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jAZ
02-25-2008, 08:07 AM
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/25/business/media/25marshall.html

February 25, 2008
Blogger, Sans Pajamas, Rakes Muck and a Prize
By NOAM COHEN

Of the many landmarks along a journalist’s career, two are among those that stand out: winning an award and making the government back down. Last week, Joshua Micah Marshall achieved both.

On Tuesday, it was announced that he had won a George Polk Award for legal reporting for coverage of the firing of eight United States attorneys, critics charged under political circumstances. The “tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales,” the citation read.

Also last week, the Justice Department put him back on its mailing list for reporters with credentials after removing him last year.

Mr. Marshall does not belong to any traditional news organization. Instead, he is creating his own. His Web site, Talking Points Memo (www.talkingpointsmemo.com), is the first Internet-only news operation to receive the Polk (though in 2003, an award for Internet reporting was given to the Center for Public Integrity), and certainly one of the most influential political blogs in the country.

To scores of bloggers, it was a case of local boy makes good. Many took it as vindication of their enterprise — that anyone can assume the mantle of reporting on the pressing issues affecting the nation and the world, with the imprimatur of a mainstream media outlet or not. And most reassuringly, it showed that fair numbers of people out there were paying attention.

Mr. Marshall was recognized for a style of online reporting that greatly expands the definition of blogging. And he operates a long way from the clichéd pajama-wearing, coffee-sipping commentator on the news. He has a newsroom in Manhattan and seven reporters for his sites, including two in Washington.

Yet Mr. Marshall does not shy away from the notion of blogging. “I think of us as journalists; the medium we work in is blogging,” he said, something that can involve matters as varied as the tone of the writing or the display of articles in reverse chronological order. “We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end. Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Seven years ago, Mr. Marshall was a Ph.D candidate in early American history at Brown University; the Washington editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect; and a new blogger. He had started the blog as an outlet for his ideas and to track the recount fight in Florida — the name came from a term bandied about during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“If I had quickly happened into a staff position at The New Yorker, I probably wouldn’t have done this,” Mr. Marshall, 39, said of his migration to full-time online journalism.

In that time, he seems to have followed a business model unlike the founders of many of the dot-coms: Begin as a tiny operation. Manage to gain a following. As the audience grows, ask readers for donations and accept advertising. As the advertising and donations grow, add reporters and features. Repeat as often as needed.

Ads came in fall 2003, when politically conscious Internet users were starting to focus on the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and “I remember there being peak days of 60,000 page views, which was really incredible.”

“Ads started bringing in, in relative terms, a decent income for me relatively quickly,” he said

Soon after there was the first fund-raiser, to cover the cost of reporting on the New Hampshire primary of 2004. It brought in $6,000 in about 24 hours. There were fund-raisers in 2005 to create new projects: TPM Cafe (tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com), where readers and experts can debate political issues, and TPMMuckraker (tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo-.com), the site that was kept off the Justice Department’s mailing list. All are grouped under the parent TPM Media.

“The basic model is we are an ad-supported company,” he said. “Often when we want to do some major expansion, we go to readers.”

Traffic has continued to grow. Mr. Marshall said that on average over the last 18 months, the sites have had 400,000 page views a day. He put the number of unique visitors a month at 750,000 (about 60 percent of the traffic of The Nation, a long-established left-wing magazine).

Mr. Marshall, who has a young son he occasionally writes about on the sites, would not disclose the financial performance of the business. Asked about his salary, he said, “I make a better income than when I was freelancing,” then when pressed added, “I probably make in the neighborhood of what successful political journalists make.”

His work differs, though, from big newspaper or network political reporters. It often involves synthesizing the work of other news outlets with his staff’s original reporting and tips from a highly involved readership. In the case of the United States attorneys, Talking Points Memo linked to many local articles about federal prosecutors being forced from office and drew a national picture for readers.

The site “connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush administration’s bidding,” the Polk citation said.

In addition to pursuing the tips from its readers, Talking Points Memo has been known to give them assignments like wading through virtual piles of documents released by the administration. “There are thousands who have contributed some information over the last year,” Mr. Marshall said of the United States attorney coverage.

Dan Kennedy, a media critic who teaches at Northeastern University, has followed the site from its inception. What Talking Points Memo does, he said, “is a different kind of journalism, based on the idea that my readers know more than I do.”

Writing on a blog for his journalism students, Mr. Kennedy called the announcement of the Polk award “a landmark day for a certain kind of journalism.” Talking Points Memo, he said, “relentlessly kept a spotlight on what other news organizations were uncovering and watched patterns emerge that weren’t necessarily visible to those covering just a small piece of the story.”

He added, “This is crowd sourcing — reporting based on the work of many people, including your readers.”

Mr. Marshall has many admirers among critics of the Bush administration, online and off.

Nan Aron, president of the Alliance of Justice, a liberal legal affairs group in Washington, said, “There are certain stories like the U.S. attorneys that might never have seen the light of day had T.P.M. not pursued it in the way that they had.” She added, “We now count on T.P.M. and other blogs to do the investigative work that reporters used to do.”

Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey asking about the Justice Department’s treatment of the Web site.

Talking Points Memo “revealed that it has recently been removed from D.O.J.’s press release e-mail distribution list,” the letter said.

“Who made this decision and why, and was there a change in policy in press release distribution after you became attorney general?” The next section of the letter addressed “Waterboarding and Torture.”

In a hearing on Feb. 7, Mr. Mukasey said he “was not aware of” the removal of the site from the mailing list, and last week it was restored. In an e-mail message on Friday, the Justice Department said the issue was simply about whether Talking Points Memo was “credentialed.”

Despite this sort of thing, Mr. Marshall said he tried to keep a partisan tone out of the reporting, though his personal blogging on the site reflected a liberal viewpoint. “As a company there are strong ideological viewpoints that inform what we do,” he said. “When we are reporting the news, we make every effort to report it in as factual way as possible.”

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of an influential blog, the Daily Kos, and a big fan of Mr. Marshall, agreed.

“Josh isn’t necessarily partisan,” he said, “I see him as a progressive who is passionate about the news and approaches the news from that perspective.”

Mr. Moulitsas predicted, “It may take a decade, but Josh will win a Pulitzer some day.”

It won’t be this year. Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, said in an e-mail message that online articles are eligible for the awards, but they must have been published on a weekly or daily newspaper’s Web site.

“A freestanding Web site does not qualify,” he said.