The (Josh) Marshall Plan

Break news, connect the dots, stay small
September 5, 2007

To get to the newsroom of Talking Points Media in lower Manhattan, you need to visit a pungent block of cut-flower wholesalers on Sixth Avenue, then climb a narrow stairway to an eight-hundred-square-foot suite that might once have been an accountant’s office. This modest space is the home of a news organization that—among several other notches in its belt—was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the story of the fired U.S. Attorneys to a boil. Not only were the major dailies slow to pick up on the controversy, but a Capitol Hill staffer says that the House Judiciary Committee itself would have missed the firings’ significance if not for the barrage of reports from Talking Points. Other outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, noticed in January the sudden pattern of U.S. Attorney departures, but only Talking Points gave the matter sustained attention that month. When Alberto Gonzales, Kyle Sampson, and Monica Goodling testified before Congress this spring, they had the reporters in this obscure Flower District building to thank for the honor.

And one reporter in particular: Joshua Micah Marshall, the thirty-eight-year-old founder and editor of TPM, who has grown the operation from a tiny center-left political blog that he began at the end of 2000. (Back then, referring to himself as the “founder” or “editor” of anything would have been an act of self-deprecating bloggy humor.) Today, Marshall presides over a staff of four reporters—one of whom also serves as deputy editor—three associate editors, and a small army of unpaid interns. Their work is posted on a quartet of interconnected sites: Talking Points Memo, as Marshall’s original blog is known; TPM Café, a two-year-old site devoted to policy and culture debates; TPM Muckraker, a year-and-a-half-old project that trawls for political scandal; and TPM Election Central. In total, the sites draw roughly 400,000 page views on an average weekday.

Marshall often says that he is annoyed by “blog triumphalism,” which he described in 2004 as “an unrestrained belief that blogs or similarly situated sites can and should revolutionize all politics and media.” But with his restless institution-building, he has made as good a case as anyone for blogging’s journalistic merits. From the very early days of Talking Points Memo, he has (by accident or design) cultivated an intense relationship with a well-connected set of readers—lawyers, activists, policy wonks, and veterans of intelligence agencies. Those readers have offered an endless stream of tips, and they have occasionally been deployed en masse to plow through document dumps from the Department of Justice or to ask members of Congress to publicly clarify their positions on Social Security.

“I think within TPM lies the DNA of the future of journalism,” says Justin Rood, a former TPM Muckraker reporter who now works for ABC News. “In terms of its relationship with its audience, its ability to advance stories incrementally and to give credit to other news organizations, and its ability to get the story to readers—it’s been able to foster a real spirit of collaboration.”

Rood’s vision is plausible enough—but it seems equally possible that TPM will be remembered fifty years from now as a brief efflorescence, as something like I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Many bloggers will surely follow Marshall’s lead and attempt to do serious original reporting; and some large news organizations will surely become looser and “bloggier” in their presentation, turning to readers for tips, commentary, and research assistance. (If you want a sense of what The Washington Post will look like a decade from now, one reasonable place to start is The Fix, the political blog written by Chris Cillizza.) But it’s far from clear how many of those new projects will develop the kind of reporter-reader chemistry and hard-nosed reporting that Marshall has cultivated.

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.

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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.

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.

Still more casual was Marshall’s own commentary at the Talking Points Memo blog. He sarcastically reviewed Murkowski and Penney’s explanations for the sale: “Imagine that, a politically-wired Alaska moneyman wants the state’s junior senator to live next door to him. Who can question that?” He also sketched—in his most conversational, just-between-friends voice—“a series of very weird little details about Murkowski’s disclosure reports” that McGann had encountered during her reporting. “From an editor’s perspective, it was a bit hard to know how to treat this,” he wrote. “You don’t want to go too far out on a thin reed dealing with what could be mere errors in filling out the form.” (Ten days after McGann’s initial report, Murkowski announced that she would sell the land back to Penney.)

This odd admixture of reporter, columnist, tipster, and ombudsman—often wrapped into the same post—is central to TPM’s identity. Marshall values original reporting, but chasing scoops is not his only priority. Even if he and his colleagues decided to abandon original reporting entirely, TPM would probably still retain almost all of its audience. Marshall believes his role is to bring his readers the best journalistic efforts on a particular topic, even when those efforts have appeared in other publications.

