Marshall, who commands a large desk in a secluded corner of the room, is a large-framed man with the pensive, slightly distracted air of an ambitious graduate student—more John Kenneth Galbraith than Seymour Hersh. He doesn’t immediately seem like someone who would pester congressional underlings for documents or spend late nights sweating over his small business’s balance sheets. But listen in on one of his daily conference calls with his reporters (two of whom are based in Washington), when Marshall displays his steely side, and his miniature news empire suddenly begins to seem less improbable.
On this early-summer day, the call touches on a number of TPM’s recent hobbyhorses: the stalemate over whether White House officials will testify under oath about the U.S. Attorney firings; the various Senate proposals to wind down the Iraq war; real-estate shenanigans involving Alaska’s congressional delegation. There is also a more wonkish topic: whom to invite to participate in the following week’s TPM Café “book club” on U.S. policy toward Iran.
Marshall’s interventions during the call are typically brief but sharp: What is that source actually up to? How are these subpoenas likely to play out over the next three weeks? Even if you can’t break any news today on that topic, please take a couple of hours and write a post that lays out the context for our readers. Marshall is the dominant person on the call: his baritone voice is less tentative than those of his reporters, and it would be an intimidating voice if it weren’t leavened with a hint of amusement. Indeed, on his TPMTV videos—a daily feature that began in April—Marshall often flashes a certain cat-ate-the-canary grin even when he is describing great crimes of state.
Marshall’s troops generally share that temperament. Across the room, an associate editor named Andrew Golis is nursing an iced coffee and supervising the production of a daily e-mail digest sent to roughly 10,000 readers. Like most of the Talking Points staff, Golis is more than a decade younger than Marshall. He graduated from Harvard in 2006; while he was there, he started a political blog of his own, and spent a summer volunteering for Howard Dean. In conversation, Golis is one part earnest Rawlsian liberal and two parts cocky journalist, calmly waiting to pounce on whatever new falsehoods emanate from Washington this afternoon. He’s working two screens at once, using a laptop to instant-message with six colleagues and a desktop to lay out the e-mail digest.
Several feet away sits deputy editor Paul Kiel, a former Harper’s intern who was hired in late 2005 as one of TPM Muckraker’s first reporters. Kiel’s desk faces Sixth Avenue, away from his colleagues, and as he quietly works the phone he seems to be willing himself to believe that he’s alone in the room.
Today Kiel is tracking, among other things, new subpoenas that the House Judiciary Committee has issued to force testimony from White House officials about the U.S. Attorney dismissals. At certain stages of this story, Kiel has broken news; he was the first to report that Senator Arlen Specter had introduced last-minute language into the 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act that allowed the White House to replace U.S. Attorneys for an indefinite period without congressional oversight. Kiel’s posts today and tomorrow won’t contain any such scoops, but will be creatures of aggregation, with links to coverage in Salon, a statement from the House Judiciary Committee, and testimony from a Senate committee hearing.
That is the way Marshall likes his coverage. When asked whether he would rather have more staff resources devoted to original reporting, he says, “I think we’ve got our percentages down pretty well. I think it’s key to our model that we don’t draw a clear distinction” between original reporting and aggregation. Marshall favors such a mix because he wants his reporters to serve as the “narrators” of complex, slowly unfolding stories. “Sometimes that will mean walking our readers through what’s being published elsewhere,” he says. New articles in mainstream dailies often contain facts whose full implications aren’t explored, Marshall says, “either because of space or editorial constraints or because the reporters themselves don’t know the story well enough. They’re often parachuted in to work on these topics for just a few weeks.”
In mid-July, TPM broke the news of a suspicious land deal involving Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, and that story’s trajectory neatly illustrates the site’s typical blend of reporting, aggregation, and commentary. Senator Murkowski, it seems, bought a piece of riverfront property in 2006 from Bob Penney, a real-estate developer and major player in Alaska politics. The sale was made at a mysteriously attractive price, well below the land’s probable $300,000 market value, and Murkowski had failed to fully report the deal in one or two ethics filings.