behind the news

Carlson Calling

Tucker Carlson talks about his new online enterprise
March 2, 2010

Earlier this year, Tucker Carlson’s already long and varied journalistic résumé added a new entry: Web impresario. In January, the conservative former Crossfire host launched The Daily Caller, a D.C.-based site that covers government and politics. Last month, Carlson spoke about the venture with assistant editor Greg Marx for an interview published in the March/April issue of CJR. A longer version of the edited transcript appears here.

Greg Marx: First of all, congratulations—I saw yesterday the site was admitted to the White House travel pool. Is there any sort of symbolic value that comes with something like that, joining the mainstream media at the White House?

Tucker Carlson: No. You know, I can’t stand the phrase “mainstream media,” because it implies anybody who’s not in the “mainstream media” is not mainstream, and I’ve always considered us mainstream. I don’t see us as some sort of fringe publication attempting to be taken seriously. I’ve always assumed we’d be taken seriously, and we have been.

GM: What space is the site filling in the Washington journalistic ecosystem?

TC: The space that used to be occupied by reporters who are now working at public relations firms or for the Obama administration. There are fewer reporters. It’s very, very simple. The business has been decimated, and people I know well and respect have given up, and a bunch of them now work for the president. I try not to judge other people’s career choices, but that says something pretty sad about the state of journalism, and we just think that it would be good to have more reporters covering government and politics.

GM: I didn’t hear the words “conservative” or “right-wing” in there. That’s a label that’s been attached to you guys a lot. Is that how you see yourself?

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TC: My politics are relatively well known. They’re certainly easily found on Google. But this site is not a pure distillation of my politics. My views are not interesting enough to sustain the company we’re building. They’re just not. Millions of people are not going to tune in every month to hear my view of the federal budget; people are too busy. This is a for-profit enterprise, and our view is that people want reliable information they’re not getting other places. If that’s right-wing, the world has turned upside down. Moreover, you can assess the site by its content. If you think our news stories are inaccurate or unfair, say so and we’ll change it. I think we’ve been pretty straightforward.

I think as a general matter the press has sucked up to Barack Obama in a repulsive way, and that’s wrong. It’s not just bad business; it’s also wrong. That’s not what you’re supposed to do to people in power. The coverage of Obama in the primaries, especially, was totally over the top. I was the chief campaign correspondent for MSNBC at that time, so I was right in the middle of it, and I was really disheartened by what I saw. I think a lot of people—a lot of reporters who voted for Barack Obama, and that’s obviously the overwhelming majority—felt the same way. You don’t have to be a right-winger to think sucking up to a candidate is wrong. So we don’t plan to suck up to anybody.

GM: When you first launched, as people tried to make sense of what you were doing it was often described in terms of either Arianna Huffington’s project, as a right-leaning Huffington Post, or in terms of Andrew Breitbart’s work—people who don’t like Breitbart’s work would cast your site as a more responsible form of conservative journalism. Is there any truth to those frames, in your view?

TC: That’s just your typical stupid journalist shorthand, you know. Those are the descriptions you use when you’re not clever enough to find your own. It’s almost like the way people pitch scripts in Hollywood: ‘Well, it’s sort of Avatar-meets-The Sound Of Music.’

Go ahead and describe it in your own terms. Arianna and Andrew both wrote for us on our first day. That’s a reflection of my friendship with each of them, and also a reflection of the fact that when there are so few Web-only sites doing original reporting, it’s hard to see anybody as a competitor. Everyone’s success helps everyone else, because Breitbart’s success and Arianna’s success are both measures of this shift in the way people are consuming news. The more people who turn on their laptops first thing rather than going outside to get their papers, the better for everyone. I see them as friends rather than competitors.

GM: Who do you see your as your audience?

TC: People who are interested in what’s going on, people with a sense of humor. I think we’ve got some pretty funny stuff on the site. People who are distrustful of conventional news organizations.

For instance, the coverage of the Tea Party blows me away by its stupidity. The assumption of almost everyone I know who covers politics for the networks or daily newspapers is: they’re all birthers, they’re all crazy, they’re upset about fluoride in the water, probably racist. And those assumptions have prevented good journalism from taking place. Ben McGrath had a really good piece in the New Yorker recently, and I would be shocked if he agreed with their politics, but he took them seriously. And how could you not? They’re affecting election returns, so they’re a significant factor in American politics all of a sudden. Why have so few people written the most basic of all stories, which is who are these people and what do they believe? It doesn’t matter what your politics are, it’s a huge failure that that story hasn’t been written. I think McGrath’s piece is the first piece I’ve read that seriously sought to answer those questions. That tells you a lot about the state of the press, I think.

I’m not running around whining about media bias, because I think it’s both pointless and unattractive, and I hate whining—that’s why I’m not a liberal in the first place. And I don’t think it as simple as “all reporters are Democrats.” But if you can be the site that writes straightforward stories about what this suddenly significant political movement is all about, you could probably do pretty well. That’s our goal.

GM: Besides the Tea Party, what are some other examples of stories that are under-covered, and that The Daily Caller could do?

TC: I’m actually sitting about 12 inches away from Mike Riggs, who is one of our reporters we hired from the Washington City Paper. Great guy, good reporter, really smart. He’s doing a piece on arts organizations that got stimulus money and what they did with it. The Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance received $50,000 dollars or something, so what did they do with the money?