There is occasional muttering that TPM fails to fully credit the newspapers whose reporting it aggregates. But Dean Calbreath, a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, says that Marshall has “always been meticulous about crediting” his newspaper’s work. Calbreath and his colleagues have worked for two years on the interlocking scandals involving the now-jailed U.S. Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham and his defense-contractor friends. TPM has often commented on the Union-Tribune’s coverage of those stories, and Calbreath says that TPM’s posts, even when they don’t appear to break news, still push the story forward. The site “provides reporters with sources that might not be at the top of our radar screen,” he says. “Being based in San Diego, I’m not a big reader of The Hill, for instance. But by reading TPM, I can have easy access to [The Hill’s] pertinent articles. The commentary at TPM, meanwhile, poses important questions that we might not have thought of on our own.”

Rood, of ABC News, says that he sometimes found TPM’s aggregation itch personally frustrating when he was on staff. TPM’s readership peaks in the late morning and midday—exactly when he felt a reporter should be on the phone with sources. But because of the readership pattern, it is during those hours that TPM reporters feel compelled to write new posts. “That’s not a complaint,” Rood says. “It’s just something that we had to work through. We were inventing this as we went along.”

Phrases like “inventing as we went along” come up often in conversations about Marshall. “Josh has been through so many self-made phases that no one could have predicted,” says Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history who supervised Marshall’s senior thesis at Princeton. Marshall arrived there in 1987 from southern California, where his father taught marine biology. (Marshall’s mother died in a car accident near their California home in 1981.)

In crafting his thesis, which concerned the nullification debate in Virginia in the early nineteenth century, Marshall “figured out how a historical argument works, and he figured out what sources he would need,” Rodgers says. “That’s not at all inevitable. Not every college senior who is excited about history makes that leap into effectively working with sources. If you like, there’s the thread between his college work and what he’s doing now—the interest in investigative reporting.”

Next came graduate school in history at Brown, but Marshall decided within a few years that university life felt too cloistered and that he would rather write for magazines. (He finally did finish his dissertation in 2003, long after abandoning any thought of an academic career.) In the mid-1990s, he supported himself in part by designing Web sites for law firms; to promote that business, he published an online newsletter about Internet law, which featured interviews with scholars like Larry Lessig. In 1997 and 1998, he spun off articles on Internet free speech for the now-defunct online publication Feed and for The American Prospect, which was then based in Boston. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as an associate editor at the Prospect.

Marshall soon grew to regret that connection. He and the magazine’s top editors, Robert Kuttner and Paul Starr, found themselves in a long and tormented series of ideological quarrels—ones “that would make very little sense to anyone outside the world of The American Prospect,” Marshall says. “In my own way, I really liked Clinton and Gore, and [Kuttner] didn’t like either of them.” On questions ranging from trade policy to Monica Lewinsky, Marshall was a few notches more sympathetic to the White House than were his left-liberal bosses. He also fought unsuccessfully for the magazine to be more clever with its Web site. “A lot of things that we do here now involve aggregation and editorial sifting,” he says. “I remember that from very early in my time at the Prospect, I argued that the way to get a lot of traffic was to provide that service.”

In 1999, Bill Moyers and what was then known as The Florence and John Schumann Foundation made a $5.5 million donation that allowed the Prospect to expand; as part of that process, Marshall moved south and became the magazine’s Washington editor. But distance did not improve his relationship with his bosses. By mid-2000, he knew that he would soon leave.

Scott Stossel, a former colleague at the Prospect who is now the managing editor of the Atlantic, recalls Marshall as having a rich knowledge of political history and a gift for framing stories. When younger reporters were hatching new articles, Stossel says, they would turn to Marshall for advice on whom to interview and what to read. But Marshall didn’t necessarily seem like someone who would be successful in a corporate environment; he sometimes had trouble with deadlines, working long but irregular hours in clothing that was rumpled even by the creaseless sartorial standards of the left-of-center press.

In November 2000, five months before he finally quit the Prospect, Marshall started writing Talking Points Memo, in rough imitation of the early political blogs written by Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan, whose loose-limbed style he admired. “I really liked what seemed to me to be the freedom of expression of this genre of writing,” Marshall says. “And, obviously, given the issues that I had with the Prospect, that appealed to me a lot.”

Marshall had already struck up a friendly acquaintance with the contrarian Kaus, and Kaus added Talking Points Memo to his blogroll. “It was probably that link that took me from, say, two readers to a hundred readers,” Marshall says. “After that point, it sort of grew organically.”

