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.

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.

David Glenn is a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education.