“We’ve never had any investment capital behind us,” Marshall says. “So we have to be profitable every month. It’s all on a kind of cash-as-you-go basis.” Larger print-media companies have occasionally approached Marshall about buying or investing in the site—“that’s even happening now with a couple of places,” he says—but those conversations usually break down when it becomes clear that the investors are really only interested in purchasing Marshall’s individual services. “I’ve got half a dozen people whose livelihoods depend on me,” he says. “At a minimum, everyone working here now would need to still have a job.”
Such deals are sometimes tempting, at least in the abstract, Marshall says. “I’ll be forty in a couple of years, I’ve got a new kid, so obviously getting an amount of money that would give me some financial stability is appealing.” But his wars at the Prospect taught him that he would really rather not have anyone looking over his shoulder. “To the extent that we can make this work independently, it’s hard to see why we would give that up,” he says.
Having shepherded the expansion of TPM and a major redesign that was rolled out across the four sites this summer, Marshall would now like to pause for breath. “I think our ideal staff size is maybe a little bit larger,” he says, “but not much.” During the last two years, he says, he has spent so much time on financial and administrative minutiae that he has had too little time for long-form writing. A visit to the archives bears that out. In 2003, when he hit his stride as a blogger, Marshall often wrote essayistic, eight-hundred-word posts about the Iraq war, many of which hold up well. But during 2005 his posts were much more staccato, and were often tied to the immediate twists in the congressional fight over Social Security. Some days you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d wandered into an AARP campaign blog.
If TPM represents a future for journalism, it isn’t necessarily obvious how it will be replicated. There is no just-add-water kit that either The New York Times or a twenty-four-year-old Medill graduate could use to build a similar site of their own because Marshall’s relationship with his readers has evolved slowly and organically. “Part of the reason that Josh has succeeded,” says Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of the blog Pressthink, “is that he didn’t come at this as a Web evangelist. He’s actually an old-fashioned political reporter who happens to be very open to the possibilities of the Web.” During his blog’s nascent years, Marshall used those old-fashioned virtues to gain the trust of Capitol Hill sources and of his fellow political correspondents. Hendrick Hertzberg, a senior editor at The New Yorker, says that Marshall’s commitment to a certain measure of shoe-leather reporting is one of his fundamental virtues. “Talking Points isn’t just parasitic on the dying corpse of the newspaper industry, the way certain other sites are,” he says. Hertzberg adds that “Marshall is in the line of the great light-bulb-over-the-head editors. He’s like Briton Hadden or Henry Luce. He’s created something new.”
Even if its model isn’t directly replicable, TPM surely offers glimpses of the future. Omnibus commentary sites like Pajamas Media and The Huffington Post can seem frantic and unfocused compared to TPM, but they are both edging toward doing more original reporting of their own. “There’s an enormous cultural disconnect between bloggers and journalists,” says Richard Miniter, a Wall Street Journal veteran who was recently brought on to serve as Washington editor of Pajamas Media. “But that’s slowly breaking down.” Miniter has patiently persuaded his blogger colleagues at Pajamas that it can sometimes be acceptable to use anonymous sources. (Miniter, a conservative, adds that Marshall “is often dead wrong. On the other hand, without Josh there are a lot of good stories that would slip by. He’s got a good eye, and he’s a good writer.”)