Talking to the Memo

5 May 2008 Comments Off

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The first things I see are two half-eaten pizzas on card tables next to a sink. The sink and pizzas occupy a corner of the room, a studio apartment on the third floor of a walk-up. Filling the rest of the room are eight people at desks and three flat-screen TVs mounted on the long wall. There’s a couch and a rug and nothing else, not even on the walls. There’s no extra space; in fact, there’s barely an aisle between the desks. The room is bright enough thanks to rows of ceiling lights; only two small windows let natural light in at one end of the room. The door isn’t marked, but I can tell I’m in the right place. This is one of the best newsrooms in America.

Talking Points Memo didn’t exist ten years ago, and it is barely known around the country today. But in this 800-square-foot former apartment, a team of fewer than a dozen people has built up a unique news organization that has become a leader in investigative reporting. In the last three years, TPM has discovered stories that have made headlines and influenced politics across the nation, but which traditional media outfits couldn’t see before TPM shined light in the right places. What was once a personal blog has grown into an admired news source thanks to its visionary founder, its hard-working reporters, and, perhaps most important, its devoted readers. TPM and its readers have worked together to compete with bigger and more established competitors, and the site won recognition by beating others to a story that changed the country. From the beginning, TPM has relied on its readers to be not only consumers, but also invaluable support for this small and young news organization that accepts help from all sources.

***

In November 2000, as election workers in Florida counted votes and the Supreme Court jumped in to stop the counting, freelance writer and journalist Josh Marshall started a blog. Blogging was a new type of work for him, but so it was for everyone at the time. He held a doctorate in American History from Brown and had worked for several years as a freelance writer before eventually becoming an editor at The American Prospect, a young biweekly magazine with liberal politics. TPM was Marshall’s work on the side, his way to vent about politics and publish pieces that didn’t make it into print.

As his readership grew and TPM began earning revenue through advertising, Marshall was able to stop freelancing and focus entirely on blogging. For five years, Marshall worked by himself. He both blogged and managed the site, taking care of technological work and business on his own. Along the way there were signs TPM was growing. In early 2004 Marshall asked readers to fund a trip to New Hampshire, where he would cover the presidential primaries. Four thousand dollars poured in through donations and Marshall quickly had to ask readers to stop sending money. The next year, he used the same method to expand his site for the first time.

Marshall added two blogs to the TPM franchise in 2005, taking the first steps toward TPM Media, the company that exists today. He invited guest bloggers and hired his first reporters to create TPMCafé and TPMMuckraker. Café was to be a community blog with many authors, while Muckraker was an attempt—perhaps the first attempt—to do online what newspapers had done so well decades ago: expose malfeasance by government and business, the news that those in power would like to remain hidden but which good journalists found ways to uncover.

At first, Marshall wanted to investigate Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a California congressman who was facing corruption charges. To staff Muckraker, Marshall once again asked readers for donations. “We’re going to launch a new blog dedicated to chronicling, explaining and reporting on the interconnected web of public corruption scandals bubbling up out of the reigning Washington political machine,” he wrote on the blog on the first day of its sixth year online. “What are we raising the money for? Simple. Salaries. … We want to hire one and hopefully two full-time reporter-bloggers to dig into [the Duke Cunningham] story, explain recent press reportage and distill it, work sources on Capitol Hill and around Washington, and report on it every day exclusively for you.”

Within three hours, 140 readers had contributed. Marshall ended the fundraiser a month later, after 2,500 contributions and many posts reminding readers of the new site he wanted to build. Over the next couple months, Marshall found an office for TPM and hired two reporters. His first hires, young men named Paul Kiel and Justin Rood, began sorting through the congressman’s dealings, as well as other stories Marshall had not had time to investigate. Marshall’s posts on the main page regarding Cunningham were moved to Muckraker, where Kiel and Rood updated the story as they learned more. Their reports happened in real time, and they would often post multiple times a day. For several months, Cunningham, along with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, was Muckraker’s singular focus.

