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Oct. 8, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 2

Features

Raking muck in the new public square

Josh Marshall ’91’s blogging led to one of journalism’s biggest prizes – and the resignation of a U.S. attorney general

By Marc Fisher ’80
Published in the October 8, 2008, issue


Joshua Micah Marshall ’91 in his office, shortly after he learned he had received the prestigious Polk Award for legal reporting.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Joshua Micah Marshall ’91 in his office, shortly after he learned he had received the prestigious Polk Award for legal reporting.

Poke your way past pungent piles of flowers stacked on the crowded Manhattan sidewalk, press the button and wait for the buzzer, climb the narrow staircase to the unmarked door on the third floor, and enter the headquarters of the news operation that helped bring down the attorney general of the United States. When Joshua Micah Marshall ’91’s Talking Points Memo blog won this year’s George Polk Award for legal reporting for his aggressive coverage of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, readers could be excused for assuming that the stories that led to Alberto Gonzales’ resignation as the nation’s top law-enforcement official emanated from a sparkling, venture-capital-supported, startup newsroom, festooned with free snacks and state-of-the-art technology. Or perhaps those who regularly range around the hundreds of political blogs that clamor for attention during this election year imagined that Marshall’s TPM Media operated out of the proverbial pajama-clad blogger’s basement.

The truth smashes both stereotypes, revealing the romance and the harsh reality of the new media — and the precarious state of American journalism in this time of widespread cynicism about those who would dare to decide what constitutes the news. Marshall and 12 staffers and unpaid interns share a one-room walk-up on Sixth Avenue that is, to a visitor from a big metropolitan newspaper, shockingly small. Here, at the pinnacle of success in the political blogosphere, nine young writers and editors crowd around a single long glass table, their PCs and laptops jammed against each other as they monitor the cascade of information and images that accompany Americans through their workday. Three TVs on the wall above keep track of the cable news networks; every once in a while, when one of the channels covers a candidate’s speech live, the sound is unmuted and someone at the big table starts tapping out a brief commentary on the latest development.

Over the course of each long weekday during this historic presidential campaign, thousands of words flow out on the original Talking Points Memo (talkingpointsmemo.com) site — where Marshall blogs and his staff creates links to reporting by major newspapers and wire services, and by some of TPM’s own writers — as well as on four other home pages, featuring video clips (TPM TV, at tpmtv.talkingpointsmemo. com), original investigative work (TPM Muckraker, at tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com), reader-generated commentary and discussions about politics, books, and ideas (TPM Café, at tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com), and a compendium of political news and polling data (TPM Election Central, at tpmelectioncentral.talkingpointsmemo.com).

Marshall, who comes to work in jeans and flip-flops, presides over this stream of content from the back corner of the room, partially hidden from the fray by a bookcase, but always connected by the instant-messaging tool that links everyone in the room — and their managing editor, David Kurtz, who works out of his house in Missouri. (Kurtz was a reader who became a frequent voice on the site’s comment boards, which led to some blogging, which led to an executive post. Welcome to the blogosphere.) To those who grew up on movie images of loud and boisterous newsrooms, TPM seems more like a very strict library — for 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch throughout the day, not a single word is spoken. Robust conversation is constant, but almost entirely electronic. Every once in a while, the silence is pierced by a loud “Really?” or “I can’t believe that,” when a typed reply simply won’t suffice. An intern from American University, David Grossman, says he got a memo on his first day in the TPM office, saying, “Can you please keep the real chatter down so we can concentrate on messages?”

If the TPM newsroom sounds and looks different from its mainstream counterparts, what the 20-somethings here do all day bears some resemblance to what happens at The New York Times , your local newspaper, or your network affiliate. Reporters call sources, sift through documents, consult with experts, and seek to synthesize masses of information in an alluring and thoughtful manner. But this is a different animal, a new kind of journalism — one that turns to readers to do some of the work, has a clear political perspective, and reflects the personality of the site’s founder.

