Josh Marshall on the Growth of Talking Points Memo and Independent Media

TPM's Josh Marshall won this year's Polk Award in legal reporting for coverage of the White House firings of U.S. attorneys. This is adapted and condensed from Marshall's Ithaca speech.
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As director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, I invited Talking Points Memo blogger/publisher Josh Marshall to keynote our inaugural symposium that convened two dozen media innovators and leaders in mid-September. Marshall won this year's Polk Award in legal reporting for coverage of the White House firings of U.S. attorneys, reporting that ultimately led to Congressional hearings and the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. This week a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate whether Gonzales and other Bush officials should face criminal charges in connection with the firings. The following is adapted and condensed from Marshall's Ithaca speech. -Jeff Cohen

REMARKS FROM JOSH MARSHALL: We have ten employees. On any given month, we have one or two million readers. We are a combination of opinion journalism and traditional shoe-leather reporting. One of the first reporting sites we rolled out was Investigative journalism is not usually a profit-center for most journalistic organizations, but we've tried to make it so.

The site started in November 2000 during the Florida recount. It wasn't just fortuitous, that was why it started. At the time I was the Washington editor of The American Prospect. Three or four months later, I quit the job at the Prospect, not to do TPM, but to be a freelance journalist. I was barely feeding myself, so I didn't have any money to invest. TPM was something I did on the side - nothing I ever thought would make any income or be a business or be anything besides a sort of side project to my freelance journalism.

In 2003 and early 2004, a couple things happened - not planned, kind of fortuitous - that started the site off on the path to where it is today. One was a guy named Henry Copeland. He had a company called BlogAds, with this idea that there was a market for advertising on blogs. . .since these were one-person operations, if he could be like the ad sales force for the blogosphere. I brushed him off for a few months and didn't sit down with him. Finally I did. I figured "What the hell, it can't hurt." By 2004, that was basically my income. The blog was supporting me through these ads.

The other thing that happened was - as a free-lancer, if you want to go to New Hampshire to cover the primary, you need an assignment. I got an idea from a blogger - I believe it was Duncan Black, known online as Atrios. I think what happened is his computer had broken and he asked his readers to send him money so he could buy a new laptop. He came up with a new computer really quickly. It got me thinking: So I put up in November or so of 2003 an item saying, "I want to cover the New Hampshire primary for the blog." After 24 hours, $6 or $7,000 had come in. At the scale my finances were at the time, that was a very very big deal. I shut it off because I couldn't think of what I was going to do with $6 or $7,000 -- except for going out and buying a new car to drive up there.

After the 2004 election, it had become second nature to me to make use of the readership as a source of information. What I did on the site was a hybrid of traditional journalism and what we now call collaborative journalism - working with readers. I did a lot of writing in the beginning of 2005 on President Bush's effort to privatize social security. I used readers to find individual members of Congress saying things in town hall meetings, and using that readership to access information, to follow the debate at the ground level in a way that traditional journalists weren't able to do.

Active Readership

Then in early 2005, there was the beginning of what has proved to be a series of corruption scandals, in this case Congressman Duke Cunningham. I was aggressive and used some of that collaborative journalism. The site's audience was growing. So I was getting more and more tips coming in from the readership.

I had been writing the blog more than fulltime for four years and didn't want to just keep doing it that way for the next 10 or 20 years. So I had the idea that if I could hire a couple of reporters to do something like I was doing, we could make even more use of all this information that was coming in. I basically married that together with that $6 or $7,000 epiphany from the New Hampshire fundraiser and went to readers. The fundraiser for TPM Muckraker was successful beyond my expectations. We raised a little more than $100,000. This isn't in contributions of $5,000; this is people sending in $10, $25, maybe $50-the occasional $100 and $250. But certainly 90-95 percent was $50 and under. That basically gave me the money to build the site, rent an office and hire two reporters for a year. My expectation -- that proved to be true - was that after a year, it would grow enough that we could sustain it through advertising.

Coming off the 2006 election, there was no way to effectively support the original reporting we wanted to do without being a full-service news site. We now have an AP wire. On our front page we want to have all of the stories - even if not stories we've reported - put together so you could, if you're interested in serious national and political news, find it all at TPM or find a portal to it. This is a for-profit company. To have the kind of advertising revenues you need to have six fulltime reporters, you can't just have two or three stories that you're following. That's never going to make you a destination site for news.