Muckraker came into being thanks to the generosity of TPM readers. But their help didn’t end there. From TPM’s new office in New York’s Flower District, the journalists at Muckraker could report on the story, but they needed local eyes and ears from around the country. So TPM turned to its readers.

***

TPM’s readership is not a cross section of the country. It is small (but growing), educated, affluent, and politically active. The site receives about 400,000 page hits each day and attracts over 750,000 unique visitors a month (most readers are very devoted, checking the site daily). Of those quarter-million readers, strong majorities have college degrees, make over $75,000 a year, and have donated to political candidates. They read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post, as well as local papers. And then they check TPM. But only TPM asks them help report stories.

From the beginning, Marshall engaged readers to inform him as much as he tried to inform them, inviting readers to email him with comments, questions, and answers to questions he posted on the blog. The first time he did so, only a month into the site’s existence, he began informally. “Let me see if I understand this,” he wrote, outlining details of Florida’s voting mess and adding at the end, “Am I missing something?” In a post a few days later, he acknowledged a reader’s help for the first time. “P.S. A special TPM shout-out to the Pointster who passed this info along,” he wrote. Several months later Marshall began quoting readers directly, citing them by their initials. Now, eight years later, reader emails make their way to the front page almost every day.

Since Muckraker’s founding, readers have been actively solicited to send tips to the site. From around the country, readers call TPM’s attention to important stories that haven’t surfaced in the national media. They send 100 to 200 emails a day with tips on news stories that may not be receiving enough attention, says Kiel, who is now deputy editor, the number two under Marshall. Of those, only several each week are good tips. But the most interesting ones make it to the front page, along with a note of gratitude: “Special thanks to TPM reader AZ for the tip.”

Some tips are very good. The best ones let TPM bring a new story to national attention, even to the level of scandal. “A number of stories have come from reader tips,” Kiel says. “One big one was a spin-off of the Abramoff scandal based on a house that had been sold at a loss to a congressman. The congressman, Jim Ryun of Kansas, lost his reelection bid because of it.” In the final post on Ryun shortly after the election, reporter Justin Rood summed up TPM’s work on the story and acknowledged how the site came to it: “Back in April, Paul [Kiel] broke the story of the strange house deal between Ryun and the DeLay/Abramoff-connected sham charity, U.S. Family Network. … A belated but heartfelt tip of the hat to Reader GY, who alerted me to this.”

Alerted to a trend it would not have thought to investigate, TPM quickly honed in on the developing stories. Over the next few weeks, local stories came in from New Mexico and Minnesota. The articles were too similar to be a coincidence: in what looked like a pattern, the Justice Department had fired attorneys involved in political trials. Local papers reported briefly on the events, then never followed up. National papers, with the resources to uncover such stories, did not detect the pattern of events occurring across the country. With the help of alert readers, Marshall did notice the pattern, and Muckraker had a story to cover.

***

The blogosphere buzzed in February when it was announced that one of its own had won a George Polk Award. The Polk Awards are respected but perhaps underappreciated acknowledgements of valuable journalism. Writing about TPM’s win, one bloggerdescribed the Polk as “the Golden Globe of journalism”: good on the resume, good on the ego, but always second fiddle to the Oscar—or, in this case, the Pulitzer. No matter to TPM: the Polk was a taste of recognition that the site, and all online media, had yet to receive. It was the first Polk Award ever given to an online news organization.

The award recognized the work TPM had done to break the U.S. Attorneys scandal during the first half of 2007. “Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall and his staff (with his staff reporter-bloggers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood) connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush Administration’s bidding,” the award description read. “Marshall’s tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.” The story, and the accomplishment, was not a small one.

TPM was not the first news organization to prompt the resignation of a major government figure. And Gonzales wasn’t even the first such figure TPM helped bring down. Five years earlier, when Marshall ran the site by himself, he drew attention to offensive remarks Trent Lott made at Strom Thurmond’s one-hundredth birthday party. When the national media picked up the story, thanks in part to TPM’s coverage online, Lott stepped down as Senate Majority Leader. And, a couple years later, TPM reported that Valerie Plame had been outed as a CIA agent eight days before the New York Times did, helping spark a story that eventually led to a federal investigation and the conviction of I. Lewis Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff.