In an age of devastating cutbacks at newspapers and broadcast outlets that add up to a virtual dismantling of the nation’s traditional news-gathering capability, political blogs such as Marshall’s represent the hope that journalism will morph into something new — a faster, more interactive, more responsive iteration of the print and broadcast news businesses of the 20th century. Or will blogs succeed mainly in tearing down the existing news infrastructure, leaving us to wake up one day and realize that we have become a nation of commentators, with precious little original reporting on which to comment?

But wait: While three-quarters of all Americans use the Internet, only 70 percent of those employ it as a source of news. And only about four in 10 Web users read blogs, according to the Pew Internet American Life Project. Narrow even further: Not even a third of those blog readers check out political blogs — readers of the likes of TPM, Daily Kos, Huffington Post, Instapundit, and Just One Minute tend to be hyper-involved (and overwhelmingly white, male, well-educated, and well-off).

And so, despite rampant rhetoric among some readers about blogs stepping into the void left by our crumbling news infrastructure, Marshall makes no pretense of replacing the mass-market news media. “If newspapers start to close down, that’s horrific for journalism,” he says. “We can’t compete with The New York Times and The Washington Post . If they ceased to exist, it would be a catastrophe for us. They have 50 times more reporters; they’re sourced up. We narrate the arc of stories being reported by those and other news organizations, and we add original reporting on stories where we see a gap. Big, established organizations provide the surveillance to show us where to focus our resources. It’s not lost on me that most of what’s on the Web is not original reporting.”

But increasingly, young reporters gravitate to places like TPM because they’ve grown up reading and commenting on these sites. They believe blogs are journalism’s future. And even if blogs are no mass medium — about 150,000 people a day visit TPM, or 1.4 million unique users in a given month — political blogs collectively can boast that they increasingly generate the buzz that seems to be seeping out of the old-line media. The keys to that buzz are speed and video. On a lazy late-summer afternoon, news breaks about the indictment of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who is accused of taking and hiding gifts from an oil firm in his home state. An hour before either the Times or the Post has a staff-written story on its Web page, TPM has aggregated news accounts and video clips, posted an analysis of how this news might alter Stevens’ re-election chances (on Election Central), and collected an archive of reporting from the Anchorage Daily News and TPM’s own reporters (on Muckraker).

“Nothing big should happen without us reflecting it within five minutes,” Marshall says. The idea is not to be a headline service, but to add perspective and point of view for an audience that expects instantaneous response. “We’re a hybrid of reporting, aggregating, commentary, and interactivity,” he explains. “The daily newspaper model, where every article is self-contained, creates a lot of discontinuity. We’re part of a more diverse news ecosystem. We’re not parasitic — we bring new social goods to the table.”

TPM’s size and resources limit just how much it can add to an unfolding story, but its audience is not necessarily looking for scoops. Rather, Marshall’s readers want a sense of community — they want the news, but they want it presented from a perspective they share. A Columbia Journalism Review profile of Marshall concluded, “Even if he and his colleagues decided to abandon original reporting entirely, TPM would probably still retain almost all of its audience.” But Marshall believes in reporting; it is not enough merely to opine, he says. The trick is figuring out just how to afford reporters in a form that is just emerging from the hobbyist’s basement.

Deputy publisher Andrew Golis — the only member of the TPM staff who works full-time on the business operation rather than producing content — steps over to Marshall’s desk with the crisis of the moment: With just a few weeks to go before the Republican Party’s convention, TPM has neither credentials nor a hotel room. The business has neither the money nor the desire to pay the premium rates hotels charge during a political convention. Marshall and Golis worry through the numbers, then talk about the myriad benefits of having a reporter sleep on somebody’s couch, nudging themselves toward an affordable solution.

 
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1 Response to Raking muck in the new public square

Jim Bennett Says:

2008-10-13 16:45:49

This is one of the most interesting and well written articles I've seen in PAW. It prompts me to spend more time with the magazine down the road.
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CURRENT ISSUE: Oct. 8, 2008