarious writer. Her blog is probably one of the best blogs with a humorous take on politics I’ve ever seen. And, she added the phrases “make me a sandwich” and “pregnant, power-washing nanny” to Texas political lexicon, which makes her my hero.

Off the Kuff by Charles Kuffner. He’s pretty much the godfather of the Texas Blogoshpere. Any progressive who is blogging politics in Texas today owes something to Kuff. He’s also a great writer.

Burnt Orange Report. BOR, in part because of its community of writers, covers such a wide range of Texas politics that it has become widely known around Texas. Its writers–Karl-Thomas Musselman, Phillip Martin, Matt Glazer, and occasionally myself and some other front-pagers, produce a good quality blog that sets the standard for covering Texas politics.

Newstex: What effects do you think blogging will have on traditional media? How about on your industry (politics)?

I think that blogs have already had a significant effect on traditional media. For one thing, any traditional media organization that has any legitimate online presence now has at least one blog. Most people wouldn’t have expected to see this in 2002 or early 2003.

I also believe that the blogosphere is forcing all media organizations to be a bit more on their toes. After all, when a newspaper that has been around for a hundred years is scooped by a citizen journalist, that doesn’t really look all that good to the readers of that newspaper (or viewers of a television station, as the case may be).

In terms of effecting politics, we’ve already seen the impact. In 2002, no campaign had an “online coordinator,” or anyone on staff specifically dedicated to online or netroots outreach. Today, that is in the budget of nearly every political campaign. Why? Because the campaigns know that blogs drive the debate and often force issues into the consciousness of the mainstream media. Too, for Democratic candidates, they realize that blogs can raise a lot of money for their campaigns. In Texas between 2007 and 2008, the netroots raised a million dollars for Rick Noriega online. That isn’t a sum to be sneezed at. Too, it is effecting politics at the legislative level. By 2012, I believe there will not be a legislative chamber in this country that doesn’t have a plan in place to credential bloggers and citizen journalists. Right now, there are only two or three chambers where bloggers are credentialed. In 2009, you’ll see more legislative chambers admit bloggers.

Newstex: At what point did you decide to syndicate your blog with Newstex and why?

Leibowitz: I heard about Newstex back in 2007 and thought that the idea of indexing blogs in LexisNexis was pretty unique. I also thought, given the type of coverage I do, that it was a good fit. What bloggers do is part of the historical record even though it is digital. What we publish is just as important and has just as much research value as what is published in daily newspapers or magazines. At the time, I was also using another service that syndicated blog content to various mainstream media organizations. I didn’t feel like it was as good as it was cracked up to be, because there was no real individual attention to bloggers or the organizations they were trying to syndicate our content to. I syndicated with Newstex because I felt it would get my blog a wider audience, help preserve my content for the historical record and also generate a little revenue for the blog.

Newstex: What do you think are the benefits of syndicating your blog through Newstex?

Leibowitz: I think the main benefit is making the content more accessible to a wider audience of people who may not already read the blog, particularly through LexisNexis. I cover a lot of things on my blog–especially related to legislative coverage–that are never mentioned by the mainstream media. It isn’t because the MSM doesn’t think they are important, it is just that they don’t have the time or space to cover them. I cover them, and those posts–that little bit of the historical record, so to speak–is indexed for posterity. That is very important to me.

Newstex: What’s next for you and your blog?

Leibowitz: Vlogging. It is something I’ve been planning to get into for a while now. I’ve done a couple of test video casts and after the first of the year, I’ll be starting a weekly webcast on Texas politics.

Vince offers some great advice to bloggers. He’s done a great job of identifying a niche that wasn’t being met and creating his blog around that very specific niche. Sounds like it’s worked out very, very well for him! Of course, much of his success comes from hard work, and as he says himself, promotion. You can visit Capitol Annex at www.CapitolAnnex.com.

Don’t miss next month’s “In the Spotlight” interview for more great stories and ideas from your fellow Newstex synicated bloggers!