To get to the newsroom of Talking Points Media in lower Manhattan, you need to visit a pungent block of cut-flower wholesalers on Sixth Avenue, then climb a narrow stairway to an eight-hundred-square-foot suite that might once have been an accountant’s office. This modest space is the home of a news organization that—among several other notches in its belt—was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the story of the fired U.S. Attorneys to a boil. Not only were the major dailies slow to pick up on the controversy, but a Capitol Hill staffer says that the House Judiciary Committee itself would have missed the firings’ significance if not for the barrage of reports from Talking Points. Other outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, noticed in January the sudden pattern of U.S. Attorney departures, but only Talking Points gave the matter sustained attention that month. When Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, and Monica Goodling testified before Congress this spring, they had the reporters in this obscure Flower District building to thank for the honor.
And one reporter in particular: Joshua Micah Marshall, the thirty-eight-year-old founder and editor of TPM, who has grown the operation from a tiny center-left political blog that he began at the end of 2000. (Back then, referring to himself as the “founder” or “editor” of anything would have been an act of self-deprecating bloggy humor.) Today, Marshall presides over a staff of four reporters—one of whom also serves as deputy editor—three associate editors, and a small army of unpaid interns. Their work is posted on a quartet of interconnected sites: Talking Points Memo, as Marshall’s original blog is known; TPM Café, a two-year-old site devoted to policy and culture debates; TPM Muckraker, a year-and-a-half-old project that trawls for political scandal; and TPM Election Central. In total, the sites draw roughly 400,000 page views on an average weekday.
Marshall often says that he is annoyed by “blog triumphalism,” which he described in 2004 as “an unrestrained belief that blogs or similarly situated sites can and should revolutionize all politics and media.” But with his restless institution-building, he has made as good a case as anyone for blogging’s journalistic merits. From the very early days of Talking Points Memo, he has (by accident or design) cultivated an intense relationship with a well-connected set of readers—lawyers, activists, policy wonks, and veterans of intelligence agencies. Those readers have offered an endless stream of tips, and they have occasionally been deployed en masse to plow through document dumps from the Department of Justice or to ask members of Congress to publicly clarify their positions on Social Security.
“I think within TPM lies the DNA of the future of journalism,” says Justin Rood, a former TPM Muckraker reporter who now works for ABC News. “In terms of its relationship with its audience, its ability to advance stories incrementally and to give credit to other news organizations, and its ability to get the story to readers—it’s been able to foster a real spirit of collaboration.”
Rood’s vision is plausible enough—but it seems equally possible that TPM will be remembered fifty years from now as a brief efflorescence, as something like I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Many bloggers will surely follow Marshall’s lead and attempt to do serious original reporting; and some large news organizations will surely become looser and “bloggier” in their presentation, turning to readers for tips, commentary, and research assistance. (If you want a sense of what The Washington Post will look like a decade from now, one reasonable place to start is The Fix, the political blog written by Chris Cillizza.) But it’s far from clear how many of those new projects will develop the kind of reporter-reader chemistry and hard-nosed reporting that Marshall has cultivated.
Talking points memo can be as casual and digressive as any blog. Marshall occasionally posts pictures of his baby son or writes about finding old Bob Dylan footage on YouTube. But there is not much that is casual about the Talking Points newsroom. By nine in the morning, almost every chair is occupied, and the place has the hushed intensity of an air-traffic-control tower. A pair of interns wearing fat headphones monitor three flat-screen televisions mounted along a wall. Two of them are tuned to MSNBC and CNN, which seem to be airing an endless loop of stories about Chris Benoit, the professional wrestler who killed his family and himself. The third is tuned to C-SPAN, which is about to broadcast a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. If anything interesting—or interestingly false—gets said during that hearing, the interns can use TiVo to post a short video excerpt online, along with text commentary. On a good day, that process can take as little as fifteen minutes.