The early weeks of Marshall’s blog were, inevitably, devoted to the Florida election imbroglio. His voice was sometimes precious (he thankfully soon abandoned the habit of referring to himself as “Talking Points”), but there was no mistaking the blog for a stodgy liberal policy magazine. (“Did Chris Lehane really call Katherine Harris ‘Commissar Harris’? Chris, I’m on your side, man, trust me. But that kind of talk really doesn’t help matters.”) On the blog’s third day, sounding a theme that would be echoed in tens of thousands of left-wing blog entries to come, he denounced a “supercilious, plague-on-both-houses” Washington Post editorial about the election aftermath.

When he quit the Prospect in early 2001, Marshall intended to earn a living as a freelancer, using the blog as a loss leader to advertise his skills. He had no notion of earning any money directly from it. But the freelance market was tightening, and Marshall found himself stringing together assignments “for no money at all” from Slate, Salon, the Washington Monthly, and elsewhere. (He also briefly wrote a political column for the New York Post.) He began to have flashes of doubt about the blog, wondering, “Why, when I was really only marginally able to support myself, was I spending all of this time doing something that couldn’t make any money?”

Then three things happened. First, the blog’s readership spiked dramatically, from 8,000 to 20,000 page views a day, at the end of 2002, when Marshall publicized Trent Lott’s implicitly pro-segregation comments at a dinner in honor of Strom Thurmond. With the help of readers’ tips, Marshall demonstrated that the Mississippi senator had a long record of similar talk. Many other blogs, including some on the right, piled on, and the episode ended with Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader. Second, in late 2002, Marshall began to receive tip-jar-style contributions from readers—nothing much, but it was an early inkling that his audience might support the site. Finally, one day in 2003, Marshall got a pitch from Henry Copeland, a former freelance correspondent in Eastern Europe who had developed a new technique for selling advertising on blogs.

“It took me several months before I finally agreed to try it,” Marshall says. “We were trying to work out an initial price point. This was all so new. Should we charge five dollars to reach our audience? A thousand dollars? We set our price, and a couple of weeks later we sold our first ad.” By the
end of 2004, Blogads.com (as Copeland’s service is known) was generating around $10,000 a month for Marshall. He could stop scrounging for assignments at Slate and the Washington Monthly.

A half-dozen or so other political bloggers took advantage of their new Blogads.com windfalls to quit their day jobs. Marshall did much more: he decided to raise additional money from his readers to expand his site, giving birth to TPM Café and TPM Muckraker. “Josh keeps upping the ante,” Copeland says. “He says, ‘Give me a new set of cards; let’s play it.’ It would have been easy for him to just keep blogging like mad with a simple design. His expansion efforts have sucked up a lot of energy that might have gone into perfecting the core blog.”

Marshall’s first explicit call for reader contributions came in late 2003, when he successfully asked for support to cover his travel costs for a ten-day trip to New Hampshire during primary season. (That appeal netted $6,000 in twenty-four hours.) In early 2005, he passed the hat for a far larger amount, to support the launch of TPM Café. That appeal netted $40,000, and allowed Marshall to hire his first full-time colleague. Another fund drive later that year took in $80,000, which permitted the hiring of Rood and Kiel and the creation of TPM Muckraker. As recently as this past March, Marshall asked for money to support a further staff expansion. Marshall says that on three occasions, he has received donations of $1,000, but never anything larger; the vast majority of his readers’ gifts, he says, are in the range of twenty to fifty dollars.

The theory, Marshall says, is that the “pledge drives” should support a substantial portion of the first year of a new hire’s salary—but that beyond that first year, the employee’s salary should be covered by expanded revenue from advertising. At this point, Marshall says, roughly a third of the site’s normal monthly revenue comes from Copeland’s Blogads (which currently charges $10,000 for a “premium sidebar” ad at TPM); another third comes from banner advertising brokered by other companies (recent banners at TPM have pitched cell-phone horoscope services and the film National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze 2); and the final third comes from NextNewNetworks, a start-up Web-video firm that pays TPM to create short daily video segments.

“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.”)

But even as Pajamas and other as-yet-unheard-of sites begin to mimic the TPM blend of reportage, aggregation, and snark, it seems safe to say that there will never be anything quite like Josh Marshall and his crew. Not many news organizations have been created from scratch by unemployed specialists in colonial New England history. As Marshall says, it’s probably foolish to believe that blogs “can and should revolutionize all politics and media.” But if the White House’s claims of executive privilege in the U.S. Attorney affair lead to a minor constitutional crisis, keep in mind this eight-hundred-square-foot hothouse in the Flower District. 

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