But the U.S. Attorney investigation was innovative and showed the first success of a new style of investigative journalism. TPM relied on the help of its readers to uncover the story from the beginning, eschewing the top-down approach of traditional journalism. TPM not only alerted readers to the firing of United States Attorneys in several states, but it also asked them to help dig up more information. The site ignored the traditional roles of reporter, source, and reader. Instead, readers helped with everything. They acted as sources and even as reporters at times, relaying news developments to the site’s staff and reading through documents posted online. Over several months, TPM’s reporters worked with their readers to investigate the story, breaking the story over time as they uncovered more.

***

Many newspapers and magazines are so inaccessible to reader input that they are said to have a “firewall” between them and their audience. Some are famous for maintaining an impenetrable front to preserve the mystique and prestige of their production. TPM takes the opposite approach.

By their nature, blogs are interactive. They function best with reader feedback, and they achieve success with regular posts developing stories over time. But few blogs do the investigative work that TPM does, and few have original stories to break, as TPM has had. By posting details it discovers as a story develops, TPM runs the risk of being scooped by any other publication with better connections or faster researchers. This is a risk the site not only accepts, but also embraces. Rather than being upset that other publications have picked up on TPM’s work to get headline stories, the site’s staff is glad to bring stories to light. “I’m most proud of leading stories that were picked up widely, like our investigation into the civil rights division of the Department of Justice,” Kiel says.

Of course, TPM’s most famous scoop was breaking other activity at the Justice Department. When the department fired several U.S. Attorneys in a political purge, TPM was ready to turn the story into a scandal.

On January 12 of last year, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a story about the city’s U.S. Attorney, who had recently been asked to step down from her position after prosecuting Duke Cunningham, the corrupt congressman from the area. Immediately aware of the story’s potential importance, TPM linked to the story on the Union-Tribune’s website at 11:08 that morning, along with a note: “We’ll have more of this.” The site updated the story as news came out over the next few days. Marshall also invited readers to weigh in with information and insight of their own, and they did.

The first reader email about the story that was posted on the blog came seven days later, when Marshall quoted reader JO’s legal analysis of a law change that allowed the president to replace U.S. Attorneys without oversight. “Before they changed the statute, the President had no effective way to put a political stooge in as US Attorney for more than 4 months without buy-in from another branch of government … But now he can,” the email read. On this and other occasions, TPM allowed readers to speak for themselves, providing the context and analysis that traditional outfits would have produced themselves. Along the way, readers built the case for scandal as much as the site’s reporters did.

Over the next few months, as TPM’s reporters investigated the story, they kept coming back to readers for help. When the Justice Department dumped three thousand pages of documents relating to the firings last March, TPM posted them on the site, inviting readers to comb through them. “We asked readers to help us with documents coming out, since they were so well-versed in the scandal,” Kiel says. Within days, hundreds of readers had posted on an open index of the documents, scouring and organizing them more quickly and thoroughly than almost any news organizations could. And, of course, they did so for free. A couple days later, Marshall posted a note on the project’s success: “We’ve been combing reader postings as fast as we can on the emails released by the Justice Department last night. Some gems: Ousted U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was lauded as a ‘diverse up- and-comer’ in 2004. Rove’s former aide was apparently a party to the scheme to have him installed as the U.S. attorney without Senate confirmation. And the documents actually show DoJ officials brainstorming on the reasons that they’d fired the USAs. Hindsight’s 20/20!”

TPM’s investigation into the firing was the first notable case of crowd sourcing as investigative reporting, and it was more successful than anyone—or at least anyone outside TPM—could have imagined. The site not only accepted tips from readers, as traditional news organizations have done for decades; instead, the site’s reporters actively sought help from readers, unafraid to expose a story at any stage in order to get assistance at every stage. In the end, the site had found a story that was otherwise invisible to the narrowly focused newsrooms of traditional media organizations by digging for information where others weren’t, by pushing a story that others didn’t have, and by using resources that others hadn’t thought to use. The collaborative process between reporters and readers that led TPM to the story was a result of the philosophy that TPM has relied on since the beginning.

