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.
Most of the Murkowski posts were written by Laura McGann, a young TPM Muckraker reporter who was hired in May, having previously covered bankruptcy courts for the Dow Jones wire service. (McGann says that she had never heard of Talking Points before reading an article about Marshall in the Los Angeles Times in March.) McGann’s initial salvo contained its share of online bells and whistles—photos of the property that were e-mailed by a reader, a link to the Senate ethics manual—but her coverage was also notably sober. McGann quoted denials of wrongdoing from both Murkowski’s spokesperson and from Penney, and she even ended the post, in classic wire-service fashion, with a nonpartisan sound bite from the much-quoted Norman Ornstein. It was not the crude hit-and-run that skeptics of political blogs sometimes say they fear.
Three days later, the Anchorage Daily News picked up the story, with a front-page article that credited “the national political Web log tpmmuckraker.com” in its second paragraph. The Daily News nailed down Murkowski’s purchase price ($179,400), which McGann had been unable to do. (Real-estate transaction prices are not public records in Alaska.) In the same edition, the Daily News published an editorial denouncing the sale (“a disappointing turn of events for a senator who had until this point served Alaska well”).
From this point forward, the coverage on TPM was mostly a matter of linking to and commenting on coverage from the Daily News and other outlets. McGann continued to do a bit of original reporting—for example, she called a county assessor’s office to vet Penney’s claim that he hadn’t seen the property’s most recent assessment, and she unearthed an audio clip of Penney testifying at a state hearing—but most of her effort went into aggregation. Her posts were centered around links to the Daily News’s coverage, and her tone became more conversational. She offered pieces of context, including a catalogue of other members of Congress who’ve recently landed in trouble over real-estate deals.