September 2, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
77°F
test

Lorain blog comes into its own

Word of Mouth blog gaining readers — and inspiring action — in Lorain

Kyle Herndon Gaskell spun her head around to marvel at more than 500 people who came to protest outside Monday night’s Lorain school board meeting.
The parents, teachers and residents were there for a rally — an effort to show their united displeasure at the Lorain school board in the wake of its announcement that more than 240 teachers were going to be laid off due to financial constraints.
After quickly perusing the crowd, Gaskell, one of the laid-off teachers helping distribute petitions to remove the five Lorain school board members from office, quickly returned her focus to the task at hand as another parent walked up to sign.
“Are you on the WoM blog?” she asked the man, who shook his head no in response. “That’s how we’re all communicating.”
Gathering so many people in one spot typically takes a lot of planning and effort on the part of a large group of people. But for the more than 500 frustrated parents, teachers and residents, all it took was a message on a burgeoning Internet site that has been making big waves over the last year.
It’s called WoM blog — short for Word of Mouth — by the mass followers who read the entries written there daily. It’s a Web site where 10 contributing writers submit opinion articles and the occasional feature piece.
There are typically one to three entries on the site on any given day that focus exclusively on the city of Lorain and sometimes the surrounding county. But on July 8, one entry apparently struck a chord with readers.
Brian Hazelett, owner of Light House Construction Co. in Lorain and a contributor to the blog, wrote that he would be bringing a lawn chair and sign to sit outside Frank Jacinto Elementary, where the school board meeting would be, and asked if anyone would like to join him.
What followed were 282 comments that readers posted on the Web site — showing support, asking him to save lawn space for their own chairs and pledging to tell as many people as they knew to come as well.
“After I wrote it, I received
e-mails from people saying they’ll come out and sit with me — and then I noticed all the comments,” Hazelett said. “(WoM blog) turned into a vehicle that got all these people together.”
Readers then told their friends, and the result was a huge showing for an issue that has incited an entire community. Hazelett hoped the rally would be huge to make a point to the board, he said, and he knew WoM blog was the way to promote it.
“I just think it’s a good discussion forum,” he said. “It allows people to share ideas and thoughts.”

History of WoM
Scott Bakalar didn’t have any expectations when he started the blog in 2005.
In fact, it was never meant to be a Lorain blog. Instead, he just wanted a way to vent on national issues.
“It just seemed like a fun thing to do,” he said. “It was a way of getting things off my chest, and I hoped people would read it.”
He first became aware of the concept of blogging during the 2004 presidential election, when he came across several sites while looking for more information on the Internet and became intrigued.
“I started making comments on these, and then on or about Sept. 14, 2005, I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ And I got a free blogger account,” he said.
On his own blog, he began making comments about ongoing national issues that were read mostly by people from outside the state. It was on the third day of the site that he started focusing on Lorain.
“My basement flooded for the third time since July 31, 2004,” he said. “So I wrote an open letter to Mayor Foltin, saying, ‘No matter what you say, this is your fault and it shall not be forgotten.’ ”
Through discussions he’d had on loraincounty.com, which offers its own area for people to write comments and communicate, more and more people began visiting the WoM blog to comment on their own horror stories about Lorain’s notorious flooding problems.
Bakalar, 46, said he soon realized that the site kept people informed about local happenings and provided a format to connect people all over the city.
“Other than following national politics, I was very dumb to what was happening locally,” Bakalar said. “When failed policies hit home and flood basements, it makes you pay attention real quick.”
He purchased his own domain name in September 2006 and made the blog entirely Lorain-centric. He pays for it himself and won’t advertise because he’s afraid it will prevent people from speaking freely on the site.
“I work on WoM blog longer than I do my regular job,” said Bakalar, who works 40 hours or more a week as a bartender in Rocky River.
Bakalar won’t say how many people read the site every day, because several politicians have been quoted as saying the site is insignificant because only a handful of people visit it.
“I’ve heard politicians say only 20 people go on it,” he said. “So let them think that.”
The number of daily visitors is huge, if the discussion from residents and government officials in the city and those making comments on the site is any indication. The reason is simple, according to Bakalar’s wife, who is also a contributor.
“We have no censorship, and it’s just a great place to come,” Michele Bakalar said. “It’s local — it focuses on Lorain. And it brings everyone up to speed.”

Influence
Interest in the WoM blog seemed to reach new heights when the Lorain school district announced early last month that it would have to lay off one-third of its teachers after the district’s new treasurer discovered that the district would be $4.75 million in debt by June 30 without the cuts.
The contributors, who affectionately refer to themselves as “WoM bats,” focused their entries almost entirely on the subject, and before long dozens of readers posted their own comments about how incensed they were about what they saw as mistakes made by administrators and the board.
“I had no idea, but it has taken on a life of its own,” Bakalar said. “I don’t think I could stop now if I wanted to.”
People now depend on the blog for news, Bakalar said, and he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. When he isn’t working, he spends much of his free time making sure the blog is updated with his writers’ entries, who all jockey to get their thoughts in nearly every day.
“Especially now with the school situation, my life is no longer my own,” he said. “Because my work schedule is screwy, I’m up very early and then I have six hours to do whatever it is I need to do — mow the lawn, do the dishes and do the laundry. I’m literally forced to make a choice between editing an article or cleaning the litter box.”
Bakalar met most of the writers, who post all their work for free, through loraincounty.com. They became regular contributors after submitting a few entries every once in a while.
“Now I look for someone who is willing to do this on a regular basis, not someone who just wants to post every once in a while, because that’s what our guest blog sections are for,” he said. “But if someone starts posting regularly, they become one of our writers.”
He only allows a maximum of three entries a day, because he wants the pieces to be so profound that they stand alone and doesn’t want the readers to become overwhelmed with information.
While he admits the site has received a “tremendous growth spurt” because of the school issue, he said the blog has continued to grow since its creation.
“There’s never really a rise and fall,” he explained. “It’s more of a rise and plateau, whenever the next big issue comes along. It depends on what’s going on or what people are conversing about.”
Contact Adam Wright at 329-7151 or awright@chroniclet.com.

Who’s writing?

Regular contributors to the Word of Mouth blog (www.thewomblog.com):

* Scott Bakalar, 46, site creator
Occupation: Bartender in Rocky River for 12 years.

* Henery Hawk
Writer since: September 2006

* Loraine Ritchey
Writer since: November 2005
Occupation: Retired. Wrote column for Dancer Magazine, Celtic World and Duntroon Publishing, out of Australia and Britain.

* Michele Bakalar, 41, co-creator
Occupation: Customer service representative for First Federal Savings and Loan in Lorain.

* Brian Hazelett, 41
Writer since: September 2006
Occupation: Owner of Light House Construction Inc.; also a 2nd Ward Lorain Councilman candidate
in May 2007

* Jim Smith
Writer since: January 2007
Occupation: Retired from insurance business. Now a Lorain historian and 2007 candidate for Lorain school board.

* Daniel Jack Williamson, 42
Writer since: January 2007
Occupation: Substitute teacher for Lorain City Schools. Former candidate for state representative in 2002.

* Roman Kniahynyckyj
Writer since: October 2006

* Paula Tobias
Writer since: October 2006

* Kelly Boyer Sagert, 46
Writer since: September 2006
Occupation: Content service manager for online search engine company Search Guru. Also a freelance writer and author of books about “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and ’70s popular culture.

* Dale Lieb
Writer since: October 2006.

072307blogger.jpgJason Miller / Chronicle
Scott Bakalar is the creator of the Lorain news blog Word of Mouth. The blog was instrumental in organizing a rally at a recent Lorain school board meeting.