That’s Journalism 101, not ideological journalism. That’s just straightforward: tax dollars were spent, people who allocated that money are making claims about what the money went to, let’s find out if the reality matches the claims. You don’t have to have gone to journalism school to do that. Just get on the phone. I don’t know why, but writers hate to write and reporters hate to report, by and large—not all, but a lot of them do. If you can force people to make five phone calls and see what happens, you almost always wind up with something more interesting than you thought you would. Don’t you think?

GM: Reporting is great, but reporting is expensive.

TC: What’s the option? The option is gathering lots of other previously reported facts and putting them in a certain order with entertaining headlines, and Drudge does that better than we will ever do it. Because Drudge is one guy, he’s got a vision. He uses his collection of stories to tell a larger story. He’s been doing it for 15 years, and there are things you could do better, the design could be better, but in general why would you want to compete against him? You need to bring something different. So yeah, it’s expensive, but that’s the bet we’re making.

GM: The whole industry is struggling with how to pay for reporting through Web ads. I know you got a healthy chunk of change in start-up capital, but why are you going to be able to make it work?

TC: Right, we got 3 million bucks, and our feeling is, you should spend it. We’re not planning on coasting along at 40 for the next three years. We’re going to go as quick as we can as hard as we can, and either succeed or fail. I don’t want to preside over a mediocre Web site for the next 10 years. And so we’ll either be a success or a spectacular failure, and that will be really clear within a year or eighteen months. And we’ll know by taking a look at three measurements: Are we making money? Do we have a lot of unique monthly viewers? And are we, in obvious ways, affecting the conversation? Do people return our phone calls, do people think it’s worth writing for us. You know if you’re being taken seriously and if you’re having an effect.

GM: Does that mean you’re hoping to be turning a profit in twelve to eighteen months

TC: Absolutely. I’m not on the business side, but we spent, boy, more than four months going to venture firms making the pitch. So we’ve got a pretty detailed plan for what we think will happen. I don’t think it’s easy to turn a profit, but keeping your expenses under control is a big part of it. People are working long hours, and there’s not a lot of wasted money.

GM: Can you tell me a little bit about this profit share model you have for freelancers?

TC: We pay a couple hundred bucks for reported pieces—not for op-eds, not for anything else, but just for the straightforward news pieces—plus a percentage of the revenue generated by each individual story as measured by ads served to that story.

You could get people to write for free, but we put a floor there because we think you get a better quality of writer and we think that you should, as a matter of principle, pay for reporting. That’s got to be the future. You won’t have reporters if people aren’t willing to pay for their work product, so we figured from day one we’re going to pay for it.

We’ve also got 23 people on staff, a lot of them are writing, some of them are editing and writing. It’s a pretty big staff and they’re all working a conventional journalism job, with a salary and health benefits.

GM: Yesterday the big story was the White House budget announcement. It was the lead story on your page and the lead story at Huffington Post. Click through at their site and you get the AP story. Click through at yours and it’s a staff-written story. Why is that the best allocation of resources, to write the initial day-one story that’s available in other places?

TC: Because we’re three weeks old, and it’s important to establish two things: one, that we actually cover the news. Its important to just make that statement, that the main stories on our site are written by people who work here, we’re adding something new—and I would argue that our piece was better than the AP’s by quite a bit actually. So I think we got a better story than we would have got just from our wire subscription.

But two, in the course of putting together that story, our reporter winds up talking to a lot of different people and deepening his pool of sources. The process of reporting out any story is one that in the end helps you. Knowing a lot of people, knowing exactly who to talk to about what is 80 percent of journalism, as you know. So it’s very much worth doing.

GM: Any surprises in the early going?

TC: Really the main surprise is how nice everyone in this world has been to us—really, really nice, actually. I mean TPM, Politico, Huffington Post, Politics Daily, Slate. I’m doing a weekly debate with David Plotz at Slate; it’s really nice of them to do that. I wrote for Slate when I was in my mid-twenties, and I’m now 40, so Slate’s been around a long time. They don’t need our help. And that’s been what we’ve seen from almost everyone. Almost nobody who runs a site that covers politics has been nasty or competitive with us.

GM: You’re specifically talking about the Web world?

TC: I’m talking very specifically about the Web world. And by people with whom I don’t share a single political belief. People to whom my politics are repugnant have been really nice to us. And I’m just grateful for that. I like getting along with people. I enjoy political debate, but I’m just not interested in being at war with people.

GM: Any adjustments you’ve had to make?

TC: I want everything to be faster, all the time. I’d like to reduce the lag between when a story is filed and when it’s up to seconds, I’m not sure it’s possible, because there’s all sorts of things that need to take place that I’m not an expert on. It’s hard for me to understand sometimes why we don’t just press ‘go’ and the piece appears. (Laughs) But it’s got to be edited and formatted, and a picture has got to be found and sized. It’s a process, but I want to get that shorter.

I also think that we have been a little bit too serious. Our reporters are focused on government and politics, but if there’s a great and interesting entertainment story, I think we should put it right up on the front page. This morning we’ve got a piece on Punxsatawney Phil and the headline is “Giant Bloated Squirrel Indicates We Have Six More Weeks Of Winter.” What do you think we need to do?

GM: I think you need to break some big stories.

TC: Yeah, I agree with that.

GM: Finally–the bow-tie is no more, right?

TC: Yeah, I haven’t worn a bow-tie in years.

GM: You know, you brand yourself with that thing and it sticks with you.

TC: Well, I joined the mainstream now. But I never meant it as a brand enhancer. Impossible as it may be to believe, I actually wore it non-ironically all my life. I liked it, but change is good.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.