Our final aim is to do original reporting on stories that are either not getting attention or not getting the kind of sustained attention we think they should be. It's borne fruit in things like the U.S attorney firings story. Before that became a big story, we had it all to ourselves. We had every break there was. Besides luck, there are two or three reasons we got the story and others missed it. One is that I'd spent a lot of time covering the Duke Cunningham bribery story back in 2005 and 2006. And then I hired muckraker reporters to continue that. We knew that case inside out. When the U.S attorney who was prosecuting that case got fired while she was prosecuting that case, I remember where I was. I remember thinking, "Wow, there's absolutely no way that that's legit. Something happened." Because U.S attorneys are never fired, and the reality is that the U.S attorney prosecuting a congressman of the president's party could be drunk, a drug addict - untouchable, absolutely untouchable.

Another part of it: when we started, we had our readers who sent in - the firings were public, most of them, they were just reported locally. So it wasn't in one place. The particular advantage that our readers gave us was a really big deal. And I'd seen enough up to that point - when their argument was that through a random coincidental set of facts that they happened to fire 8 U.S attorneys - that made me more persistent. So it's a matter of stories we were covering, a very deep level of skepticism we had about the people we were covering, and the neat advantages of our relationship with our readers.

At the point at which it really broke into a major news scandal, the New York Times and Washington Post could each throw half a dozen reporters at it that have years of experience and more resources and probably better sources. So we constantly face this - I'm not sure "ironic" is the right word - when we've been ahead on a story: The point at which we succeed, we also lose the story. When half a dozen major news organizations throw their resources at a story, it's very hard for my two investigative reporters to make much headway.

Balance vs. Accuracy

There are a number of reasons why it's important that there be an alternative media, not a media culled by a handful of major corporations. The one I want to focus on is the way that the mainstream media consistently and, as part of the ethos, prioritizes balance over accuracy in reporting the news - particularly political and campaign news. The way that John McCain has had a series of specious commercials and campaign events in which either he or his running-mate say things that aren't spin or stretching the truth, but by any conventional English-language definition: lies, things that are false and are said knowing that they are false. Until the last few days, the headline would be: Lots of lying in campaigns, everybody's sad about it.

There's a lot of reasons why that is a flawed conception of journalism. It's not a personal fault of the journalists in question - that's the model they're trained to operate in. As the concept of journalistic objectivity has evolved, it's become a corrupt model of journalism, rooted in the economic changes of business in journalism over the last half-century. Earlier in the last century, you had a medium-sized city like Pittsburgh or Louisville or Phoenix, the model of those newspapers was not that they would serve an entire community.

But then there is CNN's model: Everybody should be watching CNN, everybody. If that is your model, if you are the single newspaper in San Francisco or Kansas City or St. Louis, you are just highly constrained about how rigorous you can be in the accuracy of your reporting. Because the whole model is: You are appealing to everybody. With the conglomeration of media - not just the major corporations nationally, but even at the regional and city level--you have single news organizations that have something close to a monopoly. It creates a great deal of pressure to embrace that flawed model of journalism.

One of the things that is most important about independent media is that you have news organizations not part of the model where they ideally want to be everybody's dominant news source. If that's not the case, you don't have that need to satisfy everybody -- and that underlying need to prioritize balance over accuracy.

That's why the existence of an independent media sector is so important. Also, the more voices you have, the more takes on the news, you're just going to have a more vibrant and diverse news ecosystem - as opposed to having two or three gatekeepers that control the news.

Media Future

As for the future of independent media, whenever you have new technologies, you always have a great deal of turnover and creation of new models. We are definitely in a period of what a great economist called "creative destruction" in the journalism profession - right now with an emphasis on destruction. A lot of newspapers will just go out of existence.

At the same time, you have a lot of what we do and web-native news organizations. The question in my mind: Are we just in a period of tumult and we'll settle down and have the same kind of dominant entities - or is there something about the technology that has created a permanent ingrained ease of entry into the space? I think the latter is the case. The way TPM came into existence -- without any concept that it would be a company with multiple employees - simply wouldn't have been possible in any technological universe before the one that existed in the last ten years.

So I think there are reasons why the kind of dominance that existed earlier in the century of newspapers won't be possible in the future. As long as the Internet itself - the structure of the Internet - remains the same. That's why issues like Net Neutrality are so important, with the Internet structured in a way that new players have that ease of entry.

One final point: A lot of people think of independent media as being synonymous with nonprofit media -- either intentionally nonprofit or accidentally nonprofit. But nonprofits get their money from somewhere, from foundations; now those foundations tend to have a much more benign set of "asks" of the organizations they support than advertisers do. But it still limits independence.

In my experience, and I get criticized for saying this sometimes, at the [nonprofit] magazine that I worked for before I started TPM, the fact that our continued existence was not based on size or interest level of our readership allowed us to be cut off and not particularly in touch with what our readership had a fine interest in. I think that was not just bad in business terms, but much more importantly, bad in journalistic terms.

I actually think that for the independent media sector to be independent and vital in a deep way, it needs to be not only rooted in the nonprofit sector, but again, in for-profit terms.

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