This mixing of tips from readers, hitting the phones, and ferreting out tidbits in local papers was exactly what Marshall had in mind when he launched TPM as an investigative reporting blog last year. “What I wanted to do is create a blog where bloggers could do original reporting full-time, and pay them salaries,” he says. “Most bloggers aren’t full-time journalists, and it’s a commitment of time that is nearly impossible unless you have the financial resources to pay people a living.”
That said, Marshall seems to be blazing a unique middle ground between “citizen journalism” and true investigative reporting, while not buying in to some of the more robust claims by some in the blogosphere (particularly on the right) that this “new journalism” is crushing traditional news-gathering operations. In fact, if it weren’t for reporters at smaller newspapers around the country raising alarms in the first place, the story would likely have died a quiet death.
As someone who spent years inside the world of traditional print reporting, Marshall knows that the resources newspapers and magazines can bring to a story still dwarf what he and his team can do. “To the extent that we’re competing head to head with the Post and the Times,” he says, “we’re gonna get creamed.” But the U.S. Attorney story is a case where his operation was able to run with a story in a way that the big newsrooms can’t, or won’t. “Obviously, they’ve got hundreds of reporters and we’ve got two or three,” he says, but now that the story has blown up, the big boys with the stocked newsrooms are going to be getting the lion’s share of the major scoops. And on some level, that’s just fine with Marshall. “This is sort of the nature of our role in the journalistic ecosystem,” he says. “Once a story catches fire, the big players are going to start getting the big scoops…and we think that’s great because we think we’ve played a big role in breaking the story in the first place.”
The most important part in keeping on top of the U.S. Attorney story while the mainstream media dragged its heels comes from the relationship bloggers have with their readers, one which mainstream reporters don’t have. Marshall says that while readers send in relevant articles from local papers and news broadcasts, he and his staff don’t accept everything at face value, and fact check it just like any news organization would. Where TPM benefits in the initial fact-gathering process is that the blog, like most blogs, has a more intimate relationship with its readers, who send in tips. “We have a readership of about 100,000 people,” he says, “and that means that in any city around the country we’ve got a bunch of readers who are reading the local papers. So we’ll often find out if something happens that’s only reported in some small paper — we basically have an intelligence gathering service that mainstream reporters don’t have because they don’t have the same kind of relationship with their readers.”
Obviously, sites like TPMuckraker are few and far between, since most bloggers don’t have the time and resources to spend all day reporting and checking out stories. But in a way, this model of reporting is a great example of straddling the divide between old school shoe-leather reporting and the more aggregate method of Web reporting. And with the U.S. Attorney story at least, TPM’s staff was able to weave the disparate strands of information into a coherent whole — well before most, if not all, of the big D.C. newsrooms. Just ask Jay Carney.