***

Blogs draw fire from a lot of angles, and for a lot of reasons. Their success attracting readers is often derided by print journalists, many of whom see online media as a new enemy, unworthy competition in an increasingly hostile environment. But not all blogs are the same. And TPM is not like most other blogs.

TPM has succeeded at distancing itself from other blogs that receive the scorn of traditional journalists. Criticism of TPM, inevitable from some print journalists, has been tempered by admiration since the resolution of the U.S. Attorney scandal. Jay Carney, who writes for TIME’s Washington blog Swampland, initially claimed TPM was full of “liberals are seeing broad partisan conspiracies where none likely exist” by investigating the firings. He later admitted he had judged TPM poorly. “My hat is off. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo and everyone else out there whose instincts told them there was something deeply wrong and even sinister about the firings deserve tremendous credit,” he wrote on the blog.

Journalists who never felt hostility toward TPM have come to praise it profusely. “I don’t even think TPM is a blog,” says XX [Name redacted. The source spoke to me for the article when I wrote it for a class, and asked not to be quoted by name if the piece were ever to be published. For now I've left the quotes in, without named attribution], deputy web editor for The New Republic. “TPM is legitimate news-angle journalism, even with only a seven-person staff. They do great journalism. To me, ‘blog’ implies more commentary. They do that, too, but it’s differentiated from other blogs by being more a forward-thinking new type of journalistic enterprise.”

Peter Rothberg, the associate publisher for the website at The Nation—which, he points out, competes with TPM for readers—says TPM has combined he best of traditional journalism with the best of the internet. “I think TPM is better than most journalism—certainly better than online stuff, but even a lot of print. … TPM has very quickly developed a reputation as a legitimate news-gathering operation, coming out of personal blog. What they’ve shown is that you can do real investigative reporting online with an interactive audience, you don’t have to sling arrows or be snarky, you can do old-school muckraking on the internet using the tools of community journalism.”

Can TPM be a model for more such sites? Sure, says Rothberg. “There are local blogs mimicking the model, dealing with municipal issues around country, but no one else doing it on national scale. I hope they can inspire others.” XX agrees. “What they do is fantastic,” he says. “It’s the future, dude.” Ignored in the praise for TPM, however, is appreciation for the size and strength of the site’s unique audience.

“The key to this is to build up a reputation for credibility. We’ve worked for that to get a strong reader base,” Kiel argues. He says TPM may be an inspiration for other new news sites, but any new site will have to have the sustain success TPM has shown so far in order to attract valuable readers of its own. “There will be more examples of smaller newsrooms like ours,” he predicts. But, he warns, “There isn’t yet a career path in this.”

***

I thought the Polk Award might change the nature of business at TPM, but Kiel says it hasn’t. “It’s very gratifying, obviously. But I haven’t seen a change, just a lot of nice media coverage.”

Andrew Golis, the site’s deputy publisher, says TPM isn’t hoping to be something else than what it has been. “We couldn’t be like a traditional organization if we tried. We’re still sorting out what online media is going to look like. We want to be a pretty agile, online reporting operation.” That’s what TPM has always been, and that’s what it hopes to remain. It continues to welcome help from anywhere. TPM welcomes new help constantly. Interns are accepted on a rolling schedule, and reporters are added as necessary. The organization is currently advertising an open position, to be filled in New York or Washington. “The new hire will be one of two full-time reporter-bloggers for the site,” the position advertisement reads. “There is no deadline for applications. We’ll be hiring as soon as we find the right person.”

It’s all part of TPM’s philosophy, and part of the strategy that has brought the site success.

When I visit the office, as I sit on the couch waiting for Kiel to finish a phone call, I watch the reporters and interns working quietly around me. The intern in front of me is busy editing video with Final Cut software. After a minute he spins around in his chair to face me.

“First day?” he asks.

I tell him no, I don’t work here.

“Oh,” he responds. “I was going to teach you to Final Cut.”

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